Oral History Interview with Benjamin Zalas.

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Record 55/959
Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
Admin/Biog History Oral history interview with Benjamin Zalas. Ben was born in South Bend, Indiana on November 27, 1921. His father was a firefighter and his mother a housewife. He attended Catholic schools, graduating in 1940. Jobs were scarce and Ben helped the high school coach; he himself was a football and basketball star in high school. Ben then got a job as a bookkeeper in a hardware store where he worked until he was drafted in October of 1942.
Ben got his basic infantry training in Georgia and was shipped overseas from Camp Shenango, PA. In February 1943. He landed in Casablanca and his unit was attached to the 34th Division. The African campaign was just about over, with the Germans withdrawing to Sicily and Italy. Ben spent a lot of time on guard duty at the docks in Bizerte. They were strafed frequently by the Germans who were targeting the ships.
In September of '43, Ben and the 34th invaded Italy, landing near Salerno and worked their way up the western side of Italy. Weather was cold and rainy. Ben was assigned to carry a BAR. He and several others were sidelined for a week or so with trenchfoot.
The 34th Div., after capturing Mt. Trocchio, concentrated on reaching Monte Cassino. Ben was now a radio man. The fighting really got heavy and Ben got hit with a small arms round in the groin. The Germans were very close and only the barrage of shells and mortar fire from their heavy weapons company prevented Ben and others from being captured. Ben was carried via stretcher to a station hospital some 8 hours away over rugged terrain by German prisoners. Then he was sent to a General Hospital in Naples and subsequently a recuperation center.
Ben rejoined his unit at Anzio where the fighting around the port area was very confusing. He got an ear infection and was sent back to Naples, reclassified, and ended up processing soldiers returning to the states. That was the end of combat for Ben. In May of 1945, the Germans surrendered in Italy and Ben was home and discharged by October of that year.
Ben returned to school, earning a B.S. at Ball State and a masters in public school administration at Indiana U. In Bloomington. He held several positions in Indiana and came to U.W. Oshkosh in 1970 where he was in the College of Education and the Div. Of Continuing Education as an instructor and non-credit Program Manager. He started the Elderhostel program at UW-O.
Ben is married with 6 children, 26 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. Ben enjoys a number of hobbies. He is part of a little band called "Good Time Providers" that goes around to nursing homes and the like. He served as Commander of the Disabled American Veterans for four years. In service, he received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and other citations. Ben is very modest about his wartime service and feels a strong kinship with all the guys that have been in combat since WW II.
Classification Archives
Collection World War II Oral History Project
Dates of Accumulation November 19, 2003
Abstract Cassette recorded oral history interview with Benjamin Zalas, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Division in World War II. He landed in Casablanca and his unit was attached to the 34th Division. The African campaign was just about over, with the Germans withdrawing to Sicily and Italy. In September of '43, Ben and the 34th invaded Italy, landing near Salerno and worked their way up the western side of Italy.
In service, he received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and other citations.

Zalas, Benjamin Interview
19 November 2003
Conducted by Tom Sullivan

{T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; B: identifies the subject, Mr. Zalas. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear}

T: It's November 19th, 2003 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Ben Zalas who is going to tell me about his experiences in the Second World War, as well as a bit about his life before and after that war. Let's begin Ben by having you tell me when and where you were born?

B: I was born on November 27th, 1921 and raised in South Bend, Indiana.

T: Were your mother and dad both from that area. Was that their hometown as well or did they come from somewhere else?

B: My father was a naturalized born citizen and my mother came from Poland when she was a young baby.

T: I see. And you told me previously that your dad was a fireman; that was his profession.

B: Yes. City fireman. And of course my mother was just an ordinary housewife.

T: As most were in those days, yes. Do you have brothers and sisters?

B: Yes. I had two brothers and two sisters.

T: You say you had. I'm assuming that they've passed away.

B: No. They're still living. I was second of five. And we're still alive.

T: Tell me about your childhood Ben. Where you lived and went to school, and what you did for recreation, that sort of thing after school.

B: As a youngster Tom, I attended St. Stanislas Elementary School in South Bend. And after that went to South Bend Catholic High School, graduating in 1940. While in high school, I participated in athletics, earning letters in both football and basketball. I was the captain of the basketball team in my senior year, and also the senior class president.

T: Since your dad was gainfully employed as a fireman, and you were brought up during the Depression years, you probably weren't affected very much by the Depression in your family. But can you think of friends and neighbors that were affected by the Depression? Or wasn't it like that in South Bend? I don't know just what kind of town South Bend was as far as industry goes.
B: Yes, we had a lot of industry in town but during that time it was very slow going and we did have a severe depression in our city. I can remember on our city block probably my father was the only one gainfully employed. Everyone else was on relief.

T: Wow! In the late 30's and the early 40's there was war in Europe and there was war in the Far East. Did you give those events any thought at that time or was it just something you didn't think about?

B: At the very outset, there was an impact but we hadn't thought much about it, like many folks, probably because the war was not being fought in the United States but overseas. And so a great deal of thought really wasn't there and it didn't seem to affect us that much.

T: Along came Pearl Harbor. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when that occurred?

B: Oh dear, let's see; that was on a Sunday morning. Probably around 8 0'clock. Probably going to church or we were already at church. I remember that I used to go to early Mass with my mother. And we usually went, I believe it was seven o'clock Mass at that time. And when we heard it, of course it shook you up pretty good.

T: Well, you were at that age when you would be considered prime meat, so to speak.

B: Absolutely.

T: I imagine that went through your mind too.

B: Sure, sure. Yes it did.

T: Now when you got out of high school, that was in the spring of '41 thereabouts?

B: Spring of '40.

T: What did you do then between then and when you had to go into the service?

B: Well, jobs were hard to find at that time so I helped our high school coach with the basketball program at South Bend Catholic. And he put me in charge of coaching the freshman team.

T: Was that a paying job? Did you get some sort of remuneration?

B: Ah, I wished I had! No it was gratis. But I enjoyed it very much. It was one of my popular sports. And I must add I think we only lost one game. We only had about five or six, maybe seven games scheduled but had a good group of boys.

And then after graduation, not after graduation, after the season was over which was in the early spring of '41, I managed to land a job at GE Meyer & Son. It was a retail and wholesale hardware company. And I was hired as a bookkeeper. And I was employed there until I went into the service.
T: Why were you employed as a bookkeeper? Had you had that sort of experience in high school?

B: Yes. I took the business course in high school. Bookkeeping and that sort of thing. So I was prepared. It was the accounts receivable ledger that I was in charge of and it was right up my line.

T: I see. Good. Tell me about the stroke of good fortune that got you into the army, Ben?

B: Well, I don't know whether it was good fortune or bad! But anyway in the summer of 1942, two of my high school buddies and I decided to enlist in the Naval Air Corps. Well it took us several months to gather the necessary papers. You know, transcripts, affidavits, recommendations and what have you. Finally in October of 1942, we were sent to Great Lakes in Chicago for enlistment. A day or two later, while I was examined by dentist, I was advised to go home and have some dental work done before they would accept me. Well, when I got home, the next day I received a notice from my draft board. And I was in the Army. I appealed for a deferment, citing my enlistment into the Naval Air Corps but was denied. I was scheduled to report on October 25th. And I can understand their position. They were need of infantry soldiers and that's where I went.

T: I can recall instances where fellows were going for the Army and were shunted into the Navy because of a need there. Uncle Sam apparently had the last word.

B: Yeah. Right.

T: Tell me now about your training. Was it quite comprehensive?

B: As I mentioned, I was inducted into the Army on October 25th, 1942 at Toledo, Ohio. And from there I went to Camp Wheeler, Georgia for basic training in infantry. It was not too difficult for me. I was in pretty good shape. But most of the basic training had to do with physical fitness. Getting you in shape. And then of course they taught us how to use different kinds of weapons. And we were on the range with rifles and mortars. Those and maybe a few others. And then some tactical kinds of maneuvers that they taught us at that time. But that was about it.

T: After your basic training, I assume that you were assigned to some sort of an infantry unit. What was that unit?

B: After my basic at Camp Wheeler, I was sent to Camp Shenango in Pennsylvania to prepare for overseas assignment and to complete the dental work that was begun at Camp Wheeler. And shortly after that, in late March of 1943, I sailed on a British troop transport, the "Andes" which was a converted pleasure boat, over the Atlantic Ocean.

T: What kind of a trip was that? Was it pleasant?

B: Well, we were unescorted. Going in that direction, toward North Africa wasn't nearly as dangerous at that time as it was going northward. Ships, supply ships and troop ships often went in that direction when they were going to England. But a lot of submarine warfare was going on over there and it was quite dangerous. So we went unescorted and our trip was somewhat uneventful. We did have several alerts and did have to go to our respective stations. But nothing really serious.

T: It's interesting to me that you went unescorted. Because I had just more or less assumed that those Nazi submarines were all over the Atlantic.

B: Yes. Yeah, one would think so, but obviously…

T: I imagine you fellows on that ship were giving that a little bit of thought.

B: Oh yes, that was running through our minds, certainly.

Well, we did continue then and it took us about a week to get to our destination and we landed in Casablanca, North Africa. And the 34th Division, the 9th Division and the 1st Armored Division had lost quite a few soldiers against the Germans in the months just prior to our arrival. And we were their first replacements.

T: Which division were you attached to then?

B: Around the first part of April I was assigned to the 34th Division, 168th Infantry Regiment, F Company, which was known as the "Red Bull Division." At that time they were located in Tunisia, near the Bizerte, Tunis area.

T: Where did the bulk of those fellows in that division come from? Were they from all over or were they from certain sectors of the United States?

B: As I recall, the outfit was either conceived or stationed in Iowa. So many of the boys in the 34th were from that part of the country.

T: I see, from the Midwest primarily.

B: Yes. Right.

T: And after you were assigned to the 34th Division, what was the next step?

B: It took us about a week or so Tom, for our train to go from Casablanca to our destination. We, believe it or not, we rode in cars called "40 & 8's." Do you remember those?

T: Yes, I can remember my dad, who was in World War I, mentioning "40&8's" so they've been around awhile.

B: Each car could hold up to 40 soldiers or 8 head of cattle. Well, that was somewhat of an uneventful trip. But along the way we had to stop the train and take cover from attacks by German fighter planes on several occasions. But we were fortunate because no damage was done. And we arrived at our destination safely.

T: After you arrived, then what were your duties when you were at your destination?

B: Well, after arriving at my assigned outfit, the first thing I heard from the guys was, "Where you from in the states? And after that I met the First Sergeant and he assigned me to the First Platoon, F Company, Second Battalion, 168th Infantry. And there I met several guys from Indiana and was warmly accepted.

And as would be expected, as a replacement, I was assigned to carry a BAR, the Browning Automatic Rifle. Which is a weapon that is used in an infantry squad. And I chuckle because nobody wanted to carry the BAR -for obvious reasons - it's an automatic rifle and automatic rifles or guns attract enemy fire, you know.

T: Yes. Machine-guns, anything that's automatic.

B: Right. Absolutely.

T: Had you had any training with the BAR? In your basic training when you were firing various weapons?

B: To my recollection Tom, I don't know. I don't recall. They may have shown it to us. We didn't get an opportunity to fire it.

T: Was it an easy weapon to handle or was it difficult?

B: It was not too difficult. It didn't take me very long to acclimate myself in using it. It was a little heavier. I had a jacket and I personally carried four additional magazines in my carrier, plus the one that was in the rifle.

T: I was going to ask you how much ammunition you could carry for something like that. Because I can imagine it spit it out pretty fast. Did somebody else help you and carry ammunition for it?

B: It would spit out about two bursts of fire and you could go through the whole magazine, which contained 20 rounds. And I did have a carrier. And he had anywhere from two to four additional magazines that we had.

T: What kind of weapons did the other guys in your platoon carry? Were they issued a weapon or the carbine or the M-1 Garand? What did they carry?

B: We were all equipped with the M-1s. It wasn't until later on in the campaign that they came out with the carbines. But the M-1 was a very, very good rifle. Hardly any jams, you know. And easy to clean. And automatic fire or single shot it was very good.

T: That's what everybody has said. I happened to fire one but I was issued a carbine and there was just no comparison between the accuracy of the two weapons.

B: Right. Right.

T: Tell me a little bit more now about the North African campaign Ben.

B: All right. Since I was in the North African campaign, I thought I'd mention some facts about it. It began on November 8th in 1942 when our troops landed around Casa Blanca in French Morocco. Other landings were made on the same day in Oran and Algiers in Algeria. By November 15, 1942, these forces advanced all the way to Tunisia, from one end of the country to the other. For five months the United States and British fought some bitter battles against the Germans. The final battle came on April 23rd. And on May 8th, the Americans and the British entered Bizerte. Five days later, May 13, the African Campaign was over. The Germans were defeated and they began retreating into Italy.

T: When did you begin to experience combat Ben? When did that occur?

B: The 34th Division took a real beating toward the end of this campaign, especially in the battles around the Kasserine Pass. And they suffered many casualties. The heavy; fighting was pretty much over when I joined the outfit though. We were pretty much engaged in mop-up action at that time. And it was around this time that I began to get a taste of what war was really like.

You are probably are aware of this, but there was guard duty to be done, especially around the port area because there were still some small pockets of enemy soldiers around and when it came time for me to have guard duty, I tell you it was pretty scary. Not only the enemy soldiers, but other people would come around the port and try to steal supplies they knew they could use. And so we had to be out there protecting all the time.

And I must add, when I was on guard duty over around the port area, and of course this was at night, every little noise was magnified tremendously. You never knew what was going to happen next. And for several months, our regiment was assigned to port duty in Bizerte. And frequently the Germans would send planes to bomb the port area, and the military forces that were bivouacked in and around the Bizerte/Tunis area. So there was a lot of activity at that time.

T: Was your unit taking casualties then? Did you experience casualties from bombing and other action?

B: After engaging the Germans, and when the Kasserine Pass battle was over with, our outfit moved back, as did many others. And the only casualties - of course we suffered a lot of them in the direct fighting - but after, when we were just, when we had pulled back the only casualties that would come would be from the bombings from the planes that came over the port area. But they were more interested in shelling the ships and the supply depots.

T: I would think so. Now in your summary you say that the American and British forces were preparing to invade Sicily. Did you receive any special training or anything like that at that particular point?

B: While we were pulled back, following the guard duty, and the Germans had already retreated into Sicily, we had pulled back in and around the Oran area. And at that time, the word around our outfit was that we were not gonna be involved in the Sicily invasion. Which was coming up next.

But I believe the 3rd Division and the 45th had already begun the kind of training that they were going to need in the invasion of that island. And we in turn then, began to train for the next mission following the taking of Sicily. And that was going to be the invasion of the Italian mainland. So we didn't really get down to brass tacks until the Sicily invasion and then we began different maneuvers and things like that.

T: Can you remember some salient points from the Sicilian invasion?

B: Well, very briefly on July 10, the American and British forces invaded Sicily and there were some real tough battles along the way. As I remember correctly, General Montgomery from the British forces was attacking on one side of the island and General Patton from the United States and his tank units were on the left-hand side.

And it was here that General Patton began his great reputation as a tank commander. In one of these battles in Sicily, the American and British forces stood off about 50 medium and heavy German tanks of the Herman Goring Panzer Division. And if you recall the campaign both in North Africa and Sicily, the Goring Panzer Division was one tough unit. They really knew how to maneuver those tanks. And after a series of some leapfrog maneuvers, the Germans steadily gave ground and by the middle of August, 1943, Sicily was completely ours.

T: On page 4, paragraph 8, you tell about what you fellows were doing while this campaign was going on. Can you enlarge on that a little bit?

B: All right. While this campaign was going on, our division along with some other fighting units, both British and American were scattered around Oran and Algiers preparing for the invasion of the Italian mainland. During this time, our outfit trained in the early mornings and had the afternoons for recreation. It was really too hot to do much of anything in this area at that particular time. Some days, the temperature got as high as 125 degrees above zero. Can you fathom that?

T: No. I can't imagine doing anything.

B: Well, occasionally we'd play softball in the afternoons or we'd go to the beach to swim. On one occasion I recall the Brits invited us over to play a game of soccer. And they were bivouacked just across the road from us. So it was no big deal. We went over there and I don't believe there was a single fellow in our group that knew what a soccer ball even looked like, let alone play the game. Well, that was their game and they beat us pretty bad. But the next day, we challenged them to a game of football. And it was our time to shine. And we beat them in football. Well, we all had a lot of fun together and had a real good time.

Then we had a softball tournament in our regiment. I was the pitcher for our team and we had some pretty good players. Our team advanced to the finals of the tournament and got as far as the finals. But that's as far as it went because we got orders to move and you know when you get orders to move, it doesn't mean next week or next month. In the next day or two we were ready to go.

So we knew what our mission was going to be and that was to invade Italy. And all of the units by then had received replacements and were all pretty much at full strength.

T: During that period of time Ben, you told about some of your off-duty activities and the training and so forth. What was the food like there? What kind of meals did you get and did you get letters from home? Did you get mail from your loved ones?

B: I'll answer the first question first. By that time, I was established with my outfit. So the mail then was coming through fairly well on time. You know we could get letters from home sometime as early as four or five days. So that part was pretty good.

Now the food, when we were in training prior to the invasion, we had of course, our hot kitchen with us and we were getting hot meals all the time. But once we began on the front lines, our rations were pretty much C rations. The canned goods. And then later on they introduced the K rations. And you know how picky us Americans are. If you liked hash, everybody wanted hash. Or if you liked beans, everybody wanted beans. Or they'd get the K rations and you'd rip em open and maybe you just liked the candy bar that was in it and you gave it away to somebody else. But no, I wasn't all that finicky and it wasn't all that bad.

T: Now tell me about when your division landed, I believe it was Italy?

B: Yeah. The Italian campaign began on September 9th, 1943 when the American divisions, 36th and 45th, along with the British 10th Corps invaded Italy near Salerno which was about 15 miles south of Naples. Now the fighting here was fierce and it took seven days to secure the beachhead.

Our division, the 34th, was scheduled to land 9-D, nine days after the initial landing. But the 36th Division got beat up pretty bad and we had to relieve them. And so we were called up three days earlier than we were scheduled to do so. And this by the way, was my real taste of actual combat.

T: Can you enlarge on the type of combat that you experienced. Did you see the enemy? Were you that close? What was the situation like?

B: Well, we were part of the 5th Army and as I mentioned, we were on the left side of Italy and the 8th Army was on the right side, or east of us. And no, we couldn't see face to face. We knew where they were and what the Germans were doing, once we got a foothold and established a beachhead, they began to retreat. And this pretty much was the scenario for the entire Italian campaign. We would drive at them and had some severe skirmishes from time to time. But never, never had I the experience of, "Oh, there's one, or there's one!" Or whatever, until a little later on in the campaign. You know we did see that, but…

T: How was the German armor and their air attack? Did they send planes against you? Did they send tanks against your forces?

B: This is just an aside from some of the battles that I have sighted, that I have in my possession now. But they would occasionally send a squadron of fighter planes to bomb say, supply lines, trucks; to bomb ammunition depots, gasoline depots. Things of that nature. Their artillery was ah, was very effective in stalling us you know. If we were getting too close, the mortars would be flying all around us. But what they would do, they would set up their artillery maybe four, five six miles back and then they would retreat to that point and the artillery would give them cover and then they would set up their defenses. Then the artillery would move back again another five, six seven miles. And all we'd be doing is just following their route and pursue em and engage em all over again. And that was pretty much the way the battles were going.

T: On page 4, paragraph nine, you talk about the cold rainy weather that you experienced when you were crossing the Volturno River. Can you tell me a little more about that Ben?

B: Yes. When we relieved the 36th Division on the beachhead, our group, the 2nd Corps of the 5th Army and the 8th Army on the right began to pursue the Germans. And on October 12th, the 3rd Division, 34th and 45th crossed the Volturno River. At this time the weather was pretty cold and rainy. The water of the Volturno River was about neck deep. And the current was very swift. What they did was, they strung a heavy rope from one end of the river to the other because I was six feet tall and the water was up to my chin. And you know, you get some guys that are 5-6, 5-7, 5-8 that would be up to their eyeballs. So we would grab the rope and …

T: That was the only way you could get across?

B: That was the only way.

T: Then everybody took a bath.

B: Everybody took a bath, right. And of course this was under cover of night and we had sent patrols out to be sure that the crossing was going to go as planned. And it did go. We didn't have any resistance at that time but right after that, the first break that we got, they pulled us off the line. And they may have done this with each division - I don't know. They pulled us off the line and had us line up and sit down on the bank alongside of a road and along came a group of medics and doctors. Told us to take off our shoes and sox and they began to examine our feet. For obvious reasons - they were cold, damp and whatever. Crossing, we must have crossed the Volturno several times.

T: Why not just one crossing?

B: No, no, no. Well what they would do, they would take a pin, they'd say, "Close your eyes and look away." They'd prick your toes and your feet and if you couldn't feel it, it meant that you had Trench Feet. And I was one of the unlucky ones because I couldn't feel a thing. And they sent us back then to Naples to a general hospital for treatment and recuperation. And we were there for, I'm guessing, a week or ten days until our feet got back in shape.

T: Ben, before they came and tested you, did you have any inkling or any indication that things weren't quite right with your feet? Or didn't you pay any attention to them?

B: You know it's strange that you ask this. I don't know. At the time maybe we experienced some discomfort but what can you do?

T: You probably had other things to think about.

B: I don't know if I had an extra pair of sox in my knapsack or not. I don't recall. So you just had to let them dry on their own.

T: When you were in action, at night how did you sleep? Did you sleep in foxholes or did you have your little shelter half or pup tent? How did you manage?

B: I guess a lot of times, if we knew that the enemy was close by and we might be experiencing a counter-attack, we would dig in. And then we slept in our uniform and we'd lay our raincoats down on the ground and we slept on that and a blanket on top. But if our scouting reports told us that they were maybe four, five miles away, then we might put up our tents. Especially if it was raining or if it was really bad.

T: I suppose occasionally there were abandoned buildings that you could take shelter in.

B: Oh, I'll tell you what. Hardly. No, I'm guessing that if there were, that's what the Germans would be thinking. Well, they're in a building and that's where they would focus their artillery and they would level that first.

T: I didn't think of that.

B: So it was very, very uncomfortable.

T: You mentioned the weather being cold in October. In Italy, I for some reason assumed that they were further south than us and that the weather would be more mild. But apparently it wasn't quite like that.

B: It was more mild but you know, we're thinking now of October and November. And winter is just a little bit away. The temperatures there, even though we were considered to be in the southern part of Italy, it was rainy and cold. Temperatures would get down to maybe 20-25, 30-35, 40. Later on in the afternoons it probably got a little warmer but overnight it could get pretty darn cold.

T: Tell me now Ben about the activities where you outlined it on Page 4, paragraph 10 about the fighting and the slow progress that you made.

B: Right. Shortly after we crossed the Volturno River, the German armies began to knuckle down. And there was a fierce resistance by their troops. But mountain by mountain, in the rain and mud, tough battles were being fought at Venefro, San Pietro, Mt. Porchia and Cervaro. And progress at this time was made but was measured in yards.

Casualties were heavy on both sides. Around this time Tom, one evening I recall myself and four or five others from our platoon were dug in at the point to guard against a counter-attack by the Germans. I was still carrying the BAR at this time. Well in the night, a group of soldiers were walking in front of us about 50 yards away. My first impulse was to mow them down. This was the middle of the night, and who the devil would be out there, and I thought could be the enemy. But on second thought, we challenged them instead and yelled out, "Who goes there? Give us the password." And lo and behold, it happened to be our regimental commander, the battalion commander and other high-ranking officers checking on our positions. And boy, I came real close that night to committing a very serious error. But I'll tell you, the should have notified us at the point to watch out; we had our troops scouting out in front of us. And they didn't.

T: I would say that those officers probably made a little bit of an error there. When you hear about friendly fire today, those of you who were in combat certainly can appreciate how that can happen.

B: Very easily. Had I been trigger-happy, it might have happened.

T: When you were in combat, did you have an opportunity to see German soldiers, captured soldiers that came through your area? What was your opinion of these guys? What were they like? Were they a pretty tough foe?

B: Later on I was going to allude to this. When some German soldiers were asked to carry me in a litter after I was wounded. But on many occasions Tom, as we were pursuing the Germans after a fierce battle, we would come upon bodies, not only of our soldiers who had been killed, but German soldiers as well. So yes, we did. There were quite a few times that in haste, we didn't have time to pick up our own and they didn't have time to gather theirs and we would come across situations like that.

T: Sort of a tragic thing. On both sides.

B: Yes. And I have to mention this one incident. As we were going through this type of situation, there were Germans lying alongside, and in their holsters they had, the officers carried pistols. And all of us were looking for souvenirs. And some of the wiser ones in our outfit said, "Don't bother about getting those because they could be booby-trapped. So we shied away from picking up anything like that for fear of …

{the first tape ends here}.

T: Okay, we're starting the second tape, Ben. I'd like to have you tell me about this incident on Page 5, paragraph 11.

B: This was a weird one, Tom. Because normally you wouldn't expect this in any kind of a wartime situation. But the Germans were, oh what do I want to say, they were looking for any kind of an advantage. And they would resort to all kinds of tricks to impede our progress and give themselves additional time to establish a line of defense.

So on this one occasion we were going up a small rocky mountain. And at the top there was a road. And there the Germans set off some dynamite and rocks came tumbling down on us like pouring rain. Dust was flying all over and we had little or no time, or even places to hide from these falling rocks. I happened to be near a large boulder and I crouched behind it, making myself as small a target as possible. And although I was spared, others in our platoon weren't nearly as lucky. Several had some severe lacerations, and a few earned Purple Hearts.

T: Tell me about the patrol that you went out on in the next paragraph here. It sounds like a very scary situation to me.

B: Indeed it is. I guess there's always a first for everything and this happened to be my first one. We lost sight of the Germans for several days and so our platoon leader was instructed to put a squad together and go on a patrolling mission. And I was one of 8 or 10 that was selected. And off we went. Of course I was still carrying the BAR at this time. This was early in the morning as I recall. And we had no idea where the Germans had retreated to, and no idea where to look.

So this being my first experience on patrol, I didn't know what to expect and the thing that we all feared most was an ambush. I guess we must have walked four or five miles and the enemy hadn't made any contact with us. We didn't see hide nor hair of them so our platoon leader decided to head back and boy, were we relieved! You know, when you can see your enemy, you can deal with that.

T: Yeah, I would think that everybody was pretty cautious on a mission like that. I just can't imagine a bunch of guys going out where you don't know where the enemy is. It would not be very appealing. Tell me what your unit did then, Ben.

B: All right. After several days and the action had subsided somewhat, our commanders were deciding what course of action to take at this point. And this was during wintertime, mind you. So we pulled off the road for a little R&R. We bivouacked in a wooded area along a road.

And on the other side of the road was a large field with irrigation ditches. These ditches were filled with water from recent rains. And they were about a foot deep - the water was about a foot deep. And since we had no place to go and nothing to do, the army had to keep us busy. Believe it or not, our platoon leaders took us across the field, putting us through different kinds of maneuvers.

But all of a sudden, a half-dozen or so German Messerschmitts came zooming in on our campsite, strafing and bombing tents, trucks and supplies. And not knowing whether they were going to attack us in the field, we all headed for cover. We all headed for cover and into the ditches we went. I had my combat outfit on and I thought that I was waterproof. But lo and behold, one of my side pockets was unzipped and I got a leg full of water. I spent the rest of that afternoon and night drying my clothes over a fire. The temperature must have been around 30 degrees.

We suffered quite a few casualties that day; and especially those who were caught along the road or those who were in the tents. And there was a lot of damage to the vehicles along the road. So much for our R&R that day.

T: Later on here in the next paragraph of your summary, you mention that the mines that you encountered. And I'm thinking also, the Germans had an artillery shell that exploded a certain number of feet off the ground that was a very devastating thing. Did you experience any problem with that sort of thing?

B: Yeah. It was an artillery shell and several types of land mines that they used. A couple days later when we were still pursuing the Germans and we came to an olive grove. Now every indication around us as we were pursuing the enemy was that they had gone through this area. So they cleverly mined the olive grove, knowing that we would be passing through there.

Now when these mines were tripped, and they were attached to one to another by wire. Or if they planted them individually, there were little prongs that would stick out from the mine itself. And unless you looked very carefully, you wouldn't see these prongs. It was very easy to step on one and trip the mine. But it was easier still for us, if they were attached by a wire to trip the wire and cause not only one to go off, but many mines to go off.

Well, when they were tripped, the mine would jump up about four or five feet off the ground and explode, sending all kinds of shrapnel above the ground. In this particular instance, I was about the third or fourth soldier in our squad to enter the grove. When all of a sudden we heard a mine go off and then exploding, we began to run forward. And lucky for me and those ahead of me, we got out safely.

But around 30 or so in our company weren't so fortunate. They were either killed or wounded. And our company commander was killed at this juncture too. Believe me, it was like living hell, not seeing the enemy or these mines jumping up and exploding all around us.

T: Tell me a little bit Ben about the care that your wounded men got. I'm assuming that you had medics that were attached to your unit. And did they have stretcher-bearers or some people that would get them away from the scene?

B: Yes. We had a medic attached to each platoon. And he would do his part in case there were wounded or whatever. And you know you have to take your hats off to these guys because they were on the front lines. They didn't have any weapons to defend themselves with. But they had to go right up to bring ease, and comfort and help to those who needed their help and attention. And they were all very efficient with applying bandages and stopping and bleeding. Comforting you or what have you. But they played a great part. Little has been said in all my narration; I haven't alluded to them a single time but a lot of respect goes to those men.

T: I think we all knew that they were there and they were certainly a very welcome sight for a lot of guys.

B: And well trained, I must add.

T: What was your main objective at this time, Ben? What was your unit trying to do?

B: I must add, and maybe I'm being repetitious, but the weather at this time of the year in southern Italy was rainy and very cold. Muddy roads made travel for all vehicles hazardous. Eating chow in the rain, as you can imagine was not very appetizing. And to dig in was virtually impossible. And it seemed as if everyone at this time was grumpy.

T: Did you ever have occasion to travel by truck or some other vehicle or did you, or was it strictly shank's mare all the way?

B: I think maybe on one or two occasions when the Germans had maybe retreated ten miles or more, that trucks came over and loaded us and shuttled us down so that we wouldn't have that far to go. But by and large it was strictly by foot.

T: We all hear about Monte Cassino and I see in your summary on the next page, on page six that you mention Monte Cassino. Can you tell me more about that situation?

B: Monte Cassino happened to be in the territory where we were fighting.

T: You're still going up the west side of…

B: Yeah, we were still on the west side and Monte Cassino was in our path. And of course the 8th Army coming in from the right had to come over in our direction later on to help. But our immediate goal at this time was to reach Monte Cassino, which we were told was the strongest point in the enemy's Gustav Line. The Germans fortified themselves in the Benedictine Abbey, which was atop of Mount Cassino. We were still about 15 miles from Cassino and this was in early January, 1944.

Our division, the 34th had captured Mount Trocchio. And having gained this ground, we decided to set up our defenses overnight, defending against a counterattack. We were near a town called Cervaro. And our commander placed several machine guns on the point, which was about a hundred, or two hundred yards from where we had settled down for the night.

Like I say, it wasn't our immediate goal because we still had the Germans right there in front of us. But 15 miles away was our large goal. You know we, that's what we were shooting for at that time. And right then we were still engaging the enemy and preparing ourselves for a counterattack.

T: Which came, apparently.

B: Yes. They didn't disappoint us, I'll tell you. The counterattack came all right early the next morning at the break of dawn. The Germans came at us with a vengeance. Mortar and artillery fire was coming down in our area. Our platoon leader called to me; he was going to use my radio to call for help. At this point in time I was now a radioman.

T: Was that heavier than the BAR?

B: No, the radio was maybe a pound and a half and the BAR was some 12, 13, 14 pounds. So anyway, as you would know it, the radio didn't work. Obviously had a dead battery. So our platoon leader asked me and another soldier to go back to our CP to report what had happened. As we were going back, artillery fire was exploding all around us. And we had to hit the ground many times to avoid getting hit by shrapnel.

Well, in a counterattack, mortars and artillery are always ahead of the troops following. So we were going to our CP and we were getting all of this. So we finally made it to the command post and as I began to explain to our company commander what was happening the Germans had already run over our position, and captured some 25 or 30 of our platoon.

Small arms fire was flying all around us and as the Germans were crawling in the high grass about a hundred yards in front of us. I could see their helmets and their faces. And it was at this time, you asked me earlier if I'd ever seen the enemy face to face; and it was at this time that I really saw them. You could see them coming through this high grass. And it was at this time that I was wounded. I was hit by a rifle bullet and a medic quickly attended to me and he put me into a small farm building.

T: Where were you hit? What part of the body?

B: I was hit in the pelvic area and the bullet went right through and came out my buttocks area. And so he bandaged me up as well as he could and he put me into a small farm building where our CP was located. Oh, I would say that there were about a dozen of our soldiers up there and they began to fire their rifles at the enemy. And by that time our heavy weapons company began to fire the mortars. And the artillery got our radio message and quickly laid down a barrage of shells that stopped the counterattack.

Now you can imagine all this happening so quickly. But just as soon as we got there, our company commander got in touch with the First Sergeant from the heavy weapons company and in a few minutes they were laying down their mortars. At the same time they called the artillery and in another 30 seconds they zeroed in. And it was through their efforts that the rest of us were saved.

T: It was a close thing.

B: Oh, it was a close thing. We had captured a lot of Germans ourselves but we had lost a lot of boys who were captured. Tell you what, five minutes earlier and I would have been captured along with the rest of our platoon. And it was a pretty tough battle. It didn't - I don't know how long it lasted. I was only there maybe a half-hour or an hour, when I was evacuated. But after that it was probably something else, collecting our forces together and attacking the Germans.

T: What happened then?

B: Well it was on January 13th, 1944 that I was wounded and it was near a town named Cervaro.

T: Where did you go after you were wounded? What did they do with you?

B: Shortly after the battle had subsided, the medics put me on a litter and had taken four of the captured Germans, prisoners, to carry me over the treacherous terrain and the mountains. And it was almost eight hours before they got me to a station hospital.

T: Now those guys were under guard, I assume.

B: Yes. Along with them there was a guard, one of our boys, and you asked me earlier about the makeup of the German Army, those that we had come in contact with. The ordinary soldier, and for the life of me I just can't seem to think of the term they used for them, but the ordinary German infantrymen, they were maybe common folks. And they didn't peep a single word. But one of the captured soldiers was a paratrooper and he was cocky as all get-out. He kept bitching all the time that they were carrying me along this terrain. From time to time he'd say, "Let's put him down; gotta rest. I'm hurt and I'm doin this…" And the other three, they kept their mouth shut. They did their job and went along the way. This soldier that was guarding them, I can't remember the exact words but several times along this trip he was telling this guy using some expletives, you know, knowing that he didn't understand. But he said, "I'm going to level this gun if you don't shut up, I'll blow your head off. So get goin!"

Well anyway so much for those guys. And after we got to the station hospital, they immediately X-rayed me. And it was at this time that the doctor came to me with the bullet that went through me. And it was in the pant-leg of my combat outfit.

T: Did you save it?

B: I saved it, believe it or not. I had it for about 50 years and all of a sudden, about the last ten years I haven't been able to find it. I don't know where it got to or what happened. But anyway the hospital was loaded at this time with injured. And several guys from our outfit as I mentioned earlier, were killed or injured.

So I spent about three or four days in the station hospital and after I was well enough I was evacuated by hospital ship to a general hospital in Naples. And I remained in the hospital for a month or so and then was sent to a rehab center for an additional eight weeks.

T: Did you recover completely from your wound?

B: After the eight weeks of rehab, I experienced some ache and pain. And I think that the pelvis was struck because the direction from the bullet as it came from in front of me, and where it came out in back, had to come downward. So what happened, it must have hit the pelvis and directing it downward. And that's what spent the impact of the bullet; just went through me and fell out. Otherwise it may have pierced the back of my pants and gone through completely.

T: Tell me now what happened in Italy after you completed your rehabilitation program?

B: Alright. While I was in rehab, the 2nd Corps had reached Mount Cassino and began to engage the Germans there. So you know, that took em from when I was wounded to get to Cassino, maybe three, four weeks or so. And many fierce battles were being fought here. And reluctantly, the Allies finally began to bomb the abbey because we weren't able to succeed in driving the Germans out.

I want to mention at this point, when I said 'reluctantly', we realized that the Benedictines were in the abbey and we didn't want to injure any of the occupants over there. And we knew that the Germans had housed themselves in there. They had barricaded themselves in there, knowing that we wouldn't… Well, after several warnings and so forth, you know, we finally got our Air Force to go in there and they bombed the area. And that helped but it wasn't until after four months of some fierce fighting, the 8th Army and the 2nd Corps moved into the Cassino area.

And it wasn't until May, when the British forces took the town and Polish troops captured the abbey. And I say Polish troops because, I tell you, to the best of my recollection there were maybe three, four five different units other than the Americans and the British that took a crack at trying to break this defense. I remember one outfit, the 100th Battalion which was attached to the 34th Division. It was made up of Hawaiians, from Hawaii? They were a very tough fighting unit. And any time we were engaged in a tough battle some place, we always called upon them to be a striking force. And they had gone in there and tried. And even they failed to dent this end of the famous Gustav Line.

But this action around Cassino became known as "the battle of guts." And it took a lot of guts to try and get them out of there.

T: Over on page 7, paragraph 20, you talk about rejoining your unit. And I'd like to have you enlarge on that a little bit, Ben.

B: All right. If we're running short on time, I did have a couple of salient points about Anzio. If you think I can make them?

T: Oh certainly.

B: Okay. Very quickly, while I was in rehab, our outfit was trying to cut off the Germans at Cassino. And at this time, a beachhead was established on January 22nd, 1944, when the 5th Army landed on Anzio, which was about oh, 30 miles south of Rome and maybe 15-20 miles north of Cassino. Hoping to cut off the troops in the Cassino area. And that's when the 8th Army came around from the right, trying to pinch them off.

Well, the beachhead on Anzio was approximately ten miles wide and ten miles deep. And that wasn't very much territory that we occupied. German reinforcements came here time and time again, pushing the allies back, attempting to drive them into the sea. Now the Allies dug in and held. Many tough battles were fought here and many boys were wounded and killed. For months men from the 43rd, 34th, 45th and 1st Armored Divisions engaged Germans. And together with the first Special Services force, and the British, dug in and held.

Now the Germans had a favorite weapon on Anzio that was called 'the Anzio Express'. This was a huge 280-millimeter railroad gun. And it was a railroad gun because they could move it into different areas readily. And it, when fired, it sounded like a freight train coming to a stop sideways; screeching, if you can believe that. It had a range of about 10 miles or more. And the shells were propelled by boosters to give them additional range. After several months however, our air corps finally nailed the Express and put it out of commission. And boy, what a relief that was. Because it was, it took a lot of zip out of our troops when they lobbed those shells into our area.

T: I'm going to skip past some of the remainder of this that you've outlined in your summary Ben. I see that you did, you got sick again. Had a punctured eardrum and then had some rehab and got Bell's Palsy. When did the fighting in Italy conclude for you? When was the end of the fighting in Italy?

B: All right. I was on Anzio still and waiting in a general area to be picked up by members of my outfit. And there was a lot of confusion over there. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doin. And everybody bustling around. And such little space to do it in. The Germans were still shelling the port area and planes were bombing and so forth.

And it was at this time that I experienced a pain in my right ear. So I went on sick call and they found out that I had a punctured eardrum. And this is when they sent me back by ship, a hospital ship, back to Naples and that concluded my combat days at that time. So from that point on I went again to rehab to clear out that situation. As I pointed out briefly, they didn't have the kind of treatment to take care of Bell's Palsy that they have now. And had they had, I probably would have been fully cured, but they didn't. So that's the way it was.

And then I was reclassified and sent to a replacement depot to another job.

T: And you were processing guys that were…?

B: Yeah. The outfit that I was assigned to was processing soldiers coming from the states and processing soldiers that were going back home. And it was my job, after getting orders processed, that I would either take those who were going home to the airport to load on planes, or else take em to the port area to load em up on ships for the return back to the states.

T: On page 8 of your summary, you tell me that you had the opportunity to visit Rome. Can you tell me a little about that? I imagine that was probably a fairly pleasant experience.

B: Yes. After the forces had gotten to Rome, the Germans were retreating somewhat hastily; little or no resistance. And so Rome quickly was restored to normal. And so I was able to get a pass and when I found out I was able to go to Rome, I took the opportunity and went there for a couple of days. There, I had the opportunity to visit Vatican City, which is the home of the Pope of the Catholic Church. And since I am Catholic, I appreciated that opportunity. And so I visited many of the buildings there. And as I showed you earlier, I even had my picture taken atop St. Peters Cathedral. I imagine a lot of visitors had gone up there and there was a professional photographer there and he was ready and willing to take your picture for a little stipend. So I still have today, that picture that I had taken there.

T: How were GI's received by the Italian people? Did they welcome us? Did they dislike us, or don't you really know?

B: At the very beginning, when the Americans and British were invading into Africa, there were salient forces of French, German and Italian who were leaning a little bit toward Communism and so forth. And allied themselves with Germans. But we defeated them in North Africa very easily. They didn't put up a whole lot of resistance. So we beat them up very quickly.

But as we got into Sicily and into the mainland of Italy, the Italian people pretty much looked upon us as ah….

T: As liberators?

B: Yeah. As liberators from the Germans who came and took everything from them, and used them you know. And when we came there they opened their arms and welcomed us.

T: I wondered about that because they were presumably allies of the Germans and I was wondering how they received us.

B: Yes. Yes, right. As I said we now had gotten to the common people who weren't all that thrilled with the Communist {Fascist?} way of life.

T: I think that it probably could be said that the Italians were sort of half-hearted allies of the Germans. Their heart probably really wasn't in it.

B: Absolutely. And we could tell about some of the prisoners that we had captured. They expressed relief. There were some of them who, in large groups, would head in our direction with their hands up, you know. "We give up!" And it wasn't like one or two; fifty, sixty seventy at a time.

T: So eventually as you state here in your summary on page 8, the Italian campaign ended. How long were you in Italy then before you were sent home?

B: I spent maybe about 6 months in North Africa and a year and a half in Italy all told. And it was around the spring of 1945, actually on April 9th that the forces from the allied 8th Army which were on our right, and the 5th Army - which we were part of - on the left attacked the Germans around Bologna. And after 19 months of sometimes heavy fighting, the Allies finally reached "the promised land," the Po Valley. In on the kill were men from the 10th Mountain Division, 1st Armored, 34th, 88th, 91st and 92nd Divisions. And during this drive, some 25 German Divisions were whipped. Can you imagine that! And the show was over in Italy. The German armies in Italy surrendered unconditionally effective at noon on Wednesday, May 2nd, 1945. And a week later, German forces everywhere laid down their arms.

T: Ben, after you had this Bell's Palsy and the punctured eardrum you were detached from your unit. And did you have correspondence with any of the guys in your unit? Did you learn how they fared toward the end of the campaign? You know the 34th Division was in right at the end. Did they still continue to take heavy casualties in that division?

B: Tom, that's a very good and interesting question. And this is, I have to say the way the war works, or the way the war went on, and I can't remember who told me this at one point, early in my wartime experiences; 'Don't try to make too many close friends'. You may have heard, because as you go along, along the way this one is going to get wounded, that one is going to get killed. This one goes there, this one goes here, whatever. And if you're away from them a little bit and you come back, "Where's so and so?" "Where's so and so?" These are new guys you've never seen before. And that's the way it always went.

No. You asked was there communication? No. If you're gone for a little while, if you're wounded or you're in rehab or what-have-you and you come back to your outfit, you have to all over again, acquaint yourself with who was there. Especially, and our outfit was engaged in some battles and we took some severe casualties. And guys were going in and out. Replacements coming, wounded leaving and so forth.

So there was little or no communication. I did communicate with a few afterward. As a matter of fact, one good friend of mine, he was captured when I was wounded. He was from Muncie, Indiana and later on I'm going to tell you that I had gone to school in Muncie, Ball State. And he was instrumental in getting me a job at his place of business. To help me earn some money.

T: Now you were discharged from the service in October of 1945. Tell me what you did then Ben. Previously you told me you went back to school. What changed, or what made you determined to get an education rather than to go back to the hardware store?

B: Yeah. Tom, before we get to that, there is one little thing that I did want to mention. And this is about my outfit, the 34th Division. During the North African and Italian campaigns, the 34th Division had over 500 days of combat on the line. If I remember correctly - and I stand to be corrected - I think this was a record for all fighting units during the Second World War. And I felt very proud of the fact that I had even a small part in contributing to this record. And I thank God to this day for bringing me home safely through this war.

I know we didn't mention medals or awards or anything like that in my narration.

T: I would like to know if you did get decorations and what they were?

B: Okay. I would like to briefly say something about that. I believe that I can speak for the majority of the soldiers who went to war to defend our country. The one and only thing on our minds was to go and defeat the enemy as quickly as possible and get back home to our loved ones. There were no glory seekers and nobody wanted to become a hero. And it wasn't until we were being discharged that we found out what medals we were being awarded. And I am proud of them and equally as proud of the opportunity to serve my country.

I was awarded the following medals and citations: I received a Bronze Star for valor in combat, the Purple Heart for wounds in action, a Good Conduct Medal. Our Division received a presidential Unit Citation, I received a medal for the European-African and Middle Eastern Campaign with Three Clusters, I received a World War II Victory Medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge and an Honorable Service Lapel Button for World War II.

So much for decorations and medals.
T: Yeah, I guess most guys don't think about them too much but it is very impressive and Uncle Sam did think enough of your service to award you those.

B: Sure. And there were some heroes. I know we had one close to us in the Third Division. Audie Murphy. I probably fought in some of the battles that he did. But there was one brave young man! And there were a lot of them. There were a lot of heroes.

{Tape two ends here}.

T: We're starting tape three and Ben, if you can give me a little idea of what happened when you left the service as far as completing your schooling and so forth, I'd appreciate that.

B: All right. I was discharged from the service on October 24th, 1945 from a camp in Indianapolis. And son-of-a-gun, at this time I just can't think of it.

T: Not Camp Atterbury? That's where I spent a year.

B: Camp Atterbury. Right, Camp Atterbury. And when I came home, I took a bus from Indianapolis to South Bend, and a cab from the bus depot back home. And it was, oh I'm guessing maybe about ah, maybe six o'clock in the morning and nobody was yet awake at home. So I sat on the swing on the porch. We still had a swing on the porch. And I sat there for a little while. And I rang the doorbell, and I'm sittin on the porch, and lo and behold, my mother came to the door and wondered who was at the door. And that was a real touching moment.

T: I'm sure it was.

B: A happy occasion at that time. Well, my job at the hardware store was still there if I wanted it but I chose to go to college instead. So the United States government, at the end of the World War, rewarded the soldiers who fought in World War II by passing the GI Bill of Rights. And one part of this bill gave a veteran and opportunity to go to school, be it technical school or whatever. College, university or whatever.

And I always wanted to go to college but I couldn't afford it. I did have one experience and I could have mentioned it; when I graduated from high school, my coach had sent one of the football players to Carroll College in Montana because a teammate of his at Notre Dame was the coach there. And he asked me, "Ben, if you think you'd like it, I could send you along with Sully - Sully was captain of the football team - to Carroll College and if you want to, see how you can do there or whatever." Well, wouldn't you know it, I didn't want to leave home and so I stayed and helped him with the basketball team at home. But anyway, I always did want to go.

While I was in the service, I'm going to go to school and make something of myself. So since I was in the military three years I qualified for four years of college. In the fall of 1946 it was, yes, I attended Ball State University…

T: I gotta ask you, why Ball State? You were from South Bend, why didn't you pick Notre Dame? You're Catholic, it's a natural. Why didn't you pick Notre Dame?

B: Tom, a good question and it simply bypassed me. But I did go. I got discharged in October. I went to Notre Dame in November, early November to enroll at the University in November. It wasn't going to be until, this was '45. It wasn't going to be until '47, January of '47 they could get me into the college of business where I wanted to enroll.

So almost a year and a half before I could get into college. I had, oh I had applied several places. A friend of mine along with me and I applied to UCLA, North Carolina and a lot of others. But I finally narrowed it down to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where I majored in education, high school education. I did some work in elementary education and physical education because my ambition was to become a coach.

And my other experience at higher education came in 1963 when I took time off from my regular teaching duties and attended Indiana University in Bloomington where I earned a Master of Science degree in public school administration.

My first job after graduating from Ball State was at Scott High School in Howe, Indiana. And that was in 1951. I was hired as a teacher and coach of all sports. And I was there through 1955. And at that point they were going, Scott was going to merge with another school five or six miles away, Shipshewana. And they, each school told their principal and their coaches, "If you want to, we will hire you as teachers but we will not hire you in your present position."

And so at this point I began to search for a job because I wanted to coach. Not long after that announcement was made, I read in the South Bend Tribune where a coach from Michigan City, Indiana, at St. Mary's High School was going to retire and join his father in LaCrosse, Indiana in a construction business. And this is how I came to get my second job. I quickly called him in Michigan City, Indiana, spoke to him about the job. He was very kind in helping me arrange for an interview with Monsignor at St. Mary's. And I went there, to make a long story short, I was interviewed, offered the job and accepted. So in 1966 I became a teacher and coach of baseball and basketball at St. Mary's High School in Michigan City, Indiana.

Then after the '57 year, I, and this is a story, very briefly, at St. Mary's I was looking for an opening game because a team on our schedule had to ask to get let out because of a conference conflict. Well quickly, I called River Forest High School, which is a new high school in Hobart, Indiana. Just starting. And asked them, would they have an opening on this date; I was looking for a game. He said, "By the way, we do have. Would you be willing to play us?" "Sure."

B: And after I talked to the athletic director there, found out that he told me that Ed Weiss whom I had known at Ball State, is the supervising principal there. And they have a coaching position at the school. Would I be interested in that position. So he tells me about that job. It was going to pay an additional thousand from what I had been currently getting. And all kinds of benefits that you get working in a public school that a private school…

T: Yeah, that's the way it is.

B: And when I told Monsignor Verpola about this offer, he said, "Ben, if you don't take it I'm going to fire you." And he meant it Tom. He would have done it.

T: He was going to force you to take it.

B: He was going to force me. He said, "Ben, you have a family to take care of, and you need this kind of advancement, these kinds of benefits for the welfare of your family."

T: You were married by this time. When did you get married?

B: That is going to happen in another segment in just a moment. Very quickly though, I became first a teacher at River Forest and then basketball coach, then athletic director, golf coach, vice principal and principal. And leaving there in 1970. So in 13 years I ran the gamut over there at River Forest High School.

Well, in the summer of 1970, I just mentioned Ed Weiss. Ed had gone to Indiana University from River Forest High School and he got his doctorate degree. And from there he was hired as a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh. Ed and I were very close. Our families were very close. And we communicated. And he called me the summer of 1970. He said, "Ben, we have an opening here at the College of Education. And I know that you have the experience and the qualifications to handle the job. Would you be interested? And he said, "Look, why don't you and Helen drive up? I'll arrange the travel. I'll arrange your stay here, and see if you like it."

We went, we liked what we saw. They interviewed me. They offered me the job. And they said, "Look, go home. Take a week or two and if you think you want it, give us a call." All right. On our way home the following day, I told my wife, I said, "I don't think we have to wait two weeks, do you?" And I said, "I'm going to call Ed tomorrow and tell him I'm going to take the job." You know it was fascinating to go to the university. We fell in love with Oshkosh. It was a nice community.

So that's where I went in 1970 and I was hired as an instructor in the College of Education, and a non-credit program manager in the Division of Continuing Education, which was a kind of a dual role.

And it was at the university here that I began in 1979, a well-known program that is in existence today. It is called Elderhostel. And I sponsored that program for eleven years and a few years after I retired. It was a kind of a boost in my career because it was something different you know. And I began to appreciate it more and more every year.

And while I was sponsoring this program, I began a musical group called "The Good Time Providers." And we started this group in 1980 because we entertained Elderhostelers on the last night that they were with us. And from that point on, it began to be regular part of our program and until today, we still have a group, still in existence, still called The Good Time Providers. And we still entertain.

T: And I asked you before when you got married. When did you marry Helen?

B: All right. I married Helen in 1946. I was going to be a sophomore in college. Helen Marie Sigler was her name and we got married on August 23rd, 1947 in South Bend, Indiana. She moved with me to Muncie and became a, left her job and became a wife. And we had six children, four girls and two boys.

T: Are all of them still living?

B: All of them are still living. And four of the six, quite productive. We had so far, 25 grandchildren and up 'til this date, we have 8 great-grandchildren. And probably counting.

T: Did you join military organizations after you got out of the service?

B: I have been a member of several. While I was in Hobart, Indiana, I joined, oh I take it back. When I first got back from the service in South Bend, my wife's cousin told me about the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And I joined that organization. And I was a member there for a short while because when I left there and went to school, I didn't pick it up. And it wasn't until I got to Hobart, Indiana that I met some folks over there who found out I was a veteran and I joined the American Legion in Hobart, Indiana. And I was a member there, serving as chaplain for a good number of years in that organization. And when I left there and I came here to Oshkosh, I didn't rejoin the American Legion, but instead, learned about the Disabled American Veterans. And I joined that organization.

T: Are they a fairly active group here in Oshkosh?

B: Yes and no. We had, or have somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 members. But …

T: Most of them are probably not active.

B: Correct. Active, maybe 25 or 30. And maybe a few more that are active in some of the activities of the chapter. Parades or fund drives; we have annual fund drives and so forth. So I did join the Disabled American Veterans, Oshkosh Chapter 17. And I served four years as commander of this chapter.

T: That's great. Do you, today do you think much of the war or has it pretty much slipped from your mind? I hear varying opinions. Some fellows think about it quite a bit. Some don't think about it at all.

B: Let me put it this way, putting things in perspective. When the Korean War began, following World War II, I probably, and many other veterans, we thought about what it was like in the Second World War and what it was like in the Korean War. So we compared. And then when the Vietnam War came, we did the same thing. You know, what did we do then, what was it and so forth. Then when it came time to the Persian Gulf War and now the war with Iraq, our thoughts kind of followed the same pattern.

T: These things sort of jog your memory.

B: Yeah. Comparison to what they did then. And oh boy, it was tougher then in certain respects, and different now. Not to say that one was any better or worse. They're all bad. And now when I hear or read about the American soldiers who are patrolling around Iraq, around Baghdad, and some of the hard core Saddam Hussein backers are ambushing them and firing well, not mortars, now they're rocket propelled ammunition. And you don't know where it's coming from. Boy, that is really tough. Tough to take. So my heart is out to those and to all the veterans of all the wars. It wasn't easy. It was hard. And God bless em all, especially those who gave their lives in defense of our country.

And you know, I must say we have a lot of critics now that are condemning what our president, our presidents have done in all of these wars. And I for one detest this kind of action. You know it's always in retrospect; what would have been done, if? You know what has been done, has been done, and by golly support those people that are running our government. And support the soldiers, the men and women who are out there defending our nation. We don't want to go, nobody wanted to go. And if we do go, there's a mission and by golly it's our right to do it until its completion. And I think sometimes people should be ashamed rather than taking cracks at this guy or that guy, or this president or that president.

T: Well, it's been very nice talking to you Ben. I appreciate your willingness to come down and tell us. As I said, it's very interesting, and thanks very much.

B: Tom, it was a real pleasure and I enjoyed this interview with you. Thank you.
Event World War II
Category 6: T&E For Communication
Legal Status Oshkosh Public Museum
Object ID OH2001.3.59
Object Name Tape, Magnetic
Location of Originals Oshkosh Public Museum
People Zalas, Benjamin J.
Subjects World War II
European Theater of Operations
North African Campaign
United States Army
Title Oral History Interview with Benjamin Zalas.
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Last modified on: December 12, 2009