Barrett, a World War II army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge along with his comrades of the 517the Parachute Regimental Combat Team refers to his brothers in battle as, “the real heroes. They are the ones who never came home.”
Every day, Ben Barrett places the finishing touches on the daily newsletter he sends to more than 400 recipients. Barrett, a World War II army veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge along with his comrades of the 517the Parachute Regimental Combat Team refers to his brothers in battle as, “the real heroes. They are the ones who never came home.”
A special Memorial Day edition of Mail Call, was prepared at his desk facing a wall covered with awards, honors and remembrances from his service in the war. Still humble, yet very nimble at almost 91, Barrett enjoys his days in Cohasset with his family while tirelessly continuing the maintenance of a Web site dedicated to his Paratrooper’s Combat Team and its great legacy.
The Memorial Day message to his readers was poignantly simple yet powerful in both its image and words. It began with a quote and a poem from two chaplains of the 517th regiment and was followed by a listing of more than 250 names of their fallen fellow soldiers.
The paratroopers of the 517th PRCT comprised a small unit of approximately 2,500 men. Though one of the first elite units specially prepared and highly trained in World War II, they rarely received the recognition due them for their acts of bravery and valor. The vital role they assumed in defending and liberating small European towns was as an independent division during various conflicts in World War II.
They were engaged in some battles with the heaviest and most treacherous fighting of the European campaign.
“Groups like the 82nd and 101st Airborne are far better known,” said Barrett. “They had members of approximately 20,000 while we were a group only a tenth of that, even though our training and missions were similar.”
At almost 91, Barrett not only cherishes and shares history but also looks toward the future and the responsibility he feels toward younger generations. The Web site he maintains with the assistance of his son, Bob, provides a detailed account of the actions of the 517th PRCT (www.517prct.org ) and has been recognized as one of the most complete and educational sites about veterans and World War II in existence.
When Bob originally designed the Web site almost 10 years ago for his Dad, his goal was not only to honor his father but to create a place where anyone could go to learn about the 517th and find the information in the same place rather than scattered all over the Internet.
“We still have people who write to us today and say they have found a new reference to the unit. We ask them to send us the link so that we can post it and have it on the Web site,” said Barrett.
The tremendous response to the Web site and the correspondence from people all over the world prompted the group to take their historical recollections a step further.
As time passes, more and more children and grandchildren of these soldiers are curious to learn about their relatives and the contributions they made to preserve the freedom of our nation and much of the world.
Several accounts have been written over the years about the 517th role in World War II. But what interests the descendants of these men as well as students of history are the personal and individual recollections of the soldiers during their days in combat.
No books or articles can describe the frigid cold in the forest of Ardennes that December when the Battle of the Bulge was fought. Second-hand accounts of parachuting cannot adequately express the paralyzing fear of a young man the second before his jump. No words can illustrate the deafening roar of engines, the sky red with smoky explosions or the uncertainty of when a German tank might next appear. Nothing can recreate the heart wrenching agony of advancing on the battlefield upon the command of an officer while stepping over the mangled bloody bodies of fellow soldiers pleading for help. No one can do this that is, but the men who were there and lived through these hellish experiences.
Many among the more than 100 veterans from the 517th still living and active have embarked on a project to create a film about their extraordinary feats that will preserve these accounts of bravery, peril and love of country.
The unit continues to have an annual reunion when the members gather with friends and family to reminisce, reconnect and share anecdotes about life since World War II.
At the last reunion, which was held in St. Louis, the group began steps to prepare this film.
These veterans are fortunate enough to have a passionate and productive Auxiliary group who supports the efforts of the 517th, assists with trips, projects and reunions and was enthusiastic about being involved in this film project.
Auxiliary members are people with any type of connection to the 517th veterans. Many are children and grandchildren, friends and even folks from Europe who lived in towns liberated by the 517th during the conflict. They continue to love and admire the soldiers as they did when the paratroopers were young boys fighting for the freedom of European countries like Belgium and France. From village to village, and home to home, the Americans acted to save the civilians from the dangers of the German advance. Not only do these European friends remain loyal and grateful to the Americans but they have taught their children, grandchildren and any others who have come to live in their communities that they owe their freedom to the Americans.
The Auxiliary has proceeded with efforts to make this film account of the 517th a reality. The group enjoys financial good health and is quite confident that the project will be completed in a format appropriate for classroom and educational viewing. In order to do this, Auxiliary president Claire Giblin, daughter of a 517th soldier, has led the efforts to secure professionals to help with the production. Patrick O’Donnell, a historian and author who captures tales and recollections of former soldiers in order to share such accounts with the general public, filmed interviews with 517th members at their reunion. He is currently at work interspersing these interviews with narrative history, documentation, photos and background from Washington Archives in order to develop a high-quality finished product. A producer has also been secured to participate in the production of the film. It is hoped that a finished version of the preview will be available for showing at the annual 517th reunion later this summer.
Long-range plans for the film include the acquisition of more funds in order that the piece is refined in more depth to be of a quality suitable for distribution on television channels like the History Channel or Discovery.
Ever humble about his acts of greatness on and off the battlefield, Barrett shared the portion of film that depicts him on camera telling of his recollections of the battles in which the 517th was engaged. His vivid and emotional descriptions place the viewer in the 1944 fields and village of Trois-Points, Belgium, the dirt and danger filled roads of Manhay and the dark ominous night in Bergeval where Barrett was wounded by a German shell.
Barrett is thrilled that this project is coming to fruition and believes it is a medium that will appeal to young people today. Often his Web site and newsletter receive messages from youngsters and students interested in World War II, researching their family or just following interesting links on the Internet. “It’s the young kids that really know how to navigate the Internet,” he remarked. “They are very savvy and know how to find out what interests them. This is often their first exposure to details about World War II.”
Recalling a story shared by one of his comrades, Merle McMorrow of North Dakota, Barrett chuckled, “Merle occasionally goes to a local bookstore to promote a book about his time as a paratrooper that he wrote. Sometimes he wears a paratrooper uniform. A kid came up to him and asked him if he knew ‘Ben Barrett.’ When Merle said ‘yes,’ the kid went off to get his little friend and brought him back. The kid said, ‘He knows Ben Barrett! He’s famous!”’
As the grandfather of 10, Barrett is particularly interested in having permanent legacies available to the young who will eventually be the defenders and leaders of our nation. He also believes that the lessons of the battlefield teach invaluable principles to apply throughout life. “I think back and often wonder how we did it. I still don’t understand and I was there! What it comes down to is comradeship. We would do anything including lay down our lives for the guys next to us. And they would do the same.”
Barrett plans a trip to Europe this summer to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the 1944 battles. Though not part of D Day that occurred in June, the 517th was part of what is recognized but much less prominently identified as the “2nd D Day” when the paratroopers were among those fighting in August 1944. Barrett was stationed elsewhere in Europe at the time and joined his comrades in October of that year. He will be accompanied by members of his family including his daughter, Joanne, and grandson, Eric, also of Cohasset. “We are hoping to walk along some of the same streets where Dad was in 1944,” said Joanne. The friends of the 517th in Belgium and France are busy making arrangements and planning activities and honors for their special guests.
Barrett appears especially pleased that grandson, Eric, will be on the trip. “It’s good for his education, said Barrett. He also hopes that when finished, the film project is something that might be used by a class in which Eric participates.
Despite his dedication to preserving the accuracy and great feats of the 517th for the benefit of all Americans, Barrett is optimistic as he looks toward the future. “I hope our film will spark the interest of kids and help them to understand the greatness of America. It is important for them to have this foundation because I have always believed that whatever we face, the youth of our country will come through.”
The most important lesson Barrett hopes all Americans will consider is one that has not changed since the birth of our nation. “We are so fortunate to live here and have all this freedom. But freedom is never free. Someone must pay the price for it. No other country on earth has what we have. It is this love of freedom that must keep it this way.”
For more information: www.517prct.org.