Posted 11/10/15 (Tue)
Editor’s Note: As the state of North Dakota observes the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Crosby veteran John Benter shares his personal account. This is the conclusion of a three-part series.
By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
Finger on the trigger, the young GI stands alone in the dark with his rifle poised. Alone – on guard duty – he tries to decipher the rustling noises just beyond his field of vision while protecting artillery equipment near Clark Field on Luzon Island in the Philippines. As fear grips him, he cannot speak or call out.
“I learned a lot of things in the Army,” says John Benter of his time serving with the 4th Field Artillery in the Pacific during WWII:
“Grown men cry. You can sleep standing up. And if you really, really get scared, you lose your voice.”
Benter recalls his gut-wrenching consideration of whether the enemy was there in the dark with him and what he should do on that night so long ago.
“I didn’t know whether I dared holler for help or to just keep still,” he says. He chose the latter, and both he and the equipment remained safe and unchallenged for the night. He chuckles and says he slept standing up plenty of times, but not that night.
Benter quickly found it wasn’t good to be alone or idle with his thoughts. He continued to stay busy and visited – in his spare time – nearby airstrips to watch A26 planes depart for evening bombing raids, along with B25s and P38 fighters. He found he loved the warplanes, from their mechanical engineering to their power and speed and weaponry to the grace with which their pilots flew them in the sky.
Benter also visited the field hospital to visit with wounded and dying soldiers.
“It was tough. There was no way some of those GIs were getting out of there alive,” he says. “I felt guilty – why was I spared when so many wouldn’t get to go home?”
In the summer of 1945 Benter and his group were being trained for the invasion of mainland Japan; Benter had enlisted two years prior and been overseas 18 months. Although Germany had surrendered May 8, Pacific Allied troops – based on experience – were preparing for a long and gruesome battle on Japan’s home ground. The battle at Okinawa Island (400 miles south of Japan) had lasted nearly three months before Japanese resistance ended more than 50,000 Allied soldiers and 100,000 Japanese killed.
To boost morale, Benter remembers GIs were issued one beer and a pack of cigarettes a day. Benter didn’t smoke or drink and gave his away to buddies each day. His battery was camped in a cove at Luzon as they trained for combat and prepared their artillery equipment for a landing on Japan. Benter, staying busy, drove the Caterpillar D7 bulldozer up and down the beach, grading and cleaning debris from the sand.
When Benter and his troop heard that Japan had surrendered Aug. 14, they were at first unaware of the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“It’s great they surrendered, I remember thinking, but I wasn’t sure I should believe it,” Benter says.
Once the GIs realized the Japanese had truly surrendered and WWII was over, “Anybody who had anything to drink drank it,” Benter says.
The mood remained pretty celebratory until Benter and his troop entered Manilla, and saw American prisoners of war who were being shipped home following their release.
“They were barely alive,” Benter says. “They had been starved, beaten. Broken.”
Benter was horrified and angry when he saw the POWs. He didn’t know it at the time, but Sam Sortland, also from Crosby, had been captured as a POW and had survived both the death march and his imprisonment.
“It was unbelievable to me that people could treat people like that. It was brutal, inhuman,” Benter says.
From Manilla Benter was sent to Leyte and boarded a Kaiser-Frazer Liberty ship. The troop transport ship was no luxury liner and had received complaints from both the Coast Guard and Navy. Benter’s bunk was two decks below the water line, and he remembers all the walls sweating. His friend from Wisconsin whom Benter and other GIs had saved from disappearing into the jungle during moments of mental stress now had chronic seasickness.
“We thought he was going to die,” says Benter – remembering the medics as overrun and overwhelmed by all the sick soldiers. The medics denied the deathly ill Wisconsin GI assistance and a bed for hours. “We stayed with him until they finally got him a bunk.”
Benter would spend more than three weeks on the cargo ship before arriving in the San Francisco Bay.
“When we crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge, it was like being born again,” Benter says. “I cried. And I cried.”
This was the moment, for Benter, when the war was really, truly, over.
Benter craved two things as the ship docked: ice cream and fresh milk.
When he walked into the mess hall, German POWS who had been captured on the African front were running the hall and serving food. Benter saw they were smiling and healthy and well-fed. Images of the American POWs in Manilla bombarded him.
‘I couldn’t eat,” Benter says.
He left the mess hall with an empty stomach and boarded the final ship for Seattle, Wash. He was discharged at Fort Lewis, Wash., on Jan. 19, 1946. He was 21 years old.
Benter hitchhiked to First Avenue in Seattle where he sat on a bench and watched the world go by. For the first time in nearly three years, Benter “had no fear of anything.”
He also had $300 in his pocket; $100 for each year he had served in the Army.
“I though I was the richest man in the world,” says Benter, who didn’t realize he had been promoted to tech sergeant until he was discharged.
After watching other Americans walk past him on the sidewalk for hours, Benter called his father and stepmother, now living nearby, to let them know he was in town. They picked him up, and he worked with his dad at a logging camp for several months. Benter enjoyed the quiet, physical work, but he still wasn’t home.
He returned to Crosby in the spring.
Tom Brokaw writes that Benter’s generation “immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world the wanted. They were mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices.”
Benter and his friend, Egel Lokken, opened Crosby Tire and Body Shop, where Benter, who will turn 91 in December, still works every Monday through Friday. (Benter’s son, Neil, bought the shop from Benter and now runs it). Friends like Carl Knudson and Benter’s brother, Raymond, who both survived the war, gave him a hard time about settling down. They thought Benter was taking his sweet time to date a girl and get married.
He paid little attention to their prodding until he stopped at the drug store for a milkshake. That was when he met Marian, who worked there, and she was it for him. Benter chuckles and says he had to order quite a few milkshakes.
Benter and Marian, who have been married 67 years, had just gotten hitched when he received $800 from North Dakota’s state legislature for his service in WWII. He promptly spent the entire amount – with Marian’s blessing – on a cherry red Piper J-5 airplane.
Benter taught himself how to fly the plane and did takeoffs and landings on the street beside his house in Crosby, which was on the western edge of town.
“It’s kind of stupid to have an airplane and not know how to fly it, I thought,” Benter says. “I eventually took lessons so I could have the license.”
The Benters traded airplanes like most people traded cars; Benter says his children grew up in the backseat of an airplane. When asked if she feared flying in a plane with a man who was self-taught and didn’t have a license, Marian laughs and says, “I was in love.”
As the two sit side beside each other in their sunroom, sharing memories of that time and laughing together, it is evident they remain so.
Benter stands up to reach a model P38 fighter plane he has on display in the sunroom. He made the plane in New Guinea and used a Navy shell, 50-caliber tracer bullet shells and a carbine shell to create it. Benter carried that model plane with him to the Philippines during the war and home to the U.S. He says our country’s commitment to improving aircraft – what they could carry, perform and the distance they could go to carry out their missions – won the war.
Benter has also collected numerous WWII vintage military vehicles. His best friend, Bob Geist, who was stationed with him in the Pacific, helped him locate and purchase parts and vehicles through the years after the war.
Benter regrets now that he didn’t talk more with friends like Geist and Knudson about their service in WWII. “I guess we didn’t talk about the war, we talked about living,” Benter says.
Benter, his eyes moist, says it is the friends who never came home that he often thinks of nowadays. He recalls hauling bundles with a threshing crew, and one of the young men on the crew tried to enlist with the U.S. Air Force, which wouldn’t take him. The man left his nice car with a local farmer for safekeeping at a nearby farm and crossed the border into Canada and enlisted.
When Benter returned home from the war, the car was still parked at the farm and would remain so.
“Every time I hear the song, ‘Riding with Private Malone,’ I think of that guy who never came back to the farm for his car.”
He remembers neighbors and friends from Crosby who didn’t return, Taps being played for the fallen at Milne Bay, the men dying in field hospitals who knew they would never see America, their home, again.
He will never forget.
Benter doesn’t want any of us to forget, either, the suffering and sacrifice so many made on our behalf. Whenever people tell him they are planning a vacation to Hawaii, his response is to ask them to stop and say a prayer for the thousands who died at Pearl Harbor and the thousands more who sacrificed their lives the next five years to protect our country as they fought and died on foreign soil.
More than 400,000 U.S. servicemen and women died during WWII; more than 60 million soldiers and civilians were killed across the world.
Benter also worries about history being manipulated to fit current political agendas.
“When you talk about history, you should tell it as it was and be truthful,” Benter says. ““If the truth hurts, maybe it should.”
Shoulders back and back straight, Benter still has the erect stance of a soldier; as he nears the century mark, it is his humor, compassion and integrity that mark him more than war.
On a quiet, sunny day in November, he drives north of town surrounded by harvested gold wheat fields – not unlike those of his youth – to an airstrip and a chance to fly a friend’s Cessna 150.
Into the wild blue yonder he flies.