Robert S. Benton
Robert (Bob) Stanley Benton was born May 14, 1922. He joined the U.S. Navy on September 18, 1940. He was a seaman aboard the Battleship U.S.S. West Virginia at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bob met Madelyn Union, a wave in the U.S. Navy while they were both stationed at the U.S. Naval Ordinance Test Station in Inyokern, California. They were married on December 22, 1945 in Santa Monica, California. Bob was a Chief Gunner's Mate at the time of his discharge on November 8, 1946.
Bob and Madelyn then returned to Bob's hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska where he attended the University of Nebraska. He worked for Pegler and Company, a food service and restaurant fixture/equipment company, where he became Vice President and worked until his death on April 8, 1982. At the time of his death, his wife, Madelyn; sons James, Stephen, and Robert; daughters Barbara and Linda; and seven grandchildren survived him. As of 2003, seven additional grandchildren survive him.
In June 1956, Walter Lord, author of Day of Infamy, invited Bob to write an account of his experiences on that fateful day, which Bob did, as follows:
Dear Mr. Lord:
As you know from my previous letter, I was aboard the Battleship U.S.S. West Virginia on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. I am going to relate my experiences during the attack in this letter, which will cover question one, two, & three.
We had just finished breakfast and were swabbing down our compartment, which was on topside. Someone called to come out on the main deck. Upon coming out of the compartment I first saw planes diving and dropping bombs on the Naval Air Station on Ford Island. As the battleships were all tied alongside Ford Island, we had a very good view of the first part of the raid on Pearl Harbor proper.
However, for some reason, what was actually happening did not occur to me until a few minutes later. The thought of an attack did not seem to enter my mind. I guess the shock of what I was seeing stopped my thinking for a few seconds.
Next, a torpedo plane, flying close to the water, dropped a torpedo which sank the mine layer U.S.S. Ogallala. As this ship was tied up directly across the harbor from us we saw every part of this action. I remember thinking that the pilot would certainly catch the devil for accidentally releasing his torpedo, I guess I though it was an American plane; it looked like it from where I was. But as the plane veered from his attack he flew directly over our ship and we noticed the red ball under his wings. Someone yelled "Japs," and then I and those around me realized what was actually happening.
I remember hearing "away fire and rescue party" sounded by the bugler and thought, "Why don't they sound general quarters?" I guess the O.O.D. was as fouled up as everyone else! It was not until the West Virginia had taken the first torpedo that "general quarters" was sounded. The surprise effect on all personnel was very apparent by the slow reaction to the situation by all concerned. I remember some who reacted as they should under such circumstances, but there were those who were so shocked they had to be slapped a few times to bring them around. This was the case among enlisted men and officers alike.
The next thing I knew I was at my "battle station" which was on a 5" broadside gun. My job was as sight setter, but everything I had learned was to no avail that morning, as I had no ammunition or crew to operate the gun; I was alone at the gun. I remember looking out the gun port towards the harbor and seeing a Jap torpedo plane coming directly at our ship. I could not move; I wanted to get out of there, but couldn't. If I would have had a pistol I think I could have hit him; he seemed that close. After he released his torpedo there was an explosion directly below where I was standing. I was knocked to the deck, my headphones flying in one direction and me in another. I remember men yelling at me to get out of the gun compartment, which I did without hesitation.
I ran across to the opposite side of the ship. There I did not know what to do; there was no organization at all. Men were running in all directions. Some were jumping over the side, others just standing around. The Battleship U.S.S. Tennessee was tied up inboard of the West Virginia next to Ford Island. I remember yelling for someone to throw a line. My voice seemed so loud but naturally was not heard by anyone.
The West Virginia took six torpedoes in about that many minutes and was listing to port. We were all afraid she would go over as the Oklahoma did. As I was standing there two of our pilots came running down the deck and climbed down the starboard side of the ship on the sea ladder. I followed and we soon reached the armor shelf. Looking below I saw a motor launch and thought of jumping, but was afraid that I would break my legs or land in the burning oil around it.
I followed the officers towards the stern of the ship and remember looking up to see many bombers above us. They had released their bombs and they looked like snowflakes falling towards us. I thought, "This is it"; however, none fell close enough to us to hit our ship. One of these bombs went down the stack of the U.S.S. Nevada and she blew right out of the water and seemed to break in half. I was really scared now and started back forward.
As I was going forward I came across two spring lines which were now even with the armor shelf. The ship had listed so much that the armor shelf was as high as the deck of the Tennessee. I just remember putting my leg over of these lines and the next thing I knew was that I was standing on the deck of the Tennessee. At that moment the Tennessee took a bomb through No. 3-16" gun turret which I was standing beside. Again I was knocked to the deck; however, the bomb did not explode but started a fire within the turret and the deck around it.
I ran into the topside compartment areas and there helped treat some men for burns. After this I went below deck and helped pass ammunition during the remainder of the raid.
Question 4: [Things that seem funny now]. Men taking time to remove their shoes before jumping over the side. Most of them placed their shoes carefully side by side on the deck as though they expected them to be there when they came back.
My buddy, a 6' southern boy [Louis Farthing] jumped off the bow of the West Virginia and came up on the other side of the Tennessee.
I could not remember a sound during my abandon ship procedure, except my calling to the Tennessee for a line. I was completely deaf I guess.
I remember hearing of a very large boatswain's mate on the beach crouching behind a very small bush, firing a very small .45 cal. Pistol at planes which were flying very high.
Question 5: As I was below decks on the Tennessee I remember seeing men carried out of the No. 3 turret which had been burned beyond recognition but were still alive.
Question 6: I feel that the Captain of our ship showed unusual bravery and self-reliance during the attack. He directed the anti-aircraft fire from the bridge until a bomb fell throwing shrapnel into his stomach. He refused to endanger the lives of the men trying to get him off the bridge and ordered them to leave him. He died and was found after the attack untouched by the fire which was all around him.
Question 7: Also during the time I was below decks of the Tennessee the word was passed over the loud speaker to "prepare to fire the 16" guns." I thought, "Here they come steaming in the harbor."
I certainly hope that any of the above may aid you in writing your book. I am looking forward to reading it, as I know all of the men are who were at Pearl Harbor that day. I shall never forget the sight of motorboats dragging bodies behind them for days after the attack. The thought of the infamy of the attack was certainly enough to make us all never forget this day in history.
I wish to thank you for asking for my experiences for your book.
Robert S. Benton
The following accounts, taken from Bob's letter to Mr. Lord, was published in 1957 in Day of Infamy:
"Seaman Robert Benton, a sight-setter of a five-inch gun on the West Virginia, stood helplessly at his post-the rest of the gun crew never did appear" (p. 86).
"A Japanese torpedo plane headed straight for the casemate where Seaman Robert Benton waited for the rest of his gun crew. He stood there transfixed-wanted to move but couldn't. The torpedo hit directly underneath and sent Benton and his headphones flying in opposite directions. He got up . . . ran across the deck . . . slipped down the starboard side of the ship to the armor shelf, a ledge formed by the ship's 15-inch steel plates. As he walked aft along the ledge, he glanced up, saw the bombers this time. Caught in the bright morning sun, the falling bombs looked for a fleeting second like snowflakes" (pp. 88-89).
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