Tuesday, July 2, 2024

D-Day's Hometown Hero


Even today, 45 years after his passing, John Wayne remains an American icon, recognized across generations. The charismatic tough guy left on indelible impact on audiences and popular culture.


One would think that if he took on a role portraying a local person, that individual would, like Wayne, be something of a household name in these parts.


Sadly, that’s not the case. 


If you ask your typical Niagara County resident who Benjamin “Vandy” Vandervoort is you’ll get a shoulder shrug. So few people know of him and what he did, even though Wayne took on a starring role as Vandervoort in the film the Longest Day. 


This week, upon the 80th anniversary of D-Day, let’s shine the spotlight on this decorated participant of that event (and others), a war hero who was born and raised right here in the County.


Vandervoort came into this world March 3, 1917 in Gasport and spent his formative years there before heading off to Washington College in Maryland. He enlisted in the Army in July of 1937 at the age of 20, more than four years before the US entered Would War II. 


In 1940, he was transferred to the newly-formed airborne division and quickly worked his way through the ranks due to his leadership and calm under pressure as a paratrooper. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on June 1st, 1944, just days before the Allied invasion. He was the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR – 600 men in total -- during the airborne landings in Normandy.


His landing in darkness early the morning of D-Day wasn’t a soft one -- he fractured his leg above the ankle. Rather than holding back and being evacuated, he pressed forward, wrapping his leg and using his rifle as a crutch until a French resident gave him a set of crutches.


He repaid her for her kindness by, despite the significant injury, leading the liberation of the village of Ste. Mère Eglise. Doing so was a remarkable task: Even with that injury which limited his mobility, he personally led his men against German columns that had far greater resources in terms of manpower and firepower. At the front line, he subjected himself to intense enemy rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Obviously inspired by his actions, his men were victorious in their critical part of the D-Day operations.


For that, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It wouldn’t be his last.


Upon healing his leg – well, at least the best he could in little time -- he went right back to the front. Just 3 months after D-Day, he participated in Operation Market Garden, which was immortalized in the film a Bridge Too Far. Then, three months after that, he took part in the Battle of the Bulge, which is where he earned his second Cross.  In what some considered a suicide mission at first, he led an effort that successfully secured highway and rail bridges. To make that happen, Vandervoort set-up at a forward and exposed position to personally supervise and coordinate the progress of the infantry and armored vehicles. His total disregard for his own safety made possible that victory. The risk assumed ended his battle career – an enemy mortar exploded near him and the shrapnel from the blast took one of his eyes. Although he could no longer fight, he spent the rest of his life in service to his country in the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency.  


Over the course of his magnificent military career his awarded those two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Bronze Star with “V” for valor, and three Purple Hearts. In the early ’90s, the United States Army Center for Leadership selected a colonel or lieutenant colonel to recognize from every American War. Vandervoort was selected as the outstanding ground battle commander for all of World War II.


It’s no wonder why Charlton Heston fought hard to secure the acting role that ultimately become John Wayne’s -- Hollywood’s biggest names wanted to be Benjamin Vandervoort. 


Vandervoort died in 1990 in Hilton Head, South Carolina. At the time of his passing his neighbors there were surprised by his accomplishments because he never spoke of what he did. He wasn’t one to boast, and if the topic of the Second World War came up he cited the accomplishments and sacrifices of his men, not his.


He flew under the radar in those later years. And, that’s what has happened to him here, in Niagara County, his place of birth, the place that provided the foundation for his incredible courage and leadership.


This week, as you think of D-Day, think of Vandervoort and afford him the acclaim and respect he has long deserved here in his hometown. He was a hero for his generation and he should be for this generation and many others to come, a defining symbol of the greatness that can come from a small town. 


From the 06 June 2024 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Wellsville Sun

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