Local WWII veteran wins high French honor

by Len Lear
Posted 4/11/24

World War II veteran Benjamin Berry, a Germantown resident who celebrated his 100th birthday last Sept. 16, just received a belated birthday present.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Local WWII veteran wins high French honor


World War II veteran Benjamin Berry, a Germantown resident who celebrated his 100th birthday last Sept. 16, just received a belated birthday present.

On March 18, the centenarian received the Legion of Honor, the highest honor awarded by the government of France. The Ceremonie Legion d'honneur took place at the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The award, first created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is now given annually to 300 people who helped France and the Allies defeat the Nazis in World War II.

“I am so honored,” Berry told us in a phone interview last week. “Eight years ago, I went back to France, which was wonderful, and the French government asked me to come back this June with my family, all expenses paid, but my kids don't want me to go. My legs are not so good anymore, and I don't want to push it.” 

As a Black soldier, Berry served in segregated units with mostly white officers 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. He served at the front in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, and was in the Battle of the Bulge – the deadliest battle of the war in which more than 19,000 Americans died. He was also one of the G.I.s who liberated Dachau concentration camp.

After the war, Berry returned to Philadelphia 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 the walls of the Ronald McDonald House. 

At the time, 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 that when he walks down the street in a WWII hat and strangers thank him for his service.

Benjamin Melvin Berry, one of four children, was born to parents Hester and James Wallace Berry Sr. on Sept. 21, 1923. He proudly traces 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 Washington, D.C., in the mid-19th century. Their story is told in the book, “Fugitives of the Pearl,” by John H. Paynter. 

Berry grew 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 Miller Graves, who would become his wife of 58 years. She died in 2004.

“I prayed that if God let me survive the war, I would serve Him the rest of my 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 Berry and his wife were married in 1947, the rent on their apartment was $1 a day. They moved to East Duval Street in 1957, where he lived until he moved to Stapeley. 

Berry has four children, nine grandchildren, many great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Two of the many nonmilitary 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.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com