"As soon as I graduated I immediately went into the service."
Instead of taking a job building plane engines for the war effort – a job that would have kept him out of harm’s way – Benza, along with thousands of other young recruits were taken from New York to Scotland and then eventually South Whales.
"We left outside of New York on Pier 90 and we left on the ship Aquitania."
There, they began training for D-Day.
“When we left we were never told we were going to land there. That was a surprise to land in Omaha, Normandy!"
On the morning of June 6, Benza was loaded into a British landing craft headed for Omaha Beach.
“Going over it was terribly rough in that channel. There was a point where you just (became physically ill) all over that ship. Everybody did.”
As Allied forces approached the beach, the Germans began their attack. Benza says the film Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks best portrays the hell soldiers experienced.
"The worst thing of all was the 88s. The 88s used to burst in the air and shrapnel flew all over. Without that steel helmet you were a darn fool because shrapnel penetrated very deeply and a lot of times you could hear it go ‘ping’ right off your helmet."
Many soldiers lost their lives before even stepping foot onto the beach. Benza, however, managed to survive the first leg of the historic battle.
"When you’re getting off your landing craft up to about your belly or chest and you’re getting into that water and your weapon overhead, you just had to think… you just have to get to that beach as safe as you can. I never thought I was going to make it.”
Once on the beach, Benza tried to take cover. Firing his gun when he could, he made it to a sand dune. Later, he and a fellow soldier dug a foxhole and covered it with debris from destroyed ships that had washed ashore.
For days, the Germans would bomb those foxholes. Benza says most nights he didn’t think he’d ever see another sunrise.
"For me, the worst time was at night time when we were being bombed because shrapnel would fly everywhere.”
As more ships arrived and the number of casualties grew, Benza says words fail to describe the horrors he witnessed.
"Landings went on for five days so it wasn’t just one day. They kept coming in for five days and they were under heavy attack every time those doors opened. (D-Day) thousands lost their lives. Thousands. It was heartbreaking to come across a lot of bodies that were hit and you just don’t pay any mind even though it bothered you because your thought was to get on there, protect yourself.”
For nearly three months, Benza and thousands of Allied forces lived in their foxholes and survived on sea rations. And all the while they were fighting the German army.
By late August the Germans had been pushed back and Hitler was forced to fight the war on two major fronts: against the Russians to the east and against the United States and our Allied forces to the west.
The D-Day invasion was a success.
Looking back, Benza says although he’s proud of his service, the graphic images of that time still haunt him this very day.
“We did accomplish something: We wiped out the German Nazis and we made people free again.”
Last year, Gaetano Benza returned to Normandy for the first time since the invasion.
It was an emotional reunion for him and the other veterans as they stepped foot on the same sand once stained with the blood of their fellow soldiers.
"It brought back a lot of memories to be on that beach.”
Benza hopes the world never forgets the sacrifices the soldiers made that day, D-Day, June 6, 1944.