CLARKSBURG W.Va. (WBOY) — An Anmoore resident is looking to bring attention to the lack of visitors and contact many veterans are receiving at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Jim Lachapelle talked with 12 News about his time with 101-year-old World War II veteran and lover of gardening Ben Portaro.
Portaro came to the United States from Italy when he was a toddler. His father settled in Anmoore West Virginia, working as a coal miner. When Portaro’s father came to America, he brought with him seeds from Italy. When the seeds of the Cubanelle peppers and San Marzano peppers fully grew, Ben’s father would take out the seeds and use them to plant the next generation, a practice now followed by Ben Portaro’s children, planting the same lineage of peppers and tomatoes their grandfather brought with him to America.
Portaro enlisted in the Army when he was 21 and was stationed in London as a non-combatant. Lachapelle said London was one of Portaro’s favorite locations in Europe while he was stationed there, a city far larger than his hometown of Anmoore. As the Battle of the Bulge was beginning, Portaro volunteered for an armed unit and was sent to the front lines of the western front in the Ardennes forests.
During the battle, Portaro’s unit ran out of ammunition and was captured by German forces. Ben and his fellow soldiers were held prisoner in German prison camps for five months. As the Allies advanced further into the Ardennes region, the Germans moved their prisoners further and further back, where eventually, Portaro and a fellow U.S. soldier were able to escape under the cover of night, hiding in bushes and shrubs as the German troops moved past them.
When Portaro got back to the American lines he had lost much of his weight and spent several weeks recovering from the experience, and was intended to be shipped out to the Pacific front. The war ended before he was deployed again.
Ben Portaro was awarded a Bronze Star and Prisoner of War Medal for his service.
Portaro is currently in the rehabilitation center at the Louis A Johnson VA Medical Center following heart problems and is not the only veteran there who sacrificed part of their lives to fight overseas. Barring poor health, Portaro was supposed to fly to the French embassy in Washington D.C. this week to receive an award from the French government.
“Ben’s part of the greatest generation we ever had, and he has a wealth of knowledge about everything and is willing to share. It’s a shame that more people didn’t have contact with him to share with what he knew, and the sacrifices he made, along with all the others,” Lachapelle said.
Lachapelle said he wants to remind residents of Clarksburg and the surrounding areas of the sacrifices veterans in have made and encourages people to write cards of thanks and well-wishes to all the veterans staying in the VA Hospital, not just Ben Portaro.
Its mailing address is 1 Medical Center Dr., Clarksburg, WV 26301.