David Lauderdale

D-Day heroes land on Beaufort County’s beaches with a message that still resonates

1944 Newsreel film recaps D-Day invasion

Historic United Newsreel film that played in American movie theaters in 1944. The documentary used rehearsal footage to recap the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of France during WWII. (Edited from a longer film)
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Historic United Newsreel film that played in American movie theaters in 1944. The documentary used rehearsal footage to recap the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of France during WWII. (Edited from a longer film)

When Gen. Donald V. Bennett stormed the beaches of Hilton Head Island, it seemed to us he attacked with all the energy he spent on Omaha Beach 75 years ago on D-Day.

Col. Benjamin Hayes Vandervoort was quieter. He preferred to surf fish from our beach, his white sneakers of retirement so different from the army boots he strapped tighter on D-Day so that he could fight on despite “a clean fracture, just above the ankle.” His carbine would serve as a crutch, and his heroics later would be played by John Wayne in “The Longest Day.”

Earl Rogers left his home in the hills of North Carolina to enjoy the warmth of Sun City Hilton Head in the twilight of his life. His D-Day experiences were put into a local documentary, “Shoebox Memories.” He would show school children a little cricket clicker they used to separate friend from foe in the dark after parachuting into pure war on this day.

None of these three survived to hear the world’s current take on their duties on June 6, 1944.

The Normandy Invasion, now 75 years ago, is still considered a pivotal victory for freedom over tyranny on this planet.

And if we listen to the hot winds blowing over the frolicking crowds at our beach on this day, the Lowcountry voices of D-Day can still be heard.

Don Bennett

Don Bennett retired to Hilton Head in 1974 as a four-star general. The next day, they say, he was on a tractor, a volunteer clearing land for Dr. Peter LaMotte’s crazy idea for an island hospital.

Bennett was a leader of the Sea Pines property owners, a task he was uniquely qualified for after earning the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership under heavy fire on Omaha Beach.

He was cited as one of five people who carried the load in bringing self-government to Hilton Head.

The same action figure who one day marshaled scattered troops in the mayhem of Omaha Beach once said this about the way things get done around here: “We’re about to begin to start the initial phases of preliminary study to determine if further investigation should be carried out.”

And 12 years after storming out beach, he left for the North Carolina mountains seeking better health for his wife, Bets. Comedian Garry Moore, who retired to Sea Pines, told a crowd at a going-away party that, to us, Bennett “stands seven feet, nine inches tall in his stocking feet, has a heart of oak and a body of granite, and makes Sylvester Stallone look like Liberace.”

Bennett would be buried in 2005 in the U.S. Military Academy Cemetery. He had served as superintendent of West Point, the school he had, at one time, flunked out of only to end up as head of the U.S. Pacific Command.

But before Bennett died, he recorded his thoughts in a memoir.

In “Honor Untarnished,” Bennett said wars should not be glorified.

Of the day he was told World War II fighting would cease in Europe, which came at midnight on his 30th birthday, Bennett wrote: “There was no glory, only relief, only a wish to lay down our tools of death and to rest. I was never so old as I was on that night. All the years since then have been a gift.”

Ben Vandervoort

Ben Vandervoort parachuted into Normandy from a plane going 190 mph at 1:41 a.m. on this date 75 years ago. He was a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of about 600 men in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

He was an instant hero.

But in 23 years of retirement on Hilton Head, most people never would have known Vandervoort earned two Distinguished Service Crosses, was selected to represent World War II when America’s best colonel or lieutenant colonel was named for each war — or even that he had one glass eye from shrapnel wounds to the face in the Battle of the Bulge.

On D-Day in 1984, our paper reported that Vandervoort may spend the day watering the tomato plants or fishing down below the house at 13 Marsh Wren Drive. He served on the vestry at St. Luke’s Episcopal and spent time on the screened porch with his Welsh Corgi dog. When he died in 1990, he was buried beneath a sturdy tree in the Beaufort National Cemetery.

When our columnist Katie Callahan wrote what islanders were thankful for on “Vandy’s” 68th Thanksgiving, Vandervoort showed that he had become a true islander.

“At our age, we’re most thankful that we’re still around to give thanks,” was the response from Ben and Nedra Vandervoort.

“We’re still together. Ben didn’t run off with one of those nubile string-suit nymphs that popped eyes all over the beach this summer. Nedra didn’t chuck it all for a glamorous, bronzed shrimp boat captain. (We think young at our house.)

“The beach is still there although cluttered with beer cans, paper cups and discarded Pampers. Which reminds us, our septic field didn’t clog this year. That’s a blessing.”

They didn’t have a fender-bender on U.S. 278. “That approaches a miracle.

“No house guest stayed for more than three days. ... We made 27 low-speed passages through beautiful downtown Bluffton without incident.”

But Vandervoort still can’t hide his record of service.

In January, Fort Bragg paratroopers called it the “Vandervoort Mile” when they marched overnight in response to a leader who said: “We want you to have decided to take part in this because you are part of the team, you want to sacrifice for the team, you want to honor the past, you want to prove yourself, and you want to fight.”

Earl Rogers

Earl Rogers also parachuted into the dark unknown early on D-Day.

He was right out of high school in Clyde, North Carolina.

“Morale was high,” he said in the book “Before It’s Too Late: Our Aging Veterans Tell Their Stories” by the late Arnold Rosen of Sun City.

“We thought we’d knock them out in the first lick, but the Germans had a different idea.”

Rogers made 29 jumps as a paratrooper and was chosen for the All-American Honor Guard for Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower.

When he got home to Clyde, decorated with multiple Purple Hearts and the Bronze and Silver stars, he married Ruby Thompson from across the river. They bought a house for $6,000, and he worked 40 years as a pipefitter and steamfitter in the paper mill four miles away in Canton.

But before he got home, Rogers saw the gruesome sights of what the war was all about. He helped liberate the Dachau and Wobbelin concentration camps.

“The smell was awful,” he said. “There were quite a few of them alive. The Germans had buried people alive who were supposed to go in the ovens. We made the Germans dig them up and give them a decent burial, put a white cross on each grave.”

Rogers was 88 when he died in 2012.

Arnold Rosen, who died on May 20, gathered the stories of scores of veterans in his own twilight years.

“It mattered little to them whether their aspirations or dreams were realized,” he said. “What matters is that they did their duty, and in doing so made the world a better place.

“And for all of us when we look back over our life, can we say that we fought the good fight, that we did what was right, and that we made a difference in this world?”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page and tells the stories of our community. He grew up in Atlanta, graduated from Erskine College, reared two children on Hilton Head Island, and is a popular public speaker.

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