Rotarian Edward L. Bentley Served in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II

By GasserOnline Correspondent, DR. ED JENKINS

Ed-Bentley-WWII-v3It was a surprise. Ed Bentley was ordered to report to Fort Riley, Kansas in full dress including white gloves and saber and be sworn in to the United States Army as a Second Lieutenant in the cavalry. As a cadet captain in the ROTC unit at the University of Illinois, Ed had been on the two-week summer exercises at Fort Sheridan where he had been asked to sign a number of papers. He does not recall signing enlistment papers. However, during the session the Colonel declared that the entire group would be activated within the year. These were the dark days of WWII. The Germans were overrunning Europe and winning in North Africa. It was 1940. Eighteen-year-old Bentley was sworn in as an Officer and a Gentleman by act of congress and was set to work training the new volunteers and draftees. Despite his youth, Ed had had significant experience in ROTC and was especially familiar with horsemanship. The United States was not yet at war. The peacetime army arose early, took care of their mounts, groomed and paraded, and trained in communications, gunnery, battle planning plus occasional troop maneuvers. Weekdays at 3 p.m., the officers were off to the Officers’ Club for relaxation and refreshment. Dinner required full dress uniform or tuxedo. On Sunday there was the early morning foxhunt followed by a champagne breakfast at the Club.

Occasionally the entire Battalion would leave the base for maneuvers. Louisiana was a favorite site for mock battles but the distance from Kansas required at least one stop to exercise the horses. Ed remembers the first trip, which included unloading the train of about 400 animals and the battalion of men. It was feeding and watering the horses, exercising and drilling and then on to Shreveport from Crosset, Kansas. One of the rest stops on the way to an Arizona war game was Tucumcari, New Mexico. This stop was a disaster. Unloading the horses from the box cars and cleaning them up in the heat earned the men a trip to town. The enlisted men were all in their lower 20s or still teenagers. Some carried arms and after imbibing on too much alcohol, they shot up the town.

Arriving at their destination, the Battalion found themselves deep in the dessert with an assignment to guard the border from possible enemy attack out of Mexico. Picket lines were set up as well as a stable and canvas tents for all necessary activity. Ed said that the 400 horses in the battalion made up three troops. The stables were attended by the stable sergeant and the men under him. The pomp and splendor of the notorious cavalry charge had long been outmoded. Horses were used exclusively for rapid transportation where other means of travel were absent.

Although Ed had no experience with horses prior to entering the University of Illinois, he was extremely capable after four years of ROTC. One day a batch of remounts purchased by the army came in from Nevada to be worked into their troop. One animal was particularly difficult to manage. Ed told his men not to worry. He would get the horse under control. Ed waved his men off as they tried to hold the horse’s head up for mounting. Then he grabbed the reins tightly and mounted. The horse immediately jerked his head down and threw Bentley into space.

Brushing himself off, Ed again told his men to stand back, and again he threw his leg over the saddle. With a mighty tug the horse’s head went down and with a mighty kick Ed went sailing into the air. On the third try Ed had his men hold the horse’s head up. He got saddled and thereafter everything went well. Ed states he was bucked off only one other time, when he was an early cadet.

June 1, 1940 was a memorable date.  Ed married his college sweetheart, Helen. A brand new 1940 Chevy was purchased for the occasion. Cost: $ 725. The couple rode in style back to Manhattan, Kansas. Another surprise: Lt. Bentley was enlisted under the Thomason Act, which specified that a voluntary single enlistee officer would receive $125 per month, considerably more than the usual stipend. However, once married, he was no longer eligible and the couple found they had a pay cut to $40 per month.

One Sunday while Ed and another officer friend were dosing after the lavish Sunday brunch, their wives came in excitedly announcing that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Neither officer knew where Pearl Harbor was located, but Ed jumped up and waved his saber around shouting that we will win the war in six months. The Army ordered Lt. Bentley to Troop Commander’s School at Fort Knox in 1942. The rest of the outfit was returned to Fort Riley where they learned that they were in the 9th Armored Division. All of their horses left the army. Ed declared he was not sorry to see them go. (Apparently the army was not the place to bond with your steed).

Bentley was now assigned command of one of the three combat units, each of which consisted of infantry, tanks, and field artillery and were named Company A (Ed’s), Company B, and the Reserves Company. Another maneuver took place in Polk, Louisiana. The folks of Polk were not unhappy to see the young warriors leave as their tanks tore up the roads and fields unmercifully.

Then there was another date to remember. On September 17, 1942, Helen delivered their first child, a daughter. Not long after, Helen suffered pains, weakness, and low grade fever at times. She was seen by the base medic who felt her problem was hysteria! Helen decided she would live with it, and continued this busy period with her new baby.  A great deal of time later, when it was discovered she had marked atrophy of her back muscles, it was felt that she had actually suffered from poliomyelitis. Ed felt that all of her lifting, bending, twisting and walking prevented any deformity as she never had a posture problem or other complications of this malady.

One episode Ed remembers with a grin was when he and an enlisted man were heading back to the base in a vehicle at high speed. Kansas was dry at that time (no alcohol allowed but apparently it was easily available). The State Police spotted their vehicle and before they could be pulled over, the enlisted man tossed out an unopened bottle of whiskey. They were stopped with only a warning and continued to their quarters. Chuckling, Ed said he returned later, found the bottle and kept it for good use.

In August 1944, the Division was pronounced ready for war! It was on to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where they embarked onto the Queen Mary. With orders for full speed ahead and no deviation, the troop ship arrived in the Firth of Clyde in 4 ½ days. Bentley learned later that one of these hurry-up troop ships rammed into an English cruiser and sank it.

On the ship, Bentley slept in a stateroom with ten other officers. The enlisted men slept in the bowels of the ship in canvas bunks attached three deep to the bulkhead. The smell of sweat, food cooking, fuel oil, plus the pitching and rolling of the vessel resulted in more than an occasional spell of nausea and vomiting. Many of the men elected to take their bedding and sleep on the open deck. Once they were moored, tenders (ship to shore boats) took them to solid land again and then by rail to Tidworth Barracks near Salisbury, England.

Then across the English Channel by LST (Land, Ship, Tank, amphibious) to the Normandy Beaches. By this date the shore was clear and clean, not like it was for the D-Day Landings. This Naval transport had the option of waiting for the proper tide and wind conditions. The Division unloaded the infantrymen and their newly obtained artillery and tanks.

It was France now. They were ordered to keep off the roads and camp along the hedgerows. The famous Red Ball express was in action. Two and one half trucks loaded with ammunition and supplies speeding to the front. General Patton was on his way to take Paris. Bentley’s Division was ordered to bypass Paris, but one day while parked at headquarters, Eisenhower’s favorite fighting General brushed right by the lowly Lt. Bentley. Then it was on through Belgium and on to Luxembourg.  Bentley saw the ruins of the towns the blitzkrieg had caused. Company A was ordered to take over a royal castle. The Prince was incarcerated for collaboration with the Germans, and the Princess was ordered to evacuate the premises. Ed was given the latter’s bedroom.

On reconnaissance in what was supposed to be a secured area, bombs began whistling overhead and exploding in a nearby field. It was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. This was also the period when the Germans were firing the infamous Buzz Bombs over to England. They would make a horrible noise until their fuel ran out, and then deathly silence with the expectation there would an imminent deadly explosion. These were intimidating despite their lack of ability to pin point a target. Bentley’s unit was ordered to shoot them down as they flew overhead. The castle’s towers would be the firing site. All recognized this as futile as the bombs were usually fired at night or on dark clouded days, making them invisible.

Ed managed to get along well with all except a very rare individual. One exception was a snooty, elitist, New York City society Major. He wanted outranked Bentley to furnish him with one of his men to be his valet to shine his boots, press his uniform etc. Ed refused. The Major stated he was his superior officer and these were orders. Angrily Ed told the New Yorker he could take his Major’s pin and shove it up where the sun don’t shine. The Major backed down and was not heard from again.

The Germans were attacking along a 100-mile front. Bentley’s Company A was assigned to hold the right shoulder of that line, which they did. The Reserve Company was overrun at Bastogne, a town in southeast Belgium, and Company B was unable to hold at Saint Vith. During this stress, Ed recalls total exhaustion. When there was a calm period, he staggered into a bombed-out building and remembers sleeping like a dead man.

This battle was a desperate attempt by the retreating Germans to capture gasoline, ammunition and food and hold the allies so they could arrange an acceptable surrender. It didn’t work, but cost many lives. The Battle of the Bulge began on a cold December 19 and continued well past Christmas. Patton declared that anyone not leading to get out of the way, and then with his 7th Armored Division crashed into the battle. Bentley’s unit was ordered to withdraw into France.  He recalls that a farmer offered him a feather bed which he enjoyed for almost two weeks.

Then it happened. Ed was leading a marching column along the countryside when he triggered an anti-tank land mine. This partially buried explosive device was constructed to blow the tracks off tanks.

Following that event the first thing Ed remembers was asking what day it was. He recalls his first statement was, ” Good heavens, I haven’t written to my wife for eight days!” Things remained fuzzy for most of the following days as well. World War II was over for officer Bentley. From the field hospital he was flown to Paris. There were a few vivid memories during this period. He recalls being asked his shoe size by a nurse. From this he assumed he had lost his shoes and most of his uniform in the explosion. He can barely recall but remembers being in a huge room filled with the sick and wounded.

He was then flown to England and finally aboard the U.S. hospital ship, the Charles A. Stafford, he was carried back to the USA, landing in Charleston, South Carolina. He recalls a big band greeted the returning troops. He had been tagged for the next destination and noted the tag color was different than most of the others. When he was loaded onto the transporting vehicle, he now noted the other passengers were all incoherent and disoriented. He then noted the label on his jacket meant severely deranged. He had considerable difficulty convincing the authorities he was competent. Eventually he was sent to Army General Hospital.

Another memory after the explosion concerned saying hello to a former member of his company, Pvt. MacDonald, who failed to return any acknowledgment of the greeting. Months later when he again met the infantryman in a rehab center, Ed asked him why he didn’t say hello. MacDonald told him he was too shocked by Ed’s appearance. There was blood coming out of both ears, one eye was closed, the other swollen, part of his left ear was missing, his legs were covered with scabs, his head was bandaged, and his voice was different. The eventual diagnosis for Ed Bentley was fractured skull, severe concussion, compression fractures of cervical vertebrae 5 and 6 and compression fractures of thoracic vertebrae 8, 9 and 10. His legs were full of shrapnel and there were multiple bruises. He ended up in a hospital facility in Memphis.

In 1947, when living in Tulsa, Ed saw a prominent orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Worth Gross. Ed described the severe pain he had in his neck, especially when raising his right arm up to shave. After a review of all the problems, Dr. Gross said he could operate and possibly relieve his pain, or Ed could live with it. Ed chose the latter and this was a wise choice.

One of Ed’s disappointments with the Army came after he received separation from active service with one-quarter of a Captain’s pay. A few weeks later he was recalled to the Review Board. On this occasion the Army Surgeon reversed his testimony, and Lt. Bentley was discharged as a veteran with Captain’s allowance and now receives his retired Captain’s stipend.

Edward L. Bentley was born in Chicago where his father was a pharmacist. He graduated from Sullivan High School in Chicago. He now resides at Inverness Village, a retirement center for active seniors of which he was a founding father. When Helen Bentley died in 2008, Ed fashioned an outdoor exercise walkway around the Village with loving dedication to his wife. Ed was a prominent member of one of the leading Insurance groups in Tulsa. He has been a member of Rotary for 55 years and for a period of 23 years had perfect attendance.