How the deaths were told back home bad news traveled slowly, but it was no easier to take


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Bad news traveled slowly, but it was no easier to take.

By Greg Edwards
The Roanoke Times
June 5, 1994

Sherman Burroughs proposed to Ruth Parsons on Roanoke's Park Street Bridge as a Norfolk and Western coal train passed underneath, showering them with soot.

Parsons had gone with another man to a dance downtown, and Burroughs had come in with a friend and lifted her off the dance floor and carried her out the door. Then he proposed.

She was 18 and he 21 when they married in 1930.

Although Burroughs had worked for the Norfolk and Western Railway since he was 14, the Depression was tough on the newlyweds. Shortly after their wedding, the NW cut its employees' wages by 10 percent.

The couple rented an apartment and later a house and began raising a family. "We could never get enough ahead to make a payment on a house; times were so bad," Ruth, now 82, recalled recently.

Sometimes at night, after they put their three sons to bed, they would turn on the music, pretend they were in a night club and dance the night away.

"He really was the most romantic man; all my nieces were crazy about him,"Ruth said.

In his spare time Burroughs, a clerk for the railroad, was active in the community. He served as a charter member of the Roanoke Rescue Squad. (On their first date, he had left Ruth sitting on his front porch until midnight while he went on a rescue drill at Lakeside Park in Salem.)

An Eagle Scout, he was a scoutmaster for Troop 14 at Greene Memorial Church. He played baseball for the NW team and softball for a Mick-or-Mack grocery team. And he continued his long-time service with a Roanoke unit of the Virginia National Guard.

When Burroughs' Guard unit, the 116th Infantry Regiment, was called into federal service in February 1941, the couple's sons were18 months old, four and eight. That December, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, and Burroughs rarely got home again before the 29th Division was shipped to England in September 1942 aboard the Queen Mary.

Before he left, Ruth went to visit Sherman at an Army camp near Jacksonville, Fla. She thought he would be there for another three months but when she arrived she found he was leaving the next day.

Burroughs wrote Ruth letters every day while he was away from home and numbered each one. They continued after he arrived in England.

On June 6, 1944, Ruth sat down to answer one of his letters. "I put the thing in the typewriter, and I said 'Dear Sherman,' " Ruth recalls. But she couldn't think of anything else to say. "It was just as though he wasn't there any more."

Captain Sherman Burroughs, Headquarters Company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, was shot through the head and killed that day as he landed among the first waves of troops on the beach codenamed Omaha on the French Coast. According to Cornelius Ryan's book on D-Day, "The Longest Day," a fellow officer saw Burroughs' body lying in the surf and wondered if Burroughs had recited the poem "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" to his men on the boat ride in as he had planned. Another officer thought that at least Burroughs wouldn't suffer his recurrent headaches any more.

Burroughs was among thousands of Allied casualties in the first days of the invasion. The heaviest were suffered by troops of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions, many of whom jumped in the night before the beach landings, and among the 1st and 29th infantry divisions on Omaha Beach. From June 6-10, the 1st Division had 1,638 casualties, with 124 killed; 1,083 wounded, and 431 missing. The 29th Division suffered 2,210 casualties, with 280 killed, 1,027 wounded, 896 missing and seven captured.

Because the 116th Infantry, whose core was still made up of Virginia National Guardsmen, led the 29th Division onto the beach, many Western Virginia families received dreaded telegrams the summer of 1944.

The telegrams kept coming

In Bedford one mid-July morning in 1944, Elizabeth Teass signed on as usual at her Western Union booth at Green's Drugstore. Teass, 21, had taken the $7.50-a-week job at Green's after graduating from Bedford High School in 1941.

Around 8:30, she sat down at her machine and typed the usual: "Good morning, this is Bedford." The Western Union operator in Roanoke typed back, "I have casualties."

"She started typing then and they kept coming," Teass said. She clipped off the strips of bad news and glued them to each individual telegram and then looked for someone to deliver them. Roy Israel, a taxi driver, Sheriff Jim Marshall and Harry Carter, the local funeral home director, were among those pressed into service.

Like many drugstores of the time, Green's had a soda fountain. Local businessmen came in in the morning to drink coffee and gossip and housewives in the afternoon for cokes and ice cream. The casualty notices left a pall over the place, Teass said.

After the initial flurry of telegrams, a few more came in each day. That week's Bedford Bulletin, the July 20 issue, reported that nine Bedford County men had died on D-Day. When the final accounting was in, the number would climb to 19.

Sorrow doubled for one farm family

Especially hard hit was the farm family of John and Macie Hoback.

Bedford Hoback, 30, and his brother Raymond, 24, were both sergeants in the 116th Regiment's Company A, which led the regiment's first batallion onto Omaha Beach. Bedford had been in the regular Army and had served in Hawaii before joining the National Guard. Raymond, the quieter of the two, worked for the highway department. Neither was married and both lived at home before the Guard was called into federal service.

It was a Sunday that the sheriff brought a telegram saying that Bedford had been killed. The next day another came, saying Raymond was missing in action.

"My mother never was quite the same after that," said Lucille Boggess, a county supervisor and Bedford and Raymond's sister.

Later, her mother would go to visit patients in the Veterans Admnistration hospital in Salem. "She used to get some comfort from seeing the men," Boggess said. "She used to say there are things worse than death."

Not long after the telegrams arrived, The Hobacks received a package in the mail with Raymond's Bible inside. A letter with the Bible from Corporal H.W. Crayton said he had found it on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day.

The Bible had not been wet, indicating that Raymond had made it to the beach. But his body was never identified. He may have been washed into the English Channel with the tide. After the war, the Hobacks had the opportunity to have Bedford's body exhumed from a cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach and brought home for burial. Boggess said her mother decided that the brothers had been together all along and should stay together.

"I guess you're proud of the sacrifice they made, but they didn't have an opportunity to enjoy life," Boggess said. "I guess you have mixed feelings about it."

Only a tag made it home to grief-stricken mother

Another D-Day casualty whose body was never found or identified was Charles Robert Milliron, 25, of Salem. Milliron was a member of the 116th's Company D, which had been based in Roanoke before the war. The machine gun and mortar company had landed 40 minutes behind the Bedford company on Omaha Beach.

"The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Private First Class Charles R. Milliron, has been reported missing in action since 6 June in France ....The Adjutant General." That was the telegram the Milliron family received on July 18, 1944.

Milliron's brother, Alfred, who lives in Salem, said he went to several Company D reunions after the war but could never find anyone who had seen his brother on the beach. About 10 years later, Nettie Mae Milliron received a letter in the mail with her son's dog tag inside. It came from a soldier in Tennessee who found it on the beach and had only recently run across it again.

He had wondered if Charles had made it back home.

Frances Bloomer of Salem said her mother, who had taken to her bed with grief after receiving the telegram, had continued to hope that her son would eventually return home. The dog tag reinforced that hope. Once, upon seeing the picture of an "unidentified" soldier in the paper, her mother said, "Well, that could be Charlie," Bloomer remembered.

Roanoke father dies as son fights in South Pacific

The headquarters companies for both the 116th and its 1st Batallion were in Roanoke before the war. The regiment's Company D and its service company were all based in Roanoke. At least 15 Roanoke men were killed on D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, Bill Sours of Southwest Roanoke County was a 19-year-old Marine, helping maintain fighter planes on Green Island in the South Pacific. Word of the invasion arrived quickly and was posted along with other news on a camp bulletin board. Sours had a pretty good idea that his father, Major John William Sours of the 116th Infantry's headquarters company, was taking part.

John Sours had married Vilanna Cundiff in 1922. Bill Sours was born in a house they bought on Rosalind Avenue in Roanoke in 1924. The elder Sours was a machinist in NW's East Ends shops, where work was reduced to three days a week during the Depression.

John Sours was in the National Guard as far back as his son could remember. Every two years the Guard would spend two weeks in camp and every weekend have a night-time drill at the Guard Armory, which was in the same spot as the Hotel Roanoke's current parking lot.

Bill Sours doesn't remember seeing his father after his high school graduation in June 1942. John Sours was shipped to England that September, and Bill Sours was drafted after finishing two quarters at Virgina Tech. Father and son exchanged letters but, because neither could disclose his location, they didn't have a lot to say.

Major Sours died on Omaha Beach at the age of 42, leaving behind his wife and two sons. Bill Sours received a telegram in the South Pacific from the Red Cross.

Dads' bodies found close together on beach

Sherman Burroughs' widow said she heard that they had found John Sours' body on the beach close to her husband's.

After Sherman was killed, Ruth Burroughs worked 17 years for Eastern Airlines in Roanoke to provide for herself and her three sons. In 1962 she married A.J. Moody, another railroad man. They live today in an apartment near Tanglewood Mall.

Two of her sons went to Virginia Tech and the third to Roanoke College. The two youngest don't remember their father. The oldest, who died three years ago, served in Korea. The youngest was in Vietnam.

Ruth had Sherman's body moved to Arlington National Cemetery three years after he was buried in France.

"The entire time he was over there it never occurred to me that anything would happen to him," Ruth said. "I never worried one second."


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