B-24 bomber pilot received highest aerial honor in WWII
John Benjamin didn't seek fame: ‘It was my job, that’s all’
By Bruce Deckert
Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
John Granby Benjamin has been known for decades as a living legend. On June 30, 2020, the legend died at the age of 103. Yes, 103 — and no, that isn’t a typo. A World War II hero and B-24 bomber pilot, Benjamin was born on June 2, 1917 … while World War I was still raging.
Benjamin was part of the aptly-named Greatest Generation. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the military’s highest honor for aerial heroism, after flying 35 combat missions from November 1944 to March 1945. Yet he told Today Publishing last year, “I don’t like any notoriety.”
After the loss of his wife Betty in 2002 at the age of 85, Benjamin lived independently in Simsbury.
“He was extremely uncomfortable being called a hero or talking about his experiences,” says his son Chris Benjamin, also a Simsbury resident. “Although he personally was very proud of being the commander … of his checkerboard tail B-24, he had to be the one to initiate the conversation.”
On the other hand, Chris affirms that he and his family “absolutely” see his Dad as a hero: “The fact that his crew survived 35 ugly missions, flying a slow heavy bomber, is amazing — what’s more incredible is they’d get up every day and willingly fly those missions.”
After enlisting in March 1944 and undergoing intense flight training — “Some of my classmates died,” he said — John Benjamin served in the 459th Bombardment Group in Italy. He commanded a 10-man crew and flew with six other planes. Their targets: bridges, fuel dumps, military trains and factories in Germany and Eastern Europe.
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When Today Publishing asked him last year if he was anxious during these perilous flights, he replied, “No — it was my job, that’s all.”
Yet the danger was unmistakable: “We got hit almost every time out,” he said. “We would get out and see the holes in the plane.”
Once his B-24, despite starting with a full tank of 2000 gallons, ran out of gas and went down behind enemy lines. Benjamin was missing in action for five days, and the family still has the Army’s MIA telegram.
His discharge as a first lieutenant came on Aug. 17, 1945, about 48 hours after the war ended on V-J Day — aka Victory over Japan Day — which marked its 75th anniversary in August.
“His reaction to winning the war was relief and pride in what he had done to make that happen,” Chris says, “and sadness for close friends who had died.”
Born in the Bronx, John Granby Benjamin lived in West Hartford and Granby before moving to Simsbury in 2006. His middle name is a nod to his dad’s hometown. After the war, he worked for the Connecticut Department of Labor.
“He never wanted to give up living life like he was 20,” Chris says. “His will to live well and on his terms was incredible. This made it very hard for all of us when the stroke he had this past February abruptly took that away from him.”
In a June 2019 Today Publishing story upon the 75th anniversary of D-Day, John Benjamin said, “How much longer I have, I don’t know. Each morning when I wake up, it’s a blessing.” In June 2020, he died “peacefully” (as Chris says) at Avon Health Center. +
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• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time award-winning journalist