BANGOR, Maine — When people saw Jay Benton, a retired fighter pilot and former commander of the 101st Air Refueling Wing, they did not need to see his blue U.S. Air Force uniform or the two stars on his shoulder to know that he was a true military man, people who knew him said Tuesday.
“General Benton was a general’s general,” Retired Master Sgt. Jan Thompson, who served as Benton’s executive secretary, said Tuesday. “When you saw him, you knew that was a general by the way he carried himself and they way he acted.”
Benton, who spent 39 years in uniform and also contributed significantly to the Bangor community after he retired, died Saturday at his Bangor home.
He was 90.
Benton was born in Mineola, N.Y., but was raised in Monmouth. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine and shortly afterward learned how to fly and went to Europe as a second lieutenant to fight in World War II.
“He was a decorated pilot,” said longtime friend Nelson Durgin, who retired from the Air Guard as a major general and is the Bangor City Council chairman. “He was highly regarded as a pilot.”
Durgin said Benton was assigned to the Maine Air National Guard after the war, and also served as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. When the 101st Fighter Interceptor Wing was formed in Bangor during 1947, Benton jumped onboard and moved up the ranks to eventually hold the role of Wing Commander.
When the unit was changed in 1976 from a fighter squadron to a refueling unit, taking on the name it currently holds — the 101st Air Refueling Wing — then-Gen. Benton continued on as its commander.
“He flew right up until 1976,” Durgin recalled.
Benton’s leadership is one reason Maine is an international leader in refueling military aircraft, Durgin said.
“Maine has been in the tanker business since 1977. They’ve become the leading taskforce around the country with aircraft flying in and out of the country [and] Jay Benton was a key in making that happen,” Durgin said.
Piloting a fighter is different than the huge KC-135 aircraft used as aerial gas stations, and Benton’s leadership helped with the transition, said Brig. Gen. Gerry Bolduc, Assistant Adjutant General of the Maine Air National Guard.
“The foundation he set in 1976 still stands today in terms of the Maineiacs tradition of hard work and excellence,” Bolduc said, referring to the nickname of the Bangor-based air refueling wing.
Bolduc described Benton’s four decades of military service as “amazing.”
Brig. Gen. John D’Errico, who had commanded the wing between August 2009 and December, said Benton “served with great distinction as Wing Commander during the Maineiacs’ crucial transition from fighter-interceptor to aerial refueling tanker aircraft.”
He added that his former commander was, “The first and one of the finest General officers I have ever flown with.”
Benton was commander of the 101st until 1979, when he was promoted to major general and appointed to serve the lead Air Guard commander at the Pentagon, said Mike Gleason, a retired senior master sergeant for the Air Guard, who worked in the same 101st headquarters with Benton.
“His promotion to major general came when he actually left the Wing and became a special advisor to the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command,” he said. “He was an assistant to the Commander in Chief of the Air Guard. He represented all the National Guards in the Strategic Air Command.
“It was a very prestigious position and a Maineiac filled it,” Gleason said.
The Strategic Air Command was absorbed in 1992 into the Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command, he said.
“He served several years in that position and had a significant impact on the quality of service in the Air National Guard [nationwide],” Durgin said.
After he retired from the military, Benton didn’t stop serving.
“When he retired, he made himself available to organizations in the community like the United Way, the Challenger Center and the Discovery Museum,” his longtime friend, Durgin, said.
He also served on the the Bangor area Power Squadron, and the Action Committee of 50, a “very active committee in Bangor made up of business and professional leaders” who work together to attract and enhance businesses and job growth in the Bangor area, Durgin said.
Benton and his wife, Hope, were instrumental in spreading the word about the benefits of a children’s museum in Bangor and were the first to sponsor one of the eight permanent exhibits at the Discovery Museum.
They gave a quarter of a million dollars to support the “Passport to the World” at the downtown Bangor children’s museum, and in 2008 helped to refurbish the “Tradewinds” exhibit, said Executive Director Niles Parker.
“They were one of the first to really share the vision and sign on with the Maine Discovery Museum and they clearly were inspirational,” he said. “They made a leadership gift in the early stages of the campaign [to start the museum] and their generosity and support made a world of difference.”
Benton is survived by his wife, Hope Hutchins Benton, and three grown children by a previous marriage and Hope’s two children. The couple’s residence, a landmark pink home on Kenduskeag Avenue, was designed by Jay Benton to be similar to their winter home in Boca Grande, Fla., his wife said in a 1998 Bangor Daily News story.
Friends may call from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brookings-Smith Funeral Home on Center Street in Bangor. His funeral is 11 a.m. Thursday and he will be buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.
Over his four decades in uniform, Benton earned a lot of medals and the admiration of those under his leadership, Gleason said.
“He was just the image of a general,” he said. “He was suave and debonair and he was just cut out to be a general.”
Thompson said that Benton was a nice guy, a speed reader, he had a great sense of humor and truly cared about the people he commanded.
“He was focused and he cared about the Wing, a lot,” she said. “They did their very best to serve him because he was an honorable guy to serve.”