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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)