On a Sunday morning in the autumn of 1944, Idaho native Ben Brooks settled into his foxhole in liberated Luxembourg to write a letter while the rest of his squad attended Mass.
A range-setter with the 457th Coast Artillery Battalion which had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day a few months prior, Brooks described what happened next as his “greatest experience in the Army.”
“I hear this voice, ‘Who’s in charge around here, son?’ ” Brooks, 90, said last month at his home near Manito Park. “And I raised up and looked out, and Christ, here’s three goddang stars.”
Brooks, a 21-year-old draftee who’d left a comfortable job in Seattle to train and fight in World War II, was staring back at Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of more than 1 million soldiers in the Allied push east to Berlin.
The meeting with, as Brooks described, the “first-class gentleman” who would later serve as the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is just one in a series of 70-year-old memories. Brooks recalled his trek from the beaches of Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge and all the way to Adolf Hitler’s chalet.
He remembers the hellish conditions at Omaha, one of the beaches Allied troops landed on in Nazi-occupied Europe 70 years ago today, made worse by the failure of flotation devices on minesweeping tanks. Thousands of wounded drowned as the tide rolled in, he said, trying to take the beach in boats so numerous “you could almost walk from deck-to-deck to England.”
An estimated 3,000 soldiers lost their lives taking the beach, and Brooks counts himself among the fortunate.
“When the gate came down, we were very lucky, because we were at high tide and we had gone over the mine ramps,” he said.
His squad had run out of ammunition and instead of picking up more, Brooks and his partner received hospital rations by mistake – canned peaches, bandages and coffee – which made them “the most popular guys on the beach for several days,” Brooks said. While preparing to push farther into France, Brooks and his team caught sight of the four commanders in charge of Allied troops in Europe: Gens. Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, Patrick Timberlake and George Patton, with whom Brooks was assigned for the land invasion.
“I’ll never forget that son of a gun,” Brooks said of Patton.
Assigned to protect Patton’s headquarters in Luxembourg from sneak attacks, Brooks’ outfit shot a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 out of the sky with one blow, he said. Patton was so tickled he gave the men a hot meal and a movie, roaring at their bawdy jokes, Brooks said.
Several months later, as the unit pushed across the Rhine River, that same anti-aircraft gun was in danger of falling off a pontoon bridge and efforts to save it were slowing down the crossing. Patton, in his usual boisterous way (Brooks says he was “raising hell”), told the men to cut it loose and let the gun sink.
Brooks said a friend of his from St. Maries with a big mouth piped up, telling the general he didn’t have a very good memory and reminding him the gun saved his hide in Luxembourg.
“We can’t dump that!” Brooks remembers the general exclaiming immediately. “Get some men on that!”
Some memories still bring fresh tears. Brooks and his squad were behind enemy lines in France hunting for fresh eggs when they were taken in for a bountiful dinner at a large farmhouse. On their way back, the men crossed paths with a German Panzer tank division and had to hide in an old cavalry barn. A German shepherd that had been with the group for several weeks wouldn’t stop barking, so they had to kill it, Brooks said.
“We couldn’t shut him up, so the gunner just whipped out his knife and cut his throat,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I cried for two days over that.”
Other losses were less sentimental but just as devastating. Brooks said he helped clear out Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest,” a home overlooking the Austrian border that was used as a retreat. During a sweep of the expansive home, Brooks took several golden doorknobs with him that he carried until the day he left Europe. But the bag he carried them in, which also contained an elaborate camera confiscated from a German citizen after the Nazis surrendered, was stolen as he got on the victory ship, he said.
“I didn’t give a hell of a lot about losing the camera, but I hated to get rid of those doorknobs,” Brooks said. “I would have put them on this house.”
Brooks returned home to Idaho and earned an economics degree at the University of Idaho. A few years later, he got a job at a Spokane investment bank that supported him, his wife Annette, and their children for more than three decades before his retirement.
The war memory that brings a sparkle to Brooks’ eye and still has him stand to attention and salute are those moments with Bradley by the foxhole in Luxembourg.
After the men talked for several minutes, Bradley asked Brooks if there was anything his company needed. Brooks listed medical supplies and food, which Bradley promised to provide. A few days later a truck arrived carrying the goods, with Brooks’ name painted on the side.
Before Bradley left Brooks in the foxhole, he asked one more time if there was anything he could do for the corporal. Brooks said he swallowed his fear and gave the three-star general an order.
“I said, ‘Get your ass back to Eagle before a sniper takes you out,’ ” Brooks remembers, referring to the guarded headquarters up the road. “He stood up, gave me the best salute I’ve ever had in my life, and he said, ‘Thank you, son, that’s an order I believe I can handle.’ ”