BETTY WILKES – A BEDFORD GIRL
I interviewed Betty Wilkes several years ago, after I had published The Bedford Boys. I recently found the transcript having learned that she had passed away. She lost her husband, Master Sergeant John Wilkes, on D Day, 6 June 1944. He was killed on Omaha Beach with 18 other men from the community of Bedford, Virginia.
How did we get word that the boys were finally shipping out to England? One of the boys must have gotten a telephone call through to Bedford, and we got word of it. My friend Viola, whose husband Earl Parker was in Company A with my husband, called me and said: ‘Well, do you want to go to New York?’ I said: ‘Well I guess so.’ Her dad brought us to the station in Bedford. We caught a train out, in the evening, the next week. It was crazy. But I had said I would see John any way I could. Of course, we couldn’t get a call through from our hotel in New York. We tried and tried. The next day we decided to try to go back to Bedford.
I lived in Bedford with my sister Mildred. We had an apartment together. She was very important to me. We worked together. She was five years older than me. I was 21 when John was killed. When I found out about his death, I didn’t want to go back to work. After I got the telegram, about a week later, my sister said: ‘I’m not going back to work until you go.’ I guess that pushed me. I didn’t want her to lose her job on account of me. I didn’t want to lose mine either. Having to do something helped.
Viola Parker, who also lost her husband Earl on D Day, was close to me. We talked probably about every night. Viola would always talk about Earl, saying: “when he comes back…” She would not accept that he had been lost. I just listened and didn’t want to tell her he wasn’t coming back. She went to see [Lieutenant] Nance [who had been on Omaha Beach] and he told her Earl had been killed and then she finally accepted his death. She was trying to keep hope alive and I didn’t want to stop her having that….
I was with Viola the night that Danny [her daughter with Earl] was born in 1943. Her mother was over at the hospital and called me. Viola had taken a pencil and paper with her when she went to the hospital. They brought her back to her room in the hospital after she gave birth. I was there. She was soon looking for a little draw in the bedside table. She brought out this paper and pencil and she tried to sit up and write to Earl, just a few hours after she had given birth. We tried to get her to go back to sleep.
I went to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. I met a medic, Cecil Breeden, who had landed in the first wave with my husband, John. We met at Dulles airport first, boarding a flight. He helped me with my luggage. He wanted to know where I was from. His eyes popped out when I said I was from Bedford. In Normandy, he took me down onto the beach and showed me where he had found John’s body. He said John hadn’t suffered – he was shot through the forehead.
I had John’s body brought back to Bedford in 1947. I felt better because I knew he wanted to come home. There was some closure there. I had brought him home. His mother and father are buried right behind him now. His sister is too. When we saw the coffin, his father said to me: ‘I feel sure that’s him, don’t you?’ I replied: ‘Oh yeah.’ We could not be certain because we were not allowed to open the coffin.
I still have John’s ring [over sixty years later]…the wedding ring. It’s in a necklace that I wear. The photo shows me near a waterfall. It was a Sunday, on our honeymoon, in 1941. I was eighteen.