By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – A son who lost his father in a brutal fight during the Korean War more than 60 years ago witnessed his repatriation.
Gary Clayton’s father, Sergeant First Class Alfred G. Bensinger, Jr. was honored during a military ceremony at Will Rogers Airport and at Smith & Turner Mortuary Wednesday. He was three-years-old when Bensinger was reported missing in action on December 1, 1950.
“It’s amazing you have a love for someone that you never really knew,” Clayton said with emotion in his voice. “But I love my dad.”
Bensinger served in the United States Army in the South Pacific during World War II from 1943 to 1946. In the Korean War, he was a member of Company D, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Korean battle of Kunu-Ri is a solemn moment etched in the memory of the survivors of the 2nd Engineer Battalion. After many days of brutal fighting in the cold fall of 1950, the U.S. and U.N troops ordered their troops to withdrawal through the only escape route through a mountain pass. With the approach of a massive Chinese force, the 2nd Engineer Battalion held off the assault long enough for the other troops to safely evacuate.
Unfortunately, the remaining battalion received the full brunt of the enemy and their window of opportunity to escape closed. They soaked all their equipment in gasoline and set it on fire to prevent the Chinese from capturing it as possible war trophies. Over 700 troops were killed or taken as Prisoners of War, including Bensinger.
Bensinger, who lived in Canadian County before joining the military, received several distinguishing awards and medals for his service including the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal, National Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Korean Service Medal with 3 Bronze Stars, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea War Service Medal, and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.
The honors continued Wednesday beginning with at the Will Rogers Airport. Bensinger received Planeside Honors and a full procession including military officers, local and national veterans, the Patriot Guard Riders, and members from the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion Association accompanied his remains to Smith & Turner. He was interred with a full procession Friday during a graveside service at Fort Sill National Cemetery in Elgin, Oklahoma.
The day’s events were overwhelming for his surviving son.
“Intellectually, when you think you have prepared for this…you think you would be prepared emotionally but I wasn’t. This whole thing has been amazing to me, just in shock about the whole thing and yet I’ve had all this time to prepare and to think it wouldn’t be a big deal to me, but it is. I thought in my heart I had said goodbye to him decades ago as a young adult, I literally did that for myself. I never expected this day to happen but it’s here and it’s amazing,” Clayton said.
The family was notified in August that Bensinger’s remains had been identified by the MIA Accounting Agency. Government officials declined to say where Bensinger’s remains were found or their condition.
Although he went through life without his father, Clayton said his dad’s example influenced his life.
“I go through my life with someone that I had always said had no meaning to me because I never knew him, but as I progressed and got older I realized that wasn’t true. There is still an amazingly strong connection there. Some of the larger decisions I’ve ever made were based on his sacrifice and all he did for his country.”
Clayton chose to hold the funeral on a date that was significant to him, his father’s birthday. The timing of the Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea, as well as the rekindled tensions between the U.S. and North Korea is an irony that did not escape him.
“The thing I admire about him most was what he did in South Korea and for the South Korean people and to look at the difference between North Korea and South Korea, if anybody has any doubts about freedom then let them go to North Korea and live there for a while. I’ve always wondered why the difference between North and South Korea has not been publicized more,” he said.
When Clayton was notified his father’s remains would be returned, he was shocked.
“It’s really amazing. He disappeared from my life when I was three-years-old and much later I find out what happened to him and the chances of him coming back were slim to none,” he said.
Captain S. Lee Sargent, of Yukon, is a casualty operations officer for the Oklahoma Army National Guard. He said a repatriation after so many years is not common.
“It’s honestly surreal. It’s really been an honor to bring this soldier back home and work with his family. To be part of it has been humbling and it’s hard to put into words,” Sargent said.
The MIA Accounting Agency works with foreign governments to find and return the remains of service members. Casualty Operations Officers work the with the family to assist them with long term benefits and assist with the coordination of repatriation.
Now at rest, Bensinger is survived by his son Gary Clayton, of El Reno, two grandchildren, Glen and Andrea Clayton, and his sister Joyce O’ Browning. His name is permanently engraved in the Korean War “Counts of the Missing” at the Honolulu Memorial along with others that were reported missing. A rosette will now be placed next to his name to indicate that he has been found.