End of an era: Pearl Harbor veteran dies at 92
More than six decades after he took emergency command of the destroyer USS Farragut during the devastating Japanese sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy gave 88-year-old Darien resident James Benham credit for his heroic leadership in bringing the vessel to safety amidst a hail of bombs and gunfire.
That morning, with his superior officers ashore overnight, Benham, a 24-year-old Navy ensign, took control for another officer who was incapacitated and steered the ship through a narrow channel to the open sea.
"I saw the rising sun on this plane, we called it the red meatball, flying by. It was a complete shock. I couldn't believe what was happening," Benham recalled in 2005 after receiving the Bronze Star medal.
Benham, who moved to Darien in 1950 and may have been the last surviving veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack living in Fairfield County, died Tuesday at his home in Norwalk at age 92 of congestive heart failure, his granddaughter Gina Nichols said.
Elwood Lichack Sr., a Stamford resident and Pearl Harbor veteran, died in May 2009 at 92.
Benham was known for his annual presence at Stamford's remembrance ceremonies marking the Japanese attack, which crippled the Pacific fleet, left about 2,400 American service members dead, and spurred the United States' entry into World War II the next day.
A frail Benham attended December's ceremony in a wheelchair, his daughter Judi Benham said.
"It took every bit of strength he had that day but he went," she said. "We went to the Stamford event for so many years I can't remember."
Earlier this decade, a New Canaan man, Nathan Snyder, began the successful campaign to get Benham the Bronze Star medal, after Benham, a retired advertising executive, told him the story, Judi Benham said.
Another officer, who was incapacitated at the time, had previously been credited with the successful maneuvering of the ship, but testimony from three other officers prompted the U.S. Navy to give Benham his due.
"He was the type of person who knew what he had done and didn't need recognition," Judi Benham said. "It was all Nate, and we're so grateful to him for realizing that something should have been done for him."
Nichols and her mother, Judi Benham, both of Darien, said Benham was dedicated to veterans in general, Benham stayed close with shipmates from around the country, attending two reunions in Hawaii over the years.
Each year on Dec. 7, Benham would make and receive several phone calls from his fellow World War II Farragut shipmates, Nichols said.
"The Pearl Harbor ceremonies were something that was so important to him and rightly so because really if you hadn't been there you couldn't understand the magnitude of it," Nichols said.
Following the death of his first wife, June, Benham married longtime friend Kay Fabbri seven years ago, with the pair bonding over a mutual love of playing golf at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Kay Fabbri-Benham said.
"He had the most wonderful and marvelous sense of humor and was so positive about everything and life and never said anything unkind about anyone," Fabbri-Benham, 85, said.
Alan Wolfsey, 86, who served as a bombardier on 51 flight missions during World War II in Southern Europe and is a member of the Wee Burn club, remembered Benham as a close friend who was always agreeable and fun to play with.
"We had a joyous friendship, and you don't have that many of those in life, but I did have that in Jim," said Wolfsey, a New Canaan resident. "There wasn't a finer person, and he never had an enemy and everyone he met was a new friend. That's the best epitaph I know."
Benham was born March 14, 1917 in New York City, the son of Earl and Christine Benham.
He graduated from Princeton University in 1939. After his naval service, he worked at the New York advertising agency Young & Rubicam until 1957 when he joined Ted Bates & Co. He served as senior vice president until his retirement in 1981.
After retirement he was active in several charities, including the American Junior Golf Association, which promotes golf among younger players.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by a second daughter, Maher Benham of New York City, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m., Friday, June 11, at Wee Burn Country Club, 410 Hollow Tree Ridge Road, Darien.
Burial will be private at the Spring Grove Cemetery in Darien.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Vitas Hospital Care, 777 Commerce Drive Suite 220, Fairfield, CT 06825 or the The Wee Burn Caddy Scholarship Fund, 410 Hollow Tree Ridge Road, Darien, CT 06820.