From an early age, Vernon Lyle Bensley could be counted on to excel.
Perhaps it was his status as the second-youngest of Joseph and Anna Bensley’s eight children that helped him find whatever drive it took to stand out among the crowd. Whatever the case, evidence is dotted along the path of his all-too-short life that he was someone who could be counted upon to get things done.
The first evidence we see of young Vernon’s drive begins at age 10. He is living in tiny Iroquois, South Dakota, with his parents and his siblings who have not yet moved on to homes of their own.
S/Sgt. Vernon L. Bensley
One of the area papers, the Evening Huronite, sponsors a regular contest in which children who color in the paper’s comic strips can win a ticket to the Huron Theatre. Vernon is one of the winners announced in the August 9, 1934, edition, and that’s only the beginning. For the next few years, his name appears regularly among those whose “neat” and “attractive” coloring efforts earn them a free movie.
By 1938, at age 14, Vernon is inducted into the Busy Cub 4-H Club of Iroquois, and that same year he is elected freshman class secretary and treasurer at Iroquois High School. He remains involved in a variety of activities throughout high school and as a senior in November 1941 he takes first place in the school oratory competition, giving him the opportunity to advance to the district-level competition.
A kid like that in November 1941 would have been well aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. But sitting in a classroom in Iroquois every day — a little over 100 miles from Sioux Falls, a little under 300 miles from Minneapolis — it’s hard to believe the youngest of the four Bensley boys could have imagined what awaited him once the dominoes started falling the following month.
The first priority of the American troops landing at Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day was to establish a foothold on the continent, which they were able to do by sundown on June 6, 1944. The second was to secure a port, Cherbourg, to facilitate the unending influx of men and materiel needed to end the war in Europe once and for all.
John D. Kelly
The 79th Infantry Division missed D-Day, having arrived in England only two months earlier, but it had a key role to play in the drive to secure the capstone of the Cotentin Peninsula. After landing at Omaha Beach on June 14 (D+8), the 79th drove west and turned north toward Cherbourg in company with the 4th and 9th Divisions.
Among the men in the 314th Regiment of the 79th was a former logger from northwestern Pennsylvania, Cpl. John D. Kelly. The 23-year-old’s courage was to play a critical role in sealing off a port the Allies considered crucial to their invasion strategy.
More than half of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II were recognized posthumously. Today we look at brief sketches of three men who died on November 19 — one in 1943, two in 1944 — while bringing honor to themselves and their country.
Capt. John P. Cromwell, Navy
Capt. John P. Cromwell
The 42-year-old Illinois native was in charge of a wolf pack of four submarines in the Pacific and was aboard the U.S.S. Sculpin on November 19, 1943, when she was fatally wounded in an engagement with the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo. Due to damage caused by depth charges, the Sculpin had to surface and was finished off by the destroyer’s guns.
As the rest of the crew abandoned ship, Cromwell and 11 others remained aboard and scuttled the vessel. Cromwell was afraid his knowledge of Ultra — the allied success in breaking German codes — and other key plans might be extracted from him under torture, so he chose to go down with the ship.
Cromwell’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the U.S.S. Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Capt. Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
For tens of thousands of soldiers, World War II consisted of a seemingly endless series of bridges that needed to be crossed to get to a small European crossroads that needed to be taken.
Too small to appear on those maps printed back home in newspapers, so neatly adorned with miniature flags and dramatic arrows, these villages played host to engagements that didn’t seem to matter much in the grand scheme of a global conflict but nonetheless were part of the everyday duties of the grunts charged with handling the task.
Han-sur-Nied was one of those places, and on November 11, 1944, 1st Lt. Vernon L. Edwards was one of the men who would bear its burden.