Andy Benedict on Surviving Three Crashes in WW II, Getting into Printing, Raising Five Sons, and Going to College at 57

by John Conroy

“I was 18 years old when I enlisted as an aviation cadet.”

91-year-old Andy Benedict leaned forward in his chair, talking about events that had occurred some 70 years prior, but in his retelling, seemed like yesterday.

“I didn’t want to be infantry. I didn’t want to go into the Navy because I can’t swim. I was scared they would put me in the subs and I was claustrophobic,” said Benedict. “When I was a little kid I remember Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean, and had this interest in aviation ever since.”

After enlisting to fight in World War II, he went to and graduated from the Stuttgart Army Air Base Twin-engine Flying School in Arkansas. He was then made a Commissioned Officer and a B-24 Bomber Pilot with the Fifteenth Air Force, based in Manduria, Italy. Benedict eventually attained the rank of First Lieutenant while flying 23 bomber missions over Nazi territory in France, Germany, and Austria He also crashed three times and survived. The first was in Cuba on his way to Europe, and the two others were from damage during the war. He landed one of the planes on the Island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea, which is the farthest inhabited island off the Croatia mainland, and the second was near a mountain range while based in Italy. [Hear Andy describe having to land a plane at night on an air force base using only beeps and sounds.]

“There were these guns that would shoot up shells. They had serrated sections to them, which would explode red hot and send this shrapnel through the body of the plane,” said Benedict. “You’d hear it but wouldn’t realize until the gauges went haywire.”

Benedict managed to survive these crashes and the war, and was decorated with the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Service Medal, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguished Unit Citation with Oak Leaf Cluster, World War II Victory Medal, and Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of the French Republic Medal.

“I think about that time period practically every day, it’s hard,” he said. “I’ve kept in touch with their wives, I watch their families growing. They’re all passed away, I’m the only one left.”

After returning from the war at 22, Benedict joined his brothers in Pittsburgh in the printing field. He worked in graphic arts, operated a linotype, helped as a pressman. “A little bit of everything,” he said.

Benedict spent a few decades working in the field, but as he put it, “In the 1970s I could see the technology changing as it evolved into computers.” He was contacted by the Parkway West Area Technical School to see if he would be in interested in teaching graphic arts. He agreed, but the school stipulated that he would need to obtain an education degree while teaching. So at the age of 57, he entered college for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh to earn his bachelor of science in education degree.

“There were a lot of people questioning it,” he said. “I recall one of the directors saying, ‘Why the hell does he want to go into teaching? He’s 57 years old!’ It was hard going because I would have to teach school in the daytime and rush here for class.”

Looking back, he says that the most important lesson was learning to transfer his experience to the students. “I had the knowledge and was from an old-school style of learning—my way or the highway—but in teaching you have to be more diplomatic,” he said. “You have to be effective in transferring the ideas because after all, their success was a reflection of your success. I always kept that in mind as a teacher.”

In 1984, he graduated cum laude at 61. He then spent the rest of his teaching career at Parkway West Area Technical School.

To this day, Benedict still stays busy, even at the age of 91. He travels on the bus from Robinson Township to Oakland twice a week to use the computer, read in the Hillman Library, and walk through the Cathedral of Learning. In 2010, he was invited to co-pilot one of the few remaining B-24 bombers, the first time in 70 years he had flown. “The thing I noticed was that it took a lot of strength to keep it straight because there are no hydraulics. A lot of it came back to me.“

He also loves his home garden. “I am enamored with flora: I save seeds and I plant zinnias and crocuses and I have a little nursery up at the farm. We have a little tractor that we use for tilling. I have no pets but my kids all have pets, which I take care of, and that’s enough for me to get through the day.”

“I got married, had five boys, my [four] grandchildren, and [six] great-grandchildren—they are a beautiful group and smart as whips—I’m prejudiced of course. I received the French Medal of Honor from the French Embassy in D.C. I graduated from high school and college. I’m satisfied,” he laughed. “It could have been a lot worse.”

[Editor’s note: Around one month after interviewing Andy for this article, he passed away, just a few weeks after turning 92. Even though I only met him once, I was immensely impressed and inspired with his story, his pride for his country, and his enthusiasm for life.]