Ray Nance dies at 94; D-day survivor was last of ‘Bedford Boys’

Ray Nance was a 29-year-old Army first lieutenant when he stepped from his landing craft into the water off Normandy, France, on D-day, June 6, 1944.

The son of a tobacco farmer, Nance was one of 27 men from the central Virginia community of Bedford who landed in the first assault wave on Omaha Beach as members of Company A of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Regiment.

Although wounded, Nance survived D-day. Not so 19 of his fellow Bedford soldiers in Company A, most of whom were killed within the first half hour.

Their deaths gave the Bedford community, whose population numbered about 3,200 during World War II, the unwelcome distinction of reportedly losing more men per capita on D-day than any other community in America.

Nance, the last surviving member of that group of Army National Guardsmen who came to be known as the Bedford Boys, died of congestive heart failure April 19 at the Elks National Home in Bedford, said his wife, Alpha. He was 94.

Long after Nance waded ashore at Normandy, the retired postal worker remained haunted by dreams of D-day that would wake him in the middle of the night with memories of his hometown friends whose lives ended far too soon.

“It’s been with me all these years, and it hasn’t been good for me,” Nance told the Virginian-Pilot in 2001, the year the National D-day Memorial was dedicated in Bedford, a site chosen because of the town’s collective loss on the day that Allied forces invaded Europe.

“Call a name,” Nance told USA Today before the dedication. “I can still picture them.”

Born Elisha Ray Nance on his family’s farm about seven miles from Bedford on June 26, 1914, Nance joined the National Guard during the early years of the Depression -- a time when joining the Guard meant earning $1 for every Monday night training session and $15 for two weeks of summer training.

“I joined in 1933, when there wasn’t any money in circulation; just wasn’t any,” Nance told the Bergen County (N.J.) Record in 2000. “That dollar would buy five gallons of gas back then.”

For members of Bedford’s National Guard outfit, D-day would be their baptism by fire. As Nance told USA Today in 1994: “We were un-bloodied, brand new.”

As an officer, Nance was the first man to get off his landing craft on D-day.

“That probably saved my life,” he told USA Today years later. “I was off before the [German] gunners got the range.”

When he finally looked back toward his landing craft, he discovered that nobody had followed him.

“They were back around the boat,” he told the Virginian-Pilot in 2001. “A good many of them were killed.”

In an interview with Alex Kershaw for his 2003 book “The Bedford Boys,” Nance recalled crawling onto Omaha Beach and encountering the bodies of fellow Company A soldiers.

Nance, who was wounded in the hand and foot that day, was Company A’s last surviving officer. But for him, the war was over.

Evacuated to England for hospitalization, Nance returned to the United States a few months later. He married his fiancee, then an Army nurse, in November 1944. After his discharge, Nance farmed for about a year but soon became a rural mail carrier.

He’d often run into the families of his friends who had been killed at Normandy. “You wondered what they were thinking: ‘Why is he here and not my son or brother who will never be here?’ ” Nance said in a 1998 interview with the Baltimore Sun.

Shannon Brooks, the associate for research and publications at the National D-day Memorial, said that “especially for the men of Bedford that came home from the war, there was really not a sense of victory as much as there was a strong sense of personal loss.”

It’s different for a National Guard unit like Company A, she said, “when you serve with men that you’ve known as long as you’ve lived in the community. So when you go into action and men are killed and hurt and lives are changed, you know very well the toll that that’s going to take, the people that that’s going to affect.”

With the death of Roy Stevens in early 2007, Nance became the last surviving member of the Bedford Boys.

In recent years, Nance suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and his wartime memories became less clear. As a consequence, his wife told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 2007, “Ray is much more at peace.”

In addition to his wife of 64 years, Nance is survived by a son, John G. Nance; two daughters, Sarah Nance Jones and Susan Nance Cobb; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.