It was Dec. 16, 1944 in the Northwestern forests of Europe. It was a frigid winter, and the landscape was overtaken with fog and snow. Suddenly, mortar shells began raining down.
This surprise attack was the last-ditch effort by Nazi-controlled Germany to break apart the Allied forces in the surrounding area, and it would go on to be called the Battle of the Bulge — the bloodiest battle the United States participated in during World War II.
A young Jewish man, born and raised in Atlanta, was among those on the battlefield. Josiah Benator, 22 years old at the time, was a member of the 10th Armored Division. Exactly a month after the Battle of the Bulge began, Benator came face to face with death.
“I was in my foxhole, and a mortar shell dropped right next to me and shell shocked me,” Benator, now 95, said.
His hearing was impaired, and he had shrapnel lodged in one of his hands. He wouldn’t be the only member of his unit injured during the 52 days that made up the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I was evacuated to the hospital, next thing I know, they brought three people on stretchers that were from my platoon,” Benator said. “I don’t know what happened (to them).”
An estimated 710 soldiers in the 10th Armored Division died by the time the German conflict ended on May 7. Approximately 19,000 Americans died in the Battle of the Bulge alone.
Benator, sitting in the comfort of his quaint home in DeKalb County, reflected on how close to death he was.
“We were that close to being prisoners of war ourselves,” he said, inferring how many American POWs died at the hands of the Nazis before the war ended.
However, when he got back to the States, he didn’t let those “what if” questions bog him down. He went on to become the scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 73 for 67 years (and counting), touching hundreds of lives in the process.
Earning his own merits
In 1909, a shoe repairman named Victor Benator immigrated to Atlanta from the island of Rhodes via a $25 ship ticket. He married Estrea de Leon, also from Rhodes, in 1917.
Josiah was born in 1922. He said his earliest memory is from kindergarten.
“In those days, they used switches,” Benator said. “If you came home and told (your parents) your teacher gave you the switch, your parents would say, ‘Well come on in and get another one.’”
Despite the economic turmoil facing the country — including his family — during the Great Depression, he became a Cub Scout in Troop 52 at the Shearith Israel Synagogue.
Dan Maslia, 84, grew up about a block away from Benator in the 1930s, and he said all the neighborhood kids would come over to his place and sing songs.
“He was sort of like a youth leader,” Maslia said.
Maslia would end up becoming one of Benator’s scouts when Benator returned from the war. He said Mr. B (the name lovingly given to Benator by his scouts) always had a knack for teaching kids lessons.
“He understood kids,” Maslia said. “He didn’t take much crap off of them — boys would be boys, but he would be able to handle boys when they misbehave in a very mature manner and teach them a lesson.”
Before Benator joined the Army, he attended Georgia Tech and studied industrial management. He also was involved in the college’s ROTC program. He earned his 21st merit badge in 1943, making him an Eagle Scout.
‘A better, happier Jewish identity’
He also became the first scoutmaster of Troop 73 in 1951, which was a new troop based out of the Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven. He’s been the scoutmaster ever since.
“The good thing about being a scout leader for 70 years is you see the boys that got in trouble grow up and be responsible citizens,” Benator said.
Fifty-three of his scouts have become Eagle Scouts — something only 5 percent of Boy Scouts ever accomplish.
Benator didn’t have the reputation of a pushover though.
“I wanted to get a merit badge, and I didn’t prepare much for it,” Maslia said. “When it was time for me to test for my merit badge, he wouldn’t give it to me. He said, ‘You haven’t really learned what you needed to learn.’”
All three of Sheila Edelson’s sons became Eagle Scouts in Troop 73. She loved how Benator’s troop instilled Jewish family values into her sons.
“Boy Scouts gave our sons — really all of us — a better, happier Jewish identity,” she said.
She has a daughter as well, and she added that Benator often said, “If she could’ve been an Eagle Scout, she would have.”
Touching lives to this day
Benator now watches as the scouts he raised go on to make differences in their own communities. In some cases, they’ve even saved lives.
“I walked into the gym, and this guy was on the floor,” said Dr. Jerry Edelson, one of Sheila’s sons and a captain in the medical core stationed at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston. “I said, ‘I’m a doctor,’ and I went and checked his pulse and started CPR. I then got an AED (automated external defibrillator) and gave him two shocks.”
The fellow soldier survived with no long-term brain damage. According to Sheila, his first time taking CPR was with the Boy Scouts, something he told Benator the next time he saw him.
According to Sugarman, Benator does a great job keeping up with all of his former scouts and their lives.
“Anytime anything significant happened in my life, I got a lengthy and beautiful handwritten note congratulating me, whether it had been something Rabbinical, or if we had a child or grandchild,” Sugarman said. “He never missed an occasion to connect and always (did so) with warmth and depth.”
“Josiah worked with (scouts) and took interest in each and every one of them, and had been doing it for almost 70 years,” said Jim Breedlove, the club’s selection committee chair. “That is unheard of in scouting. Being a scoutmaster is one of the most responsible decisions any person can have in any organization, and to assume that role and continue it after 70 years is legendary.”
Benator lives at his house with the person he called “the true honoree,” his wife Birdie. They’ve been married for almost 70 years, and they have seven children (the oldest died in an automobile accident in 1980). He has 13 grandchildren.
“At 95, I still have my mind … I’m not driving anymore, but I made the adjustment, and I don’t cry about that,” Benator said. “I’m delighted I’m still here with my kids and their kids.”
Regardless of all he’s lived through and all of the lives he’s changed over the years, he said he isn’t done yet.
“Hey, way up there or way down there, I’m not ready yet. I’ve still got things to do.”
History of the 10th Armored Division
Sept. 23, 1944 — The 10th arrived at Cherbourg, France.
Sept. 30, 1944 — Joining General George Patton’s Third Army, the 10th trained for a month in Teurtheville, France.
Oct. 29, 1944 — In Mars-la Tour, France, the 10th received its baptism under fire (first battle).
Nov. 19, 1944 — The 10th fought its way along the Siegfried Line and entered Germany.
Dec.16, 1944 — Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Offensive) starts when three German armies ambush Allied armies in Northwest Europe.
Dec. 17, 1944 — In Luxembourg, France, the 10th was ordered to move to Bastogne, Belgium due to the Ardennes Offensive.
Dec. 20, 1944 — The 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne is completely encircled by the German XLVII Panzer Corps.
Dec. 23, 1944 — The weather clears allowing Allied transport planes to drop supplies to the worn out forces at Bastogne.
Dec. 26, 1944 — The American 4th Armored Division arrives in Bastogne and helps stabilize the city.
Dec. 28, 1944 — Adolf Hitler orders a halt to the advance but not to retreat. Allied forces begin to push German forces out of France and Belgium.
Jan. 16, 1945 — Josiah Benator was evacuated to the 198th General Hospital in Paris, France after a German mortar shell hit next to his foxhole.
Feb. 7, 1945 — Any land gains during the Ardennes Offensive have been erased. Germans suffered more than over 85,000 casualties, and the Allied Forces suffered roughly 110,000 casualties.
April 30, 1945 — Hitler commits suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin, Germany.
May 7, 1945 — Germany surrenders, ending the European conflict of World War II.