South Palm Beach: WWII plane wing noses its way around nation for autographs

On Jan. 31, Alfred Benjamin of South Palm Beach became the 109th veteran

to sign the 384th Bomb Group Association’s commemorative wing panel. The panel

eventually will be housed at the Hill Aerospace Museum at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Navigator Alfred Benjamin, fourth from left in the back row, poses with his squad.

Photo courtesy Alfred Benjamin

By Ron Hayes
    Shortly before 9 a.m. on the last day of January, about 60 men and women gathered in the community room of the Palmsea condo in South Palm Beach to watch a 90-year-old man named Alfred Benjamin write his name on an airplane wing.
    Some of a wing, anyway: an aluminum panel from the right underside of a B-17 “Flying Fortress.”
    They were a workhorse bomber, flying missions over Germany and France in World War II, targeting Hitler’s factories, taking flak, getting shot down but surviving, or not.
    They were airplanes flown by 20-year-old boys who became men at 30,000 feet, like Alfred Benjamin.
    “I went in at 19 and was in battle at 20,” Benjamin told his friends and neighbors. “I was a navigator. I flew 31 missions in seven months in 1944. My longest mission was 10 hours and 15 minutes. The oxygen mask used to freeze around the sides of my face.”
    Over his shoulder, the wing waited, adorned with the insignia of the 384th Bomb Group and the autographs of 108 former members.
    “I was shot down over Belgium,” Benjamin continued. “The engines failed and burst into flame.”
    The wing had arrived at the Palmsea that morning in the back of a 2008 Chevy Silverado driven by two volunteers from Alabama, Mike Jerrell and Keith Ellefson. On Friday, they had stopped in Stuart. Later that morning, they would be in Boynton Beach.
    Since its founding at the group’s 2010 annual reunion in Branson, Mo., the “384th Bomb Group Veterans Signing Project” has brought the wing to reunions in Seattle, San Antonio, Dayton and Norfolk.
    “About 30 signed it at the reunions,” Ellefson said. “The rest are all individuals our volunteers have taken it to.”
    Any veteran of the 384th, whatever his capacity, who served between January 1943 and February 1946, may sign the wing.
    “It was started by a NexGen member named Christopher Wilkinson who wanted to commemorate the service of these guys,” Ellefson said.
    Ellefson too is a “Next Generation” member.
    “My uncle was a ball-turret gunner on them,” he said. “A lot of us volunteers are NexGen.”
    The panel was donated by Aero Trade, an airplane restoration company in Chino, Calif.
    “It’s a real piece of a real airplane,” Ellefson assured the gathering. “Probably from a late production model that wound up in the boneyard.”
    From June 1943 to April 1945, more than 7,000 GIs served in the 384th; 4,380 were combat crew members.
    Of those, 1,575 were killed, either in action or flying accidents. Another 884 became prisoners of war.
    “I didn’t jump, to tell you the truth,” Benjamin recalled. “I stood in the door and they booted me out.”
    The chute opened. Glancing over, he saw another crew member fumbling in his pocket for a cigarette as they floated slowly to the ground.
    “I’d never jumped before,” he said. “I learned how to control the chute on the way down.”
    And then he broke through the clouds and saw a farmhouse down below, with a fenced-in yard and an animal that might be a cow, or possibly a bull.
    Benjamin landed inside the fence, rolled to a stop and looked up to see whether it was  cow or bull.
    “And suddenly I found myself surrounded by men with machine guns.”
    Belgian freedom fighters.
    “The Germans were still in the area, so they hid me in a farmhouse for one night then took me to a Catholic hospital until the Americans came and got me and I was evacuated to Paris.”
    Benjamin told about the time his crew bombed a German factory, only to find out later it had been making shoes.
    “When we saw newsreels of the Germans with rags on their feet, my buddy and I decided we’d won the war by bombing that factory. We called it The Day We Won The War.”
    He was telling war stories, and getting warm laughs.
    And then he became the 109th veteran of the 384th Bomb Group to sign the wing.
    Surrounded by cameras and iPhones, former 1st Lt. Alfred Benjamin, a navigator, wrote “Alfred Benjamin,” just above the signature of 1st Lt. Joe. R. Carnes, who had been his pilot.
    “And now if you’d stand, I want to play taps for the group members who were lost,” he said.
    The crowd stood reverently, caps off, silent, while Benjamin’s iPad played the sad, familiar notes.
    His friends and neighbors were gathering ’round to shake his hand as Jerrell and Ellefson prepared to drive the wing down the road to Boynton Beach so another navigator could sign, then on to Lauderdale-by-The-Sea and so on, for another year.
    “We expect it’ll be off the streets in January 2016,” Ellefson said.
    The wing’s final home will be Hill Air Force Base in Utah, near Wendover Field, where the 384th trained.
    At the 2010 reunion in Branson, 10 veterans signed the wing. Then 16 a year later in Tucson. “Last year, only six vets signed it in Norfolk,” Ellefson recalled.
    Nearby, Benjamin was urging the crowd to have some Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee.
    “I feel wonderful. I’m all elated,” he said. “I’m humbled.”

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