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Tested under fire

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | August 24, 2020 1:09 AM

Leo Benoit of Cd’A, 93, recounts serving in World War II

COEUR d’ALENE — When Leo Benoit talks about what he saw in World War II as a member of the U.S. Army, what he and others went through at D-Day and beyond, there is a word he repeats often.

Horrible.

“It was a horrible thing. You can’t believe it.”

“It was horrible living.”

“It was horrible.”

You get the idea.

But as the Coeur d’Alene man sits in the living room of his cozy two-bedroom apartment packed with pictures and reminders of the past, he is in good spirits. He smiles every now and then, laughs, as he talks about war, survival, old age.

“When I was young, I could pick up a 200-pound man like he was a toy,” Benoit said. “Now, I can’t pick up …”

His voice tails off as he grabs his phone on the table.

“I can’t believe how you could lose all that. Look at these little arms I have now,” he said.

Actually, at 93 and soon to turn 94, Benoit seems strong and solid. His hearing isn’t so good, and getting around is difficult, as he has a bad knee that needs an operation.

“He won’t go to the doctor,” said Lillian Lind, his partner of about 15 years. “The doctor told him he might be in a wheelchair if he has surgery — it just scared the heck out of him.”

Scared is not a word often associated with Benoit. His has been a life of overcoming challenges, of being brave under fire, of standing tall in times of trial.

Benoit, a French Canadian, wants to talk about his life and uses colorful language when doing so. He admits he might have “a little problem remembering all of this.”

“I keep forgetting a lot,” he said.

But he tries, anyway.

He was a kid, maybe 100 pounds, when he said his father kicked him out of their Connecticut home.

“If they couldn’t feed you, they couldn’t clothe you, they kicked the boys out,” he said, as if reciting a math equation.

He made his way to New York. He had his birth certificate and 50 cents in his pocket. That was it.

Since he needed work, he made the rounds to different union halls. He was not greeted with hugs.

“Get out of here you little punk bastard,” Benoit said, recalling what he was told. “Poor white boy, you’re trash,” he added of how others saw him.

He persevered and ended up as cabin boy on a cruise ship, earning $1 a month, a place to sleep and three meals a day.

Life was good, he said, until Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and not long after, Norway.

Benoit was on a Norwegian ship bound for Oslo when a German U-boat surfaced, he said, and signaled them to stop.

The captain of the U-boat announced they were going to sink the cruise ship, but gave passengers and crew time to get off.

“We didn’t even know we was at war,” Benoit said.

They were lowered into lifeboats and rowed away. The U-boat passed so close he could see the large white circle with a swastika. The captain saluted them.

“I thought they were going to shoot us,” he said.

They didn’t, but they sank that cruise ship. Benoit and others floated around for about 30 hours before being picked up, he said.

He worked as a merchant seaman when he returned to the U.S. and was a teenager when he joined the Army.

His division was assigned to Omaha Beach as part of D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.

He recalled the seas were bad and that conditions off Normandy were “treacherous.”

Then, he weighed about 135 pounds, was carrying a Browning rifle that was 24 pounds, 10 clips of ammunition, four hand grenades and a gas mask.

When the troop transport he was on neared the beach, the hatch opened and soldiers charged out, often into water over their heads. The fighting was fierce, and the German defense was stronger than expected. America suffered heavy casualties.

“The firepower was so tremendous,” he said.

Benoit paused. He was about 18 at the time.

“I was — a baby boy,” he said.

Benoit recalled that a Ranger division, men weighed down with gear, began scaling cliffs while under fire.

“So they were going up, some were shot right there. Some were captured. There were only about 18 or 20 or 30 that actually got to the top,” he said.

At one point, an explosion sent shrapnel into his face.

“They wiped it with a dirty rag and said, “You’re good to go.”

So he went.

“We lost 2,000 men that day,” he said. “It was horrible. You believe it.”

Then came the hedgerows, with high bluffs and shrubs and German soldiers. Tanks couldn’t maneuver well, so the men were often out in the open, in front, beside and behind tanks. Benoit was shot in the hand, but pushed on.

As troops advanced toward Paris, he recalled that one morning, the fog lifted, the sun came up and the U.S. Air Force roared in and unleashed what he called hell on the enemy.

“We were fought all the way through Germany until the end of the war,” he said. “The Germans were good fighters, right up until the end when they were running out of ammo.”

He survived 14 months of combat with the Third Army division under Gen. George Patton.

“Without him we couldn’t have done it,” Benoit said.

The horrors of war weren’t over, even when the fighting ended.

Benoit eventually arrived at Dachau, a German concentration camp. He was shaken by what he saw.

“It was terrible,” he said.

He was a guard at the Nuremberg Trials, and also served as a demolition man for the Army, “because we needed a lot of this stuff blown up.”

“I hated that ammonium nitrate,” he said. “It was too dangerous. I liked the plastics. I could do anything with the plastics.”

All told, he served with the Army from 1944 to 1947.

“I’m not looking for gratitude. It’s just that I did do it. Looking back, I’m glad I did it,” Benoit said.

The first thing he did when he returned home was join the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

He worked as a carpenter and was a strong union man. He traveled the world, became a fine fisherman, bowler and trap shooter.

“So I lived my life,” he said.

He has the battle scars to prove it.

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BILL BULEY/Press Leo Benoit of Coeur d'Alene is proud of his military service during and after World War II.