75 years after D-Day, Joseph Bennett of Manchester is unburying his memories

  • D-Day Memorial Day Veteran Profiles Joe Bennett GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Joe Bennett, 101, raised his family in Manchester, and now lives at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. Bennett is shown with a pillow case made for him during World War II. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/3/2019 5:52:11 PM

When Joseph Bennett returned home to Manchester in December of 1945, he tried to pick up his life where it left off.

He married his sweetheart, Rita, and they started a family. He found a job making women’s swimwear and later men’s coats. Bennett says Rita loved clothes, so he picked up other part-time gigs around the city to keep her closet full.

He tried his best to forget about the war. It started with a Zippo lighter, something he carried throughout his service in northern Africa and Europe.

“I threw it in the ocean,” Bennett said. “I wanted to let it all go.”

As his children grew up, they began to ask him questions about World War II, but he didn’t want to share his stories, not yet. Bennett’s daughter, Sue Byrd, says her mother rarely brought it up.

“He really did bury all of this, like he threw it all overboard,” Byrd said.

Decades passed before he began to open up to his family about his experiences. He eventually sent a letter to Washington, D.C., seeking copies of his service records and got them.

Bennett, who turned 101 in April, arrived in Normandy via Omaha Beach on June 11, 1944, with the U.S. Army’s 67th Armored Regiment, five days after the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France began. His unit continued deeper inland and came under heavy fire for several days. Weeks later, they’d participate in “Operation Cobra,” an attack that ultimately ended Germany’s power in northern France.

Seventy-five years after the invasion was launched, Bennett’s memories haven’t faded completely. He sometimes struggles, understandably, to recall specific dates and places. But he remembers the perpetual fear of being in a hostile place, where the possibility of a firefight lingered each day and night. He also remembers the hospitality and comfort provided by local families in Belgium, who opened their doors to the soldiers as they moved through.

Byrd obtained records from the 67th Armored Division, helping piece together the first seven months of Bennett’s time in Europe. They chronicle the division’s movements from Omaha Beach in June 1944 to Belgium at Christmas later that year.

Byrd said she believes when he talks about these experiences, the good and the bad, he is reliving them.

When he sat down for an interview at the Tilton Veterans Home, Bennett wore a World War II Veteran’s hat and leaned back in his wheelchair. With his daughter standing nearby, he began his story, starting at Fort Knox in Kentucky after he was drafted in May 1942.

“I didn’t want to be in it, but I was in it,” he said.

An early setback

Bennett’s first couple of months as an enlisted serviceman were rocky. He says he was smaller than most of the men and weighed barely 100 pounds. He came down with an illness after a long, soaking wet run through the rain while training at Fort Knox that put him in the hospital for six weeks.

By the time he got out, the division he started with had shipped to another location for training and he was moved to the 2nd Armored Division. Still with little training, Bennett shipped overseas to northern Africa, where he said he did several different jobs as his superiors tried to find the right role for him.

“I was a simple kid,” he said. “Didn’t know nothing.”

When the division moved up to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion, Bennett said he was doing mostly “pencil work.” He said they tried training him to drive a tank, but that job didn’t last.

“I had no training,” he said. “That’s how my life in the Army began.”

Normandy

The Allies launched their invasion on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. Bennett’s unit arrived five days later, June 11. His transporter carried a tank, and as they approached Omaha Beach, the transport hit a floating mine, destroying all of the equipment on board, including the tank.

“Ship sunk within one hour with loss of lives, many injured, and complete loss of all vehicles and equipment on board,” the regiment’s report from that day read.

Bennett was one of the few to escape injury. He said he later received “a letter from Washington” asking what attempts he made to try and save the tank.

“I said, ‘Not a goddam thing,’ ” Bennett recalled. “My commander was furious. The thing was going to go, I let it go. They want me to try and save a 33-ton tank, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The unit moved south to LaMine, France, later that day, according to the regiment’s record. They stayed in that area for nearly three weeks. They faced combat the first five nights and eventually moved a mile south, where they continued to confront enemies each day.

“I got pretty scared because I was always in harm’s way,” Bennett said.

The 67th Armored Regiment’s activity log shows it moving through France that summer and reaching a town about 35 miles northeast of Paris by the end of August. The report contains details of each day but it is difficult to trace Bennett’s precise path as companies moved in and out of the division.

“It’s difficult to know who went where,” Byrd said.

Bennett does, however, remember being in Paris after the Allies had retaken the city from the Germans. He said they were stationed near the Eiffel Tower, and Bennett spent days standing around the monument with other soldiers.

“The Germans were going for the monuments, and we had troops there to protect it,” he said.

Belgium

From Paris, Bennett’s unit continued on to Belgium and faced heavy combat that fall as the Allies tried to push into Germany.

Bennett said he was at the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle of the European campaign for U.S. forces, as the Germans launched an attack to push the Allies back off the Western Front. The offensive ultimately failed for the Germans but the Americans suffered casualties upwards of 75,000.

Bennett remembers his unit moving through a forest during the battle and coming upon an area where they found shells lodged into the trees surrounding them.

“You wondered who got there first, and we hoped it was Americans,” he said.

Bennett spent that Christmas in Belgium, where he and other soldiers were welcomed into the homes of local families. He remembers sitting on a living room floor and eating K-rations.

“We wanted to meet the citizens, and these people took us in,” Bennett said. “They took us in because things were going good, and we were there to save their ass.”

Prisoner

The regiment’s log that Byrd obtained ends in December of 1944. She said her father went on to Holland and then back to Belgium after the Germans returned. His unit later advanced into Germany, where Bennett said he was captured by two German soldiers while on patrol.

“Two Germans with guns right on me,” he said. “I was such a small kid, they didn’t shoot. They took me as a prisoner.”

Bennett said he was taken to a campsite set up in a large field and was questioned about the U.S. forces’ position.

“They’d interrogate you, but I was a dumb soldier and didn’t know nothing,” he said.

Other prisoners were there but Bennett can’t remember how many. He remembers there was always at least one German soldier watching over the prisoners.

After two days, he found a way out.

The Army paid their soldiers every month, Bennett said. He’d send a portion of his paycheck home to Rita and kept some cash for himself. He still had most of his cash from that month’s pay, he said, and it was enough to make someone look the other way.

“I don’t know how but I talked someone into letting me give them $20 and I got out,” he said. “One of the Germans helped me get out.”

Bennett said he made it back to the American lines within a day. As he approached, the sound of English-speakers told him he was back in friendly territory.

“I was glad I found my company again,” he said.

An ear infection

Bennett’s service continued until December of 1945, months after the war had ended. He has more stories from these years, and they come spilling out of him as he spends more time thinking back.

He remembers his unit resting somewhere in Germany when a plane flew overhead and released a bomb. The blast killed three tech sergeants sitting not far from where Bennett stood. “They were there, and then all of the sudden the three of them were dead,” he said.

Bennett couldn’t hear anything after the explosions, and it wasn’t until later he realized he was bleeding from both ears. He had been taken to the medic, where he told doctors that he suffered from ear infections as a child. This wasn’t true.

Asked why he lied, Bennett didn’t say. After a moment, Byrd offered the explanation she said her father had given her when he first told her this story.

“He said back then people trying to get out of the service would make up stories, shoot themselves in the foot, things like that,” she said. “He didn’t want to feel like he was trying to get out of the war.”

All these years later, Bennett maintains that he did want out of the war. And when he was out, he wanted to forget about it and return to the life he left behind in Manchester.

But there must have been something else going through his mind as he was examined by doctors that day, something that caused him to lie so he would not be sent home early.

And perhaps it was that same force that led him to keep some of the things he picked up while he was in Europe.

Bennett moved into the Veterans Home in Tilton in 2015, 10 years after his wife, Rita, passed away two weeks short of their 59th wedding anniversary. As Byrd and her husband cleaned out Bennett’s home, they uncovered a box in his basement that contained Bennett’s medals and sew-on patches.

When she showed these to him, the memories came back. Bennett told her he kept his medals when he returned to the U.S. and removed the patches from his coat, which he gave to his wife’s 15-year-old brother for a Boy Scout uniform.

“He thought he dumped it all, but he didn’t dump all of it,” she said.

Now, nearly eight decades later, Bennett is telling his story.

“It’s a lousy story,” he said, “but it’s a true story.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)




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