Military was a way of life for veteran of World War II
Benton Young Burton Jr. thought he was headed to war after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
His mother had other thoughts.
“She said, ‘You’re going to school tomorrow,’ and that was the end of it,” Burton said Tuesday in his Grand Junction home.
Still, Burton’s 32-year career with the United States military began in his heart that day. Even though he stayed in school until the spring of 1942 to receive his high school diploma, Burton, 87, said in his mind he joined every branch of the military when the United States entered World War II.
In October 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in his home state of Oklahoma. He didn’t know until he arrived a month later at Sheppard Army Air Corps Base in Texas that he would work with the branch of the Army that eventually became the Air Force. For the next 15 months, he worked as an air-glider mechanic, attended mechanic school in Long Beach, Calif., and Buffalo, N.Y., and was briefly stationed at bases in Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Then the day to go to war came. In February 1945, Burton set out for Europe on the biggest twin-engine plane used by the Army at that time, a C-46. The trip to Europe included flying to Indiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, British Guiana and Brazil, loading and unloading cargo the whole way. From Brazil, he flew to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
“It was a 10-hour trip, and we had 10 hours worth of fuel,” Burton said.
From the island, Burton traveled to Liberia, then Senegal, then Morocco before heading to England. He spent the rest of the war in Europe in April and May. In France, he flew operational missions to pick up wounded soldiers, equipment and cargo.
After Germany surrendered and Allied forces declared victory in Europe, Burton helped on missions to Norway, where troops helped scoop Germans out of the Scandinavian country. In July, he and other air crews flew back to the United States via Wales, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador.
He was told he was headed to Okinawa, Japan, but the war in the Pacific ended before he could get there.
Burton was in Texas, then discharged from duty in Arkansas before moving home to Oklahoma and starting a family. He and his wife, Willie, now deceased, had three daughters.
Burton said he wouldn’t take any pay, any prize, anything as a trade for the life he had in the military. Part of the benefit of his military career was he always knew he’d have a paycheck at the end of the month, a definite plus for someone raised in the Great Depression.
He said it also worked for family life, because he knew his family would be taken care of while he was away. And even though he spent time overseas, he missed just one Christmas at home, while he was in mechanic school in New York in 1944.
He brought his family with him in January 1953 when he spent part of the Korean War on duty at Ramey Air Base in Puerto Rico. He was recalled to serve in May 1951 and spent time in South Dakota and Illinois. In 1956, he moved the family to Fort Worth, Texas, and then Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma two years later.
“I raised a military family,” Burton said. “I don’t regret that.”
His family stayed behind when he went to Ubon, Thailand, for a year during the Vietnam War in 1966. His time in Asia included 90 days of training in the Philippines.
After Vietnam, Burton spent his final years in the military at George Air Force Base in Southern California.
He said he’s still kicking himself for leaving the military in 1975, when he moved to Los Angeles to work at Northrop Corp. in Hawthorne, Calif. But he still got to indulge his love of travel in the private sector. He went to Saudi Arabia, Japan, the Phillipines, Singapore and all 50 states, recruiting people to work in Saudi Arabia for the aircraft, electronics and precision weapons-maker.
Burton moved back to Oklahoma in 1985. Five years after Willie died, he moved to Battlement Mesa and married his wife, Shirley, in 1998. In 2001, the two settled in Grand Junction.
“I like it better than anywhere I’ve ever lived,” he said of Grand Junction.
Burton said he cherishes his memories and keeps photos of the planes he flew on and his military service papers.
“I liked the travel. I like the camaraderie. Some of the best friends I ever had were in the military,” he said.
Burton was lucky never to be shot at by enemy fire and narrowly averted disaster when a plane came down on top of his, killing his radio operator in Europe.
Burton said his life went on just the right path, even if it started later than the day he wanted it to.
“I wouldn’t do anything different if I had my way,” he said.