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79 years after Pearl Harbor, ‘Greatest Generation’ couple recall life in wartime

An aerial view of salvage operations on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy/Released)

Ben and Gloria Poppa of Dayton, Ohio, met on a blind date in 1941; he was going on 21, she was almost 18. He was making payments on a brand new 1940 Plymouth, sticker price $930. She worked at a paint shop. He assembled blower wheels.

They were leaving the bowling alley late on the evening of December 7, 1941, when they heard people outside, even at that hour, shouting “Pearl Harbor’s been bombed! Pearl Harbor’s been bombed!”

Ben fiddled with the radio, tuning this way and that, but all he could get was static fuzz. Still, in that instant, both knew the world had shifted.

Japan’s sneak attack on Hawaii 79 years ago would drag the young couple into a global drama upon which the fate of democracy pivoted. By time World War II ended, 16,112,566 Americans, including 350,000 women, had served in uniform. 405,399 died overseas, 671,278 were wounded, 130,201 became prisoners of war. More than 5 million women entered the workforce to build the war machinery that secured the victory.

And a nation mired in a Great Depression just a decade earlier emerged into what became known as “the American century.”

Ben and Gloria were on the ground floor back then, and they didn’t know it.

Ben had been driving his father’s truck since age 12, dropping dad off at his roofing jobs before gathering goose eggs at a country stream for food. The Depression would force him to leave the eighth grade for a job in order to help with family finances. He rewarded himself with a new car. When he started dating Gloria, they spent hours driving the rural hills outside of town.

After Pearl Harbor, Ben hoped the military wouldn’t take him. He had bad eyesight, and wore glasses. But if they insisted on pursuing him, he didn’t want a desk job. As a kid, he hunted rabbits with a .22. He wanted a gun. Or, better yet, artillery. “I wanted to shoot big guns and see where they landed.”

Before they got hitched on May 9, 1942, expecting the worst, Gloria had one request: “Make sure you have (the car) paid off before we get married.” And he did.

They drove to the Dayton bus station in July, where the Army draftee was bound for Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. Ben gets a little teary-eyed when recalling the farewell scene. Gloria is a bit more droll:

“I forgot all about him because I had to drive the car home and I’d never driven into town before, and that was an experience. The next day, I drove to work at the paint company and everybody was looking at me through the window. It took me three times to park. But I never had any trouble after that.”

Things were going south for Ben. Instead of getting into the artillery or tank corps, he wound up in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he was trained to be a medic with the newly activated 23rd General Hospital. He knew nothing about medicine, or dealing with blood and guts.

After a year of learning the trade, his unit was dispatched to Casablanca, French Morocco, in 1943, where all was quiet. As the year ended, 23rd General Hospital left Algiers for the Italian port city of Naples.

“It looked like hell,” Ben recalls. “The Germans had left three days earlier and they destroyed everything. There wasn’t a building left standing. The harbor was full of sunken boats and we couldn’t get in there.”

Plan B was a landing in nearby Bagnoli, where the Americans waded ashore on Higgins boats. Engineers had swept the area for mines, but not thoroughly enough. Three members of his platoon were killed immediately and 10 more were wounded.

After the 23rd established their hospital in an abandoned building in Naples, Ben’s work included unloading ambulances packed with mangled soldiers and prepping them for more complicated surgeries. Enemy warplanes hit one of their facilities even though it was clearly delineated with a Red Cross emblem. He heard the Germans offered a letter of apology for that war crime.

Among the most surrealistic memories are the German air raids at night: “There were British outfits in the hills with these huge searchlights that swept the sky. A plane would come in and all those lights would start trying to find it, and when they did, they all started shooting, and you could see it getting hit and going down.”

Following the D-Day invasion in 1944, the 23rd would ship out to the port of Marseilles and relocate to Vittel in the French interior, where casualties from the Battle of the Bulge stacked up. Ben doesn’t go into great detail about what he saw.

What he does readily recall is a welcome transfer to maintenance/repair, where tending to plumbing issues was a more comfortable fit. Not to mention the pay hike that came with his promotion to corporal. He remembers working with POWs, and a particular incident when rubber washers were on short supply in Vittel’s Continental Hotel, their most spacious and accommodating hospital quarters of the war.

Unable to find a replacement, one of the Germans pointed to his shoe and, through a translator, suggested they fabricate a washer cut from leather. They did, and it worked, not only there, but with the hospital’s entire plumbing fixtures. That bit of improvisation would foreshadow Ben’s lucrative career back home in plumbing, which he pursued initially with the help of his father-in-law, then through the G.I. Bill. Gloria would tutor him in math on his way to earning a Master Plumber license.

Ben became part owner of the largest plumbing supply company in Dayton, with 87 plumbers and pipefitters on the payroll. He became a building contractor in Ohio, and brought his business to Sarasota after buying a Siesta Key cottage in 1974. With Gloria watching the books, his projects include the Boca Siesta condos on Siesta Key, Villa d’Este condos in Venice, and the big blue house on Siesta Key’s Tenacity Lane.

Looking back on the war, Ben is a lucky guy. He remembers the day of the land mines, when everybody was ordered to freeze and the one who triggered it had vanished and his buddy Walter was standing next to him — “‘Jeez, Walter, do you know you’re bleeding?’ A piece of shrapnel went clean through his leg” — and Ben didn’t have so much as a scratch.

What finally sent him home, in November 1945, was an attack of appendicitis in Paris, which required surgery.

“He goes all through the war and never got wounded,” says Gloria. “I’m the one who got wounded.”

Gloria had quit the paint factory to join the war effort, as a real-life Rosie the Riveter in an aircraft parts factory.

“They had this window with the sun shining through and it was blinding and I was using a drill press,” she says. “A piece of cardboard fell down and I grabbed it and I got my hand caught in the drill press.” She shows off the hand that tasted the blade. Another time, she came to work without a hairnet (she had just washed it) and her hair got caught up in the moving machinery. She ripped a chunk out by the roots before the rest of her could get reeled in.

“The guy next to me said, ‘All you said was ouch.’ And I’m just standing there holding this big patch of hair.”

He and Gloria went on to have six kids, 13 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. Ben celebrated his 100th birthday last month. The distance between today and Pearl Harbor is so astounding, Gloria can barely express it. “It’s like we had different lives.”

For Ben, what he had to do and what he had to see suddenly comes welling up through his eyes. He struggles to speak when he remembers the most important moment of his time in the Army. “May 8, 1945,” he says at last. He takes another breath, voice quivering. “It was the day Germany surrendered.”

As the Christmas tree lights glow in the living room behind them, daughter Susan comes around and lays a hand on her father’s shoulder.


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