I knew immediately it was going to be a tragedy. The summary on the back of the book reports that the small town of Bedford, Virginia, lost 19 boys on D-Day alone and three more before World War Two ended. The book begins as
the boys are sailing to Normandy. One man is looking for
his brother, to wish him luck.
The boys of Bedford were largely farmers who joined the National Guard during the Depression to earn an extra dollar a week to help feed their families. Kershaw has researched and documented this book extensively, and much of his detail comes from interviews with veterans and family members of the Bedford soldiers. As I read, I noticed which soldiers he interviewed and which soldiers he only describes through interviews with veterans and family members. It's no secret which boys die.
About two thirds of the book takes place before D-Day.
The vivid description of life at home, the endless drills, the cramped ship to England, and life in Britain bring to life parts of World War Two that I had never seen. The Bedford Boys, whether through luck or through political intervention, were stationed in England for a year before seeing combat for the first time on Omaha Beach. They write letters home, dance with British girls, and learn to drink British beer. Some have children back home they've never seen. Some married in the last weeks before they were shipped out. Some fall in love with British girls. Photographs show them with parents, wives, and brothers.
Then, suddenly, the boys land on Omaha beach. Kershaw talks about the overall battle enough to explain the extent of the carnage - for example, weather prohibited air and sea support that could have taken out German machine gun nests and made craters on the beach for Allied soldiers to take cover in; the decision to invade anyway probably killed many Allied
soldiers. The boys die quickly, often within minutes of
landing, and Kershaw describes the gore in detail without being gratuitous. Some boys drown, pulled down by the weight of flak jackets and radios; some are gunned down on the open beach; some are miraculously saved by brave medics who aid the wounded despite intense machinegun fire.
I loved this book. I laughed, I cried, and I have so much respect for the boys who fought in Normandy. They may be heroes, but they still are just boys - one of the soldiers survives D-Day, sees friends killed, loses a brother, and returns to the States only to have a restaurant refuse to serve him beer because he is too young.
Anyone interested in the human side of war will want to read this book.