The story of Washington’s last living World War I veteran
When a Puyallup man passed away back in 2004, he was thought to be the last living World War I veteran living in Washington.
Robert Hugh Benton of Puyallup lived to be almost 109. His family says his longevity came from the “three Cs” – chicken, coffee and chocolate.
Benton was a student at the UW when he decided to join the Army after the US entered the “war to end all wars” in 1917. He was inducted at Camp Lewis, and was sent to France.
The Vermont-born Benton was a private with Company E of the 1st Engineers, fighting in France in two major battles, Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The young private received awards for marksmanship and horsemanship, and like so many of the more than 2 million Americans who fought in World War I, was exposed on the battlefield to toxic gas. In 1999, Benton was awarded the French Legion of Honor by the French government.
Benton’s daughter is Roberta Dunagan of Olympia. She’s 93. To hear her tell it, Robert Benton was a good guy. He was humble, kind, and almost an unremarkable person in the best possible sense. She says he was almost always positive and optimistic, that he loved kids, and always had cookies and other treats for his grandkids.
But, in spite of his generally sunny outlook, Roberta Dunagan says, the war took its toll on her father.
“He was a real sweet guy and he was a clean-living guy, you know, and but he had flashbacks to the war, off and on,” she said. “And that was why I didn’t quiz him about it. He didn’t want to talk about anything. He just wouldn’t.”
What had her father witnessed as a young soldier?
Roberta Dunagan isn’t sure, but it must have been pretty bad.
“I think he had some trouble overseas but I’m not sure,” Dunagan said. “He was a good man, but he was a war casualty in a way.”
Robert Benton had clearly witnessed some bad things as a soldier, and those flashbacks, or PTSD, were serious enough sometimes that he would be have to be admitted to the VA hospital at American Lake.
Roberta Dunagan feels for her mom, who bore the brunt of her father’s PTSD, and she credits her for handling those tough times.
Whatever horrors Robert Benton saw overseas, he didn’t want to talk about it with anybody, Dunagan says, including a researcher who made a special trip to Washington to meet with Benton and hear his story.
“When that guy came from back east, I told him, ‘I don’t think he’ll talk to you, I can’t guarantee he’ll talk to you at all.’ He said, ‘Oh well, I can get him to talk,’” Dunagan said.
“Well, he couldn’t. He just clammed up, you know, and that was it,“ she said.
It’s clear from his daughter and from emails with another family member that Robert Benton was loved and respected by his kids, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren.
But it’s also clear that Benton’s reluctance to revel in his World War I experiences, or, maybe his inability to process his traumatic memories, gave his story a certain measure of matter-of-factness within the family. This is not something to fuss over, and certainly not as important as a family member’s birthday.
With the centennial coming up this weekend, will Roberta Dunagan and her family commemorate her dad’s World War I service in any way?
“I don’t know right now. I doubt it. Not that I know of,” Dunagan said.
Pausing slightly, Roberta Dunagan added one more thought.
“Wait,” she said. “There’s a birthday party for one of the grandkids. I think it’s Sunday night.”
For those who are interested in observing Veterans Day and the Armistice Centennial, there are plenty of public events all around Puget Sound this weekend.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Lee Corbin for his research and other assistance with this story.