|World War II veteran Gaetano Benza and sand from the beaches of Normandy.
By Mike Henle
Gaetano Benza is among the remaining war heroes now living in Southern Nevada.
Now a spry 90 years of age, Benza lives comfortably in his North Las Vegas home, which is filled with memories of his years as a young soldier who rose to become a T Corporal in the United States Army.
Benza was just 16 years old when World War II broke out in 1941. On June 6, 1944, a then 19-year-old Benza was among the soldiers with the 505th Port Battalion invading the beaches of Omaha, Normandy to take on the Germans and Adolph Hitler.
“I was in water up to my chest,” recalls Benza, who had to carry a weapon over his head while heading into war to take on the Germans.
“We were so sea sick after the boat ride from Plymouth, England,” recalled Benza, a baby-faced youngster was about to grow up quickly in what was a major real life challenge. “The water was terrible and it was rough.”
Benza will never forget the sergeant in charge yelling at the troops to keep their guns high. Some 5,000 soldiers were on the boats in very rough waters.
“He kept telling us that if we dropped our weapon it was of no use to us,” he recalled. “I had three clips of ammunition on one side and grenades on my other side.”
When adding in the weight of his clothing, boots and a backpack, the challenges were immense.
“Once you jumped into that water, you were weighted down,” Benza said of that moment 71 years ago. “I made it and we dug in once we reached the beach. We stayed there a couple of days before the infantry pushed the Germans back. Once the Germans were pushed back about 15-20 miles, we dug our foxhole with two men in each foxhole.”
For the first couple of weeks, the Germans bombed the area every night. In fact, the four-month stay on the beach was never short of action and as the 5-foot-5, 125 pound Benza learned about living life under fire.
“To protect ourselves from shrapnel, we would take wood that we found on the beach and place it over our foxhole,” he said. “The wood consisted of big planks and it served as great protection for all of us.”
In order to keep the troops healthy, each soldier was given C Rations that were eaten first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon. Considering that the troops were involved in hauling materials, supplies and food that would be utilized by fellow troops, the work was not easy.
“Cold food was all we had,” said Benza, an Italian born in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I used to trade my vegetable for spaghetti because I was brought up on spaghetti and that’s all I knew.”
Needless to say, no one ever forgets a time in their life like the one Benza had decades ago.
"I was scared to death and I wasn't the only one; everyone was scared,” Benza recalled. “We didn’t know what it was like to brush your teeth, shower, or change our clothes. You couldn’t have a shower in those four months.
“In fact, we used to take our shirts off, splash them with water and wipe ourselves down.”
When the British Mulberry pier appeared on the beaches at the end of September, the long stretch out into the channel signaled leaving Normandy.
“We went to Le Harve, France where we took over an abandoned German camp,” Benza recalled. “The American engineers had fixed it up. For the first time in four months, we could take a shower, brush our teeth and maybe shave.”
Benza returned to the United States in December 1945.
“When the war was over, they put us on a captured German liner, a troop ship, for the ride home,” he said. “It took us 11 days to get back to Scotland and another four days to get to New York.”
At the port in New York, Benza heard his name being paged.
“I had to go to a mid ship,” he said. “When I got to there, I ran into my mother’s brother, who was a Navy Lieutenant in full dress. He told me that my mother was at the end of the gang plank.
“I ran to see my mother and gave her a big hug and kiss. I will never forget that. I also learned not to ask questions and just do what you’re told. In this case, one of the most important people in my life was waiting to see me.”
While it’s been long time since those days when Benza was a young man then, he will never forget arriving home in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Dec. 17.
“It was the first time I had seen home in three years,” he said now. “Making it ever better was that it was just before Christmas.”
Benza joins other remaining military members of the U.S. military every five years. The first time was in 1965 while the last gathering in England before going to France was with the Stephens Ambrose Historical Tours group last June on what was called “Operation Overload 70th Anniversary June 2014 Tour.”
“I went with a group from South Carolina,” recalled Benza. “We met in Normandy and I’d say all together, there were about 200 World War II veterans that included tank people, pilots, infantry and all of the rest of the units.”
Benza can’t help but notice that each trip includes fewer friends.
“There’s not many of us left,” he says softly.
A professional barber, Benza remains busy cutting hair. He also goes to the gym at least once a week.
“I’m a guy who never gives up,” he said. “Someone writing a book about me said that I am such a man of compassion. He said that I’m always reaching out to helping others.”
The book entitled “La Havre” should be completed in July.