WEDOWEE — Out front of his house is a gathering of knockout roses. Crimson in their splendor, they are a welcome to another quiet spring along the ridges of Randolph County.
“Those belong to Ralph,” says Syble Benefield.
On my way out the door, William Ralph Benefield bends and gently touches the roses.
Benefield is now in his 92nd year and the gentle sun of a lovely day is a long way from a dark ditch along the Saar River in the wintertime of 1945.
That a boy from Randolph County is going about the business of another combat commendation, this one a Bronze Star, is a long, long way from his mind. Of more immediate concern, is getting out of the ditch, away from the river, and back to his unit.
“We had stumbled into a bunch of Germans, but got through. I was asked to take a couple of men and scout out the river, about two miles away.
“It was the darkest night that had ever been and when we got down there, just outside this little village, we ran into a German machine gun nest. When we saw black helmets coming out we knew we were in trouble.”
The Germans had the most trouble. The three young soldiers took care of the machine gun nest, took a couple of prisoners.
“I sent them back with the others and went up a hill to see what was on the other side.”
That’s when he ran into a lone SS trooper.
“He had a machine gun, I had an M-1. He shot at me, I shot at him.”
The German soldier lost, the American soldier won.
In telling the story, emotion halted a faltering telling at times. It is just in recent years that William Ralph Benefield has been able to talk about those war years. Most men, if not all, who have walked with sudden death, are reluctant to talk about it ... even after all these years.
Of the Methodist faith since he was eight years old, Benefield brings those deadly times into a couple of thoughts, both as old as faith and war.
“No, I never lost my faith.”
“There are no atheists in a foxhole.”
There is a story in the latter ...
“We had been in a little battle and Patton (General George S.) showed up and said ‘Well, you got your nose bloodied a bit. Now you’re ready to fight.’
“That night we had a religious service in an old schoolhouse. Every person in our unit attended the service except two people.”
It is worth mentioning here that when his unit shipped out of New York to Europe, there were 60-plus members. There is a hush in his voice with ...
“Only 13 of us came home.”
A great adventure?
“It might not have been for everybody. The way I looked at it was we went over there to do a job, get the job done, and get home.”
Then, in a quiet moment of reflection ...
“Men in government start wars, young men fight wars. But it can’t be any other way. Old men just wouldn’t do some of the things a young man will do. Young men will follow you, old men wouldn’t.”
“That was the last war we fought to win. That was our last honorable war.”
The years since have been good.
There was a 70-year marriage to Sara Zell Burdette. She passed away two years ago and there is a new lady in the house, the former Syble Stephens. She has been Mrs. Benefield for six months, but it is born of a friendship that goes back years.
It is a union rooted in their church, First United Methodist of Wedowee. It is where he has served in just about every capacity except pastor. And, with a quiet smile toward Syble ...
“We sang in the choir together.”
It is worth noting that their marriage came at the end of a Sunday service at their church.
Except for support from a walker and a slight loss of hearing, the health is fine.
So are the memories, all except those dark ones from 129 days in combat in a great war that gave birth, in many respects, to The Greatest Generation.
William Ralph Benefield went into France across the beaches of Normandy, shortly after D-Day and, from Brokaw, there is this on a visit there:
“There on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of those ordinary people whose lives were laced with the making of greatness."
There is an echo of Brokaw’s words from the late Ernie Pyle, famed World War II correspondent:
“War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.”
My visit with Benefield was long, space dictates that this be short. There is so much more, but I hope you have enjoyed this morning’s visit with just one small piece of that greatness.
George Smith can be reached at 256-239-5286 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org