Bobby J. Benge never made a move in the .military without first discussing it with his family. The Hewitt resident, who will turn 85 this week, got married while in college at Baylor University, before he joined the U.S. Air Force. Benge and Phadalia McFerrin were together for 63 years before she passed away less than a year ago.
“She was as much in the Air Force as I was,” Benge said. “She served in every capacity.”
Born in Maydelle, but raised in Houston, Benge attended Baylor on a football scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He was the first in his family to go to college. He made his mark playing football and baseball, where he was named third team All-American.
At Baylor, he was in the university’s ROTC program, when he was “told” to take a physical for pilot training. He had never flown in his life.
“They didn’t ask,” he said. Once he passed, he went to Hondo for pilot training. He learned to fly on a PA-18 and the more advanced trainer, the T-6 Texan, both light aircraft. Six months later, he went to Bryan to train on the T-28 and then the T-33, a single-engine jet trainer.
Benge completed pilot training and became a 2nd lieutenant, but in the Reserves. After a family discussion, he went on indefinite reserve status, which added an extra year to his service commitment. He selected the T-29 and was based at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.
Nicknamed “the flying classroom,” the T-29 was used for navigator training; Benge flew the planes. He spent over a year there before transferring to Harlingen, where he did the same assignment for three years.
In for the long haul
He was selected to become a regular officer and, after discussing it with his wife, “she said she was having a good time, and I was having a good time, so I accepted,” Benge said. It was at that point he decided to make the Air Force his career.
Benge transferred to Waco’s James Connally AFB, where he piloted for navigators in training. From there, he received his first overseas assignment to London, working at Ruyslip Air Station for three years at the British Air Force’s Combat Control Center. He took his his wife and two daughters with him.
Serving as a duty controller, he had a crew that monitored all flights into France, Germany and Norway.
“I liked it very much,” Benge said. “It was quite an adjustment for my wife.” But Phadalia dove right in. She arranged social events and activities for the British RAF and was invited to the queen’s birthday celebration.
Back on a college campus
A captain when he returned to the United States, he came back to an ROTC job at Oklahoma State University, where he was an instructor for three years and commandant of cadets. “I know all those formations,” he said, laughing.
After his ROTC assignment, Benge volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he was based at Phan Rang Air Base. Flying the AC-119 gunship with a crew of eight, he made all the decisions on flights and fired the guns. Many of the missions where nighttime flights, in support of ground locations. They would circle around the target and fire the guns. “It was very effective. Seldom did I see anyone shooting back,” he said.
Later, Benge transferred to Ton Son Nhut Air Base to serve as adviser to a Vietnamese crew, teaching young pilots. There for over seven months, it was shortly after the TET Offensive, and there was hardly any combat in Saigon. However, on one flight to Bien Hoa in heavy rain, his airspeed indicator went out. He had to make a go-around and come back in to land. It was a tense few minutes for Benge and the crew.
When he returned to the States a year later, Benge was assigned to Iceland, where he flew a KC-135 refueling ship. In 1975, he retired as a major with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three clusters and Vietnamese medals.
Benge moved the family to Austin to attend the University of Texas for a time before moving to Houston. He took a job in the construction industry, moved to Dallas and added fire sprinkler sales to his portfolio.
He retired and moved to Waco in 1995 to be near his family. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he is completely disabled. “It requires four people to do the work my wife did alone,” Benge said.
He and Phadalia had two daughters and five grandchildren.
“She was a very important lady to me. We had to make choices, and we made some good ones,” he said, adding “I was blessed to be able to serve in the Air Force.”