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WWII veteran returns to China for final visit PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Thursday, 11 November 2010 20:45

By Josh Sumner

The Wauneta Breeze

 

At the ripe of age of 18 in 1942, Glen Beneda, originally of McCook, probably never fathomed his Air Force enlistment would lead him to a life of multinational honor and adoration.

He probably never guessed he’d fly as a fighter pilot for one of the most revered outfits in American military history.

He also never knew he’d be shot down while carrying out a bombing mission over spacious Chinese farmland.

None of that stopped him from signing up to fight, however.

“All the young men at that time went and signed up,” said son Ed Beneda. “They felt that it was their patriotic duty. They didn’t think about themselves — it was more about what they could do to help the country.”

Glen Beneda, circa 1943

 

So, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, the quiet young man who loved his country waited patiently for one month to pass until his 18th birthday. And when he turned 18, he visited the enlistment office and put his name on the dotted line.

Ralph Egle, the brother of Beneda’s future wife, Elinor Egle — a 1940 Wauneta High School graduate — joined Glen while testing for flight school. Unfortunately, Ralph didn’t get the chance to see the young couple wed as he was shot down and killed in Romania during the Ploesti air raids just months later.

Meanwhile, Glen headed to a different part of the world. After becoming a cadet in May of 1942, he received his wings in February of 1943, and was sent to China to do work as a fighter pilot in the 14th Air Force.

In China, Glen joined controversial leader General Claire Chennault and his team of Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers famously fought alongside the Chinese against the Japanese aggression in the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945.

It was on a bombing mission in May 1944 that Beneda’s life would be changed forever.

A fleet of bombers as large as the 14th Air Force could muster was assembled to hit a Japanese base in China’s Hubei Province. While thousands of U.S. planes were teaming up for massive bombing missions all over Europe, Chennault struggled to piece together a few dozen aircrafts. Approximately 50 bombers were escorted by fighter planes, like the P-40 flown by Beneda, as they flew toward their enemy target.

They were five minutes away from their target when it happened.

“My dad said 50 to 100 Japanese Zeros came out of nowhere and they were just outgunned,” said Ed Beneda. “As the fighter planes engaged the Zeros, the bombers were able to continue on and did hit their target and return to their base. It was a successful mission.”

After getting two unconfirmed kills of his own during the dogfight, Beneda’s P-40 was hit. His plane soon became disabled after catching on fire. Cruising in airspace above a Japanese stronghold, intuitive thinking might have saved Beneda.

“He realized he needed to ride his airplane as far out of the area as he could,” said Ed Beneda. Ed said his father kept the plane running in an effort to trim it out and escape from behind enemy lines. “He finally got to the point where he knew he had to bail out, and when he went to pull the canopy’s emergency release, nothing happened.

The late Glen Beneda, at left, is joined by wife Elinor (Egle) and son Ed Beneda during a visit to China’s Great Wall. Glen Beneda served in China as part of the Flying Tigers in the U.S. 14th Air Force during World War II.  (Courtesy Photo)

 

“So he hit the canopy hard with his elbow, and the canopy flipped sideways and wedged him inside the cockpit against the bulkhead. He thought he was going to die, and he told me he said in a real loud voice, ‘God, help me!’ Right then, the canopy opened and he was able to get out of his flight. He always felt like that was divine intervention.”

Upon parachuting out of his plane, Beneda landed in a rice paddy on Chinese farmland. His leg had been severely injured during his ejection from the aircraft. He was unable to parachute out of the left side of his P-40, as was protocol, because that’s where the plane was on fire.

Beneda was rescued by Chinese farmers that had not only never seen an American before, but had also never seen an airplane. Still, the farmers had the canniness to realize they needed to hide Glen’s aircraft, which had landed in a nearby lake. The farmers laid large rocks and stones on top of the plane to submerge it, removing it from the view of enemy forces.

“They sank it because they knew the Japanese would come by looking for whoever was flying it,” said Ed Beneda.

Following the rescue, the farmers tended to Beneda’s wounds, before taking him to General Li Xiannian of the Chinese New 4th Army. A two-month excursion through China, which would be fraught with military encounters with Japanese aggressors, was Glen’s path back to rejoining his Air Force squadron.

About a third of the way through his voyage, Beneda was joined by fellow American Lee Gregg — a P-38 pilot who was also rescued by the Chinese.

A 500-mile trek through Japanese-infested territory was forged in an effort to unite Beneda with his squadron. General Chennault thought Glen had been dead for weeks. Upon arrival, Beneda presented Chennault with a sword given to him from General Li which had been recovered from a major Japanese general.

Beneda received a war trophy of his own from General Li in the form of a Japanese Nambu pistol. Li went on to become President of China in 1983.

 

Beneda honored by people of China

Beneda returned to the United States and married his sweetheart Elinor Egle in 1946. The young couple lived in Palisade briefly in the late 1940s, and Glen owned a recreation hall on Main Street. The Benedas relocated to southern California when their twin sons, Ed and Henry, were 5 years old.

Beneda worked as a firefighter on the Los Angeles County Fire Department for 25 years before retiring in 1976.

In his later years, Beneda made several trips to China where he was honored not only by Li Xiannian’s daughter Madame Li Xiaolin, but also the people who helped rescue him in 1944. During a trip in 2005, people from all around the village where Glen was rescued threw a celebration in his honor.

“When we got close to the village, we started hearing drums and banging,” said Ed Beneda, who accompanied his parents on several of their recent Middle Kingdom voyages. “People came out around the SUV and were blowing horns and trying to touch my dad. When we got inside the village, thousands of people came out and carried my dad to the lake where his plane landed. There were fireworks going off. It was quite an honor for those people to have rescued an American pilot.”

Glen Beneda, at right, had the rare opportunity of being reacquainted with the Chinese farmers who saved his life nearly 70 years ago. (Courtesy Photo)

 

On his most recent trip to China just a few weeks ago, Beneda was honored by Madame Li during the opening of the presidential museum she built for her father. Gifts exchanged between Beneda and President Li were among the artifacts on display.

As if by an act of God allowing the war hero to reconnect with his Chinese compatriots one last time, Glen fell ill and died less than a week after returning from China. He passed away on Oct. 23, 2010 — five days after he returned home.

Ed said it meant the world to his father to be able to make the trip one last time.

“The trip was very special to him because his health was in real poor condition,” said son Ed Beneda. “His doctor advised him not to go because of his heart. But he said he felt obligated to the Chinese people. He felt a debt to them — he wanted to go back and thank them.”

The honor of being treated like a patriot in China was something that overwhelmed Glen Beneda, but he handled the attention with class dignity, said Ed.

“My dad was a very honorable person,” said Ed Beneda. “He didn’t like people who lied. He was always straightforward. His yes meant ‘yes’ and no was always ‘no.’ He was a fine example of a Godly man who did things right. He loved his family and his country. He never worried about himself — it was always about helping others and doing the right thing.”