BEDFORD, Va. (WDBJ7) -- Memorial Day is a holiday spent in recognition, one felt deeply by Americans in all of our hometowns. But perhaps no hometown understands the price of freedom quite so much as Bedford.
On this day of remembrance, just days shy of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, leaders at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford remind us about the town that vows to never forget.
If you ever let yourself wonder what it was like to storm the beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944, your imagination is magnified inside Bedford's National D-Day memorial.
"It's to all of those communities in our country that nurtured these citizen soldiers who were sent away to war and so many of them never came home."
April Cheek-Messier heads up the D-Day Memorial Foundation. A storyteller and history buff at heart, she knows the names of all 22 Bedford Boys. She also knows about the empty spaces they left behind.
"It was certainly a time of deep grieving and mourning that I think would happen for many, many years," she said.
The small town of Bedford would bear the battle's greatest burden. Nineteen young men from the small town, most side by side, were slaughtered within the first 15 minutes on the beach. More from the town would die in the war in the weeks and months to come.
Days after Operation Overlord, the code name for D-Day, the news reached Bedford's telegraph operator.
"The telegrams start coming into her machine as she turns it on that morning, and it begins telling her one after another that, "Bedford, we have casualties,'" Cheek-Messier explained.
It was the greatest loss per capita of any town. Those losses included twin brothers Roy and Ray Stevens, who Cheek-Messier said were inseparable.
But they were separated the morning of D-Day and put on separate landing craft. They had agreed to meet each other on the beach at a particular meeting spot. Ray went to shake Roy's hand. Roy declined the shake, saying they'd meet again on the beach.
"And Roy later told me that Ray kind of hung his head," Cheek-Messier said, "as if he knew he wouldn't return."
Roy's boat sank. He was rescued and sent back to England. Ray was among the 19 killed within minutes on the beach. Roy didn't know of his brother's fate until returning to the beach says later, and came upon a temporary grave.
“He went to the S section of that cemetery and knocked a clump of dirt off the dog tag that was hanging there and that first grave that he came to was that of his twin brother," she said.
Cheek-Messier said she had many conversations with Roy Stevens before his death. She said he returned to the beaches or Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
"Roy returned to the beaches and he went to that particular area where he was supposed to meet his twin brother," she said, "and he raised his hand as if to shake his hand to the heavens.”
The town was devastated. One family received the news of the death of their two boys just a day apart. Raymond and Bedford Hubbard had been killed that morning. Their sister, Lucille, would tell Cheek-Messier later about how their family was never the same after those devastating telegrams.
“One of the things that Lucille would always say is that when her mother was on her deathbed after suffering several strokes, she looked up at everyone and she said, ‘Where are my boys. Where are my boys?’ And Lucille always said when she closed her eyes she knew for the final time, she finally saw her boys. It really again just reinforced the loss for these families never went away. It was with them to the very end.”
Cheek-Messier said the community was in a state of shock that summer.
"I don’t think anybody realized the impact that it was going to have and the devastating loss that was going to endure and for many of them it would take years for everyone to really grapple with what happened.”
Little was known about what happened on D-Day by families at home. Until one veteran with a vision, Bob Slaughter, helped spur the movement for the National D-Day memorial. Bedford stepped up to the plate, offering up a plot of land nestled under the Peaks of Otter.
President Bush came for the dedication in 2001 to see that vision come to life. It was a reality made possible with the help of a young Cheek-Messier, fresh out of grad school. A Bedford native herself, Cheek-Messier doesn't have to imagine the pain of a loss for an entire town.
"I think this is a community that truly understand the high price of freedom"
Join WDBJ7 on June 6 for special coverage of the 75 anniversary of the D-Day invasion with a ceremony at the National Memorial site in Bedford.