– Colonel Bennie Jew (1922–2016)
Colonel Bennie Jew, USAF, volunteered for aviation cadet training in 1943. After World War II, Jew was in the Reserves before returning to active duty in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He had about 3000 hours in the B-52, frequently as the lead aircraft in over 50 bombing missions in Vietnam. Between 1967 and 1969, he was with the 15th Air Force at March Air Force Base. He was two years as deputy base commander at Eielson Base in Alaska, vice wing commander at Tan San Nhut Airbase, deputy base commander at Hanscom Field, and inspector general at Air Force Systems Command Headquarters at Andrews in Washington, DC. After retirement in 1975, Bennie volunteered as president of Sisar Mutual Water Company. He kept his hands greasy as an active member of the Mercedes Benz Club of America and as a recreational pilot. Colonel Jew was interviewed by Marji Lee on 24 October 1995.
I was born in 1922 in Los Angeles. My parents, Way Hong and Quan Shee Jew, were proud immigrants. My parents were of the most humble of circumstances. But they always had time for us children: six boys and four girls. We were poor, but we were never hungry. Our parents always saw to it that we were properly fed, properly clothed, and had a roof over our heads. We are all grateful. They instilled in us qualities by example.
Dad thought we offsprings should know our roots. In 1932, when I was nine, our whole family went to China, and we spent about six years there. I went to Chinese school and learned the colloquial dialect. I was miserable as I did not like China. Today, I understand very little Chinese.
I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes. As poor as we were, Dad would occasionally take us to the local airport near downtown Los Angeles to watch the taildraggers.15 I always wanted to learn to fly. I was always building airplanes. I made my own Ford Trimotor plane; it had an engine right in front of the nose and one under each wing. It was a high wing model plane. It looked like a big acorn, a streamlined acorn. I used to drill a hole in the front with a nail and put in a propeller for the acorn.
I was a houseboy16 for two different families in Beverly Hills. Living with those families actually helped me to assimilate some culture. Then I was a busboy at the Rice Bowl17 and then, a waiter in the restaurant next to the Rice Bowl. On one Sunday, I was on a break in the balcony of this restaurant when I heard the announcement of the Pearl Harbor bombing. I almost fell off the balcony.
Very quickly, they realized they needed pilots. They were not meeting their quota. If you could pass both the academic and physical tests, they would waive the requirement for a college degree. I jumped at that. I lucked out and got accepted. I was called to report for duty by August of 1943. I travelled all over the country by rail to Miami Beach. We went from Los Angeles, through Idaho, Minnesota, New York, to Florida. It took over a week! The boot camp training was tough. They didn’t have enough military barracks so they put us up in hotels (laughs). But, we weren’t allowed to use elevators; we had to use the stairs. One night, I was itchy in my bed. That bed was crawling with bed bugs (laughs). I didn’t meet any other Chinese.
Without any hesitation, I can say I never felt any discrimination. During one difficult training, we were out doing maneuvers with our backpacks, rifles, and gas masks—in the heat of the summer. I was called by a commander’s assistant to report to the commander—a big fat major. At that time, a three-striper drill sergeant was seen as “god.” Now, this was a major. As an aviation cadet, you say “Mr. Jew reporting sir,” with a salute. He said, “Son, that’s kind of hard drills you are doing. How would you like to escape some of that stuff?” He needed a houseboy. I said, “Sir, no thank you.” I wanted to be a pilot.
I was aware that African Americans were segregated. When they asked me about my “race”, I used to write down “Chinese.” They said there was no such thing and that I had to write “yellow.”
From Miami Beach, I went to College Training Detachment in Niagara Falls in 1944.18 By this time, there were too many pilots, and they tried to weed some out. It was aeronautical theory and civilian academics at Niagara University near Buffalo. We took over the entire university. We did get ten hours of flying in a Piper Cub—even with a parachute. It was my first time ever in an airplane, and I loved it. I was still the only Chinese.
We then went to Keesler Field in Mississippi. We got to clean windshields, fuel, and pull wheel chocks for three months. These were Beechcraft AT-7 or AT-11 twin-engine planes. Then finally, we got pre-flight classroom training at Montgomery’s Maxwell Field. They were teaching us even more about the theory of flying. Then we went to primary training when I got my hands on a real airplane at Lakeland, Florida. On my first solo, I swear I dropped the plane about ten feet in the air. My instructor almost had a heart attack (laughs). Next was basic training. We were using the North American T-6 with a radio, closed cockpit, and landing gear; it was much faster and much more tricky. We did crosswind landing, downwind landing, formation flying, and night flying. I graduated with Class 45-B in April of 1945.
I met my lovely wife, Cora Benton, at the mess hall in Lodwick Field, Florida. She was a waitress in the dining hall. I love ice cream, and when I was growing up, it was a real luxury. I would wait for her to get my second scoop (laughs). We eventually got serious and got married in January of 1945. Neither an enlisted man nor a cadet was allowed to marry. I couldn’t get married until I was sure to get my pilot wings.
When I announced my intention to marry a non-Chinese, I was met with fierce disagreement from my family. Dad said, “You marry your own kind.” We went ahead anyways. After Cora came back and lived with my family, she became the absolute favorite of my mother’s. No question. Cora learned a lot from my mother, and my mother learned a lot from Cora.19
I received my pilot’s commission in April of 1945. President Roosevelt died on April 12th, and I graduated on April 15th. The war came to an end in Europe, and the two atomic bombs ended the war in Japan. We had a baby on the way, so I opted to separate in 1946. We thought that the military was not a good place to raise a family. I left the service as a second lieutenant, a “shavetail.”
Above all, being in World War II gave me a better insight into our society. It is a lot bigger than what a Chinese kid learned at home. You need to get out in the world and see what’s going on out there. I interfaced with other people.
As veterans got preference, I worked at Vultee Aircraft in Los Angeles until it got consolidated with General Dynamics and moved to San Diego. I interviewed with Northrup and got a job there.
When the Korean War started, I had no choice, I was recalled into the military as I had been in the Reserves. At Long Beach Airport, there was the 452nd Bomb Group and the 448th Bomb Group—my group. They activated the 452nd, the whole outfit. They were supposed to be more combat ready, and they left as a group. They suffered huge losses as they weren’t quite ready. I lost a lot of flying buddies. Individuals in the 448th were also called, like me. I was called to fill-in places in the States for people who were called to the Korean fiasco. The first assignment was at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. I went in as a first lieutenant; I was assigned as an assistant personnel officer, a non-flying military job. I was in Nellis for about a year. I went on to train at the Squadron Officers’ School at Maxwell, then went through B-26 combat training. I flew B-26, virtually solo, to fight in Korea by way of Honolulu, Wake Island, Midway, Johnson Island, and Japan. I finished my Korean tour in early 1953. Then I was an instructor pilot in Texas for T-28 and T-25 until 1955.
I almost lost my life. I didn’t know until later that they gave me all the derelicts who had little chance of being a pilot. They used to turn them over to me to see if I could salvage them. I salvaged all except one. That one almost killed me. When he was making the approach, he didn’t flare the plane to land. I had to take over. He was already an officer, but he was not cut out to be a pilot.
I still didn’t consider myself a professional military man. After I left the training command as a two-striper captain, I was asked to fill out an application to become a regular Air Force officer. It seemed like there was a contest between the commanders to see how many reservists they could sign-up into the regular Air Force. I didn’t want to apply; I felt like I was a civilian at heart. I felt I should raise my family as a civilian. We had three girls and a son, the youngest being born in 1950. I had been in the service for ten years, but I still enjoyed flying. My commander had to sign my clearance to release me, but he wouldn’t sign. He filled out my application to be a regular.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) rating process was grossly inflated, especially compared to my Training Command at Reese, Texas. I was crushed as I didn’t make officer. My squadron commander, McGuire, interviewed everyone that didn’t make it. Colonel McGuire said, “I’m going to move you around in the squadron. You are going to get a new set of ratings.” He gave me encouragement. He would give me a one-year opportunity to prove myself. Then I was selected; I made regular officer. There was a tear in my eye when I became a dyed in the wool career man. It was a crucial time in my life.
In 1956, I was tapped to transition into a B-47. It was my first jet. I went from two-engine planes to six engines! At March Air Force Base, I was with the 320th Bomb Wing. I had a wonderful crew, and we had some good times together. A B-52 came into the inventory; it was a bigger plane. I volunteered for that in 1960. It was one of the finest airplanes the United States had ever made. It will be in service until 2020. During the Cold War, we flew the Chrome Dome—around the border of the Soviet Union. We all carried nuclear bombs. One scary time, we completely lost power over the North Pole. The engine was running, but everything else stopped. The magnetic compass is useless at the North Pole. But we solved the problem. The advantage that I have over the average person is that I was brought up in rather difficult circumstances. My mother, particularly, never said “give up.” I’m happy with grease on my hand—even though I was a colonel.
15 “Taildraggers” were pre-World War II small planes with its main landing gear nearer the front such that the steerable tailwheel appears as it is resting on the ground.
16 Since their immigration in the mid-1800s, Asian American men and women were often used as domestic servants or personal assistants in mines, farms, and urban settings. Due to restrictions to other employment opportunities, Chinese Americans were tracked into stereotypical positions as laundry workers, restaurant workers, tailors, and “houseboys.” Asian American “schoolgirls” or “mommy helpers” were also common. In the U.S. Navy prior to 1946, it was said that you can tell an officer’s rank by how many Filipino stewards he had serving his personal needs.
17 In 1939, Rice Bowl Restaurant was the only Asian cabaret located at 949 Sun Mun Way in Chinatown’s Central Plaza. Near Rice Bowl were Tuey Far Low and Lim’s Café.
18 This was an intensive college program to increase retention of the cadets during the next three rigorous phases of aviation training.
19 Not only was interracial marriage not common within the Chinese American community, miscegenation was illegal in California until 1948, and illegal in Florida until 1964. The 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia struck down all state laws banning interracial marriages.