AT age 103, Guyana’s longest surviving Veteran, Benjamin Durante still has vivid reflections of living through World War II and how it impacted him and the world around him. But even more dramatic, he recalls how sobering it was for him when co-incidentally he got ‘wind’ of the news that World War II had ended.
Perhaps because of the nature of the information (military intelligence), naturally everything would have initially been shrouded in secrecy, but when he got the news, it ‘hit him like a bullet.’
And so for him, it remains a miracle how the news had reached him in such a timely fashion, even before it had officially been filtered down.
At the time, Benjamin Durante was enlisted as a member of the South Caribbean Forces, with headquarters at Eve Leary, and was on duty in the compound when the news came. It was then that he got an experience which he says has convinced him beyond the shadow of a doubt that the hand of the Lord is upon the nation of Guyana.
He recalls that one night he was posted to keep sentry in the compound when a German transmission was picked up on a guard’s radio.
The transmission on the radio set indicated that the Germans were in British Guiana’s water, ready for action and seeking intelligence on what they should do next.
Then came the reply: “ ‘Do nothing! The war is over!’ And that meant that Guyana was saved by the skin of its teeth,” Durante said.
Asked what action he thought they might have taken, hadn’t the war been declared over, he forthrightly responded: “They might have blown us apart.”
It was the most glorious moment for him, and all who had suffered and/or lost loved ones or were in any way under threat for as long as the war lasted.
Durante, born and bred in Plaisance, East Coast Demerara, recalls that within hours, it was officially declared that World War II was over and that it had taken effect from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, in 1945.
Having enlisted in the South Caribbean Forces, Durante, loyal to the cause and with a passion for soldiering, even though he’d gotten married just one year before joining the Forces, continued to serve honourably for the next three years until the disbanding of the Force in 1945. While in the Force he was promoted to Lance Corporal in the Quarter Master Store.
With the disbanding of the Force, Durante was pondering his next move when he was made an offer to become a customs officer but opted to become engaged in building construction. He said his father had instilled into his and his brothers’ minds that if you do carpentry you can’t be out of a job. And so he did a correspondence course in construction with the Technical Institute of Great Britain, after which he was certified and got jobs with some of the most prestigious entities.
Some of the buildings on which he recalls working include The Girl Guides Pavilion; the Salvation Army at South Road and Alexander Streets; a hardware store at the corner of Camp and Robb Streets; and working alongside what was known as ‘Ashe and Watson Contracting Firm’.
However, what he did not know at the time when he refused the Customs job, he had refused a pensionable which would have ensured that after retirement he would have been entitled to a pension for life. And as misfortune would have it, in the long run, he lost his sight as a result of an injury suffered while doing construction work in the city of Georgetown.
Explaining how he lost his sight, Durante told the Pepperpot Magazine that while he was still in the construction business, he was working on a building on South Road when one day, one of his fellow employees hurriedly came up from behind him with the shocking news that “Kabaka” (President Forbes Burnham) had died.
“At the time I was chipping and installing a door. As I impulsively spun around, something flew into my right eye. I did not know at the time what it was, but I can tell you, it pained badly and had me doing it,” he said.
He added his eye was washed and checked, nothing was found until one week later he went to the hospital, but sadly, the doctor informed him that he had waited too long. A piece of green-heart was in the socket and had poisoned his eyes.
Sadly, he recalled that the eye became so inflamed, it was red like blood, so much so, that children would scream and run away whenever they saw him coming. The net result was that he lost vision in the right eye and later, both eyes.
It was then that reality hit him real hard. Even though he had become well qualified and certified in the construction business, without his sight, he was no longer able to work and this is where a pension would have served him well. But he had lost that opportunity.
That apart, all his faculties are functioning reasonably well. He has a good appetite and claims to eat just about anything his wife and daughter prepare for him.
Having lived for many years in Plaisance and contributed to the development of the village, with his hard-earned gains, he later moved to Goedverwagting where he became married for the second time and is enjoying the comfort of his home, and compassionate care of his new wife and one of his older daughters.
Twice married and having fathered 12, (one of whom is now deceased) “Benjie”, as he is fondly called, considers himself to have lived a full life, but not before spending four solid years as a serviceman in the South Caribbean Forces at Eve Leary, prior to the Guyana Defence Force coming into being.
At this time of his life, the signature greatest moment for him is the rolling out of the Armistice Day programme of activities when veteran soldiers are honoured and servicemen and women who lost their lives during World Wars I and II are honoured by His Excellency the President of Guyana, as well as Members of the Diplomatic Corps and other dignitaries. Later they are joined by family members and fellow members of the Joint Services for a period of socialising.