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D-M to name fitness center for World War II hero Benko

Arthur J. Benko with his B-24 bomber in 1943. The Bisbee native died later that year in mission over Hong Kong.

Arthur J. Benko with his B-24 bomber in 1943. The Bisbee native died later that year in mission over Hong Kong.

Arthur J. Benko’s hobby, guns, helped him to become one of the most accomplished B-24 aerial gunners of World War II.

The Arizonan, who died in the war, will be honored at 9 a.m. Thursday at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Air Force officials will dedicate D-M’s fitness and sports center to Benko, who trained at D-M. The top-turret gunner’s B-24 Liberator went down with engine trouble on a mission against Japanese docks in Hong Kong in 1943.

The crew of 10 bailed out. Benko’s remains were never found. It’s assumed he drowned in the Hsi Chiang River, according to several accounts of his life.

Benko grew up in Bisbee and was working as an electrician for a Bisbee mining company when he enlisted in the Army Air Forces after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Benko, whose hair had turned prematurely gray, had a wife and 12-year-old daughter, Beatrice June.

Benko had been president of the Bisbee Rifle and Pistol Club and was a nationally ranked shooter. He told a reporter his father, a rifle instructor for Kaiser William II in 1917, during World War I, taught him how to shoot.

“Ever since he can remember, shooting and hunting” were his favorite pastimes, wrote the wartime writer of a story about him called “Knocking Down Zeroes is His Business and Business is Good.”

The article was published Oct. 8, 1943, in a Delhi, India, newsletter, the “CBI Roundup,” which circulated among service members in the China, Burma, India Theater.

As top turret gunner aboard a bomber that his crewmates named the “Goon,” Benko knocked seven Japanese fighters out of the sky on one mission.

Before the war, at home in Bisbee, he used to throw tin cans in the air and practice shooting them with a .22 -caliber rifle, he said.

He told the newsletter writer he thought “perhaps” the practice helped him lead enemy planes into the path of his .50-caliber machine guns. Benko said he “sighted” his own machine gun and tested it thoroughly before each mission with a device he invented.

Benko, 31, when he enlisted, stood 6 feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, according to this account, and had “not the slightest touch of nervousness” about his role as a gunner.

According to 374th Bomb Squadron history, in addition to gunning down nine Zeros, four over Ichang and five over Hankow, in one day, he had 16 confirmed kills to his credit.

In the fall of 1943, Time Magazine called him “top gun among all aerial gunners” in the Army Air Forces.

The story of his WWII service is told in a book, “Air Force Gunners, The History of Enlisted Aerial Gunners 1917-1991,” by Albert E. Conder, published in 1994.

Col. Kent Laughbaum, commander of the Air Force’s 355th Fighter Wing at D-M, honored Benko’s memory on Veterans Day 2006.

“A true son of liberty,” he called the former Bisbee High School football captain and champion marksman.

“He achieved more in battle than any of his peers,” Laughbaum said.

Benko has no survivors. Some of his possessions will be on permanent display at the D-M fitness center.

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