Coach “Ben” Schwartzwalder, Veteran of the 507th Parachute Infantry, Normandy

Posted by on Nov 3, 2013 in Tributes and Remembrances

Coach “Ben” Schwartzwalder, Veteran of the 507th Parachute Infantry, Normandy

by Ed Kochian, International Experience 2010

LTC Ben Schwartzwalder (Courtesy of Syracuse University Archives)

For the American men that participated in Operation Overlord on the 6th of June 1944 D-Day, their lives would be forever changed. I find from my twelve day immersion in Normandy this past summer (12-24 July 2010) like Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, it has stayed with me wherever I go! I have since found many new perspectives and details about the events in Normandy that have enriched me and make me yearn to revisit.

During my trip to Normandy with Normandy Allies, my thoughts frequently turned to Floyd “Ben” Schwartzwalder, the former head football coach at Syracuse University (S.U.) during much of my youth in Syracuse, NY. I knew he was a member of the 82nd Airborne at Normandy and that he was buried in the Onondaga County Veterans Cemetery, but didn’t know much more. I was determined to visit the gravesite after returning home and learn more of Ben’s military history.

So I began the research on Ben’s military career. I learned immediately that many areas we visited as part of our immersion included the very battlegrounds where Ben and the men of the 507th Parachute Infantry were engaged in bitter fighting.

He parachuted in during the wee hours of the morning on D-Day and was immediately engaged in a life and death struggle with the German Army near Amfreville in the Merderet River area, La Fière and Sainte-Mère-Eglise.

Le Merderet River

He earned a Silver Star for his bravery and leadership. (See letter from Major General M. B. Ridgway, below, courtesy of Syracuse University Archives)

Upon learning this and more, I visited the cemetery to search for his marker. When I finally located it, I wondered whether many knew where he was buried or if many knew of his intrepidity and valor!

I decided to approach the S.U. Football program with a suggestion to honor Schwartzwalder on Veteran’s Day. They immediately embraced the idea without hesitation. After several preparatory meetings with Coach Brotski, Director of Player Development and a brief meeting with Head Coach Doug Marrone, we agreed on a planned recognition that would enable players to realize the rich tradition of leadership in sports and in life that has preceded them. Coach Marrone insisted at the start that there be no publicity attendant with the events. It was further agreed that I would give a briefing on Coach Ben’s military record after the team breakfast at 8:30am on the chosen day. (I reached out to our Veteran’s Service Agency for assistance with the research.) The briefing included some World War II movie clips prepared by the football team’s AV group and select photos which I took in France.

Ben Scwartzwalder’s life and military history is interesting and compelling. He was a superb athlete (a high school and college wrestler and football player) and was coaching high school football among other things in Canton, Ohio when he entered the active army. He was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was 33 years old when Pearl Harbor was struck by Japan on December 7, 1941. He entered the active U.S. Army two months later in February of 1942. He chose Airborne!

After initially shipping out to Ireland, he ended up in England to prepare for the eventual “debarquement” (French for “landing”) across the English Channel to France. While in England many of the men played in a football league to reduce idleness and keep the men physically fit. Captain Ben Schwartzwalder coached the men of the 507th along with Colonel Red Pearson to an undefeated, unscored-upon season and championship!

Captain Schwartzwalder was a leader of men and earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star and Presidential unit citation among his honors.

After the player briefing, I asked the team tri-captains to come forward. At that time I gave them a container of sand from Omaha Beach to carry to the Veteran’s Cemetery later that morning. At approximately 11:45am (on the day after veteran’s Day, November 12th ) 80 young men and coaches dressed in suits, sport jackets and neckties alit from the team buses at the Veteran’s Cemetery and walked quietly to Schwartzwalder gravesite. Unlike the white marble “Latin crosses” and Stars of David at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach, the markers are horizontal gray granite markers. The team formed a semi-circle around his marker. Two players laid a wreath at the head of the marker. The tri-captains then came forward as planned. The designated tri-captain cautiously and reverently poured the sand around the perimeter of the marker. Coach Marrone stepped forward and spoke to the team about the man, Floyd B. “Ben” Schwartzwalder, and led everyone in prayer aloud. The team then quietly and in an orderly, respectful manner walked back to their buses to depart for their road trip to Rutgers University. Several paused at the marker and some knelt to touch the gravestone.

In the end Ben Schwartzwalder had been laid to rest among his fellow soldiers, his teammates. A humble marker, like all the rest, reads:

Floyd B. Schwartzwalder
LTC US Army
World War II
June 2 1909     April 23 1993

Our very first evening in Normandy, in Bayeux, our group gathered for a reception. Sergeant Major Charles Frick raised his glass to make a toast. I expected something lengthy; instead what he said was brief and profound. He simply said, “To Veterans!”

I am offering my salute to Ben Schwartzwalder and all veterans and to Normandy Allies for honoring and keeping the memories alive! The Normandy experience has touched me in countless ways. I continue to discover great historical facts and stories behind the history of the places and people who made history. In the end, I am grateful for the great opportunity to have walked on the sand of Omaha Beach and to use it to honor a great American veteran!

Letter from Major General M. B. Ridgway, courtesy of Syracuse University Archives

Letter from Major General M. B. Ridgway, courtesy of Syracuse University Archives

Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
Request a complementary subscription to the newsletter here.

    2 Comments

  1. Ed, that article and the events described within have filled my heart with joy for the man I loved and called “coach”.

    I played FB & LB for Ben at SU entering with Floyd Little and many other great players and young men in the class of 1967. My only regret is I didn’t know more of the details of his military while playing for him.

    There was a time he looked at us during a pregame talk and made reference to the resolve needed to succeed much like he needed during the war to survive. I’ll never forget the depth of his eyes and the set of his jaw as he stressed the importance of full commitment. I understood then yet I understand better now.

    May he rest in piece knowing I for one lived a life of honesty, loyalty and hard work, mirroring his examples and raised my family in a manner “coach” would be proud.

    Murray W Johnson
    SU 67′

  2. One of the greatest privileges in my life was to know Be and to have the chance to play football for him while at Syracuse University. He was a true legend, and I am not sure I have ever met a person that was more of a straight shooter than Ben. He was a leader. First in battle, where, as Captain Schwartzwalter, he guided his men in battle on D-Day. His bravery and leadership is chronicled in many World War II books, and history shows a truly selfless man, who did what was right, no matter what the consequences might be–perhaps even death.

    As a coach and leader at Syracuse University, he led many young men into the battles of the gridiron. With Ben as coach, there was no one on the team that was afraid to go out and play their very best in every game. It was no accident that Ben would win the National Championship in 1959, and it was also no accident that Ben was one of the leaders in giving African American Athletes a chance to play on the major college stage. At a time when conferences–like the SEC–would have no athletes of color, Coach Ben was unafraid to have his student athletes of character play the game, despite being criticized at the time, by other coaches who felt that athletes of color should not play in college football.

    Yes, Ben was a leader, and a man who made leaders of those that were lucky enough to have played for him, and know him. I got to know Ben after graduation at a more personal level, and was lucky to have him relate some of the stories of D-Day, and his time in the service.

    I am proud to have had the chance to play for Ben. I remember when Coach Marrone took the team to Ben’s grave. I was not there, but I knew that each of those young men who were there that day, and heard Ben’s history as related to them by Ed, were not only lucky, but that the way they looked at life–and yes even football–would never be the same.

    I have not been to France to see the Bridge at Merderet that Ben and his men so bravely held despite the great odds against them. My hope is to visit the bridge and the beaches some day, to get an up close view of the area.

    My hope is that everyone that played for Ben has a true understanding of how lucky we all were, and understands what a great man he was. He coached to build young men’s character. While winning was secondary, Coach Ben’s teams won not only because of his coaching ability, but because of his leadership, and the ability to transfer those leadership qualities to those on the team capable of learning what true leadership means. I hope this piece that Ed has written gets circulated throughout the hierarchy of the administration and the Board at Syracuse University. At times, the University agenda’s sometimes gets in the way of true history and the truth. Each of them should know that Ben Schwartzwalder was an unusually gifted man, who lived in the world of decency, respect, fairness, and understanding. He was a man dedicated to those that he coached–and the University where he spent most of his adult life. He should be remembered as the truly remarkable and giving individual that he was.

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