In Lowcountry, D-Day hero left his medals at the bridge

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 5, 2012 

Benjamin Hays Vandervoort was a 29-year-old enlisted man with a bride back home when he became an American hero on D-Day.

His role 68 years ago today was made famous by John Wayne in the movie "The Longest Day."

But as a Hilton Head Island retiree, the soft-spoken man called "Vandy" preferred to blend in like the brown cypress houses in the woods.

He and his wife, Nedra, came in 1967 to live on Marsh Wren Road in Sea Pines, near South Beach.

Former islander John Jakes told me he and Vandervoort talked for years before he knew the man in tennis shoes and black horn-rimmed glasses was one of the first to hit the ground in Normandy, and one of World War II's most decorated soldiers.

In those days, Jakes said, people left their medals at the bridge.

Vandervoort was promoted to lieutenant colonel five days before he parachuted into France on D-Day. When he landed at 1:41 a.m., he was commanding officer of about 600 men in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

"I had a little hard luck on the landing and banged up my foot," Vandervoort said in a military debriefing. His leg was fractured just above the ankle. He tightened up his boot and used his rifle as a crutch until a grandmotherly French woman gave him some hand-carved crutches.

His men helped liberate the village Ste. Mère Eglise, then repulsed much larger and better equipped German columns on the main paved road to the invasion beaches.

He later was a fearless leader at "Operation Market Garden," the subject of another book by Cornelius Ryan and the movie "A Bridge Too Far." At the Battle of the Bulge, Vandervoort was hit in the head by shrapnel, which took him from the battlefield and cost him an eye.

He was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Bronze Star with "V" for valor, three Purple Hearts, and medals from thankful foreign countries. He was selected as the outstanding ground battle commander for all of World War II when the U.S. Army Center for Leadership selected one colonel or lieutenant colonel from every war in American history.

Vandervoort then served his nation in the Foreign Service and the CIA.

On Hilton Head, he served on the Episcopal church vestry, played golf, planted tomatoes and surf-fished down below the house. He said he was thankful when the septic field didn't clog, when house guests stayed no more than three days, and when he got through Bluffton without a speeding ticket.

Vandervoort risked everything for us to enjoy such common freedoms.

Yet he told Army debriefers two months after D-Day: "I feel that I have very little for posterity at the moment."

He died on Hilton Head in 1990 after a fall. Nedra died 10 years later. On this D-Day, they rest in silence by majestic oaks in Beaufort National Cemetery.

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