After five months of U.S Army training, Gaetano Benza, a 19-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, was loaded onto a ship and sent on an 11-day voyage across the Atlantic. Five thousand troops were aboard, and the captain changed the ship’s course slightly every seven minutes to avoid being torpedoed by German submarines. It was 1944.
They landed in Scotland, and a few days later, on June 6, Benza was loaded into a smaller, amphibious landing boat, this time headed across the English Channel directly into battle on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. He had a steel helmet and an M1 rifle, which he held above his head when he jumped into the chest-deep water, under fire from Germans. Oh God, he said to himself. Please, God.
Some 5,400 miles away, the small gambling town of Las Vegas was growing rapidly as a direct result of World War II. Senator Pat McCarran had worked to bring new military installations to Nevada, and demand for metals fueled the mining industry. Las Vegas’ population grew from fewer than 9,000 when the war started to more than 24,000 by 1950. On that day in 1944, nuclear bombs had yet to be tested in the desert north of Las Vegas, and the United States had yet to decide to use such bombs on Japan to end the war.
Moreover, Benza had no way of knowing then, as he prayed and fought, that he’d even survive—much less end up spending 50 years of his life in Las Vegas. He could’ve never imagined, he says, that decades later he’d walk into public schools and tell Las Vegas kids, “I am history. I am going to teach you.”
On D-Day, barely more than a kid himself, he had nothing but survival on his mind—his own, and that of others facing Hitler’s forces. “I just crawled on that beach and up the dunes, and we dug foxholes,” Benza, 89, says. He lived in those 3-foot-deep foxholes for four months, running back and forth to the amphibious boats to transport munitions and other supplies from larger ships. His voice still quavers when he talks about the constant sound of gunfire and explosions, and he remembers on more than one occasion saying, “Goodbye mama, goodbye papa,” when he was sure he was going to die. “But we knew one thing,” he says. “We had to get rid of a tyrant.”
The Allied forces’ invasion of Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in history. More than 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel that day, and more than 10,000 were injured and 4,000 confirmed dead. The Germans lost 1,000 soldiers. Still, the invasion is widely considered to have marked the beginning of the end for Hitler’s forces, and remains one of the fiercest, most difficult battles in history.
It’s also a piece of history that Benza feels passionate about, and one that he wants younger generations to remember. “I am so proud I was there,” he says. “People today don’t know as much about history, but they need to.”
After the war, he returned to New York for several years, and then moved to Las Vegas to get divorced in the 1960s. (“It was much easier to do here,” he says.)
“Las Vegas was an up-and-coming place then,” Benza says. He loved the newly bustling town that had evolved in part thanks to WWII, and so he stayed. He’s still working as a barber three days a week at a local barbershop.
On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, Benza is headed back to Normandy to tour the site, and his message about D-Day, and life, is one of defying the odds, and of keeping a fighting spirit.
“I still feel good,” he says with a laugh. “You probably won’t believe this, but I’ve never in my life drank alcohol or smoked. I don’t look 89. I can jump up and down. That’s part of what I tell school kids, too—how to live this long. Take care of yourself.
“You want to fight with me? Come on, come on, I’m ready.”