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Marion Bence, World War II B-17 gunner and POW

Marion Bence, a World War II B-17 waist gunner who later became a prisoner of war, died Aug. 30 of complications from dementia at the Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center in Northeast Baltimore.

He was 96.

He was born Marion Benicewicz to Polish immigrants Anthony and Konstancya Benicewicz in Baltimore and raised in Canton, one of eight children. He legally changed his name to Bence in 1951.

He attended St. Casimir’s parochial school through the eighth grade and enrolled in 1936 in a vocational training program with city public schools, which led to a management position with Henry’s Maryland Shade & Rod Co. on Eastern Avenue.

Mr. Bence enlisted in the Army at Fort Meade in the fall of 1941 and later was assigned to Sheppard Field, later Sheppard Air Force Base, in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1942 as a physical education instructor.

In October 1942, he was assigned to the Army’s Flexible Gunnery School in Las Vegas and then to the Airplane Armament School in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Bence, who had attained the rank of staff sergeant, joined the 379th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force as a B-17 waist gunner at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho, which was then relocated to Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, a training base for B-17 and B-24 bomber crews.

After flying across the Atlantic unescorted, the bombers landed in May 1943 at Kimbolton, England.

“Mr. Bence’s particular Flying Fortress, the Hag of Hardwyck (the birthplace of the pilot’s mother), was one of six that comprised his 324th Bombardment Squadron (there were three others of the 379th Bomb Group, the 325th, and 327th), and its goal was to target the enemy’s strategic facilities,” wrote Larry Benicewicz, a nephew who lives in Waverly and chronicled his uncle’s wartime experiences.

Bombing targets included airfields, synthetic rubber plants and aircraft manufacturing plants in Germany and occupied countries such as Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands.

On his first mission, May 26, 1943, Mr. Bence was aboard the Hag with nine other crew members when they attacked the U-boat pens at St. Nazaire, France.

Mr. Bence and his fellow crewmen flew combat missions every other day.

“Sustaining much damage during each round trip, Mr. Bence’s B-17 managed to endure intact nearly a dozen missions,” his nephew wrote.

Because his B-17 required so many cannibalized parts from “hangar queens,” or out-of-service planes, to keep it in the air, Mr. Bence nicknamed the Hag “Frankenstein,” his nephew said.

“As far as casualties were concerned, there was the loss of only one comrade from the normal complement of 10 crew members, the top Sperry turret gunner and engineer, Elmo Dunn, whose ghastly demise, that he saw firsthand, greatly affected him, even after the war was long over,” his nephew wrote.

Returning from a July 25, 1943, mission during which it raided a ball-bearing plant in Hamburg, Germany, the Hag was so badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire that Capt. Frank Hildebrandt decided to ditch the plane in the North Sea, hoping the plane’s crew wold be rescued by the British Royal Navy.

Mr. Bence and a lieutenant, who were both wounded, were picked up by a German patrol boat, and after being treated and recovering from their injuries were taken to the Dulag Luft Interrogation Center near Frankfurt, where they were “questioned mercilessly by menacing English-speaking officers,” his nephew wrote.

He was then transferred to Stalag VII-A in southern Bavaria, and finally to Stalag 17B near Krems an der Donau, Austria, with 1,900 Army Air Forces noncommissioned officers.

Conditions were “deplorable,” he told his nephew; meals were irregular and generally consisted of “moldy potatoes, watery barley soup, and bread the consistency of sawdust.”

Three men were assigned to each bunk, sleeping on flea-infested mattresses that were nothing more than gunny sacks stuffed with excelsior. Latrines were nothing more than holes in the ground, and “a smell of stench was pervasive,” he recalled.

Often on the brink of starvation, POWs eagerly awaited the arrival of Red Cross parcels from Finland — which consisted of a can of powdered milk, two ounces of instant coffee, margarine, a D-ration bar or chocolate bar, which was often missing, a tin of Spam, several bars of soup and about three dozen cigarettes, which were often used as “camp currency” in order to bribe guards, Mr. Bence told his nephew.

As the Russian army marched westward, Stalag 17B was abandoned on April 18, 1945, and its 4,000 prisoners, including Mr. Bence, were forced to march 281 miles for 18 days alongside the Danube River to Braunau am Inn in upper Austria.

Mr. Bence said that along the daily march, which averaged 12 miles, the regular soldiers and guards were replaced by old men and teenagers “who didn’t have the stomach to shoot prisoners who wandered a bit astray, begging for food in the towns along the way.”

At night, the POWs bivouacked in fields; the more fortunate found a hay-filled barn where they could rest before until marching again the next morning, according to Mr. Bence’s nephew.

Mr. Bence and his fellow POWs were liberated on May 3, 1945, by the Army’s 13th Armored Division and transported to Camp Lucky Strike in France.

A month later, he landed at Seymour Johnson Field, now Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, in Goldsboro, N.C. He was discharged on October 1945; his decorations included the POW Medal, the Purple Heart, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with a battle star, American Defense Ribbon and a Good Conduct Medal.

He returned to Baltimore and his prewar employer, working there until 1953, when he established Benco on Belair Road, which specialized in window decorating.

In 1952, Mr. Bence married Dorothy Zanutech, and the couple settled into a home in Stevenson.

His wife worked as a seamstress and bookkeeper for the business. In 1967, for convenience, they chose to live above their store, where they remained until they closed it in 1989.

In 1989, Mr.. Bence began working as a clerk for the Pulaski Highway Hechinger’s and remained there until its closing in 1999.

Mr. Bence, who was a member of the American Legion, later moved to a home on Lake Avenue in Mayfield.

“He was very reserved and cynical and really didn’t talk about the war, only to say that he was shot down, until near the end of his life,” his nephew said. “For our family, he was a great representative of the greatest generation.”

Services are private.

In addition to his wife and nephew, Mr. Bence is survived by many other nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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