It takes 89-year-old Cecil Benton a while to struggle into his old pullover Navy uniform, but eventually, he appears from the bedroom.
“It’s tight,” he says as he pats his midsection and laughs with a smile born in the 1940s.
The truth is that the uniform has been altered since Benton took it off after World War II. But the other truth is that he’s still svelte and relatively fit. He can still demonstrate the knee-searing “duck walk” training he was forced to do on the beaches of Maui. He still hasn’t forgotten his harrowing days on an Underwater Demolition Team in the Pacific.
You may not have heard of UDTs, but you’ve certainly heard of the Navy SEALs. Without the UDTs, you see, there would be no SEALs.
But let’s back up a bit as Benton shares his story – with an assist from his wife of 67 years, Mary – during an interview last week at his home on Florida Mesa.
Benton was born in 1925 and grew up on the Dryside of the county, west of Marvel. With World War II in full swing in 1942, Benton was eager to serve his country. There was no recruiting center here, so the day after his 17th birthday, he went to Denver to enlist.
The Navy sent him to Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho, and August 1943 found him on the USS Doyen, bound for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The Japanese “left before we got there,” Benton says.
The Doyen headed across the Pacific to New Zealand, picked up U.S. troops in Wellington, and in November 1943, Benton was seeing his first major battle during the invasion of Tarawa. Benton doesn’t go into detail during the interview, but Tarawa was a messy fray that left 3,000 Marine casualties and demonstrated the Japanese determination to die fighting. Benton piloted an amphibious boat carrying troops and supplies, sometimes coming under fire.
During a resupply stop in New Guinea in late 1944, Benton saw a note on a bulletin board, asking for volunteers for the Navy’s just-forming Underwater Demolition Team. He joined and was sent to Hawaii for two months of training on Maui.
That’s where he did the duck walk, which basically is squatting and walking around in that position; this was done barefoot on the beach. There were also water-training exercises, obviously, and although this might seem foreign to a kid from the Dryside, Benton actually was a good swimmer. A Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Great Depression had created a dam and a small reservoir not far from Marvel where Benton honed his water skills.
By March 1945, he was on a modified destroyer headed to Okinawa, islands just south of the main Japanese islands. His team did two missions before the invasion, the first for reconnaissance. They had no underwater-breathing equipment or even a snorkel, just an old-style mask and fins. They wore shorts and a belt with a knife tied to it.
They’d swim on top of the water, dive and come up for air. They had no wet- or dry-suits but would rub axle grease on their bodies for extra warmth in colder water. It wasn’t easy to get the grease off, Benton said. They also wore helmets, but that wasn’t much protection.
On one mission, bullets skimmed the water around them, and Benton recognized the sound because it reminded him of bullets whizzing along a pond during duck hunting. But his partner didn’t know the sound, asking, “Where are the bees?”
What they found at Okinawa was that about 10 feet below the water level, the Japanese had put old railroad tracks in a “X” shape, set in concrete about 10 to 15 feet apart. The tracks could have damaged Allied landing craft. The next day, the UDTs returned with blocks of explosives. They rigged lines and returned to the main ship to watch the blasts.
The Battle of Okinawa lasted nearly three months. Benton was back at his grandparents’ house in La Plata County, taking his first leave since boot camp, when news came of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. The war’s end spared Benton another dangerous mission in a possible invasion of Japan.
After two more trips across the Pacific, Benton returned to the Dryside farm. He and Mary Gibbs, who was born in a farmhouse just north of Bayfield, were married in 1947. They rented a house in Durango, and Cecil began working on oil-drilling rigs.
In the 1950s, he went to work as a district foreman for the La Plata County Road and Bridge Department. He was in charge of the 200 series roads (County Road 204, 207, etc.), which at that time were mostly gravel.
Along the way, he and Mary had five children. Three still are living, and all remain close by.
In the 1960s, the UDTs gave way to the SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) teams. Some of the SEALs’ first missions were in Cuba and Vietnam.
A few years ago, the Bentons visited the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. He noticed his name on a tall plaque commemorating Team 17. Most of his team returned, but that wasn’t true for all the UDTs. Like many jobs during World War II, the work was dangerous.
“We didn’t think about it,” Benton says. “They told you to go, and we went.”
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.