World War II veteran Benjamin Berry is beginning to feel like a celebrity, and no one is more deserving.
World War II veteran Benjamin Berry is beginning to feel like a celebrity, and no one is more deserving. The longtime Germantown resident celebrated his 100th birthday on Sept. 16 at the Mission BBQ on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia.
And there was more to come. After the event, Berry was driven to former President Eisenhower's farm in Gettysburg, where he appeared on a panel with other veterans to discuss their experiences in World War II.
Berry served in a segregated Quartermaster unit from 1943 through the end of the war. A member of George S. Patton’s famed Third Army, Berry landed at Normandy, Omaha Beach, on July 28, 1944, and served at the front all through France and into Belgium and Luxembourg and in the Battle of the Bulge.
As an African-American soldier, he served in segregated units with mostly white officers. Berry experienced the 600-mile, week-long trek across France after German resistance in Normandy collapsed, as well as the intense cold in Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle of the war, in which more than 19,000 Americans died, and the Spring, 1945, campaign. He helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp.
After the war, Berry returned to the Philadelphia area and went to Bok Vocational School on the GI Bill to learn paper hanging. Although blacks were not allowed in the paper hangers’ union at that time, he became a successful entrepreneur, managing his own business for more than 60 years. He provided apprenticeship opportunities for young people, some of whom opened their own businesses, and did charity paper hanging, such as papering walls of the Ronald McDonald House.
Despite his military service, Berry said he and other black veterans were “treated like second-class citizens.” But since then, he acknowledged that “progress has been made,” and he feels it when he walks down the street in a WWII hat and strangers thank him for his service.
Berry has been active in the Delaware Valley chapter of the Battle of the Bulge Association. He was recently inducted into the Army Quartermaster Hall of Fame. Another member of the Delaware Valley chapter, Jacob “Jake” Ruser, 99, also spoke on the same panel in Gettysburg.
Andy Waskie, president of the Delaware Valley chapter, said, “Jake and Ben are real heroes. They served their country and then came back and helped build the country we live in. And now they’re sharing their experiences.”
John Mohor, president of the Battle of the Bulge Association, added, “The experiences these men share are invaluable lessons for all of us, especially today’s young people. We all owe them thanks for the sacrifices they made, and we can all learn from their experiences.”
Benjamin Melvin Berry was born to Hester and James Wallace Berry Sr. on Sept. 21, 1923. He was one of four children. He can proudly trace his ancestry back to great-great grandparents Paul and Amelia Edmonson, whose children, Emily and Mary, were friends of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass and were active abolitionists in the Washington, D.C., area in the mid-19th century. Their story is told in the book, “Fugitives of the Pearl,” by John H. Paynter.
Berry enjoyed growing up in Willow Grove. One of his first jobs was picking vegetables for six cents a bushel basket. He went to Abington High School, where he played the saxophone because “it was a good way to meet girls.” He graduated in 1943, one of only three Black students in his graduating class.
When Berry started driving, gas was 13 cents a gallon. He charged his friends 10 cents apiece to ride with him. One such friend, Charles Washington, introduced him to Lois Graves, who would become his wife of 58 years. She passed away in 2004.
“I prayed that if God let me survive the war, I would serve Him the rest of his life,” said Berry, who has kept that promise. He’s been a faithful member of the First Baptist Church of Crestmont in Willow Grove for almost 90 years.
When Ben and Lois were married in 1947, the rent on their apartment was $1 per day. He got a second job to save enough money to buy their first house, which was on West Duval Street in Germantown.
In 1957, they moved to East Duval Street, but in 2021, he moved to the Stapeley retirement home in Germantown. Berry has four children, nine grandchildren, numerous great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Two of the many honors Berry has received include recognition for 50 years of service as a deacon at his church and election as president of the Philadelphia Paperhangers Guild.
Leon Reed, editor of the quarterly magazine of the Battle of the Bulge Association, told us last week, “Ben Berry was and is a true American hero. He joined a segregated Army, returned home to a segregated world and triumphed in both places. Now, he is still giving back, helping teach a new generation about the meaning of service and sacrifice."
Andy Waskie, Kristin Holmes and Carol Austin contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com