The Mysterious Downing of Captain John W.L. Benbow (Part 1)

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.

Captain John W.L. Benbow (via Dr. John Benbow)

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”.

Captains John W.L. Benbow and William B. Lawrence, Jr. on the wing of 540 “Kwitcherbitchin” (via Dr. John Benbow)

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.

Map Attached to Captain Benbow’s MACR (USAAF/National Archives via Fold3)

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.

Captain William B. Lawrence’s Statement to Missing Air Crew Report (USAAF/National Archives via Fold3)

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.

2nd Lt. Joseph D. Winn’s Statement to Missing Air Crew Report (USAAF/National Archives via Fold3)

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.

Captain Lawrence’s Letter to Maggie Benbow (via Dr. John 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 . . .

In Memory of Colonel Abner M. Aust, Jr.; October 7, 1921 – June 16, 2020

Captain Abner M. Aust, Jr.

Abner Maurice Aust, Jr., was born on October 7, 1921, in Scooba, Mississippi. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Sunflower Junior College in Morehead, Mississippi. While in college, Abner joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) and completed pilot training on June 15, 1942. Abner then enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Forces on June 23, 1942. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings at Luke Field, Arizona, on April 12, 1943, and then served as an instructor pilot during which time he was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant and then Captain. Desiring to get into combat and become an ace, Captain Aust joined the 457th Fighter Squadron of the 506th Fighter Group at Lakeland Army Air Field, Florida, in October 1944, shortly after its activation.

Captain Aust was the only fighter ace in the 506th Fighter Group with 5 confirmed victories, and has the distinction of being the last fighter ace of World War II.

Only encountering enemy opposition on two VLR missions, Captain Aust took advantage of those opportunities. He claimed his first victories on a VLR strike mission to the Nagoya/Bay of Ise area on July 16, 1945, engaging six Nakajima Ki-84 Hayates (Franks) head on and shooting down three in quick succession.

Artwork by David J. Ails

His next opportunity to score came on August 10, 1945, on a VLR mission escorting B-29s to the northeast of Tokyo. Captain Aust shot down a Mitsubishi Zero at 25,000 feet for his first victory of the day. He quickly spotted another Zero and made two passes damaging his adversary’s plane both times. After the second pass, the Zero dived into clouds and disappeared. Captain Aust was able to spot a third Zero, get behind it, and shot it down over an airfield for this second victory of the day, and his fifth aerial victory of the war.

Artwork by Zbigniew Kolacha

Unfortunately, during his various aerial encounters on August 10th, Captain Aust became separated from his wingman, 1st Lieutenant Jackie Horner. In addition, to Captain Aust’s misfortune, the armorer maintaining his plane erroneously set the gun camera film at 75 frames per second instead of the normal speed of 16 frames per second. Because of this, his gun camera film only provided proof of the first Zero shot down at 25,000 feet, and the two passes made on the second Zero that disappeared in the clouds. The gun camera film ran out before he shot down the third Zero over the Japanese airfield. Captain Aust did not have an American eyewitness or gun camera film to corroborate his claim of shooting down the second Zero. He would find out several years later than there were several Japanese eyewitnesses to his downing of the third Zero. What follows is an excerpt from the book the “506th Fighter Group: The History of the 506th Fighter Group, Iwo Jima 1945”, describing Captain Aust’s efforts to gain official confirmation of his fifth aerial victory.

“It took me 18 years to confirm the fifth aircraft destroyed. I kept all my mission records for this mission. My brother-in-law, Phillip Edward was stationed at Misawa AB in northern Japan during the early 1960s. He married a Japanese lady. I sent her all the facts concerning this mission. He and his wife visited this airfield and confirmed my claim by statements from Japanese men who were working at this airfield that day in 1945. That was the only aircraft ever shot down over that air base. They confirmed that it happened about 12 noon and that the airfield anti-aircraft were doing everything they could to shoot me down. Phillip Edward sent me the facts and proof to support my claim. I sent this information with a letter to the Office of Correction of Military Records. This office, after review, approved my requests as did The American Fighter Aces Association. I finally became a WWII Fighter Ace in 1963!”

Captain Aust flew a total of 14 VLR missions during the 506th FG’s deployment on Iwo Jima, and he was credited also with 3 enemy planes destroyed on the ground. His description of the July 16th and August 10th VLR missions are contained in the “506th Fighter Group: The History of 506th Fighter Group, Iwo Jima 1945”.

Colonel Abner M. Aust, Jr.

He became a career officer in the United States Air Force obtaining the rank of Colonel, and commanded 31st and 3rd Tactical Fighter Wings during the Vietnam War flying both F-100 Super Sabres and F-4 Phantoms.

Colonel Aust passed away on June 16, 2020, at the Lakeland Regional Medical Center at 98 years of age. I had the honor and privilege to interview Colonel Aust on several occasions during 506th Fighter Group reunions, and looked forward to every opportunity to speak with him. He remained active until the end, had a keen intellect, and a memory that rarely failed him.

Memorial Day 2020 Tributes

“Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” Ronald W. Reagan, 40th President of the United States of America

Today, we remember and honor the men and women who have fallen while serving in the United States Armed Forces to preserve the freedoms we exercise and enjoy on a daily basis. Let us never take these freedoms for granted, for they were paid for with an extremely high price.

Joe Rosenthal

The Battle of Iwo Jima was costly for both the United States and Japan. American military planners believed that Iwo Jima would be securely in the United States’ hands within one week due to the intense aerial and naval bombardment leading up to the invasion. Instead, the battle lasted five weeks (February 19th to March 26th), and consisted of some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War. The United States suffered a total of 26,040 casualties. Of that number, a total of 6,821 United States servicemen made the ultimate sacrifice. It is estimated that approximately 21,000 Japanese troops were on the island when the landings began on February 19th. Of that number, only 216 were captured or surrendered. The rest perished on Iwo Jima.

But the 6,821 United States servicemen who perished during the invasion of Iwo Jima were not the first, nor the last, to fall in service to their country due to the strategic importance of Iwo Jima to both Japan and the Untied States.

One of the First Casualties at Iwo Jima – Lt. Harold G. Payne, Jr., VT-32 (USN) Lieutenant Harold G. Payne, Jr. was the Air Combat Intelligence (ACI) officer for VT-32 aboard the USS Langley. His main duties were debriefing pilots and air crews after strike missions, and preparing Aircraft Action Reports. Because of his duties, he was familiar with all the air crews of VT-32, and became a close friend of one of the TBF Avenger pilots, Lt. David A. Marks.

Lt. Harold G. Payne, Jr. (left) and Lt. David A. Marks on the deck of the USS Langley

Lt. Payne did not just to debrief air crews after strike missions, but would also frequently go on missions as an observer, or to take reconnaissance photos. The June 15, 1944, strike mission against Iwo Jima was no exception. The USS Langley was part of a task force that was given the responsibility of reducing the ability of the Japanese to send aircraft from Iwo Jima to the Marianas while the United States Marines were establishing their beachheads on Saipan. This mission was the United States Navy’s first strike against Iwo Jima.

Lt. Payne flew on Lt. Marks’ Grumman TBF-1C Avenger. The June 15th mission did not start well due to deteriorating weather conditions, and four the the USS Langley’s Avengers were delayed attempting to navigate through a weather front. Time was of the essence. By the time Lt. Marks began his attack on Motoyama No. 2 (Central Field), some of the other Avengers had already dropped their bombs, and the anti-aircraft fire had become intense.

Lt. Marks’ Avenger took several 40 mm hits, and one went through the trailing edge of the right wing and exploded. One of the shell fragments tore through Lt. Payne’s right chest and exited the left side of his back. Lt. Payne succumbed to his injuries within minutes. Lt. Marks was able to land his battered Avenger back on the deck of the Langley, but Lt. Payne had already passed. One other aircrewman, Aviation Radioman 2nd Class Arnold “Blackie” Marsh, also was killed in action on the June 15th strike mission. Both Payne and Marsh were buried at sea on June 16, 1944.

Funeral Service for Lt. Harold G. Payne, Jr. aboard the USS Langley

There is an excellent article written by Christopher Marks, the son of Lt. David A. Marks, on the June 15th strike mission and the loss of Lt. Payne on Warfare History Network at https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016/11/15/first-casualties-at-iwo-jima/

Black Friday Casualty – Captain Lawrence S. Smith, 462nd FS, 506th FG, (USAAF) Lawrence S. Smith enlisted in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Corps on January 29, 1942, at the age of 24. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings at Brooks Field, Texas, on October 9, 1942, as part of Class 42-I. Like many of the older pilots in the 506th Fighter Group, he served as an instructor pilot until he was assigned to the 462nd Fighter Squadron of the 506th Fighter Group at Lakeland Army Air Field, Florida, in October 1944 shortly after its activation.

Captain Lawrence S. Smith (via Richard Smith/Dr. John Benbow)

Prior to the 506th FG’s deployment, Captain Smith became the 462nd FS’s supply officer. Not content to sit behind a desk on Iwo Jima, Captain Smith volunteered to fly in the 506th’s second VLR mission, a maximum effort escorting a force of 400 B-29s to Osaka, on Friday, June 1, 1945. One hundred forty-eight P-51D Mustangs of the 15th, 21st, and 506th FGs took off from Iwo Jima at 7:57 a.m. and proceeded to Japan with the assistance of B-29 navigation aircraft.

Some 250 miles out, the force began to encounter scattered cumulus clouds in layers. By the time the force was 375 miles out, the fighters encountered a massive weather front that appeared to begin at sea level and continue well above 30,000 feet. While the B-29 weather ship ahead of the formation was able to successfully penetrate the front, it was a different situation for the much smaller P-51D Mustangs.

Not able to climb above the front, the fighters attempted to penetrate the front. Absolute chaos ensued. Fighter pilots attempting to tighten formation while flying through the front collided with each other. Heavy rain pelted the Mustangs, and they were severely buffeted by updrafts and downdrafts. Radio communications became difficult due to the electrically charged storm. Many pilots lost horizons and spun out of control to a watery grave below.

Twenty-seven Mustang pilots were able to successfully penetrate the front. Only when the last Mustang landed on Iwo Jima, did the magnitude of the losses hit home. Twenty-seven Mustangs failed to return with a loss of 24 pilots. The 506th FG bore the brunt of those losses, losing 12 pilots; Captain Lawrence S. Smith being one of them. The June 1, 1945 VLR mission will be forever remembered as “Black Friday” to the Iwo Jima VLR Mustang groups.

Both Lieutenant Harold G. Payne, Jr. and Captain Lawrence S. Smith could have played it safe, but chose not to out of a sense of duty to their country. This post is dedicated to them and all of the other American servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Pacific Theater of operations.

The names of United States servicemen who are missing in action, or lost or buried at sea in the Pacific during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are inscribed on marble slabs in the ten Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in the National Cemetery of the Pacific. The names of Harold G. Payne, Jr. and Lawrence S. Smith can be found there along with 28,786 other names.

Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific