Editors Note: For more than a week, I knew this day was coming. The day when my wife would tell me that one of the most impressive men I’ve ever met has died. John ‘Ben’ Woodbury was a 92-year-old veteran who lived quietly in a modest home on Pleasant street in Saco with the love of his life, his wife Stella.
It seemed appropriate that he and Stella lived only blocks from Main Street. Between them both, they seemed to know everyone who found their way to the center of the city, to the place they called home.
Here is a story I wrote about Ben a few years ago. I’d like to think it captures a bit of the spirit and enthusiasm for life that Ben seemed to have each and every time I had the chance to speak with him. I will miss him, but I won’t forget.
By nature, 17-year-old boys are impatient and, in June 1940, after finishing his junior year at Biddeford High School, Ben Woodbury wanted to do more than stay in school.
His older brother, David, had already left home and enlisted in the Naval Reserve, and at the time, that seemed like a good idea to Woodbury.
“My friends were all going, so I wanted to go too,” he said.
Without his mother’s permission, Woodbury traveled to Portland and enlisted.
According to Woodbury, his brother was mad when he found out that he had enlisted. Woodbury thought that by signing up for the reserves, he would go to basic training and then report for duty only one weekend a month.
It didn’t work out that way. It would be more than five years before Woodbury was able to return home for good.
“I went to Newport for basic and from there I was assigned to school,” he said. Woodbury was assigned to the Navy’s class-A school for machinist’s mates in Dearborn, Mich., and from there, he went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the USS Rhind.
The Rhind was a small destroyer whose primary mission was to escort merchant ships across the treacherous north Atlantic from the US to Iceland or Europe.
“I spent most of my time in the engine room,” he said. “Days would go by and the only time I would be on deck was at night.”
“The U-Boats were there and they knew we were supplying the British,” Woodbury said. “War had not been declared, but it wasn’t good.”
After two years on the Rhind and several trips across the Atlantic, Woodbury was promoted and transferred from the ship. By then it was 1942, the country was at war and according to Woodbury, the Navy wanted experienced sailors on the new ships that were being built.
“They just told me one day that I was going to the Philip,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
The USS Philip was a fletcher class destroyer that was being built in Kearny, N.J.
Woodbury was transferred from one ship to the other and, as soon as the sea trials were completed, both he and the ship were headed for the war in the South Pacific.
The ship saw action in 1943 in the Solomons as both an escort vessel and as part of the anti-submarine campaign against the empire of Japan.
“I can remember looking outside and seeing these things going into the water,” he said with a laugh. “The chief was yelling at me, “Those are bombs!” ”
Woodbury served on the ship through 1944 and was part of the campaign to retake the Philippines. That action is noted for the sheer number of kamikaze attacks against the ships.
“I knew we were in the middle of it when I heard the guns,” he said.
Through it all, Woodbury remembered his roots and his family back home.
“During my enlistment, I only had leave once for 15 days,” he said. “It just never worked out. I went right from school to the ship and with the war; there was no leave.”
At the end of his enlistment, his commanders tried to talk him into re-enlisting. He was young and had done well in the service, but he said no. In 1945, Machinist’s Mate First Class Woodbury came home for good.
On Oct. 27 of that year, Navy Day no less, he married the girl he came home for, Stella Trougakos. This year, Stella and Ben would have celebrated their 71st anniversary.
“I never forgot the education and discipline I got in the Navy,” Woodbury said.
He worked at the Saco Lowell mill for 19 years and when the company started to wind down and moved its operations to South Carolina, Woodbury was offered a raise if he would join them.
“I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said with a laugh.
A friend of his from the Navy told him about a job opening at Raytheon Corp. in Lowell, Mass.
Woodbury applied and became a manufacturing engineer for the defense industry contractor.
During his 27 years with the company, Woodbury never forgot his Biddeford-Saco roots.
“We built a house in Lowell,” he said. “But they called me a carpetbagger.”
When Woodbury and his wife first moved to Lowell, he met with the chief of police and asked him if he needed to change the license plates on his car.
“It was supposed to be just a three-to-five-year contract,” he said.
The chief said that if Woodbury and his wife went home to Maine each weekend, and he kept the car in a garage there, he could keep the plates.
“That was good enough for me,” Woodbury said.
After 27 years with the company and at the age of 62, Woodbury knew it was time to go home.
“We just wanted to come back,” he said.
Woodbury and his wife retired and they have spent the last 30 years living in Saco surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors.
Keeping active was never a problem for Woodbury and, from the time he and Stella moved back to Saco, he has been a fixture on the roads, slopes, and ballfields of his home state.
“I skied at Sunday River when it was $5 and they had two rope tows,” he said. “We went almost every weekend.”
He finally stopped skiing at the age of 83. The deciding factor was not his age, but his concern for his wife. He couldn’t image what would happen if she needed him and he was off skiing.
He seems to have carried the lessons he learned serving his country his whole life.
“What if she needed me,” he said. “‘Oh, he’s skiing,’ she would tell them. That wouldn’t be right.”