It has been 63 years since the surrender of Japan brought World War II to a close, but Golden Gate resident Willie Olen Benfield can remember that time like it was yesterday.
Benfield was barely 18 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1940. He served in the Pacific Campaign during World War II and his six years of service took him to New Guinea, Luzon and the Philippines, to name a few.
Upon his discharge as a Technician Grade 4 in January 1946, he received the Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Theater Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. Benfield also earned two Bronze Stars, the Philippine Liberation Medal with 1 Bronze Star, and the U.S. Army Expert Shooting Badge.
The medals have a special significance for Benfield as he waited nearly 60 years to receive them. The medals had been misplaced or sent to the wrong address, years ago, and family members ordered them through a company called Soldier City as a surprise for Benfield’s 83rd birthday, two years ago.
Benfield recounted memories of his time overseas including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941.
Shortly after the United States Military landed in the Pacific Islands, soldiers were stricken with malaria. Benfield remembers taking an Atabrine pill every day to prevent the disease. At one point, some Army units had 90 percent of their personnel in field hospitals and on average 20-25 percent of a unit was afflicted.
Known to his army buddies as “Benny,” Benfield served with the 211th Ordnance Medium Automotive Company. He remembers the K-rations, which contained 3,000 calories and were designed to be light in weight, to be carried in the soldier’s pack and consumed only under emergency conditions when no other food was available. The kit contained a can of meat, crackers, matches, bouillon powder, four cigarettes, salt tablets and a package of chocolate.
Benfield said the war necessitated unique solutions to common problems, large and small. He said the soldiers would cool their beer by placing it in a tub of gasoline and using a tire pump to blow air into the tub.
“It may not have been cold beer, but at least it wasn’t warm,” he recalled.
Air raids were also a part of everyday life, preceded by three-shell warnings.
“You could set your watch by the air raids - every night at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” he said. “You learned quickly to head for your foxhole when the first warning shell sounded.”
New Guinea was taken in 1943, and Benfield saw entertainer Bob Hope perform there in August 1944. The Philippines were liberated in the beginning of 1945. That same year, Roosevelt suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and Harry S. Truman became President. Germany surrendered May 1945 followed by Japan in August after “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the first nuclear bombs, were dropped.
Benfield’s family is especially proud of their father and grandfather’s service.
“He and all of the U.S. Military made a lot of sacrifices to keep our country protected,” says grandson Matthew Benfield. “My grandfather’s memories and those of all soldiers make us more aware that freedom is not a luxury.”