Capt. John Benbow was my uncle, my father's only brother. My Dad was a combat engineer in Europe during WWII and built a bridge across the Rhine. He survived the war and was actually on a troop ship headed for Okinawa to prepare for the invasion of Japan when the news came that the Japanese had surrendered. The ship changed course and docked in Boston, where Dad got the news that John was MIA.
We never knew what happened to Uncle John. The official version from the Mission Report filed on July 16, 1945, was that he probably flew through some debris from an exploding Japanese plane, and that somehow knocked him down. I first read the account of the mission in John Lambert's book, The Pineapple Air Force: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo. Mr. Lambert in turn put me in touch with Henry Sakaida, who, along with Steve Blake, had done much of the initial research on the July 16 battle. I subsequently purchased two books by Mr. Sakaida, Pacific Air Combat: Voices from the Past and Japanese Army Air Force Aces. Both books give the same account of the battle from the viewpoint of Major Yohei Hinoki, who claims to have shot down a Mustang on that day. Further, I have the pages from Hinoki's memoirs, in Japanese, from which Sakaida quotes in his articles.
I subsequently received a copy of the article to which you referred by Steve Blake and Sakaida, "Combat over Japan: Ki. 100 vs. P-51," in which the authors quote from mission reports and Major Hinoki's memoirs, then draw the conclusion that Major Hinoki shot down Capt. Benbow. All of the accounts in the three books that I mentioned draw from this article.
It should be noted that the article states that Japanese pilots claimed 6 definite and 5 probable Mustang kills on that day. When I talked to Henry Sakaida on the phone, I asked him why he thought Hinoki's account was any more accurate than the other claims, since only one Mustang was actually lost that day. He replied that he interviewed Major Hinoki and believes him to be a credible and honorable source. I have obtained the Mission Report from July 16 and the Missing Air Crew Report, which contains the statements of Capt. William Lawrence, the Flight Leader of Dusty Green Flight, and Lt. Joseph Winn, Uncle John's wingman (Capt. Lawrence had just received his promotion, so John was flying as second element leader despite being senior to Lawrence). Winn is deceased, I have been unable to locate Lawrence, and there is no mention in the reports as to who was flying Lawrence's wing.
I do have a letter from William Lawrence written to Uncle John's widow dated August 6, 1945. Lawrence wrote "John was flying a plane that had formerly quite a bit of mechanical trouble in previous flights, so it is my contention that engine failure or something mechanical was the basic reason. Anyway, we were about 15 miles west of Nagoya when I started an attack on a Jap plane. John was right with me all the time, and as soon as I shot the Jap down, I pulled up, but didn't see John. Another flight at a distance from us said they saw a plane gliding down, which we presume was John. There were no enemy fighters near us and no flak whatsoever, so it was not a result of enemy action." [Lawrence underlined the word "no" in his letter.]
Over the last 5 years, I have located quite a few surviving officers of the 457th Squadron, several of whom were on the July 16 mission. Those with whom I have discussed Hinoki's claim don't believe it, but they were not eyewitnesses. They just think John was too good a pilot to be ambushed like that. Mary Ellen Ramsden has been helping me track these men down, and she called me a couple of years ago and told me that I needed to call Maj. Ralph Gardner in Layton, Utah, that he had some information that I would be interested in.
It turns out that Maj. Gardner was William Lawrence's wingman on July 16, and he has a vivid memory of the mission! When I told him of Major Hinoki's claim, he replied, "No way could that have happened." He said they were diving at over 500 mph in ther attack on the EA, and the Japanese didn't have a plane that could have overtaken them at that speed. He further says that he lost all stick response as he tried to pull out of the dive, and was only able to regain control after cutting his throttle. He thinks Uncle John suffered compressibility and was unable to pull out of the dive in time.
We will never know why my uncle crashed, but there is reasonable doubt as to the accuracy of Hinoki's account. I shared Lawrence's letter and Gardner's story with Henry Sakaida, but he sticks by his interpretation that he offered in that article.
Uncle John's body was recovered in April 1946 on a mountainside near Nagoya, where the Kimpo-Tai had buried him, and he now rests at Arlington. He was a good man from all accounts (the squadron's Flight Surgeon described him as "the most popular boy in the squadron" in a letter to his wife). I miss him a great deal, even though I never knew him, and I am honored to be named for him.
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