Tag Archives: D-Day

Westport’s Private Benjamin

Westport has long been proud of World War II veterans like Leonard Everett Fisher and Joe Schachter, and the late Ted Diamond and Howard Munce.

We honor them on Memorial Day. We listen to and read recollections of their service. We thank them often (though probably not enough).

We’ve done none of that for Ben Pepper.

He was a paratrooper. He earned a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. He’s lived in Westport since 1958.

Yet we’ve never seen him on Memorial Day. Most of us have never heard his name.

That’s his decision. He has chosen never to march or ride in the May parade. He still has his medals, his dog tag, his photos — and his Army jacket — but he has always been low-key about them.

Ben Pepper, yesterday. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Perhaps this Memorial Day — less than 2 months before his 100th birthday — that will change.

Westport would be honored to honor him. He lives in his longtime home — alone, after his wife Frances died — and has nearly a century of stories to tell.

Yesterday — sitting in his son David and daughter-in-law Gail’s Wilton Road house — he told some of them.

Pepper’s parents came from Austria-Hungary. His father had a window cleaning route.

Pepper was born on July 5, 1923 in the Bronx. He grew up near the Grand Concourse.

Ben Pepper, on his bar mitzvah day.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, he headed to aeronautical school at La Guardia Airport.

But World War II was underway. He was soon drafted, and ordered to report to Grand Central Terminal on New Year’s Day, 1943.

(His younger brother Armand enlisted — without his parents’ permission. His mother brought him home. When he was old enough he joined the Army Air Forces, and served in the South Pacific. He is 97, and lives in Naples, Florida.)

Pepper was sent first to Fort Dix, then to a new tank training center at Camp Hood in Texas. He felt unsuited to tank operations, and asked for a transfer.

He got one: to paratrooper school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“I was 19. I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Pepper says.

Ben Pepper: in the Army.

After stops in North Carolina and Maryland, his 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment was sent to Northern Ireland, then Sherwood Forest in England.

Pepper would have been part of D-Day. But he had broken his back on an earlier jump, and was in a near-full body cast.

Many of his fellow paratroopers never made it home that June day.

He recuperated in time for another important, gruesome battle: The Bulge. But on Christmas Day, 1945, his flight to France crashed on takeoff. Everyone survived.

Instead he was driven to the Ardennes forest, between Belgium and Luxembourg.

“There was a lot of shooting,” he remembers.

A German shell hit the edge of his foxhole, but did not explode. Ten minutes later, a fellow soldier stood up in the same foxhole. A bullet killed him instantly.

Pepper got frostbite in the brutal cold — his rifle was frozen too — and earned a Purple Heart for it.

Ben Pepper’s Purple Heart, dog tag and other mementoes. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Soon, he was assigned to guard a former German schnapps factory. “We were 20-year-old kids, with all the booze you’d want,” he laughs.

After Pepper’s discharge in October 1945, he answered an ad to be a photographer. “Why not?” he figured.

That started a long career. In 1953 he opened his own studio — Allyn — on Atlantic Street in Stamford. By then he’d met and married Frances; their son David was 5.

Ben Pepper (center left) and fellow members of his photography school class.

Pepper also opened liquor stores, in Stamford and Norwalk. Frances started her own Kitty Closet shops on Westport Avenue in Norwalk.

In 1958 they bought property on what was then Blue Ribbon Farm, on North Avenue just past Cross Highway. They built a home on what is now Blue Ribbon Lane. He’s lived there ever since.

Ben Pepper, back in the day.

In 1960 the Peppers helped build Temple Israel on Coleytown Road. They spent the rest of their married life raising David (a Staples Class of 1966 graduate), traveling (including China before it opened to the West, the USSR, Africa and Asia), and working.

David and Gail have 2 children, both Staples graduates. They’ve given Pepper 3 great-grandchildren.

All would be proud to see “Private Benjamin” Pepper be honored at Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

He’s not so sure.

“My jacket wouldn’t fit,” he protests.

It would. Pepper is in great shape.

And Westporters of all ages would be inspired to salute him in it.

(Hat tip: Arlene Yolles)

Remembering D-Day, And Tracy Sugarman

As the world honors the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Westport should not forget Tracy Sugarman, and his role in that historic event.

Tracy Sugarman

We often think of the artist, writer and longtime Westporter — who died in 2013, age 91 — for his civil rights activism. He published 3 non-fiction books and 1 of fiction about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the 1960s.

But he also served as an officer with the Navy’s Amphibious Corps during World War II. On D-Day, he stormed the French beach.

In 2011 — a few days before he spoke as Memorial Day grand marshal — I wrote about Tracy’s experiences. 

As a junior at Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, Tracy Sugarman had a great time.  He was on the lacrosse team, was dating a wonderful woman named June — “it was all Joe College,” he says.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The next day, Tracy and a fraternity brother took a bus to Buffalo.  When they returned to campus, they were in the Navy Reserve.

Tracy Sugarman and June, during World War II.

He was allowed to finish school.  But 2 days after graduation — May 13, 1943 — Tracy headed to midshipman’s training at Notre Dame.

“We kept ‘invading’ England,’” Tracy recalls.  “Then one day, it was time to invade France.”

June 6, 1944 was “extraordinary,” says Tracy.  “There were 3,000 planes, and 3,000 ships — as far as the eye could see.”

The day was sunny, but the seas rough.  They circled until 3 p.m.  Everyone was seasick.  As an officer, Tracy had to pretend he was fine.

“Finally we hit the beach,” he says.  “It was just awful.

“It was noisy.  It was smoky.  Ships were blowing up.  There were bodies in the water.”

Tracy made his way through the maze of iron.  He kissed the ground, then returned to the assembly area.

World War II watercolor, by Tracy Sugarman.

He spent the next 6 months unloading ships, working with troops, ammunition and hospitals.

Finally — with the ports secured — he helped 2 other officers close up Utah Beach.  He went back to England.

On April 12, 1945 he had to announce to his ship that Franklin Roosevelt had died.  Most of the sailors had never known another president.

“I was 23,” Tracy says.  “I took 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds to the D-Day beach.  They looked at me — the ‘old man’ — to take care of them.”

Among Tracy’s many works is “My War.” In 2000 he published a collection of over 400 letters, drawings and watercolors he sent to his young wife, during the harrowing days of World War II.

“06880” reader Douglas Davidoff reminds us that the Library of Congress has an online portfolio of Tracy Sugarman’s drawings of D-Day. They’re available here.

There’s much more on Tracy Sugarman and World War II too, Doug notes. For a treasure trove of material via the Veterans History Project, click here.

Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport’s 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.

Local D-Day Vets Eligible For “Legion d’Honneur”

Earlier this month, America celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Each year, the number of folks who remember that occasion — especially those who were there — grows smaller.

The French government is bestowing the “Légion d’Honneur” upon eligible U.S. survivors of that memorable day, as well as eligible U.S. soldiers who fought on French soil and contributed to the liberation of that country.

Legion d'Honneur medal.

Legion d’Honneur medal.

One local man is taking that a step further. Jean-Pierre Lavielle does not work for the French government, or any organization. But he is French — the son of a paratroop officer who fought in World War II — so he decided to look for all eligible veterans living in Connecticut.

The “Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur” was founded by Napoleon in 1802 to reward his soldiers’ gallantry and valiance in combat.

So Jean-Pierre is searching for U.S. veterans who not only were in D-Day or other significant battles for the liberation of France — like the Battle of the Bulge — but who also accomplished something special.

Once he identifies potential recipients, he interviews them. Because they tire easily now, he limits his sessions — at least 6 of them — to 20 minutes each.He collects documents, discharge papers, pictures and newspaper clippings. After double-checking, he files an application with the French Consulate in New York. They contact Paris, where the file is scrutinized.

“This is a race against the clock,” Jean-Pierre says. “Unfortunately, many eligible veterans die every day.”

Any Connecticut veterans who may be eligible for the honor — or their relatives — should email jpl106897@gmail.com, or call him at 203-862-7373 or 203-635-3117.

Bonne chance! Et merci!

 

Tracy Sugarman: From D-Day To Today

As a junior at Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts, Tracy Sugarman had a great time.  He was on the lacrosse team, was dating a wonderful woman named June — “it was all Joe College,” he says.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The next day, Tracy and a fraternity brother took a bus to Buffalo.  When they returned to campus, they were in the Navy Reserve.

He was allowed to finish school.  But 2 days after graduation — May 13, 1943 — Tracy headed to midshipman’s training at Notre Dame.

Tracy Sugarman

Within the next 4 months he married June, became an officer, trained crews in Maryland for D-Day, then headed overseas for more training along the coast.

“We kept ‘invading’ England,'” Tracy recalls.  “Then one day, it was time to invade France.”

June 6, 1944 was “extraordinary,” says Tracy.  “There were 3,000 planes, and 3,000 ships — as far as the eye could see.”

The day was sunny, but the seas rough.  They circled until 3 p.m.  Everyone was seasick.  As an officer, Tracy had to pretend he was fine.

“Finally we hit the beach,” he says.  “It was just awful.

“It was noisy.  It was smoky.  Ships were blowing up.  There were bodies in the water.”

Tracy made his was through the maze of iron.  He kissed the ground, then returned to the assembly area.

He spent the next 6 months unloading ships, working with troops, ammunition and hospitals.

Among Tracy Sugarman's many books is "My War" -- a collection of letters and drawings he sent home to his wife June, from overseas.

Finally — with the ports secured — he helped 2 other officers close up Utah Beach.  He went back to England.

On April 12, 1945 he had to announce to his ship that Franklin Roosevelt had died.  Most of the sailors had never known another president.

“I was 23,” Tracy says.  “I took 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds to the D-Day beach.  They looked at me — the ‘old man’ — to take care of them.”

That’s a theme he’ll return to on Memorial Day.  As grand marshal of Westport’s parade, Tracy Sugarman will give a keynote address across from Town Hall.  If you’ve never stuck around for the event — shame on you.  This year in particular, it’s a speech you should hear.

“We send kids to war,” Tracy will emphasize.  “It’s not John Wayne.  It’s kids, like those in Staples right now.”

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy is honored to be chosen as grand marshal.  “I’ve marched in the past with my son’s Boy Scout troops. During Vietnam, I marched wearing a black armband.”

Tracy calls Westport’s Memorial Day parade “a great community event.  I love it.  Kids show themselves off — and then everyone gathers around the statue” at the park across from Town Hall.

There are 1,650 names of Westporters from World War II on the honor roll there.  Another 250 served in World War I.

“That’s very impressive,” Tracy says.  “A lot of people paid a lot of dues.”

At 89 — and a Westport artist and author for 61 years — Tracy laughs that the military hat, shirt and pants he’ll wear will be “too tight.”  Maybe, he says, “my voice will be too.”

But his children, grandchildren and friends will come hear him speak.  Hundreds of Westporters will follow the parade to the park, to hear him too.

“I take the day seriously,” he says.  “It’s a time for looking backward — and then forward.”

With — thanks to Tracy Sugarman — a message that is timeless.