CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
William Bennert was born in Irvington, New Jersey, in May 1920. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he was working as a trainee for an insurance company in Newark, New Jersey. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, jobs were hard to come by. Bennert enjoyed his work even though it was difficult. He recalled that the war in Europe was not discussed much by his friends and family, yet he did once hear a Hitler rant on the radio, which infuriated him.
Bennert, believing American participation in the war was inevitable, decided to enter the naval reserves; but, since the enlistment process was not moving along fast enough, he switched to the New Jersey National Guard’s 102nd Cavalry Regiment, also known as the Essex Troop, and joined that organization’s Second Squadron, stationed in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1940. At the time, the 102nd was still a horse-mounted unit. He was assigned to the machine gun troop and then the service troop. In January 1941, the regiment was activated and sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for one year of training,
On December 7, 1941, Bennert was playing football at Fort Jackson. The base was immediately placed on high alert following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The one year of training was subsequently extended to service for the duration of the war. In April 1942, the 102nd had its last remaining horse troop converted to a light armor unit equipped with armored cars and other vehicles, including “Bantams” an early name for the Jeep.
In September 1942, the 102nd was shipped to the United Kingdom. Bennert developed great admiration for the British people for their resilience during the German air raids of the Battle of Britain. In December, the Second Squadron was detached from the 102nd Regiment, assigned to be the security detachment of Allied Force Headquarters (AFH) and issued all new equipment. On December 24, the squadron left Glasgow, Scotland, by ship to North Africa. Bennert recalled that his time on the transport ship was a miserable experience; he was aboard for 18 days and only had cheese sandwiches to eat.
Following arrival in Algiers, Bennert, now a sergeant, was assigned to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s security detail. He remembered the duty as kind of boring, with occasional excitement provided by an enemy air raid; although, he had the privilege of speaking with General Eisenhower in person on occasion. Bennert liked Ike, who handed out leftover candy rations to local children. He was not so fond of General Patton.
The AFH later moved to Tunis, and Sergeant Bennert remembered enjoying his time there, as he was able to watch movies at the airfield and, when off duty during the day, could swim in the bay. He met political celebrities of the era, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the king of England and President Jan Smuts of South Africa, when he was assigned as a driver during troop reviews. Bennert treated the local natives with suspicion, however, after being told he was not allowed to look at their women.
In November 1943, the Second Squadron was reorganized and renamed as the 117th Cavalry Squadron Reconnaissance (Mechanized). It continued to escort and provide security for dignitaries. On one occasion, they made a 1,000-mile forced march to Marrakech, French Morocco, to provide security for President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, who were meeting at Casablanca with French General Charles De Gaulle.
On returning from Morocco, the 117th received training for service in Italy. In April 1944, the squadron boarded Liberty ships for Naples, where they joined the Fifth Army in early May. The squadron was among the first American units to enter Rome, and Bennert remembered driving past the Colosseum. Moving north beyond the Italian capital, he recalled that the terrain became very mountainous and hard to drive through. During the advance, Bennert lost three tanks: one to an anti-tank gun, another to a mine and a third that got bogged down in a stream during a German counterattack. The Allied offensive ground on, but slowly, and the 117th reached Siena, where it encountered stiff resistance, but the Germans retreated.
At the end of June, the 117th was ordered back to Naples, where the American army was preparing for “Operation Anvil-Dragoon”- the invasion of southern France. On August 15, the squadron landed at Saint-Tropez. Unlike Normandy, this invasion went smoothly. Bennert recalled that the treads of his Stuart tank didn’t even get wet. The invasion was a success, and the Allies drove north and fanned out, pushing into Alsace. German soldiers who surrendered only did so to American or British units, as they feared that the Free French or French irregulars would kill them in revenge, which happened often.
Bennert was still a sergeant at the outset of Operation Anvil-Dragoon, but he received a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant in the infantry. He then was assigned as a forward observer for the cannon company of the Third Infantry Division’s Fifteenth Infantry Regiment. Infantry Cannon companies were armed with the M3 howitzer, a short-barreled 105mm gun originally developed for airborne troops. While serving in this position, Bennert had the good fortune to meet Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World war II.
Near the end of the war, Bennert was ordered to the city of Nantes to meet with a colonel, who advised him that he was able to rotate back to the United States, as he had spent so much time overseas and in combat. He accepted the offer to go home; and, before he left, he visited his brother who served in France too then, in an artillery battery. Lieutenant Bennert’s unit threw him a “going home party” and he was presented with a captured German saddle as a gift. He shipped out thirty days before the formal end of the war in Europe.
Initially assigned to Fort Dix, Bennert was transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he was stationed until the end of the war. In the postwar years, he helped reorganize the 102nd Cavalry in the National Guard and served as the unit’s S-2 and S-3 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
William Bennert, who was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device, married and had children, who used his German saddle on the swing set in the family’s back yard! At the time of his interview, he and his wife Rose Marie lived in Daphne, Alabama.
William Bennert died in Fairhope, AL, on June 14, 2003.