“Every boy needs a hero,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood, “and when I was a boy, my hero was Uncle Ben.”
An Air Force fighter pilot, the swashbuckling Benjamin H. King flew more than 300 combat missions in three different wars, rising from second lieutenant to brigadier general.
When Wood was a boy, growing up in the country outside Roswell, his uncle would sometimes buzz the Woods’ house in an Air Force plane, executing a barrel roll as a kind of hot dog howdy.
King died in 2004. Wood, 68, will be thinking about his uncle this Memorial Day, and about his uncle’s 30-year military career, which almost ended before it began.
Just as the 23-year-old fighter pilot was seeing his first action, flying a P-38 in World War II’s South Pacific theater, he was shot down over the Solomon Islands. His survival was nothing short of miraculous.
Last October, Jere Wood and his siblings, Mary Jo Wood of Ball Ground and Ben Wood of Shanghai, China, gathered in Australia to take a puddle-jumper prop plane to the tiny island of Mono. There they retraced their uncle’s steps, following the paths where he hid from Japanese troops.
Astonishingly, they also met people who could tell the story of the castaway American, the islanders who helped hide King and six other Americans from the Japanese. The people of Mono fed the soldiers, treated their wounds, and helped them paddle back to safety two months later.
“We met 16 people who remembered him,” said Mary Jo Wood, 70, a retired veterinarian and college professor, during a speaking engagement at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Roswell.
When the Wood siblings left the island by way of a motorboat launch, the people of Mono gathered to sing a song commemorating the event, with the names of the American soldiers in the lyrics. “They included the story of the airman in their going-away song,” said Jere Wood. “To see the entire town hang out on the beach and sing you a song — I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.”
Ben King was born on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma in 1919, and entered aviation cadet training shortly after Pearl Harbor. He earned his wings in November 1942, and was assigned duty in the South Pacific, flying the distinctive twin-fuselage P-38 out of a base in the Solomons, a chain of 900 islands northeast of Australia.
On July 17, 1943, he was accompanying a group of seven heavy bombers, when the squadron encountered perhaps 50 Japanese Zeros.
King shot one down, but his cockpit, controls and hydraulics were damaged and both engines were shot out. With two Zeros in hot pursuit, he made a water landing.
As the Zeros turned to make a strafing run, King released the canopy, gathered his life raft and climbed out on the wing. He had a few seconds before the plane went under. Writing about King later, one of his colleagues, Col. Bob Gleason, said it was perhaps the first time a flier successfully ditched a P-38. “That aircraft had the reputation of converting to a submarine the moment its belly touched the water,” Gleason wrote.
“I held onto the wing and it seemed like I went down for hours, but I guess I let go about 20 feet under water,” King wrote in a mission report. This kept him temporarily safe from strafing fire. He could look up and see bullets peppering the water where his parachute floated.
After a few passes, the Zeros flew on, and King surfaced, gasping for air. Knowing the nearby island was crowded with Japanese troops, he began paddling a tiny rubber raft for one of the Treasury Islands, miles away.
After five days, he had made little progress. He had nothing to drink but rainwater and no food except a seabird that he caught and ate raw. Finally a storm blew him in the right direction, and he landed on Mono. The dark-skinned Melanesians there hid him from the few Japanese on the island, and brought him to where six other Americans were also hiding.
The islanders moved the Americans from house to house, bringing them pineapple, pudding, eggs, fish and sweet potatoes. Members of the tribe would drop by occasionally and report on the movements of the Japanese. They used folk medicine to treat King’s strep throat and another soldier’s centipede bite. The men kept a journal of their time there.
The entry on Aug. 12 reads: “No visitors today. We saw opossum but could not catch it. It would have made a nice dinner.”
Mary Jo Wood discovered that diary when King’s widow, Maxine Hanam King, died at age 90 in 2012. Maxine was the last living member of her family — her children and husband were gone — and it fell to Mary Jo Wood to go through the papers there.
“Fully a fourth of the piles of photographs, letters, news articles, and military secret reports stored in Ben King’s retirement home in Florence, Oregon, were related to his WWII South Pacific adventure,” she writes, in an account of her visit to Mono.
Outside of being shot down, it isn’t easy to get to Mono. It’s even harder to leave. Two months after arriving, King and three other Americans paddled away, with an escort of islanders accompanying them the first mile or so.
Using a homemade kerosene lantern and a tracer bullet, they were able to signal a PBY “Flying Boat,” a Navy aircraft that made a dangerous nighttime ocean landing and picked up the men.
Though few of the islanders spoke English, many were Christians, having come in contact with Methodist missionaries early that century. That religion, and a mutual antipathy for the Japanese, gave them something in common with the Americans, whose lives they saved, while risking their own.
Jere Wood acknowledged the debt by bringing the flag that had been given King’s widow to present to the elders of Mono. On that occasion, “I gave one of my better speeches,” Wood said. “It was a real connection with the people who saved my uncle’s life.”
One of their leaders, Roy Kellosi, was a 10-year-old boy when King washed up on Mono. Even the children knew where the American soldiers were, but they didn’t tell the Japanese. Kellosi explained to the Woods, “The holy spirit kept our mouths shut.”
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