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Even the weather cooperated last week when Elisha Ray Nance’s body was laid to rest with the honors befitting an American hero.
By the weather cooperating, I mean that it was perfect for a D-Day funeral. It was overcast, cold and wet, much like that morning when Ray headed for a French beach 65 years ago. Ray was second in command of Company A that day and the only company officer to reach the beach and live to tell about it. He was severely wounded in the process, wounded so badly that it took nearly a year for him to recover.
We call them “the greatest generation.” Not all were great. There were some bad apples, like whoever it was that stole the Christmas package that my grandmother sent to my uncle while he was in the Army Air Corps. I’m also sure there were some officers who didn’t treat their men right.
The majority, however, qualify for the title. Ray told me that the company commander, Captain Taylor Fellers, was ill and could have missed D-Day. A medical officer wanted to put him in a hospital. Fellers, however, cared so much about the men he led that he insisted on leading them that day. He died on the beach with his men that gray June morning.
Along with what they did in the war, many of those who survived came home to make valuable contributions to their community. We have a National Guard Company here today because Ray Nance stayed in the Guard after the war and restarted the company. He was told it couldn’t be done, but he proved the naysayers wrong. Young men flocked to the company, proud to be associated with it and the men who had gone before them.
Capt. Nance, in turn, inspired those young men with the confidence that he, like Capt. Fellers, would stick with them no matter what. Furthermore, one of those young men, now an old man, testified last week that: “He treated us right.”
Ray Nance’s legacy was visible the day of his funeral. Men of the current Company A turned out in uniform and the pall bearers were all members of the company. They all wore the combat infantryman’s badge because they, like Ray, served in harm’s way.
His legacy was also on display when the hearse holding his casket circled the National D-Day Memorial. A young man, Specialist Randy Helman, stood there with his little daughter, Victoria, and watched as the hearse passed by. Specialist Helman said that when he and some others returned from Iraq, Ray came to the armory to welcome them home. Helman said that meant a great deal to him.
There are now only two Bedford Boys left, Pride Wingfield and Allen Huddleston. Wingfield had transfered to the Army Air Corps for navigator training some months before D-Day . Huddleston had a broken ankle, an injury suffered in training a few weeks before D-Day. Like the daylight slowly fades with sunset, these old soldiers are fading away. It seems every day’s obituaries include the name of at least one World War II veteran. I’ve been honored to be able to interview a number of these men, and some nurses, over the years but the day is coming when nobody will be able to sit down and have a chat with a living WWII vet. Be sure to avail yourself of that opportunity while you still have it.
Ray Nance and Roy Stevens, another of the Bedford Boys who survived D-Day, seemed to have an intense desire to tell the stories of those who didn’t survive that awful day. It was their way of honoring these men, making sure their sacrifice is remembered. Roy died just after New Year’s in 2007. Now, Ray’s voice has been silenced.
It’s up to the rest of us who are still walking and talking on earth to make sure that their stories are not forgotten. It’s also up to us to honor those who continue to walk in their boots today, going in harm’s way for our freedom.