D-DAY REDUX: Local WWII vets recall their war days ... and D-Day
Updated: Jan 8
By Bruce Deckert
Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
JUNE 6, 1944. If December 7, 1941 is a date that lives in infamy — per the legendary words of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt — June 6, 1944 is the day that gives World War II history its ultimate meaning.
While the attack on Pearl Harbor in December ’41 dramatically ushered the United States into World War II, the D-Day invasion by the U.S. and her Allies decisively turned the tide of the war. The math is simple — June 6, 2019 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Yet D-Day itself was far from simple. Countless soldiers lost their lives during the intricately planned Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Remarkably, there are 12 living WWII veterans in the tri-town area, according to officials of local VFWs (Veterans of Foreign Wars). By the end of the war, the U.S. draft age was 18, which factors in some further math: The youngest WWII vets alive today are in their early 90s. The oldest are 100-plus. The Today magazines spoke with three such local veterans — one each from Avon, Canton and Simsbury — about their firsthand experiences and eyewitness accounts of World War II.
John G. Benjamin • 101 years old • Simsbury
Benjamin, who turns 102 on June 2, was a WWII bomber pilot who flew 35 combat missions in a B-24 from November 1944 to March ’45, commanding a 10-man crew and flying with six other planes. Their targets included bridges, fuel dumps, military trains and factories in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Germany.
He served in the 459th Bombardment Group, which was based in Italy. His childhood best friend, Dick Barker, was the pilot of one of the P-38 escorts on Benjamin’s missions.
A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism, Benjamin says emphatically, “I don’t like any notoriety.”
Asked if he was ever anxious during his flights, Benjamin matter-of-factly replies, “No — it was my job, that’s all.” But his calm nerves came in the face of significant danger. “We got hit almost every time out,” he says. “We would get out and see the holes in the plane.”
For the B-24, even with a full tank of 2000 gallons, Benjamin had a key question for his technician during each mission: “If we keep going, will we have enough gas to get back? That was good info,” he quips.
One time, however, they ran out of gas. The plane went down behind enemy lines in Italy, and Benjamin was MIA (missing in action) for five days. His son Chris Benjamin, also a Simsbury resident, says the family still has the Army’s MIA telegram, which was written in haste … in pencil.
Chris attended a recent event that featured Vietnam veteran Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor winner. “When he heard that my dad won the Distinguished Flying Cross,” says Chris, “all this guy wanted to do was talk with my dad.”
On D-Day, John Benjamin was in flight training at Maxwell Field in Alabama. “Some of my classmates died in training,” he recalls.
Born in the Bronx, Benjamin lived in West Hartford and Granby before moving to Simsbury in 2006. His full name is John Granby Benjamin because of his family’s ties to the town where his dad was born.
What advice would Benjamin give to a young person contemplating the military? “Join the Air Force,” he says. “I love the Air Force.”
Regarding the harsh realities he encountered during World War II, he says, “For as long as you live, you cannot forget — you’ll always remember.”
These days, he’s grateful for a full life well-lived: “How much longer I have, I don’t know. Each morning when I wake up, it’s a blessing.”
Morton N. Katz • 100 years old • Avon
Katz, who turned 100 in May, wanted to go to West Point, but when that didn’t pan out he went to Connecticut State College (now UConn) and joined the Citizens’ Military Training Camps program. He graduated in 1939 and was commissioned in ’40 as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve.
He trained as a parachutist with the 502nd Parachute Infantry but never jumped in combat. Instead, he was always part of the ground and amphibious operation.
During the Battle of the Bulge his unit suffered heavy losses, and afterward Katz was transferred to the 505th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 505th served in Germany and liberated the Wobbelin concentration camp near Ludwigslust.
“May 2nd, 1945,” says Katz, who is Jewish. “My scouts had gone out and found a camp. There was a warehouse full of tens of thousands of wooden clogs that had been worn and re-worn by prisoners who had died.”
There were also piles of bodies. The commanding officer was Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, who Katz describes as “a low-key guy.”
“But this was too much for him,” Katz notes. “He went ballistic. He made the townspeople march out and view the bodies. Then he made them bring the bodies back to Ludwigslust and form a cemetery, which is still there.”
Katz had trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and shipped to England in September ’42. He went to North Africa in November ’42, serving in Algiers, Morocco and Tunisia. During the North African Campaign, he was promoted to first lieutenant.
Later his unit advanced to Italy and fought in Anzio and Venafro, and then in southern France. At the invasion of Anzio beach, Katz was in the first boat with the commanding officer.
On D-Day, he was in Italy. Three U.S. soldiers had died after disobeying orders and going for a swim at the beach, where a booby trap awaited.
“We were ordered to take the bodies to Rome,” which the Allies had reclaimed from the Nazis, says Katz. “That’s when I heard on the radio about Normandy. … We knew an invasion was being planned but didn’t know where or when. We were focused on Italy.”
Katz recalls another “chilling thing” — the day he and his unit almost fired on fellow U.S. soldiers in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. On a dark gray day, his unit saw some men in dark coats and thought they were Nazi troops.
“We had our fingers to the trigger when the clouds broke and the sun came out and we could see they were our guys,” Katz says. “It was as close to a miracle as I’ve ever seen. … Friendly fire is a real thing. I have sympathy for those who get caught up in it.”
Years later, Katz was at a veterans gathering and actually met one of the U.S. soldiers in the dark coats: “I was having a drink with a guy I almost killed.”
Born in Hartford, Katz graduated from Weaver High School and, in ’51, from the UConn School of Law. Today, he still works as a special public defender in Hartford Superior Court, and in May the Connecticut Judicial Branch gave him the Lifetime of Public Service Award. He moved to Avon in ’66 and participates in the VFW, Memorial Day and Veterans Day events, and the Avon Chamber of Commerce.
After the war, he continued to served in the Army Reserve, retiring as a colonel.
Asked about his most vivid memories of World War II, his thoughts turn to his band of brothers: “I was privileged to serve with the finest Americans I have ever known — the greatest guys in the world.”
Mark I. Jurras Sr. • 95 years old • Canton
Jurras, who turned 95 in May, was drafted in ’43 after graduating in ’42 from Montpelier (Vt.) High School. He served in the 776th AAA Auto Weapons Battalion, an anti-aircraft unit.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in ’41, Jurras recalls “coming out of church on the 7th — people were gathering in groups talking about Hawaii.” One of his uncles, Harold St. Louis, was stationed at an Army fort near Pearl Harbor with his wife and daughter, and later fought in North Africa and Italy.
Jurras shipped to England in March ’44 in a 100-ship convoy with more than 800 soldiers. Among all those men, he says, he was the only one who knew how to type. So he was assigned to be the special assistant to the colonel — “he was one desk away,” says Jurras, who lives in Canton and previously lived in Simsbury from 1977-96.
On the overseas journey, Jurras remembers an occasional red glare on the night horizon — a sign that one of the U.S. convoy ships had been hit and sunk by a German submarine. In England, his battalion eventually was stationed in Falmouth, a southern harbor that became a launchpad for the D-Day invasion. As the battalion’s de facto secretary, Jurras would collect info each morning and prepare personnel reports.
The original plan was for Jurras and the 776th battalion to be part of the Normandy invasion, and another anti-aircraft unit was slated to take their place in Falmouth. But Jurras’ colonel convinced higher-ups that it made more sense to move one battalion directly to Normandy rather than two battalions in a double move.
On D-Day, Jurras says, “Eight battleships went by — we knew something was going to happen. … In the days leading up to the invasion, there was a huge gathering of ships. On the morning of D-Day, they were all gone.”
“I was privileged to serve with the finest Americans I have ever known — the greatest guys in the world.” — WWII veteran Morton Katz
The 776th sailed to Normandy’s Omaha Beach about a month after the invasion, with the objective of protecting the Brest peninsula. “Every day was like the Fourth of July,” Jurras says of the mortar explosions that ensued in the fight for France.
During the Battle of the Bulge, from December ’44 to January ’45, Jurras was headquartered in Senon, a farming village in France. In Falmouth, Jurras had slept in a horse stall. In Senon, he and other Army personnel stayed with residents. He lived with the town blacksmith and fixed the family’s sewing machine — “my mother had one just like it,” he explains.
The blacksmith’s wife then sewed Jurras’ Army promotion patches onto his uniform. Today, Jurras stays in touch with the blacksmith’s granddaughter via email and Facebook.
In early ’45, the 776th battalion advanced into Germany. After the war in Europe ended in May ’45 and more concentration camps were discovered, Jurras says Gen. Dwight Eisenhower “ordered all troops within reasonable range to go to a camp, because in five years the Nazis are going to dispute they did this.”
The 776th went to Dachau.
“The first thing I noticed was a truckload of bare bodies,” says Jurras. “There was a huge pile of shoes. Everybody who went into the chamber had to take off their shoes and put them in a pile. … You can’t forget it. I can smell the smell still — it was terrible.”
Jurras recounts meeting an acquaintance and his wife, a German woman, in the 1970s: “It was exactly what Eisenhower said — she insisted it never happened.”
Jurras, Katz, Benjamin and countless other WWII veterans know it did happen. They also know — from firsthand experience — that D-Day made it possible for the Allies to liberate those death camps. Clearly, there’s a reason these veterans and their contemporaries are called the Greatest Generation.
• This article is as relevant as when it was first published as the cover story of Avon Today, Canton Today and Simsbury Today magazines — the forerunners of Today Magazine — in June 2019, in both the print and digital editions • Click here for that magazine issue
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time SPJ award-winner
• An ESPN.com editor for 17 years, Deckert served as a reporter and editor for the former Imprint Newspapers group that produced weekly papers for most Valley towns and several other towns in Greater Hartford