Don Wilson, left, and Ben Smith both served in the U.S. Navy During World War II.

Don Wilson, left, and Ben Smith both served in the U.S. Navy During World War II.

Photos provided

Veterans in Novi recall life during WWII for 80th anniversary of D-Day

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published June 5, 2024

 Don Wilson, left, and Ben Smith pose for photos at Rose Senior Living in Novi May 30.

Don Wilson, left, and Ben Smith pose for photos at Rose Senior Living in Novi May 30.

Photos by Charity Meier


NOVI — June 6, 2024, marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

It was the day when troops from the Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, France, to liberate Western Europe from Nazi Germany during World War II. The operation was known by the codename Overlord. In total, five naval assault divisions invaded the beaches of Normandy in what became known as the largest amphibious invasion in military history and what was a major turning point in the war.

Novi resident Ben Smith, 97, was just 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating high school in Franklin Grove, Illinois, in 1944. However, he never left the country. He was stationed in California until he was discharged in June 1946.

“I heard of it and I was fully aware of it at that time,” Smith said.

“I know there was a big lead-up to it. We knew it was going to happen,” he said.

He said the word got to people even in his small hometown of Franklin Grove, Illinois, where his graduating class was a total of 20 kids — 18 girls and 2 boys. Smith said that because of the war effort, he had to complete his studies at home for most of his junior year, as he was needed to work on his uncle’s farm, because all the older men were off fighting. The last two months of his senior year, he had to drive a gravel truck to help repair the roads in his town.

According to Smith the buildup from the news made them aware that something was going to happen soon. He said they were aware that the Allied forces had driven Hitler out of North Africa.

“You knew there was enough news going around that you knew that the war was winding down — that we were on the way to victory,” recalled Smith.

Smith said that one of his neighbors, a young man four years his senior, Bill Black, was killed in the D-Day invasion. He said that Black was a farm kid who grew up about a mile down the road from him. Smith said that Black’s death brought a lot of sadness to the town, as he said everybody knew Black.

“War is hell,” said Mary Smith, Ben Smith’s wife of 75 years, as to what can be learned from World War II.

“That was a time when things were really, really dicy in Europe,” said Don Wilson, 97, of Novi, who served stateside in the U.S. Navy during WWII. “Everybody they could get their hands on, they were giving them a gun and sending them to France. I did not want to be one of the ones that went to France to mop up the war. Those were rough times over there. So I was able to get into the naval ROTC.”

Wilson said he chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy just prior to his high school graduation, as he knew he didn’t want to be drafted into the Army. He said he elected to take a special class to learn how to take care of the electronics on the ships. Following that, he was transferred to the University of Louisville for officer training and was discharged from service a year later. He said he was very lucky, as he served in the Navy stateside in Kentucky and his brother was in the Army Air Forces but also served stateside in Florida, and they managed to be so far removed from the physical fighting and the danger. Wilson said that he didn’t know anybody personally that was involved in the physical war effort in Europe.

“I do remember that when the war was declared over, that we were all pretty happy about it,” said Wilson. “That’s for sure, because it meant a lot to everybody.”

Smith said the war taught people that relationships with countries and people are extremely difficult.

“We had a very difficult relationship with Russia for years, and then we had a relationship with Cuba — you had to be so very careful of that,” Smith said.

He explained how the world was different 80 years ago.

“During World War II, there wasn’t anybody that wasn’t involved. Everybody — they had children in service or they were working in the war industry, producing things for the armed forces, and to think of doing anything like that now is just inconceivable. I just can’t imagine anything like that anymore. The world was different then. There was not the communication, there wasn’t television, and right now coming right into your home are all of these things that are going on in the world, and people had to write things for people to read and there was radio (back then). Thank God for radio, but it’s nothing like the way we communicate with each other nowadays on an international basis constantly. I hope we don’t get to the point where anything can start. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world. People your age are raising children now and thinking about where are they going to be? What kind of a future they’re going to have. You hate to think about anything other than the way it is, say, now, which I think is maybe just getting better.”