With a heavy heart: WWII veteran receives overdue honor
CRESTON, Iowa — Under the cover of darkness and white bedsheets to blend in with the deep snow drifts, Alvin "Red" Benson and other American soldiers navigated their way toward a train depot in February 1945.
The objective was to provide aid and support for another group of American soldiers — the 42nd Rainbow Division — that was under heavy pressure from German troops and could not safely leave their fox holes.
"They took us to stop the Germans," Benson said. "They had run all over the 42nd."
Benson and other soldiers made their way across a river and a large meadow that had a thick line of trees on both sides. Some troops set up in the tree line across from the German position while Benson and others continued to the train depot.
"The first one to get there was supposed to holler 'eureka' and then fall back," Benson said. "I was the first one there. I hollered and we all came back."
The location of the shout confused German troops and helped alleviate the 42nd Rainbow Division's position, but the Germans were able to fire in Benson's direction as he fell back to the tree line across the meadow.
"They shelled it with artillery," Benson said. "I don't remember how long they shelled it."
One blast, just to Benson's left, killed one and wounded three others, including Benson.
"That's when I got shrapnel right there (above his left eye)," Benson said. "They told me if it had been the size of a pea, I wouldn't be here today."
A day or two later, paperwork was filed to award two soldiers with medals and for Benson to receive his purple heart for being wounded.
The two soldiers received their medals, but no one came to pin Benson's purple heart.
Almost 70 years later, Benson, 93, is finally going to receive the honor he earned fighting in World War II during a pinning ceremony with family, friends and fellow veterans at Prairie View Assisted Living 1 p.m. today.
When Benson enlisted for service at the age of 22, it was for an Army medic position at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark. He was never trained for combat or fired a weapon.
He was deployed to Algeria in 1943 to serve as a laboratory technician with the 70th General Hospital in Oran.
After working in the hospital that was near capacity almost every day, Benson and a friend asked for a day pass to the city of Oran.
They say a flyer asking for volunteer paratroopers and signed up. Two weeks later, they were in the mountains of Italy training.
Benson and the 101st Airborne Division was transferred to Marseilles, France and then to Bastogne, France, just before a major German offensive attack later named Battle of the Bulge.
"When we got done qualifying for the paratroopers, they took us out on a range and shoved a gun in our hands," Benson said. "I hadn't had a gun in my hand for about two years."
Despite the lack of practice, Benson earned a medal as a sharpshooter.
"I wasn't in the Bulge until (General) Patton broke through," Benson said. "I was one of the first replacements with th 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. We were ready, but Patton took it. Now that was a man. He had them all beat."
From the Battle of the Bulge, Benson also had combat experience with Schutzstaffel (SS) troopers in the Austrian mountains near Hitler's hideout and close down a Jewish concentration camp.
After the war ended, Benson's unit went to Berlin, Germany. After some delay, he was finally discharged back to the United States.
Benson returned to Creston and worked on a farm. He married his wife Dorothy and raised a family. He served on the city council from 1996 to 1998.
After his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he left the council to provide care for her. She lost her battle with cancer in 2004.
More than a year ago, Benson's sister contacted Denny Abel and the VFW Post 1797 to inform the group that Benson had earned the purple heart, but never received it.
Union County Veteran Affairs Director Kevin Scadden started the leg work of contacting government officials and agencies to figure out if it was possible to get Benson his medal.
"The paperwork didn't get processed, but there were records of it," Abel said. "Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to go back and find it."
But it was unclear how long it would take for the correct paperwork to be approved or when the purple heart would be sent to Benson.
"I think he had almost given up," said Benson's daughter Pam Deardorff. "He had received a message that said these things just take a lot of time. He told me, 'Well, I guess you girls will get it someday.'"
Scadden, Abel and other veterans continued to research and make phone calls to help keep the approval process moving.
According to the US Veterans Administration, approximately 550 WWII veterans die every day. It is estimated by 2036, there will be no living WWII veterans to recount their experiences.
"He is very humbled by all of it," Abel said. "But I do think he wanted this (to receive his purple heart) before anything happened."
A small pinning ceremony was planned for Feb. 6, but poor weather conditions forced the event to be postponed. Benson had to add another week to his almost 70 year wait to have his medal pinned.
Despite Benson's anticipation to receive his purple heart, moving the event back a week allowed more of Benson's family to make the trip back to Iowa.
Benson — who also earned the Bronze Star for his service — inspired several family members to serve for their country. His grandson Eric Kuhns, a 1985 Creston High School graduate, retired as a master sergeant after 24 years of service.
By rescheduling the event, Benson's great-grandson, Brant Kuhns, was also able to ask for leave from the 1/509 Airborne Infantry Battalion D-TRP in Fort Polk, La.
During Kuhns' tour in Afghanistan, he sustained head and back injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) and was awarded the purple heart.
"He (Benson) was an inspiration for me," Kuhns said. "Of course, for me, it is great he is finally getting awarded what he has been waiting on for so long."
Kuhns now trains other units before they deploy for action in Afghanistan. He helps set up situations similar to what troops will be facing and how to handle any problems they will face.
"I'm really glad we will get to see family, and I am glad he is getting what he well deserves," Kuhns said.