West Hartford’s annual Veterans Day ceremony, held on Saturday, Nov. 11, was a tribute to World War II veterans, including guest of honor, 101-year-old Ben Cooper.
By Ronni Newton
Ben Cooper will be 102 years old on Dec. 24, and decades after he served and was finally able to speak about the atrocities he saw when he was part of the team that liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, he continues to advocate for kindness, handing everyone he meets one his signature cards.
Cooper was the guest of honor at Saturday morning’s Veterans Day celebration at the Connecticut Veterans Memorial in West Hartford Center, and handed out dozens of business cards after the ceremony.
On the front of the card, which bears his name, his role as a combat medic, and the symbol of the 45th Infantry Division (the Thunderbird Division), is the message: “Freedom is not Free.” Additional messages fill the back of the card: “Save humanity, Stop hatred and bullying. Practice my life saving motto – ‘No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.’ Always respect each other. You can do it! Never give up! You will never regret it. Always remember we all belong to the same race … the human race. God bless America.”
Mayor Shari Cantor said it’s currently a difficult time to be in the service, and an important time to reflect on the contributions of the “Greatest Generation,” those Americans born between 1900 and 1925, many of whom fought during World War II, who fought for freedom in the face of “incredible atrocities and inhumanity.”
Cantor first met Cooper after after a 15-year-old German exchange student her family was hosting was moved by a speech he gave in her classroom, and she encouraged the Cantor family to reach out to Cooper.
She listened to Cooper’s stories of his service as a medic in Italy, France, and Germany, stories that he finally began sharing with students in 1990. “He suddenly had clarity to his life’s purpose: To help today’s youth understand the realities of war and remember the Holocaust,” Cantor said.
To this day, Cantor said Cooper remains one of her favorite people.
“In the years that followed 1990, [Cooper] began speaking at schools throughout Connecticut. He dedicated his life to sharing his stories with the hope that by advocating kindness, he could help children and adults put an end to bullying and hatred at any level,” Cantor said.
“His philosophy of life, positive attitude, quick wit, sense of humor, and his many acts of kindness have left lasting impressions on everyone who is lucky enough to meet him. On this Veterans Day, I am so honored to share Ben’s story with you. I invite you to listen to our veterans and learn about their experiences with hopes that one day there would be no more war and peace and love would prevail.”
Veterans Day has been celebrated for more than a century and unlike Memorial Day is a time to honor all veterans.
“We gather today to honor and express our deepest gratitude to all the men and women who have served in our armed forces, defending our nation and its values,” said Heidi-Anne Mooney, commander of American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96, which hosts the annual ceremony. Mooney also thanked the families of those who served, and those who are in the line of duty right now.
Post 96 celebrated and honored World War II veterans in 2011, but more than a decade later most have since passed away, she said. Saturday’s ceremony was a tribute to some of the Greatest Generation from the West Hartford community, including those who supported the war effort on the home front, Mooney said.
“As we reflect on their incredible feats, let us also remember that the lessons of the Greatest Generation are not limited to a bygone era. They remind us of the power of unity, the strength of community, and the importance of selflessness. Their actions set a standard of service and sacrifice that remains a timeless example for us all,” Mooney said.
Pat Harrell, a past commander of Post 96, served as an Infantry Platoon Commander in Vietnam with the 26th Marines and the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. He shared the story of Gordon Sterling, namesake of Sterling Field in West Hartford.
“Can I see a show of hands? How many of you know the story of Gordon Sterling?” Harrell began. Very few among the crowd of more than 100 who attended the ceremony raised their hands.
Over the course of more than 40 years, Harrell himself had played soccer and lacrosse at Sterling Field, and his children played countless football, soccer, and lacrosse games there as well, but he never thought about the name of the field. What few realize is that in 1943, the Town Council named the fields after Gordon Sterling, who grew up on Argyle Avenue, graduated from Hall High School in 1937, and was the first WW2 casualty from West Hartford, Harrell said.
Sterling was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, an assistant flight engineer at one of the smaller outlying airfields, and he had not yet completed his training on gunnery and flight formations, Harrell said. For that reason, he wasn’t selected to man one of the four remaining undamaged P-36’s.
“But as he watched the drama unfold, with enemy planes approaching, one of the designated pilots came running back to locate a better-fitting parachute. Gordon saw the urgent need to get the plane in the air and complete the formation, so without a parachute, ran to the warming-up fighter. As he jumped into the cockpit he handed his watch to the ground chief, saying, ‘Give this to my mother. I won’t be coming back,'” Harrell said. Sterling’s P-36 was shot down in a dogfight with the Japanese, and his body was never recovered.
“It will do us well to remember Gordon Sterling’s name, and his actions,” Harrell said. He enlisted before there was a draft. His flying skills helped to shoot down at least one of the enemy planes. His sacrifice for the war effort symbolizes a man who was willing to fight for something bigger than himself,” said Harrell, noting that today women also make that commitment.
There had been a brass plaque at the fields honoring Sterling, that was donated in 1948 by the Exchange Club, but it was removed and misplaced in the 1950s. The town installed a new plaque several years ago, “just as the pandemic hit our shores, so the attention was lost,” Harrell said. “We plan to amend that.”
Moe Fradette, also a past Post 96 commander, shared the story of World War II veteran and former West Hartford resident Francis King.
After just a few months of training in Texas as a tail gunner, King, who had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943, was assigned to a B-17 named “Hell’s Angels Out of Chute 13,” that flew 35 combat missions over Western Europe, Fradette said.
“An amazing accomplishment done by very few crews,” he said. King, along with Cooper, was awarded membership in the French Legion of Honor in 2019 for his role in liberating France.
Jennifer McLeod, a member of the Post 96 Auxiliary and president of the Connecticut Department of the American Legion Auxiliary, shared some stories of the women of the Greatest Generation, who played a crucial role filling the jobs traditionally held by men.
“Women worked in factories, shipyards, and other industries, taking on roles traditionally held by men. The iconic image of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ symbolized the millions of women who contributed to the war effort by producing weapons, equipment, and supplies,” said McLeod.
Women were also able to serve in non-combat roles, including as part of the “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” (W.A.V.E.S.), and that’s what American Legion Post 96 member Connie Cain did. “She intentionally failed the secretary’s exam to get a more interesting job, a ploy that worked: she drafted maps for pilots serving in the Pacific Arena,” McLeod said.
“She always remained a proud veteran and often marched in Memorial Day parades and hung an American flag outside her front door every day,” McLeod said.
“There is only one woman whose named is inscribed on this Memorial,” added McLeod. “Her name is Mary Alice O’Dell. She lived on Griswold Street and graduated from Hall High School. In January, 1943 she lefther job at Aetna and entered the Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps as a Lieutenant. Mary died May 15, 1943 while serving at Fort Des Moines, Iowa,” she said.
Lt. Odell was the 14th (of 141) West Hartford service person to die during World War II, McLeod said.
State Sen. Derek Slap also spoke at Saturday’s ceremony. He said he just turned 50 the previous day, and Cantor had joked with him that he was now half of Ben Cooper. “My initial thought was I am nowhere near even half of Ben,” Slap joked. Cooper, he said, “is a true hero.”
Slap spoke about the “feeling of safety,” something we in this country sometimes take for granted, knowing that our first responders, as well as those in the military, play a key role. “That is not the case in Israel,” he said.
Slap said as part of a group he visited Israel over the summer, and they met some female soldiers who were roughly the same age as his daughters who were deeply committed to their role of protecting their country. “It moved all of us deeply,” Slap said. He has thought of them every day since, he said, particularly since the terrorist attack on Oct. 7.
“We must not take our veterans for granted,” said Slap. While our threats are different from Israel’s, he said it’s important that our veterans not be invisible to us. “On this Veterans Day, for me, I challenge you …” to think of what it would be like if you didn’t feel safe.
“Let’s reflect on what Ben Cooper has on his business card … it reminds us that freedom is not free. Ben, thank you, and thank you to all our veterans,” Slap said.
Lt. Col. Sean Nolan offered the invocation and benediction, and Bianca Day, a graduate of Hall High School who is currently studying film and theater at Penn State, sang the National Anthem.
Color guards from Post 96, and West Hartford’s police and fire departments also participated. The ceremony concluded with a rendering of Taps by Sedgwick Middle School student Lucas French.
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