Gaetano Benza was a 16-year-old living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when the United States entered World War II in 1941.
“I knew right then that I had to help my country,” said Benza, now an 87-year-old resident of North Las Vegas who mesmerizes audiences with his speeches about the invasion of Omaha Beach in France’s Normandy region.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from the School of Aviation Trades, a learning institute for teenagers looking for a career as an airline mechanic.
Benza was one of about 5,000 military personnel who rode the Aquitania across the Atlantic Ocean for 11 days from New York to Scotland. He was heading for Europe to battle Germany under
“Every seven minutes, the ship maneuvered through the Atlantic while trying to evade the German submarines,” he said. “We didn’t have an escort, so everyone was worried sick because we all knew the subs were out there.”
Benza selected the Army over the Navy because he was afraid of the water. Then, as luck would have it, he found himself on a ship en route to Europe.
“I was scared to death, and I wasn’t the only one; everyone was scared.
“How could you not be scared when we had to crawl like little ants on the beach to get to the dunes?” said Benza, whose position as a longshore soldier was to unload ships and get supplies to all of the units. “We came in behind the infantry, and our job was to take our amphibious boats and unload them as quick as possible.”
Just on his own landing craft, about 30 soldiers stormed Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, with thousands of other U.S. soldiers.
“We had to walk through water up to my chest with our weapons over our heads. Our sergeant in charge kept yelling at us not to drop the guns; and if you did, leave them behind because they were no good once they got wet.
“We lived in those wet clothes and boots for weeks on end. Then, when you’re living in a 3-foot-deep foxhole, you had to live on C-rations for months. That’s all we had and, believe it or not, I loved eating cold spaghetti.”
The nights in Normandy were filled with their share of challenges, too, considering that sleeping in a foxhole for four months wasn’t easy either.
“At night, we had to put these wooden planks that were blown up from ships over our foxholes,” Benza said. “When we would get up in the morning, we would find shrapnel stuck in the planks from bombs dropped by the Germans.”
Benza said the bombing by the Germans usually was at least once a night.
“We knew that we were going to get hit every night, but we didn’t know when,” Benza said, adding that many of those in his unit were killed.
At the end of the four months, Benza and his fellow soldiers headed for Le Havre, France, where they also unloaded ships,
“We supplied anything possible to help out. I finally got a softer job, working for the battalion major. I had to serve meals and clean his weapons for him, but it kept me out of unloading ships, which is unbelievably hard work.”
Benza spent under three years in the Army. He has lived in Las Vegas since 1965 and still works as a barber at Jesse’s Barber Shop at Tropicana and Eastern avenues, after stints at the Dunes and Nellis Air Force Base. Both he and his wife, Kwon, remain active, traveling to areas throughout the country.
RETURN TO NORMANDY
Benza returned to the beaches of Normandy in 2009.
“That was my first time back to Normandy in 65 years,” Benza said. “That’s quite an experience when you see the beach that we were invading in 1944.
“… We toured the cemetery in Omaha behind the beaches. There were over 10,000 crosses of dead soldiers. It sure brought tears to my eyes.”
Benza said he didn’t like to talk about his war experience for many years.
He recently spoke at Davis Funeral Homes’ Memorial Park on Eastern Avenue two days before the anniversary of D-Day. He brought a glass container filled with sand from the beaches of Normandy.
“After I finish talking, especially when I have the sand of Normandy in the container, people walk up to me and ask for my autograph,” he said. “I tell people the sand has blood in it considering the thousands of soldiers we lost on Normandy.
“It’s a story that never gets old.”