During World War II, longtime Charlotte resident Robert Benton saw a lot of combat action.
He flew a fighter plane for six-and-a-half hours on D-Day to cover Allied troops on the ground. A month later, he survived a crash landing in a drainage canal in England after Nazis shot out his engine.
He won a Purple Heart for his service but spent the rest of life quietly dedicated to raising his family in the Queen City, working at Belk and going to St. Johns Baptist Church.
Benton died in his sleep Thursday. He was 92 years old.
He was a hero for the family and was a wonderful father, said Ken Benton, the oldest of Bentons three sons. He didnt really talk about the war much until about 50 years after and some of the horrors had faded.
Benton was born in 1921 in what was then the Monroe suburb of Benton Heights, where his father was the local grocer and mayor.
At age 20, Benton moved to Charlotte to attend Kings College but found himself captivated by Army recruitment fliers posted around town, his son said.
So in 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps and began training to be a pilot first in an engineless glider plane but ultimately in a single-engine P-47.
The right decision
During the two years he spent in Europe Benton flew on more missions than his eldest son could recount.
But the story they often tell is of the one that earned him the Purple Heart the crash he survived in July 1944 after Germans shot his engine during a raid over France and caused it to catch fire.
Benton successfully jettisoned the burning engine and was flying the plane back to England when he realized he wouldnt make it all the way.
As the English Channel came into view, the plane began to plummet, the story goes according to family friends. Bentons foot got caught in the cockpit and for a split second, he later told his family, he debated about whether to pull the ripcord on his parachute.
He did, and it turned out to be the right choice.
Benton woke up in a hospital near Appledore, England, unable to remember how he landed, said Ken Sanford, a friend from church.
He later received some metal pieces in the mail that were pieces of his plane, daughter-in-law Deborah Benton said. He was very proud of that.
The most unselfish man
Benton was discharged with high honors from the Army in 1945. A year later he married a Charlotte Mecklenburg School elementary teacher named Elsie, and worked to finish his college degree.
Out of school, he got a job as the display manager at the uptown Belk. Friends and family said he worked with a quiet self-confidence that lent itself well to a job in the retail industry.
His son remembers the long hours Benton spent trussing up the department store windows on Tryon Street during the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays.
He was a merchandise manager at the end of his 42-year career there.
He was always visible in the store, Sanford said.
He was also a leader for decades at St. Johns Baptist Church, where he was a deacon and where two of his sons still go.
They will hold a funeral there March 14 to remember him as a war hero and a beloved role model.
I have plaque and medals on my office wall that belonged to my father, said Ken Benton, who is a lawyer in Charlotte. He was the most unselfish man I know.
Steele: 704-358-5067 on Twitter: @steelecs
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