Pvt. Howard Bentley scored 99 out of a possible 100 on the range and earned the Expert Infantry Badge.
Marksmanship came easy for him. Growing up at Letitia, near the head of Schultz Creek in Greenup County, he honed his deadeye skills on the abundant squirrels found in the deep woods surrounding the farm.
His skills with the rifle probably saved his life in his very first combat mission, which came when he waded ashore on Leyte Island in the Pacific.
“They shot a buddy right next to me, and nobody could figure where the shot came from,” he said.
His eyes scanned the jungle all around. He saw leaves shaking high up in a coconut palm, which was a sign he often looked for in locating a squirrel hiding in a hickory tree back home. He raised his M-1 rifle, fired once, and the Japanese sniper, who had been zeroing in on him next, or the GI beside him, came tumbling to the ground.
It was Oct. 20, 1944, when Bentley and other members of the 96th, along with those of the XXIV Corps and the 7th Infantry Division, conducted the amphibious invasion of Leyte, the first step by America and her allies in taking back the Philippines from the Japanese.
Six months later, when it came time for the invasion of Okinawa, he was in the first wave of infantrymen to begin the long, hard battle of driving the Japanese defenders from their entrenchment among the caves and fortifications.
Climbing down the rope webbing on the side of the troop ship to enter the smaller LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) that would disgorge them on the beach of Leyte Island, Bentley said he drove all thoughts of home from his mind.
“You think about the business at hand, the need to stay alive, the need to win,” he said.
“I lost hundreds of friends, men I had trained with and lived with in foxholes,” he said.
Once he and four other soldiers were moving an artillery piece into position in an effort to knock out a machine gun nest that had pinned them down. The Japanese brought in a second machine gun crew and before they knew it all four men with Bentley were killed by withering fire.
Bentley, calling on strength he didn't know he had, pulled the gun back behind the line, even though he was shot in the leg. The metal shields on the sides of the gun protected him from the whining bullets.
"I wasn't at all interested in saving that gun. Keeping it between me and the enemy fire saved my life," he said.
The wound sent him to a hospital in Hawaii, but he soon joined his outfit and was back in combat again.
The Leyte campaign proved to be a final course of training for the techniques the 96th would use in combat in its next and far more costly Okinawa campaign. The Deadeyes learned to stay way from frontal assaults on Japanese units in favor of surrounding them. They learned how to work closely with supporting artillery and mortars.
After heavy fighting, within three weeks of the invasion they had secured a large area of the island.
Nearly all organized resistance had ended by Christmas Day.
Okinawa would be one of the bloodiest campaigns of U.S. military history, with 13,395 Army-Marine-Navy killed in action. All casualties, including combat exhaustion, would total over 57,000.
The 96th Division, war historians agreed, drew the toughest jobs. They carried them out with violence, resolution and skill. The division suffered 1,622 killed in action or missing and 5,614 wounded in action.
“We received replacements twice on Okinawa,” Bentley said. “Both times we had lost at least 50 percent of our company.”
The invasion began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. It was June 22 before all resistance was declared at an end.
Japanese defenders, fighting just 350 miles from their homeland, were fortified in caves and tunnels.
“It was tough fighting and slow-going at times,” Bentley said. “Several times we were pinned down by machine gun nests above us. They had to be dealt with one at a time.”
For both sides, Okinawa was a rehearsal of what it would have been like in the invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu, which was scheduled for November 1945.
The dropping of two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in early August resulted in Japan agreeing to the terms of an unconditional surrender, scrapping the invasion plans.
“We patrolled on Okinawa until June 30, then left for Mindoro Island, back in the Philippines, to begin training for that invasion that never came,” Bentley said. “It was also a time I was treated for a disease we called jungle rot.”
On Mindoro, too, Bentley was treated to his first haircut in months.
“I sat down in the chair and got a nice surprise. My barber was Red Hunt, from back home in South Shore,” he said.
He also received his first Bronze Star, pinned on him by a colonel.
Four Deadeyes would receive the Medal of Honor, two of them posthumously.
For its service on Leyte the 96th received the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation.
And for its achievements of Okinawa the division was awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation. It was one of only four divisions in U.S. military history to have earned this extraordinary honor in its entirety.
Howard Bentley, who would score in the high IQ range of military aptitude tests, dropped out of McKell High School, where he had played “first string” on the football and basketball teams, after his sophomore year to help his father in the grocery store.
“I delivered groceries to our customers and ran the post office,” he said.
He eventually took a job in the shipyards in Baltimore, where he lived for a year.
Since he was drafted by the Army while living in Baltimore and working in the shipyards there, Bentley was recognized by Maryland as being one of the state’s most decorated soldiers during World War II.
Among his war records is a Certificate of Recognition, issued in 1945 from the state capital in Annapolis.
Bentley was awarded a Bronze Star, given for heroic or meritorious achievement during military operations, and two Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters. The Army uses the clusters to represent additional awards of the same decoration.
He also has the Philippine Citation Award and the Presidential Citation, both mentioned earlier; two Beachhead Arrows recognizing his participation in the landings on Leyte and Okinawa; the Good Conduct Medal; the Combat Infantry Badge; the World War II Victory Medal; the Purple Hear; and the previously mentioned Expert Infantry Badge.
He remained in the reserves following his discharge from the regular Army in January 1946 and was called to duty in the Korean War in 1950, where he also won a Bronze Star and two additional Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters while serving in the 394th Chemical Smoke Co.
Bentley entered the military Nov. 2, 1942, and was discharged Jan. 16, 1946.
He and his wife, the former Mildred Mullins of McDermott, have been married 62 years. They live in Grove City, just outside Columbus, near their two daughters, Katrina Orin and Beverly McClary. They also have several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He attended the reunion of the 96th Infantry Division Deadeyes, held last month in Milwaukee.
“There was probably 150 of us there,” he said. “We used to have more than 500 attend.”
He also came home on the second Sunday in August to attend the annual Bentley Family Reunion, held in a long picnic shelter on the old family farm at the home of Bill Bentley, South Shore pharmacist.
There were approximately 150 of them on hand, ranging in age from babes in arms to Howard, who will turn 90 in December.
Of the 12 children born to William Sherman and Laura Belle Bentley, eight are still living. One girl, Elda Mae, died at a very young age. Also deceased are Wes, John and Ollie Ratliff.
“Let’s see,” Bentley said, naming off his brothers and sisters still living while pointing to his fingers, “there’s Beulah Collier, who is the oldest, me, Roy, Ota Hunt, Wanda Dillow, Betty Van Horn, Bud (Paul) and Robert.”
He smiled as he looked around him at the family members pouring in to the old farm place at Letitia for the Aug. 8 reunion. This was the chief reason that he and other young men of his generation had crossed the oceans to fight and win a cruel war that America could not afford to lose.
“I never thought much about family and home when we waded ashore on those enemy-held Pacific islands. I thought about the battle and the war and how it was up to us to win it, what we had to do to win it, because we had to win if America and our way of life was to survive,” he said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.