The Soldier and the Teacher: A True WWII Love Story for Valentine’s Day

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Hilda’s Photo, stained with the blood of her sweetheart-soldier

Blood stains obscure the top half of this photograph of my grandmother, because it was in the shirt-pocket of her sweetheart, Ben, when his tank was shelled in battle during World War II. Below is the true story that accompanies this precious blood-stained photo, a treasured memory in my family’s history:

~ The Sweethearts ~

He was a soldier, stationed at Fort Dix. She was a schoolteacher who boarded with a family in nearby Riverton, N.J.

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Hilda’s Sweetheart: Ben Bainbridge

Fort Dix was a soldier’s “last stop” before heading overseas, so area community centers hosted dances, meals, and coffees for “the boys.” Like many residents in the area, my grandmother volunteered to help out.

When New Jersey native Hilda Grob showed up for her first night as a volunteer at the Fort Dix community center one night in the Spring of 1942, she met a red-haired soldier from rural Idaho.

His name was Ben Bainbridge.

“He had a western twang and even danced different–more of a stomp than the smooth waltz” Hilda later told her children. She loved listening to Ben’s stories about life in the west. Ben had endured a hardscrabble existence, moving from farm to logging camp to farm again as he worked to eke out a living with a single father who had lost a leg in a logging accident. Ben didn’t have more than an eighth grade education, but he was a smart man; he had skipped entire grades in his childhood, and was now focusing his energies on the war; he even lied about his age in order to enlist early.
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At the end of that first dance when Ben and Hilda met, Ben walked her to the bus. Every night afterwards, he hitchhiked to nearby Riverton to call on Hilda, with the approval of her landlords and chaperons, the Garwood family. On Ben’s final visit to Hilda before deployment, he stayed out past curfew and had to sneak back into the barracks. After only knowing her for three weeks, Ben proposed marriage to Hilda, and she accepted. But there was one condition: no marriage until after the war. Although she did want to marry him right away, Hilda couldn’t bear the thought of being widowed by the war.

Ben shipped out soon after their engagement.

~ The Attack ~

SUCCESS! Newspaper clipping detailing the success of Ben’s division in Italy

Just before D-Day in Anzio, Italy, Ben wasn’t supposed to be driving tank. He had recently amassed enough time to leave on furlough, so the night before a planned attack on the Germans, Ben’s captain had told him to take some time off–to go spend three days stateside. But Ben didn’t want a fresh recruit driving his tank that day–the other three members of his tank crew were his close friends, so he volunteered to drive them into an attack on the Germans in Velletri.

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Ben and his tank

That day in early June of 1944, Ben’s tank was hit by a 88mm shell during the action in Velletri, killing both the assistant driver and gunner, Ben’s close friends.

Ben managed to pull himself from the wreckage. His tank commander escaped, too. Ben was blinded by blood in his eyes from an injury somewhere to his head, he wasn’t sure where at the time, but he later discovered an eyelid had been partially severed by shrapnel.

As Ben and his tank commander left the destroyed tank with their dead comrades inside,  they came upon a nest of Germans in a foxhole.

The Germans threw a grenade that killed Ben’s commander instantly. Something had prompted Ben to duck just before the grenade hit, so the explosion knocked his helmet off, but he survived. Had he been standing, Ben would have died with his commander when the grenade struck.

Now, however, in the wake of this close grenade attack, Ben suddenly found himself on the ground and too injured to stand. He tried crawling away from the Germans, but was blinded by blood and barely able to crawl. A deep trench flanking his right side threatened to swallow him up each time he put weight on his right arm. No matter where he turned, however, the trench was always there–always on his right side–making it impossible to crawl faster.

That was when he realized–there was no trench.

Ben’s arm had been blown off in the grenade attack.

That’s why it felt like there was a trench beneath him.

Blood poured from Ben’s arm and he didn’t have long to act before he bled to death, so he waved a white flag of surrender. The Germans took him into custody and placed him inside the basement of what used to be a house. They bandaged his arm with a tourniquet and actually saved his life with that act by slowing the flow of blood.

A little more than an hour later, the American infantry arrived and surrounded the small house occupied by the Germans, rescuing Ben in the process. Had those Germans not tended to his wound, Ben likely would not have survived the hour (or was it hours? He was never clear on that point) that he might have spent bleeding out in their captivity.

~ The “Cripple” ~

Historic postcard of Lawson General Hospital (for amputees, among others) in Atlanta, GA. This is where the “Suitcase Incident” occurred between Ben and Hilda

Sent back to the US for medical care and additional surgery, Ben was devastated by his injury. Surely Hilda would call off the engagement, he thought. Doubtless recalling his own father–whom his mother divorced after he’d been disfigured by a logging accident–Ben just knew that Hilda would want nothing to do with him now.

At the Army hospital in Atlanta, Hilda did come to visit Ben, but he was sullen and anxious, bracing himself for the news she was surely there to bring him: that their engagement was over.

When Hilda met Ben as he prepared to check out of the hospital, they embraced. She then placed her suitcase on the ground and waited, typical of young ladies at the time who expected their “fellas” to carry such burdens for them. This made Ben angry.

“Why did she just leave her suitcase in front of me like that,” he wondered. “Can’t she see I’m a cripple?” [Ben’s word for a disabled person]

Hilda’s next action was even more shocking–

As Ben struggled to heft Hilda’s suitcase with one arm on a recently unbalanced and sick-starved thin body, Hilda stopped at the entrance to the hospital and waited. Ladies often stopped at doors back then, expecting the gentlemen nearby to open the door for them. But how was Ben supposed to open that door for her while holding a suitcase with just one arm?

Frustrated but undaunted, Ben strained himself as he put down the suitcase, opened the door for Hilda, kept it open with his injured shoulder/stump, then reached back for the suitcase again. He struggled to keep the door open, see Hilda safely though, and get himself through the door without dropping that suitcase.

But it was then, in the sweat and frustration of that grueling moment, that Ben began to understand what was happening–

ben-and-hilda-on-double-date“She’s not treating me like a cripple.”

Ben shared this realization with the future generations of his family as homage to the amazing Hilda, whose egalitarian treatment made him feel like a man again.

By dropping her suitcase and expecting Ben to open doors for her, Hilda showed Ben that she still saw him as a capable, strong, chivalrous man. She was sending the message that she had no plans to break off their engagement; she still wanted to marry her war hero!

Hilda made good on her pre-war promise and married Ben. She then left her home in New Jersey and followed him to his home in Idaho–a foreign land to her, but a place that she would call home for the rest of her life, despite painful homesickness for her home back east. With time, she grew to love the forested, mountain views of this new home as much as she loved the soldier boy who had stolen her heart.

Ben and Hilda raised five children, and one of them later brought me into this world.

So this Valentine’s day, I am remembering a valiant war hero, the faithful young woman who married him despite what some might call “disability,” and the life they shared together until Grandma Hilda’s death in 1988.

Ben worked blue collar jobs full-time until retirement, and never acted “disabled,” thanks to Hilda’s refusal to see him as such. He soldered their wedding bands together after Hilda’s death, then wore them around his neck every day. He joined Hilda “on the other side” in 2011.

I love you and miss you, Grandma and Grandpa!

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Ben and Hilda’s wedding day; look closely and you will see his prosthetic hand. I never saw him wear it, though. He ditched it in his later years and learned to live just fine with his one arm, because his wife made him feel whole without it.

Sweet Serendipities:

~ Ben’s dad lost a limb then lost his wife; Ben lost a limb but gained a wife. His story is one of triumph in the same situation!

~ I was later called to serve a mission for my church to Italy, where my grandfather lost his arm.

~ I chose May 1st as my wedding date, before ever seeing the date on my grandfather’s fateful dance ticket (posted above).

~ I had forgotten Grandpa’s hospital was in Atlanta, yet my mom was just in Atlanta this week (visiting friends-so-close-we-call-them-relatives), so maybe her trip caused Grandpa and Grandma to relive some precious memories together. Could they be the ones who prompted me to write this blog post today?

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Patients at Lawson General Hospital (Atlanta, GA), circa 1944 (summer)

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P.S. here is a picture of some patients at Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta that year. How I wish I knew who they were–please share this post in cyberspace, and maybe we can pass it on to some of their descendants:

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