Sometimes during the frenzy of aerial combat with multiple dogfights, a fighter pilot is lost without the certainty as to what actually occurred. Even with squadron mates in close proximity, sometimes the cause of a loss cannot be conclusively determined. Theories and speculation are advanced without a clear answer. This is never more evident than a study of the loss of the 457th Fighter Squadron’s Operations Officer, Captain John W.L. Benbow, who went missing in action during a VLR strike mission over Japan seventy-five years ago. The mystery surrounding the loss of Captain Benbow is more about what we don’t know, than what we know.
Captain Benbow was lost during a VLR strike mission to Nagoya conducted by the 21st and 506th Fighter Groups on July 16, 1945. The mission objective was to strafe airfields in the Nagoya/Ise-Wan area. Captain Benbow, was flying second element leader in his flight (Green Flight). His wingman was 2nd Lt. Joseph D. Winn. Captain William B. Lawrence, Jr. was the flight leader, and his wingman was 1st Lt. Ralph Gardner.
In accordance with Field Order #146, forty-eight 21st FG Mustangs took off from South and Central Fields on Iwo Jima shortly before 10:15 a.m., followed by sixty-four 506th FG Mustangs which took off from North Field approximately 15 minutes later. The 21st FG was led by Lt. Col. John W. Mitchell, who at the time was the Deputy Commander of 15th FG. Lt. Col. Mitchell gained fame and notoriety for leading the long over water mission that resulted in the downing of the Mitsubishi G4M Betty transporting Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The 506th FG was led by Major Malcolm C. “Muddy” Waters of the 457th FS, who had been recently promoted to the Deputy Commander of the 506th.
The intended target for the 21st FG was the airfield at Kiyosu northwest of Nagoya. The airfields at Akenogahara and Suzuka, on west side of the Ise-Wan (Bay of Ise) were the intended targets of the 506th FG. The 21st FG reached the Japanese home islands around 1:25 p.m. Iwo Jima time, with the 506th FG some ten minutes behind.
The 72nd FS was lead squadron for the 21st FG with the 46th FS following; the 72nd at 11,000 feet and the 46th at 10,000 feet. The 531st FS provided top cover at 12,000 feet. Prior to reaching Kiyosu, the 21st FG encountered an indeterminate number of Japanese fighters between Tsu and Suzuka. Altogether, the 21st FG pilots reported seeing Mitsubishi A6M5 Zekes, Kawanishi N1K1/2 Georges, Nakajima Ki-43 Oscars, Nakajima Ki-44 Tojos, Nakajima K-84 Franks, and Kawasaki Ki-61 Tonys. In addition, the 46th FS reported seeing a number of unidentified single engine radial fighters.
The 506th FG made landfall at about 1:35 p.m. at an altitude of 15,000 feet, and the group proceeded north and parallel to the Ise-Wan inshore. It was between Akenogahara and Tsu when bogies were called out and all three squadrons of the 506th became engaged in a running air fight. The 457th FS, which was lead squadron, ducked under some clouds and came upon dogfights between the 21st FG and the Japanese interceptors. The 506th joined in the fight which followed a pattern of searching the area and attacking the Japanese interceptors when the situation presented itself.
During the encounters with the 21st and 506th Mustangs, the Japanese fighter pilots claimed 6 Mustangs destroyed, and 5 probably destroyed. In actuality, Captain Benbow was the only American pilot lost during the mission, and only 4 Mustangs received damage during the dogfights that ensued. Exaggerated claims were common during the heat of battle, and pilots of all combatants were susceptible to submitting inaccurate claims.
The 21st FG Mission Reports noted the aggressiveness and ability of the Japanese fighter pilots, but that they lacked formation discipline, and therefore, were easy prey for the 7th Fighter Command pilots. Except for the split-S maneuver, the 21st FG Mission Reports indicate that enemy evasive action was “practically negligible”, and that IJN pilots flying Zeros and Georges did not take advantage of their planes tight turning radii when that advantage could have been used.
The 506th FG Mission Report stated that the enemy “generally was unaggressive although some attempted to fight back when caught and attacked.” The exception was an overhead attack by two Japanese interceptors on Captain Abner M. Aust, Jr.
Several 457th Fighter Squadron pilots scored victories over the Japanese interceptors. Captain Aust scored three victories, all Nakajima Ki-84 Hayates (Franks), in quick succession, and 1st Lt. Wesley A. Murphey shot down a Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki (Tojo). Captain William Lawrence also shot down an unidentified single engine Japanese interceptor, and it was during this engagement that Captain Benbow was lost. Since the circumstances of Captain Benbow’s downing or his ultimate fate were unknown, he was listed as “Missing in Action”.
During Captain Lawrence’s engagement with the Japanese fighter that he shot down, he placed several bursts into his adversary’s plane, which began smoking. The Japanese pilot split-S’d, and Captain Lawrence’s flight followed in a dive. It appears that Captain Benbow kept formation discipline, as Captain Lawrence’s statement in the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) indicates flight was in good tactical formation. At some point in the dive, Captain Benbow called out to Captain Lawrence saying “That’s enough Bill – you got him.” This was the last radio transmission from Captain Benbow, and when Green Flight pulled out of its dive, Captain Benbow was not to be found. Basically, Captain Benbow was there one moment; gone the next. No 7th Fighter Command pilot saw what happened to Captain Benbow; not his wingman 2nd Lt. Winn; and not Captain Lawrence’s wingman, 1st Lt. Gardner. The map below, which is part of Captain Benbow’s MACR, shows the two possible locations where he was last seen.
Captain Lawrence’s MACR statement indicates that he was partially on his back and in a near vertical dive when he heard Captain Benbow’s last radio transmission. When Captain Lawrence pulled out the dive, Captain Benbow did not rejoin. The fact that Captain Benbow called out to Captain Lawrence “That’s enough Bill – you got him” suggests that Captain Benbow observed all of Captain Lawrence’s attack on the Japanese interceptor and followed Captain Lawrence in his dive.
The 506th Mission Report indicates that about the same time and in the same general area, another flight saw what was believed to be a P-51 “apparently in trouble going down in slow gliding turns at an estimated speed of 150 mph.” This aircraft disappeared into the clouds at about 8,000 feet. Was this Captain Benbow’s P-51?
2d Lt. Winn also issued a statement which is part of Captain Benbow’s MACR. During the dive, 2nd Lt. Winn indicates that he became separated from Captain Benbow while trying to avoid pieces of the disintegrating plane that Captain Lawrence was attacking. When 2d Lt. Winn recovered and rejoined the flight, Captain Benbow was not in sight nor could be contacted by radio.
The 506th FG Mission Report concludes that it was possible that Captain Benbow’s plane was damaged by pieces of the disintegrating Japanese aircraft that Captain Lawrence shot down. While this is a logical conclusion to reach, especially considering 2d Lt. Winn’s statement, no one observed Captain Benbow’s P-51 being struck by pieces from the disintegrating enemy plane. The best person in a position to observe this was Captain Benbow’s wingman, 2d Lt. Winn, but he was actively maneuvering to avoid the enemy aircraft’s debris. The 506th FG Mission Report also states that Captain Benbow “was not known to be under fire from the ground or air.”
Captain Aust was given the task of writing Captain Benbow’s wife, Maggie, that her husband did not return from the July 16th mission and was considered missing in action. Maggie Benbow wrote back to Captain Aust with questions. Captain Lawrence, because of his familiarity with the circumstances, responded. Below is his letter to Maggie Benbow.
Note that Captain Lawrence suggests to Maggie Benbow that mechanical troubles may have resulted in her husband’s loss. This appears to have been comforting words to a worried wife on Captain Lawrence’s part, as Captain Lawrence’s MACR statement specifically indicates “that prior to Captain Benbow’s disappearance, his radio reception and transmission was excellent and he had not reported any mechanical troubles whatsoever.” Had Captain Benbow experienced mechanical troubles, one would think he would have radioed his squadron mates of his predicament and requested assistance to withdraw back out to sea in the hope that if he had to bail out, he would be picked up by an American submarine stationed along the return route to Iwo Jima. Because there was no radio transmission from Captain Benbow indicating that he was experiencing mechanical problems, it appears unlikely that simple mechanical failure was the cause of Captain Benbow’s downing.
In his letter, Captain Lawrence emphatically indicated that there were no other enemy planes in the area and there was no flak, so that Captain Benbow’s downing was not a result of enemy action. Were these also meant to be comforting words? In light of the fact that several Japanese pilots claimed to have shot down a 7th Fighter Command Mustang, the cause of Captain Benbow’s loss could be that he was shot down while providing mutual support to his flight.
To be continued . . .