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Arthur J. Benko was born on April 19, 1911 in Pennsylvania. He moved to Bisbee, Arizona with his parents while a young boy. He attended Bisbee High School where he was captain of the football team as a senior. He graduated in 1928.
After graduation, Benko worked as an electrician in the mining industry, and also part-time in the Bisbee movie theater.
He was an excellent marksman, and served as President of the Bisbee Rifle and Pistol Cub. He placed 6th in the 1937 National Rifle Championship and won Arizona Rifle Championship in 1940.
Although he was older than most recruits, he volunteered for the Army in 1941. After basic training, he was sent to aerial gunnery school at Las Vegas Gunnery School in Nevada. After graduating from school, he was assigned to the 374th Bomb Squadron of the 308th Bomb Group at Pueblo, Colorado.
In early 1943, the unit deployed to the China-Burma-India Theater and was placed under the 14th Air Force. Sgt Benko flew as assistant engineer/top turret gunner on a B-24 aircraft.
On the mission of October 1, 1943, a mission to bomb Japanese targets of docks and power plants at Haiphong, Vietnam, he shot down 7 Japanese Zero fighters although bullets knifed through his turret, injuring him in the head and wrist. He was recommended for the Silver Star Medal, but due to administrative oversight, it was not awarded until 2009.
In November, 1943, the newly-promoted Technical Sergeant had 2 aerial victories, and two weeks later, he was on board for a mission against Japanese targets in Hong Kong. On the return flight, with one engine out and one threatening to quit, the pilot gave the "bail-out" signal. All the crew jumped, and although most of the crew landed in friendly Chinese territory, Benko and another crewman was captured by the Japanese.
Records vary greatly in these accounts. Most records state that the two fliers fell into the river and were presumed drowned. Other accounts tell of their capture and subsequent execution by the Japanese. Benko's mother received three telegrams from the War Department. The first said he was Missing in Action; the second stated he had been found and was safe. The third placed him back in Missing in Action status.
TSgt Arthur J. Benko was officially credited with 16 aerial victories and was the top-scoring gunner in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater.
He left a wife and 12-year-old daughter, who never married and died young.
TSgt Arthur Benko's remains were never recovered and his name is on the Tablet of the Missing at Manila National Cemetery in the Philippines.
He was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit; the story of his belated Silver Star has been told. Efforts are presently underway by a group of Arizona veterans to have him awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The Sports and Fitness Center at Davis-Monathan AFB is named for him. With no surviving family, several items of personal possessions are on display at the Fitness Center.
Desert Airman, Vol 65, Issue 45, Nov 9, 2006
The aircraft on which TSgt Arthur J. Benko flew was a B-24D #41-24183, nicknamed "The Goon." The nose art was a representation of the cartoon character made famous by E.C. Segar. After all the crew bailed out, the pilot managed to return to base.
There are contradictions in the early records pertaining to Benko's life. One states he was a "First-generation American," which should mean his parents were immigrants. Other records state he was a "full-bloodied American Indian." There is also a difference in manner of deaths. Some accounts indicate he parachuted and landed in a river and drowned; others say he was captured and executed. One account states "he was Arizona skeet and rifle champion in 1939-1940." As shown, other accounts dispute this.