By Col. Kent Laughbaum, 355th Wing Commander
/ Published November 09, 2006
Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. --
I am thankful for the thousands of good men and women, across the many generations since 1776, who answered the clarion call to defend the United States of America in battle. On this Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, 2006, we honor those who risked all to serve their country.
The Declaration of Independence, our cherished document that established us as a people, leads with this familiar phrase:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
We are a people who, from our very beginnings, understand the blessings of freedom and liberty. These treasured concepts from our Declaration give us hope in a better future for our children, which in essence is the American dream. Americans are an optimistic, generous and peace-loving people. These early words from the Declaration are a statement for hope in the good of man. However, Americans also understand that the freedom and liberty we enjoy are perishable, and must be guarded with constant vigilance.
For those of us in uniform today, veterans of the ongoing war in Southwest Asia, we take inspiration and encouragement from those servicemen who defended America in earlier conflicts - World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Iraq War, the Balkan War, and other smaller yet vitally important battles.
One such veteran worthy of special attention was an Arizonian named Arthur J. Benko. Benko was a first generation American, born in Pennsylvania. As a young boy he moved to Bisbee, Arizona, with his parents. His life in Bisbee was typically American. At Bisbee High School he was a good student and an excellent athlete. During his senior year he was captain of the high school football team. After graduation from Bisbee High School in 1928, Benko gained employment in the mining industry as an electrician. He also worked part time in the Bisbee movie theater.
Of all of Arthur Benko's pre-war activities, he was best known as a superb marksman . . . one of the finest riflemen ever from Arizona. Not only was he was an avid outdoorsman and hunter, but he also served as president of the Bisbee Rifle and Pistol Club. His competitive accomplishments included placing sixth in a 1937 national rifle competition, and then winning the 1941 Arizona Rifle Championship. Without question, Benko used his skill as a marksman to great effect in combat during World War II.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Benko volunteered for the fight. Except for his age -- a little older than most other volunteers -- and his pre-war exploits as a marksman, he really was just a typical young man who loved America and wanted to defend his homeland. After induction into the U.S. Army Air Force he attended basic training at Sheppard Field, Texas, followed by turret gunner training at Las Vegas Army Gunner School in Nevada. With training complete, Sergeant Benko was assigned to his combat unit, the 374th Bomb Squadron from the 308th Bomb Group, flying B-24 Liberator bombers. Finally, in early 1943 Benko's squadron deployed to the China - Burma - India (CBI) Theater of operations for combat, and was assigned to 14th Air Force under command of the famous Clair Chennault.
A typical mission flown by the B-24 crews from the 374th Bomb Squadron might include a launch from their base in India, a several hundred mile cruise towards Japanese targets in eastern China or in Indo-China, a defense against attack from Japanese fighter aircraft, the actual bombing of Japanese targets, and finally the cruise back to their home base. Missions commonly lasted for longer than eight hours, and the loss of B-24's to enemy action was not uncommon. With 10 men in each B-24 aircraft, the sacrifices made to accomplish these missions were, at times, quite significant and difficult to bear.
It was during the dangers of actual combat that Sergeant Arthur Benko made the transformation from typical American to legitimate wartime hero. He served as the top turret gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber, nicknamed "The Goon" by the aircrew. Interestingly, the pilot of The Goon was 1st Lt. Samuel Skousen, a fellow Arizonian for whom Benko had great respect. Their targets included enemy airfields, shipping, coal yards, oil refineries and fuel dumps. Additionally, they provided direct support to the Chinese army, which was engaged in ground combat against the Japanese. However, as the top turret gunner in The Goon, Sergeant Benko's primary responsibility was to defend The Goon from Japanese fighters, particularly those attempting to attack from above the bomber formation.
Sergeant Arthur Benko's skill as a gunner was unmatched during his time in combat. According to the official 374th Bomb Squadron history, he achieved an astounding 16 confirmed kills against Japanese fighters. Possibly it was his expertise as a rifle marksman that contributed to his record, or maybe it was just his fate to face so many of the enemy. Regardless, during his time he was the most prolific turret gunner in the war. If he had survived World War II it is conceivable that Sergeant Benko would have been the most deadly turret gunner of all time.
The 308th Bomb Group flew its 20th mission on Oct. 1, 1943. By this time Sergeant Benko had already developed a tremendous reputation across the theater as a B-24 turret gunner, but during this mission his accomplishments would earn national notoriety. The targets were Japanese docks, warehouses and a powerplant near Haiphong. Twenty-two B-24s were launched for the mission, with fighter escort in the form of P-47s. All but one of the B-24s made it to the targets, which according to the official history, were attacked ". . . with good results." The 374th Bomb Squadron was the last of the Group to bomb the targets, and while departing the target area they were attacked by approximately 60 enemy fighters. The attack lasted for nearly 40 minutes, principally against the trailing 374th Bomb Squadron because the P-47 escort was leading the bomber formation. During the engagement Staff Sergeant Benko shot down a total of seven Japanese Zeros - an unprecedented feat. He was also injured during the fight when bullets from a Zero pierced his machine gun turret, grazing his skull and wrist.
In the days following this mission, rumors of Benko's accomplishments spread across the CBI theater of operations. In fact, news even reach America when a reporter from The Chicago Tribune recounted the story . . . at least what portions of the story that could make it past the censors.
By November 1943, the newly promoted "Technical Sergeant" Arthur Benko was a bona fide hero. This young man from Bisbee, Arizona, who began the war like so many others by simply volunteering to fight for America, had achieved more in battle than any of his peers. Sadly, just two weeks after his great mission Benko would give his life for the country he loved. On a mission against Japanese docks in Hong Kong, his aircraft developed severe engine trouble. Fearing that a crash was imminent, the pilot, 1st Lt. Skousen, ordered the crew to bail out. While the majority of the crew parachuted to safety, Benko was lost, possibly drowning in a river.
Technical Sergeant Arthur J. Benko, the high school football captain and champion marksman from Bisbee, Arizona, was a true son of liberty. He volunteered to fight for America when the clarion trumpet called. Thousands, past and present, have made similar decisions to serve America during time of war. These men and women, like Sergeant Benko, know that defending freedom and liberty means great risk, danger and sacrifice . . . that they might never return to see their wives, husbands, parents, children or friends again. For Sergeant Benko, this meant that he would never again see his beloved daughter, Beatrice June Benko. Veterans, this is your day. Thank you for your noble wartime service to the United States, past and present. May God bless you for your sacrifices, give us all strength, endurance, and wisdom for the fight ahead, and forever bless our homeland, America.