Ben Bragg Sr. can never forget his service in WWII and especially the final months when his company arrived at Auschwitz and Dachau, experiences that are etched in his soul.
Bragg is a native of Highland and will celebrate his 93rd birthday on August 10. In 1943 he said “Uncle Sam wanted me” but he was allowed to graduate high school and at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to several military bases before finally landing in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas where he began his training in Communications.
“Our communications at that time was a switchboard and field telephones,” he said. “Radio systems were not appropriate to be using and we didn’t use them.”
Bragg said Capt. Martin had him train in communications after learning that he had played football in High School, saying “You’re an automatic leader for me.”
Bragg said he was put in charge of a dozen soldiers “and we had to operate the field telephones and how to splice wire.” He said the system was hard-wired at that time. His outfit was Battery B 742 Field Artillery and was trained on how to hook everyone up on the battlefield.
After Ft. Chaffee, Bragg returned to New York and soon boarded a ship bound for Southampton on the southern coast of England. He arrived in early 1944, in time for the Normandy Invasion in June that began to push back the German Army. Prior to the invasion Bragg heard Gen. George Patton give a speech.
“We’re going, we’re going and the worst thing about this thing is I’m going to lose thousands of soldiers,” Bragg recalled the great General saying.
On more than one occasion Bragg was sent to roust out the enemy “and I did what I had to do…As a young boy I became a man overnight. I was one of those lucky guys who came home.”
Bragg said from June 1944 until the end of the war he was involved “in battle after battle.” By the time he arrived at Auschwitz in Poland in 1945 the German guards had already fled.
“People were crying, they were so damn glad to see the Americans. You can’t imagine what they looked like, these poor people,” he said.
Bragg stayed a week at Auschwitz helping provide medical supplies and food and assisted in burying the dead.
Bragg said they were also able to save some Americans who had been kept in a separate camp nearby.
A week later Bragg arrived at Dachau in southern Germany. He took a few pictures that to this day still moves him to tears.
“Its just something that does not go away because why are these human beings being treated in that fashion,” he said. “I saw one gas chamber with scrapings on the wall in blood as they tried to get out. Little did they know what was to become of them.”
Bragg said as he witnessed these events he had to inure himself to the horror in order to do the work needed to help the victims. He said before he entered the service his fiance (and later wife) Rosalie Rizzo gave him a small Bible “and I did pray a lot when I was there. I still carry that today in my pocket. I hope to God that we never go through another situation like this.”
Bragg was in Lastrup, Germany when he heard the news that the war in Europe was over.
“You never saw such a happy bunch. I think we had enough to drink to drown the whole ocean,” he said.
Bragg was then sent to Le Harve, France to prepare to fight the Japanese in the Pacific theater [but] “Thank the Lord it ended in August, so that was canceled.”
Bragg favored dropping the atomic bombs on Japan.
“I wish I was there, I would have dropped two more,” he said.
Bragg mustered out of the service in July 1946 and his fiance was there to meet him.
“She met me at Penn Station and we got talking and said we didn’t change for each other and from then on we got married and raised our family and had a good life together,” he said. The couple were married for 58 years before her passing in 2004.
Bragg said as he talks to the younger generations about his war experiences, he tries to convey that the freedoms we enjoy today are because of the ultimate sacrifice that many have made for their country.
“You’re very lucky to live in America where you have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of anything you want to make and share some of that,” he said.
Bragg said his time in the service made a lasting impression upon him.
“I still dream of these past experiences and I guess they will remain with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
By Mark Reynolds