BEDFORD — It all started with a telegram that read, “WE HAVE CASUALTIES.”
On the morning of Monday, July 17, 1944, Elizabeth Teass came to work at Green’s Drug Store and cut on the Western Union teletype machine, sending her typical morning greeting to the Western Union office in Roanoke that read, “GOOD MORNING. GO AHEAD. BEDFORD.” The reply — “GOOD MORNING. GO AHEAD. ROANOKE. WE HAVE CASUALTIES” — confirmed the worst fears of the town’s residents.
“In Bedford, 3,200 people were waiting for news,” Ken Parker of the Company A Bedford Boys Tribute Center said. “They knew Company A was at the tip of the invasion and they were beyond anxious. Weeks go by with no word and then all of a sudden, it starts.”
Throughout the day — more than five weeks after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 — residents received news that 19 of the 35 Bedford men sent to fight in World War II were killed on the beaches of Normandy, France, and another was killed a few weeks later during fighting in France.
“That was the darkest day in this town’s history,” Parker said. “That was the day Bedford fell to its knees.”
Seventy-five years later, more than 50 people gathered at the site of the former Green’s Drug Store at the corner of North Bridge and Main streets in Bedford where the telegrams about the “Bedford Boys” were received.
“We celebrate D-Day every year,” Parker said. “However, this is the first time the day Elizabeth Teass received the first of those fateful telegrams has been commemorated.”
Parker said most of the families — who received a telegram notifying them that their family member was listed as “Missing In Action” — had to wait weeks before they received another confirming that they had been killed.
“This didn’t end on July 17, 1944,” Parker said. “That is just the day it started. Sometimes weeks passed before it was confirmed that they were dead. You can imagine those weeks of anxiety for these families.”
Teass’ cousin Joanne Bolling — who attended Wednesday’s ceremony — said Teass used to speak with her about her role in the events of July 17, 1944, and the weeks that followed.
“I remember her telling me the Bedford community felt like family,” Bolling said. “Everyone came to Green’s Drug Store back then, and she knew all those boys and their families. She told me how hard it was on the town because everyone was so close.”
The ceremony was held for relatives and friends of the Bedford Boys, more than a dozen of whom attended the event.
“This is really wonderful,” said Minerva Krantz, a distant cousin of Capt. Taylor Fellers, the commanding officer of Company A. “It’s wonderful how this tribute center is bringing people in town together.”
Wednesday’s ceremony also was open to members of the Bedford Presbyterian Church on Main Street, across the street from the tribute center.
“Green’s Drug Store is the most famous building in town related to the Bedford Boys,” Parker said. “However, the church played an important part in the story as well.”
After news spread through the area about the telegrams, the Rev. John Grey — the pastor of the church at the time — opened the church so people living in rural parts of Bedford County could wait to receive news of their family members.
“Almost immediately, the women of the congregation started cooking, and the men of the congregation went out and worked the farms for these folks so they could wait for news. It was a gracious and kind act of charity. Some of the people here today are the children and grandchildren of those congregation members.”
The Rev. John Salley — the church’s current pastor — said many of the people that came to the church on July 17, 1944, were still there the following week.
“Some were there about a week and a half,” Salley said. “I can’t help but remember the saying ‘no news is good news.’ However, the news eventually came. For years after, those families would come back to the church on this day and sit with each other again.”
Salley said the events following July 17, 1944, led Grey to retire as pastor of the Bedford Presbyterian Church later that year.
“Rev. Grey was pastor of the church from 1907 to 1944,” Salley said. “I believe the sustained grief of that year finally moved him to retire. He said he was done after the war.”
However, Parker said the sacrifice of the Bedford Boys and the grief experienced by the families they left behind is not what Wednesday’s ceremony was about.
“I think Gen. George S. Patton said it best when he said, ‘It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived,’ ” Parker said. “Today should not be considered a day of sorrow but rather as a day of celebration of how Bedford came together to help one another.
“That’s what we should remember today,” Parker said. “That is the pride and spirit of Bedford.”