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World War II Combat Medic Shares His War Story

At 95 years old, it's become as important as ever for World War II veteran Benjamin Cooper to share his war stories.

The lifelong West Hartford resident carries a business card with him, advertising his speaking abilities. On the back, Cooper presents a clear message he lives by and tries to impart through his story.

"Save humanity. Stop hatred and bullying by practicing my life-saving motto," the card reads. "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. You can do it. Never give up. Always remember we all belong to the same race - the human race."

Those words are seemingly drawn from the experiences Cooper saw and lived through during World War II, including the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

Cooper, a 1940 Hall High School graduate, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. He had been attending George Washington University when they war broke out and had taken a job at Colt's Manufacturing Company.

When Cooper found out in 1944 that he would be going to Europe for the war, he acted fast and married Dorothy Cooper in July of that year. She died in 2009, a month after their 65th anniversary.

Shortly after arriving in Europe, Cooper was assigned to the 45th Infantry Division - identified by their red and yellow Thunderbird emblem - and was off to join them in France.

Cooper remembers the day he was sent to the front lines, because it was one of the earliest reminders of what war meant.

"The night before we went to the front, we slept in a barn and we had to sleep in the loft," Cooper said. "When we woke up in the morning, this was our first shock of war. The floor was filled with American soldiers who had just been killed in the area."

Cooper's first assignment as a medic was to man an aid station. He was not far from the action and would respond to calls from the front lines when a medic was needed.

"Once the shooting started, the telephones would ring off the wall," Cooper said. "We got a call and we got instructions how to get there. The shooting was already going on. You could hear the bullets and you could hear the artillery coming and blowing up."

As medics, their training was limited. They weren't doctors, but they could stop bleeding and help wounded soldiers in general ways. Death was something Cooper often confronted.

"Another time, I went myself, and I saw the soldier laying there," Cooper said. "He was a medic. He was on a ship with us, I remembered him. I thought he was just resting. But I spotted a little bit of blood near his ear. He was gone. He had died."

A week later, Cooper was transferred from the aid station to the front line to serve as a combat medic.

"Most of the time, you didn't know what was going to happen next," Cooper said. "When there was no shooting, it was fine. But there were always snipers in the area."

Cooper recalls the 45th Infantry Division moving from town to town, liberating towns in France and capturing towns in Germany.

There was shooting almost every day. Counter-attacks were often. Some buildings were booby-trapped. And peaceful sleep was at a premium.

"Things happened very fast," Cooper said. "When the shooting was going on, your adrenaline was high. And a lot of times, you don't have time to be scared. You know when I was scared? When the shooting was over. Because you're wondering what the hell you just went through. You never knew from one moment to the next if your time was up."

His European travels contain the seldom uplifting story, too, though. Cooper remembers one particular husband and wife they encountered.

"One was a doctor and one was a lawyer," Cooper said. "One was Jewish and one was not Jewish. They told us they had relatives in Pennsylvania. They could not write to them, but I could. I sent a letter, telling them that their cousins were well. It felt good that I was doing that."

But those positive moments can be fleeting when ahead of you are experiences like the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. He was ordered to be at the site as a witness, not a medic.

"We weren't even near the camp when the stench of burning flesh permeated the whole area," Cooper said. "It was awful. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. Skin and bones. A lot of them could not even leave the barracks. These were innocent people. That lingers with me all these years. The inhumanity."

While waiting to find out if he would be joining the war in the Pacific or returning home, Cooper, who is Jewish, lived with a German family. He asked their children what they thought of Adolf Hitler.

"They told me they hated him," Cooper said. "I asked them why. Their answer was, 'Because he lost the war.' That sticks in my mind."

Cooper felt lucky to return to the United States, and his new wife, in 1945. Upon returning, Cooper worked at his family's package store before becoming a liquor inspector.

Later in life, Cooper met Henny Simon, a Holocaust survivor who lived in Colchester. They became close and together would deliver talks at local schools.

"I found second love," Cooper said. "She became my guardian angel and I was her guardian angel."

Simon died earlier this year in April. Without her, Cooper continues to tell his story anywhere he's invited to, spreading the message of tolerance and kindness they always carried together.

"We had a mission in life to let people know what hate and bullying could do, especially when there was no respect for one another," Cooper said. "Even to this day, unfortunately."

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