1926-2015 Don A. Banta dies; World War II paratrooper, labor lawyer

SHARE 1926-2015 Don A. Banta dies; World War II paratrooper, labor lawyer

World War II paratrooper Don Banta was at the Battle of the Bulge and Operation VArsity.

Don Banta gave a gift to his family and historians by writing down his vivid memories of serving in World War II, including being in the middle of Operation Varsity, the largest airborne assault in a single day in military history, when 17,000 Allied paratroopers rained down from the skies over Germany on March 24, 1945. Nearly 3,000 of them would die.

Mr. Banta made it through the hellish fighting. He lived to be 89 and went on to become a respected Chicago labor lawyer. He died at Weiss Memorial Hospital March 30 after suffering a stroke.

Daredevil war correspondent Robert Capa jumped with Mr. Banta’s 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Army’s 17th Airborne Division. He “hit the ground very close to me. Capa calmly went on shooting pictures in the middle of all the firing,” Mr. Banta said in his memoir.

At one point, he was so close to Gen. George S. Patton, he could see the general’s famed ivory-handled revolvers. He wasn’t a fan of the pugnacious Patton. Echoing dialogue from the George C. Scott film about the commander, Mr. Banta wrote, “He is called ‘Blood and Guts’ for a reason. But it has been the regiment’s guts.”

He also recalled the marrow-freezing misery of the Battle of the Bulge.

In Germany, Mr. Banta said, the “Displaced Persons” used as Nazi slave labor rose at night, like avenging ghosts, from underground coal mines they lived in. They inflicted nocturnal retribution on their former captors by killing cows and vandalizing property.

Young Don Banta grew up on a farm outside Joliet during the Great Depression. His father lost his job, and for a time wound up selling and installing burglar alarms “for farmers afraid of chicken thieves,” he wrote. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse with 40 other children.

Saturdays meant going to the “air-cooled” Princess theater in Joliet, where an afternoon of Buck Jones and Flash Gordon serials — plus a movie — cost 10 cents. Evenings were spent listening to radio dramas, including “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” and thrilling to the William Tell Overture announcing “The Lone Ranger.”

His maternal grandfather told young Don that “he was four years old when President Lincoln was assassinated, and that he and his siblings ran to hide under the bed when they heard this news.”

Unmoored by the Great Depression, hobos often appeared at the Banta home, looking for work in exchange for a sandwich. Mr. Banta had a colorful writing style that would make his court briefs refreshingly free of legalese. The hobos were “not ordinarily thieves, knaves or reprobates,” he said in his memoir.

After high school, he studied at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and entered the Army at Camp Wolters, Tex., where a sergeant lined up the newbies and said, “All right, you can put away your f——- books and foo foo water, you’re in the Army now.” He enlisted in the parachute infantry.

Serving in France, en route to Bastogne, Mr. Banta came upon a traffic jam. “Suddenly General Patton came speeding by in his Jeep, standing up and clutching the windshield, decked out in his sheepskin coat, lacquered helmet, and (ivory)-handled pistols. He issued some very unequivocal orders at the intersection and things quickly became unglued,” he wrote. “One of the troopers on our truck yelled, ‘Hiya General,’ and Patton said, ‘How do you like it over here, son?’ The trooper replied, ‘Why, I found a happy home over here, sir,’ to which the general responded, ‘You better watch out or some son-of-a-bitch will dig your grave over here.’”

At the Battle of the Bulge, “The bulky wool overcoats and buckled overshoes were useless, and frostbite/trench foot was rampant,” Mr. Banta said.

In Germany, he was among the soldiers who secured the barracks of recently departed German troops. The “Yanks” helped themselves to beer the Germans had just left behind. “There was warm coffee sitting around and smoke from the ashtrays,” his son said.

Like many of his generation, he was modest about the war. In a letter to his mother in January 1945, he said: “The boys had a rough go of it today.”

“As it happens,” his son said, “that week the 513th had suffered extremely high casualties at Dead Man’s Ridge.”

After the war, while studying law at Northwestern University, he met a B-24 pilot who’d also been in Operation Varsity. The pilot mentioned one of his crewman had been killed when he became tangled up in a supply bundle he was dropping, plummeting to his death. In a stunning coincidence, Mr. Banta realized he had witnessed it happen from the ground.

He met Maxine Edwards Banta, his wife of 64 years, through a law school friend.

He practiced labor law for Montgomery Ward and worked 40 years for the firm that became known as Banta, Hennessy and Graefe, representing corporations and excelling as a negotiator, mediator and trial attorney, said lawyer Kevin Hennessy, a former protege now with Vedder Price. “He was highly ethical and honest,” Hennessy said.

Mr. Banta’s children credit the movie “Saving Private Ryan” for his decision to write down his Army memories. He rarely talked about his experiences, but after seeing the movie, “He came home and he cried for the first time about the war in decades,” said his daughter, Hillary Ebach, a lawyer for Chicago Sun-Times parent Wrapports. “He said it was the only movie he’d seen that was realistic.”

“It unleashed a lot of emotions he hadn’t felt in a long time, in particular, survivor’s guilt,” said his son.

After raising their children in Deerfield, Don and Maxine Banta moved downtown, where they enjoyed walking everywhere. He retired at 76.

WWII veteran Don Banta practiced labor law in Chicago for more than 40 years.

He taught himself French by reading Le Monde and listening to French tapes. “He ultimately connected with a guy in Belgium who studied the 17th airborne and he corresponded with him in French,” his daughter said.

In the last year, Mr. Banta was teaching himself calculus and reading Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica,” she said.

Six-foot-four and dapper, he wore bow ties and Charles Tyrwhitt English shirts. He enjoyed trips to Paris and taking care of his bonsai plants.

Mr. Banta is also survived by two more daughters, Stephanie and Meredith Banta, and six grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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