“It was 69 years ago that I boarded a train down at the Jamestown station,” Doug Benson said. “It was in October of ’43. I was one of 20 new GIs on our way to the war in Europe from Jamestown. Before the train reached New York City, we’d stopped at every town and city between here and there and picked up hundreds more just like us.”
Doug described his adventures as he sat at a table in a Bemus Point restaurant with seven of his World War II comrades-in-arms for their weekly lunch meeting recently.
Somewhere around 1975 the surviving veterans of the Jamestown area began to notice their numbers beginning to dwindle and decided to keep their camaraderie alive. Most had graduated from Jamestown High School about the same year, so they named themselves “The Class of ’40 + or -” Today, little more than a dozen of that band of veterans remain, but their memories and heroic exploits will live on in the nation’s proud military history for generations to come.
“I saw 220 straight days and nights of rain, snow, mud and bullets on the front line,” Benson said. “There were no days off in that coldest of German winters in 25 years.” Benson was an Army man like another friend at the lunch table that day, Marsh Bloomstrand of the 26th Infantry Division, who endured more than 120 days of the same in another part of the ETO, the European Theater of Operations. “We slept in bomb craters and burnt out cellars,” Marsh said. “That’s war.”
“When we get together these days,” Benson said, “we talk about almost everything, with only one rule: No politics!” After meeting with this small band of rugged survivors and home grown heroes, it became clear that patriotism and willingness to risk one’s life to protect freedom, liberty and justice transcends all politics and partisan differences.
“The Navy wouldn’t take me because I had a heart murmur,” Marsh said. “So I went to the army and now I’m 91. So I guess I was OK,” he added with a hearty laugh.
Dan Kojm, however, trained at the Great Lakes training center and flew Navy Airship (blimp) missions as a sub hunter out of Lakehurst, New Jersey. He said he also learned two things that stayed with him until today. “I met city fellows who were different from me in ways I couldn’t have imagined and I learned to type. Both of those facts have done me a lot of good since those days.” Bob Alm, another small town boy in the U.S. Army in the European conflict, also learned that America is an unimaginable mixture of cultures, yet still one nation with one great purpose.
Fenton Gustafson was a submarine engineer in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He recalls torpedoing oriental junks, which should have been poor fishing boats but were really Japanese radio spy boats lurking nearby only to report on American ship movements. Bill Glatz, who later became a successful local businessman, was a proud US Marine, also serving in the Pacific, in Korea and in China.
Bill Ingram was a pilot in three wars, Europe, Korea and Viet Nam and continued flying after returning home in civilian aeronautics for many years. Bill also ferried aircraft made in the USA over the Atlantic Ocean to Britain and Europe where they were slated for the combat missions.
Chuck Swanson saw the war from another side as a U.S. Army medical corpsman helping to patch up wounded soldiers and return them to either the front lines or to home, as their wounds allowed. On the battlefield, there are times when even the side a soldier was on became less important. Corpsmen treated the wounded enemy too. “All human life is valuable.”
These men represent what has been called “The Greatest Generation.” A simple afternoon lunch and good conversation conveys that in ways their stories can’t fully achieve. Their humble confidence and love of country are still typical of the American service man or woman, but refreshing to experience in the 21st Century as an echo of the 20th.
“You can’t teach courage,” Doug Benson said. “But just like today’s US soldiers, we did our part to serve our country.” The Class of ’40 + or – will continue to meet, share lunch and a good story or two every week and continue to stand as fine examples of American hometown heroes.