Still flying high: Former war pilot recalls war, starlets

Robert Beton is a restless man. Even at 89, he cannot stay still long, and small wonder: This is a guy who, seven decades ago, did most of his work at night — night, when the troops tried to rest, when (Lord willing) the big guns fell silent.

That’s when he and his buddies headed into the sky, twin engines droning. The fellows on the ground heard them, and knew: The night fighters had their backs.

Night fighter. Even now, a lifetime removed from World War II, the old man embraces the term with all the swagger of a youngster just issued his first flight jacket.

“There were times,” said Beton, “that I figured I’d never get home.”

Home was Atlanta, and he made it back only after spending years on the West Coast as a tax attorney who hobnobbed with starlets.

On April 7, the Tucker resident is throwing himself a 90th birthday party at the Ritz Carlton to celebrate a life that could easily have ended in the dark, over a hostile landscape.

He was born just south of downtown Atlanta and grew up near the intersection of Pryor Street and Central Avenue. Beton attended Commercial High School, class of 1941. He graduated in spring, a few months shy of an attack that would draw the United States into a global conflict.

He was riding in a car with a couple of other guys that Dec. 7. The radio playing music when the announcer broke in: Attack at Pearl Harbor.

“I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”

The nation called for volunteers, and he answered. Beton, who’d once taken a flight from Candler Field in a single-engine airplane, signed up for the U.S. Army Air Forces, precursor to today’s U.S. Air Force.

The Army sent him to Atlantic City, where it had a training airfield. The trip was Beton’s introduction to travel: He strolled the boardwalk, admired the big hotels facing the Atlantic, and vowed he’d see more of this big world — provided he got through the war.

In May 1943, he shipped off to England, where he trained with the Royal Air Force, learning to fly the Bristol Beaufighter. A twin-engine aircraft, it featured cutting-edge technology not found on U.S. planes — radar. It could detect objects in the night that pilots could not see. That made it capable of repelling enemy aircraft making nighttime assaults on troops or installations.

But there was a catch, said Steve McFarland, a North Carolina university administrator who wrote a history of night fighters for the U.S. Air Force. Early radar machinery was heavy, said McFarland, a former Air Force officer.

“It (Beaufighter) was not designed to carry all that weight,” he said. “It was not the safest aircraft.”

They also were loud, cold and not built for comfort, Beton said. “They were warplanes,” he said, shrugging.

The Army assigned Beton to the 417th Night Fighter Squadron, a contingent of 100 Beaufighters and about 250 pilots and radar operators. Their squadron patch depicted two characters, a magician and a swami holding a crystal ball, astride a broom zipping through a starlit sky.

The squadron was stationed near Oran, on the northwestern coast of Morocco. Daily, nightly, they flew sorties to support troops locked in a struggle against tanks corps commanded by German Gen. Erwin Rommel. The work was hot, dangerous and constant.

They had an occasional dogfight over the desert, “but we chased them away, primarily,” Beton said. “When I went out, I figured I’d never come back.”

The night fighters pressed north, following the fighting as Allied forces pushed back at the Axis powers. In Corsica, the flyers and guys on the ground learned to listen for “Bed Check Charlie,” a moniker they gave whatever German craft flew over their installations at night. Sometimes “Charlie” merely passed over; other times he strafed the troops, fleeing when Allied night fighters zeroed in on his location.

In 1944, Beton found himself in Paris. On Nov. 11 — Armistice Day, which we now call Veterans Day — he sat on a wall and watched French leader Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pass by in a motorcade. Atlanta had never seemed so far away.

The Army discharged Beton in 1945. He returned to Atlanta, but, giving in to wanderlust, enrolled at the University of Southern California. He got a degree in accounting and landed a job with the Internal Revenue Service. A few years later, Beton returned to school, got his law degree and sold his services as a tax lawyer. In time, his business put him in touch with the stars of the day —Marilyn Monroe, Jane Wyman, Frank Sinatra. Beton has a stack of snapshots to prove it.

And, in one particularly telling photo, framed and hanging on his den wall, is an image of Beton standing beside Jayne Mansfield, filling the frame with her smile and other star qualities.

Beton likes that photo. It’s a metaphor for his life — the restless Atlanta boy, sampling life’s adventures.

“It’s been a good life,” he said. “I am not complaining.”