Arnold Benford, Somerset, served as boatswain’s mate 2nd class aboard the USS San Jacinto, an aircraft carrier in World War II, and in that capacity met George H.W. Bush.
“He was a flier off the San Jacinto,” Benford said. “I was in charge of the captain’s boat. I had heard of him as a pilot.”
Bush’s squadron was based on the San Jacinto. He flew a bomber. While on a bombing run Bush’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire on Sept. 2, 1944. He was the only survivor of the crash. He stayed on the USS Finback, a rescue submarine, for a month, then returned to the San Jacinto.
“He didn’t want to return to the U.S., so I took him on the captain’s boat to another ship so he could get another plane,” Benford said. He did not have contact with Bush after that.
Bush ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States in 1980, but was chosen by party nominee Ronald Reagan to be the vice presidential nominee, and the two were subsequently elected.
“When he was campaigning I said we had a George Bush on our ship,” he said. “I got out the ship book and it was him.”
Benford has seen Bush at ship reunions over the years. The reunion was held in Washington, D.C., when Bush was president. The president signed a card for Benford’s grandson.
“He’s a down-to-earth fellow. He didn’t appear like (someone who would say) I’m the boss,” Benford said. “He mingled. I’ll bet he gave fits to the Secret Service.”
They had another ship reunion when the presidential library was dedicated on Nov. 6, 1997. The library is located on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
“The library is very nice,” Benford’s wife, Beverly, said. “The reunion dinner was very elegant.”
The former president joked that it was the first time he had seen his former shipmates wearing ties. In the receiving line Bush asked the Benfords where they were from and they replied that he wouldn’t know it. He said, “Try me.” They said Somerset, Pa. He responded: “Yes, it’s off the turnpike. We drove through there on our way west.”
The Benfords also attended a ceremony for the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush at its home port of Norfolk, Va. The shipmates wore cowboy hats for that ceremony and Benford got to sit on the bridge.
The presidential library has several paintings of the USS San Jacinto done by Thomas Stahl. The Benfords have prints of the paintings, including one of Bush’s bomber flying off the ship. The former president signed that print for them. They have another of a group of men firing artillery. Benford is in that painting. There is another Somerset County connection to the paintings: Stahl, the artist, was born in Meyersdale. His family moved to Ohio while he was still a young child.