By Paul Wood
URBANA — Wounded and partially deafened in a tank explosion, Ben Wilder refused to leave World War II, instead moving from the artillery to the infantry.
From Oran in North Africa, he would eventually make it all the way to Germany, where he captured three enemy soldiers in a basement.
Wilder, 96, never had an easy life. He grew up in Joliet, and lost his mother when he was only 3 months old. His father died when he was 5.
Recently, he also lost his wife, and is starting to have trouble remembering his war years.
During the Depression, Wilder did hard physical labor in a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps. His arms are still heavily knotted with muscle, and his handshake is strong.
Wilder enlisted in the Army in 1942, not long after America entered the war, and was first assigned to the 59th Field Artillery, he recalls.
He married Wanda in 1943; by September, he was in a tank company in North Africa.
His unit moved on to Naples, where he sufferied shrapnel wounds to his head as well as three broken ribs. He was injured on Christmas Eve.
Wilder remembers being offered the Purple Heart in a field hospital near Naples, and initially turning it down because other soldiers were more badly injured.
His brother, George, was in the same hospital with him at one point, but they never knew it.
In another tragic blow, “my brother and I were in Rome the same day and didn’t know it. George was killed near Rome,” he remembers.
Wilder, partially deafened by the muzzle blast of a tank, was deemed unfit for further artillery service. An officer ordered him home, but Wilder recalls telling him “I’ll go over the hill before I go home.”
He volunteered to serve in the infantry, and was sent to France. As the war in Europe neared its end, Wilder’s unit crossed into Germany and ran into heavy resistance near Mannheim.
A friend told him “‘I’m not coming back,’ and he turned up missing the next day,” he recalls.
Sent across a field to ask for help, Wilder tried to get tank support for the 12 men under him. A captain told him the tank group was out of both tanks and gasoline.
A lieutenant then ordered him to clear out a nearby garage.
“I threw in a grenade, and nobody came out,” he says.
Next, the order was to take a house. In the basement, he found three Germans hiding, and they surrendered.
They marched all the way to Berlin, but had to watch the Russians take the city.
In August, he was honorably discharged.
After the war, Wilder lived in Joliet and for a while in Arkansas. He did everything from bartending to construction to working in a coal mine.
He moved here in 1998 to be near family. He and Wanda have four children: Nancy Wilson, Scherrie Sanchez, Michael Wilder and Dawn Wilder. Scherrie and Dawn are his caretakers.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.