Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Benjamin Franklin Hurt: WWII and the Making of the Man

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Principal Ben Hurt and faculty at Greenwood High School, 1948-’49. L-r, front row: Miss Sarah Dunn, Miss Belle Dunn, Mr. Ben F. Hurt, Miss Reid, Miss Ruby Ramsey. Second row: Miss Ann Holsinger, Mrs. Louise Burton, Mrs. Addie Gentry, Mrs. Trimble, Miss Patricia Norford. Back row: Miss Genie Shirley, Miss Rea, Mr. Woodard, Mrs. Snook, Mr. Oakes. Mr. Hurt married his Farmville sweetheart Maria Addleman in July, prior to the beginning of this school year. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images)

Thousands of Albemarle County students fondly recall Ben F. Hurt (1918–2018), a native of Farmville in Prince Edward County. He faithfully invested his life in their lives while a teacher and principal at Greenwood High School, 1940–’41 and ‘45–’53, followed by his tenure as principal at Albemarle High School from 1953–1984.

At Greenwood, he taught math, science, and Latin (his favorite subject), and coached boys’ sports. At Albemarle High he garnered the respect and admiration of teachers and students alike by employing what he called the three-B’s of administration: “Be firm. Be fair. Be friendly.” Those who encountered him years after graduation were amazed at the accuracy with which he still remembered their names and details about their families.

As with most persons who have acquired the attributes necessary to assume great responsibilities, Ben Hurt endured severe trials under fire. With great modesty, he employed those tough lessons learned for the benefit of others.

Ben F. Hurt, on left, and his older brother James at home in Farmville, following Ben’s military discharge in August 1945. During that visit, following an evening church service, Ben was first introduced to his bride-to-be Maria. They tied the knot three years later. (Photo courtesy of the family of Ben and Maria Hurt)

In October 1940, a little over a month after beginning his first assignment as a schoolteacher, Ben reported to Hillsboro, near Greenwood, to register for the military draft. Newspapers teemed with stories of war and world unrest; yet, to that point, civilian life in the United States was little affected by such accounts. All seemed idyllic around the McCue home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where many of Greenwood’s single schoolteachers found room and board. Life was good.

Behind the scenes, though, plans were in motion to prepare the country for seemingly inevitable involvement with world powers that were dividing into factions. The military base at Fort Knox, Kentucky, already was gearing up to train new soldiers to fight a land war. The Hurt family of Farmville soon was called upon to contribute two of their sons to the treacherous cause.

During the protracted battle near Anzio, Italy, in early 1944, U.S. 1st Armored Division soldiers passed by one of 100 tanks lost during engagements there. “A bloody battle,” was recalled by 13th Armored Regiment, 4th Tank Battalion Sgt. Major Ben Hurt.

On September 26, 1941, tears were shed at Greenwood High. “My last day was at the end of the month,” recalled Ben Hurt. “I would go to class and the students would be crying. I would be crying, too. I would have to leave and go outside. I didn’t want to go away, but I couldn’t get out of the draft. I entered the Army October 2nd and went to Fort Knox. My brother James (1914–1984) had been there since June.”

On Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941, word came that Japanese bombers had attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. Ben said, “I was playing ping pong with this fellow from Delaware. We were the two selected from our company as outstanding for that time. Only six people were selected from a battalion of 625. I went to another company within Ft. Knox. I never saw him again.”

The Army’s 1st Armored Division was formed at Fort Knox in July 1940. The division’s history stated, “It was an experiment in a self-supporting, permanent fighting unit with tanks as the nucleus. This experiment in a self-sustaining blitzkrieg force had never been tried before…”

When the division shipped out for deployment in April ‘42, Ben, by virtue of a six-week typing class in college, was assigned to be Company Clerk.

In work fatigues in Northern Ireland in August 1942, Ben Hurt, Company Clerk for “C” Company, 13th Armored Regiment, received training for Operation Torch, an allied invasion of North Africa. (Photo courtesy of the family of Ben and Maria Hurt)

Departing from New York aboard the RMS Queen Mary, the Division landed in Northern Ireland and trained in the moors. “On the way over, I was assigned to go around and give statements in French to various groups,” said Ben. “I discovered there was a fellow there from Batesville. In Ireland, several of us went into town for dinner. I looked across and there was a fellow in my high school class, George Newman. That was the last time I saw him. He was killed over around Greece.”

In November ‘42, the Allied invasion of North Africa, code-named Operation Torch, began. As Company Clerk, Ben rode in the command car with his clerk’s typewriter and soldier’s gear in hand. “We came up out of the water and led our company’s invasion into Oran. We went around this small village and—boom—there were troops on either side shooting at us. We had to jump out and crawl for a long distance to find friendly troops. I found an artillery unit so I stayed with them. After three days, my regular unit happened to come up. They said, “Ben, you’ve been signed as Killed-in-action.” That operation cost the Allies around 480 killed and 720 wounded.

“Our tank battalion continued across Northern Africa to Tunis,” noted Ben. There, in the early months of 1943, they encountered superior German armored forces for the first time. The U.S. 1st Armored Division sustained heavy losses at Sbeitla, Kasserine Pass and at other points. Their light and medium tanks were forced to withdraw in the face of more formidable heavy German tanks. However, in May the Allies finally claimed victory in North Africa.

Insignia designed in 1940 for the 1st Armored Division of the U.S. Army. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides”, it was the first U.S. armored division to see battle in WWII. In this outfit 1941–1945, Hurt advanced from Company Clerk Corporal to Sergeant Major, ultimately leading the 4th Tank Battalion during the Italian Campaign.

Following rest, refitting and training, Ben’s 13th Armored Regiment landed at Salerno, Italy, in September ‘43. “On the day before Thanksgiving,” he said, “they called me from ‘C’ Company, up to the headquarters of the battalion. I got promoted from a Corporal, a company clerk, to Sergeant Major [the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Army] of the 4th Tank Battalion… We sailed across the Mediterranean to Capua, Italy, just outside of Naples. In 1944, we hit Anzio, Italy, which was a bloody battle.

“We continued north to Florence, on to Milan, and finally to Lake Como, Italy, in the spring of 1945. We went into Como and two of us would go into the basements of homes [searching for enemy]. We read in the newspaper the next day that Mussolini had been taken by the people of Milan, about 20 miles away, and hung head down and feet up.”

Two days following Benito Mussolini’s death, Adolph Hitler committed suicide during the Battle of Berlin. German forces surrendered in Italy on May 2.

Because of his length of time served, Sergeant Major Benjamin Franklin Hurt returned to the States and was discharged on August 14, 1945. Following a joyous reunion at home in Farmville, in two weeks time he was back with the McCues at Greenwood, prepared to teach class when the school bell rang on opening day.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2018 Phil James 

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