Veteran arranges for friend to finally receive Bronze Star

Monday, February 10, 2003

Both John Dragoni Sr. and Kenneth Bender still have their "blood chits," identification flags the U.S. Army Air Corps began issuing in World War II. In as many different native languages as was necessary, blood chits promised a reward for the safe conduct and return of the bearer.

That's something a 19-year-old on a B-29 bomber doesn't forget is in the pocket of his flight jacket.

The two friends are both 77 years old now. They unfold their blood chits and handle their medals and photographs from the war gingerly. They mean something to them: "Pride that you did your job," Dragoni said.

Thanks to Dragoni, Bender finally will get the Bronze Star and Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Medal he was awarded but never received. The medals will be pinned on his chest in a ceremony next week at the Veterans for Foreign Wars post in Cape Girardeau.

Dragoni originally is from Boston. Bender grew up in Cape Girardeau. The two men didn't meet until a couple of years ago when they were paired in the same group teeing off at the Cape Girardeau Country Club. Dragoni heard Bender say something about B-29s. Suddenly they had a lot more than golf to talk about.

A few weeks ago, Dragoni was clearing out some files when he saw a keepsake from the war, the orders awarding his own Bronze Star and listing the names of others to receive the medal. Kenneth Bender's name was on the list. When Dragoni discovered that this was the same Kenneth Bender he plays golf with, he arranged for the Army to send the medal.

Navigator, gunner

B-29 Superfortresses were the biggest, fastest and highest-flying bombers ever built up to that time. They could deliver eight 500-pound bombs and could defend themselves from enemy fighters while doing it.

Bender was a gunner who operated the B-29's sophisticated remote-controlled defensive weapons. He controlled 12 .50-caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon he could fire at the same time, though that was never necessary during his 22 missions.

Dragoni was a radar navigator, the man called upon when the Norton bombsight could not be used because of cloud cover and when celestial navigation was not possible. Three of his 18 missions were over "The Hump," the famously dangerous route from India over the Himalayas to Singapore.

Dragoni has more stories than Bender does. Dragoni's plane was hit over Singapore. The starboard engine dropped off. The pilot managed to land the plane in Burma, and the crew hid in the jungle for three days before they were rescued.

One of Dragoni's missions was to destroy the world's largest floating drydock, which was enabled Japan to repair damaged ships in Singapore much more quickly than America could in Los Angeles. A total of 29 B-29s were lost before the drydock finally was destroyed.

Bender's crew primarily flew photo reconnaissance missions.

"I was very fortunate we were never hit," he said.

24 hours after Nagasaki

The high point of his military career as a central fire gunner was a mission to do photo reconnaissance 24 hours after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. His crew also photographed the aftermath at Hiroshima.

"It was very impressive, not all that much different from the fire raids on Tokyo," he said. "But Tokyo took hundreds of bombs. Nagasaki only took one."

Bender was a latecomer to the war. He arrived on Guam in April 1945, and the war officially ended Sept. 2 of that year. The Army was out of Bronze Stars when notice of his award. "Before they got the shipment of medals in, the war was over and I got sent back home and never thought anymore about it."

The Bronze Star is awarded to any person serving with the U.S. Army after Dec. 6, 1941, who distinguished himself or herself by "meritorious achievement or service." Among other medals, Bender also has a Distinguished Flying Cross, which is given for an act of heroism or an extraordinary achievement.

That was given to his entire 12-man crew after they flew to the Japanese city of Gifu on a sputtering engine to bring back reconnaissance photos of an American attack earlier that day. The pictures they returned with showed that another attack wasn't necessary.

Bender was in the wholesale oil business before his retirement.

After the war, Dragoni returned to Boston where he became as salesman and wound up vice president of an international company. A few years ago, after a grandson living in Chaffee died of a brain tumor, Dragoni moved here.

Both men value knowing someone else who can translate those medals into history lessons. "The kids don't understand," Dragoni said, "and the infantry and the Navy all thought they won the war."

Bender keeps his mementos and medals in a plain box, not the fancy display case his daughters gave him, but they are, he says, "a recognition of the things we had done."

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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