Body of missing Scottville soldier to be buried Friday in Miami

April 9, 2024

Cpl. Frank Benak

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

On Friday, April 12, 2024, an event that is almost 82 years overdo, will take place. U.S. Army Cpl. Frank Vincent Benak will be laid to rest. Benak, who had been a resident of Custer Township, was declared missing in action in 1942. Last month MCP reported that Benak’s remains had been identified but, at the time, did not have information about a memorial service.

A memorial service will take place at Vista Memorial Gardens, Miami Lakes, Fla.

Corporal Benak was the son of Vincent and Barbara Benak, immigrants from Yugoslavia who owned a dairy farm east of Scottville at the intersection of US 10 and Darr Road. He was born on May 17, 1918 and entered the U.S. Army in Michigan and served in Cannon Company, 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division.

The Jan. 9, 1943 edition of the Ludington Daily News reported that Benak had been reported missing. The article stated that his parents reported they had not heard from their son in about two weeks.

Vincent and Barbara Benak and their sons, Frank, James, and Joe.

Three years following Frank’s death, his brother Jim and wife, Mildred, gave birth to a son, who they named after the missing sibling.

“My mother wanted to name me Jim, but my dad insisted that I be named Frank, in memory of his brother,” Frank G. (the nephew) told MCP.

In 2016, one of Frank G.’s sons received a phone call from the Army, asking if he was related to Frank Vincent Benak.

“My son referred them to me,” Frank G. said. “At first, we weren’t sure if the call was legitimate. The man from the Army asked if I would be willing to take a DNA test. I said I would, but then I let him know that my uncle, Joe, Frank’s brother, was still alive. They asked both Joe and I to take the test.”

They didn’t hear back from the Army until February of this year, when Frank G. was informed there was a 100 percent match on the DNA, positively identifying Frank V. Unfortunately, Joe passed away in November 2019 never knowing that his brother had been found.

“We were very surprised. This has been something I have lived with all my life,” Frank G. said. “All my grandparents ever received was a telegram in 1942 stating Uncle Frank was missing in action. They never knew what happened. I’m sure that it’s no different with any other family that has experienced this, but it tore up the family.”

Frank G. said the call from the Army this past February was unexpected.

“Our family is just spinning around,” Frank G. said.

Vincent Benak (1897-1978) entered the United States through Ellis Island, New York on Feb. 20, 1907. Barbara Dobias (1896-1988) entered the U.S. through Ellis Island on Sept. 29, 1913. They initially lived in Chicago where they owned a fruit stand, according to Frank G. The family eventually moved to Rothbury where they owned a farm along US 31 (modern Oceana Drive). They then purchased the Falconer farm in Custer Township at the corner of US 10 and Darr Road. The family lived in that area for several years. Their son, Joe, also lived across the street from them. In the 1960s the family moved away; Vincent and Barbara moved to Florida and Joe eventually moved to Superior, Wis.

Frank Vincent Benak was born on May 17, 1918. According to Frank G., his great-uncle only went to school through the ninth grade and then worked on the farm.

Much of the following information was provided to the Benak family recently by the U.S. Army.

In 1940, Frank V. had been enrolled at the Michigan Trade School in Detroit when he registered for the Selective Service. He reported for induction into the U.S. Army on May 8, 1941 in Kalamazoo within the Sixth Corps Area. He was assigned to the 128th Infantry Regiment (infantry regiment), 32nd Infantry Division (infantry division), and completed basic training at Camp Livingston, Louisiana. In April 1942, when the 32nd Infantry Division departed for duty in the Southwest Pacific Theater, the 128th Infantry Regiment sailed aboard the Matson line cruise ship SS Monterey. Cpl. Benak later joined Cannon Company 128th Infantry Regiment which was activated in June 1942.

Beginning in July 1942, Allied ground forces—consisting of the 7th Australian Army

Division and the U.S. 32nd and 41st Infantry Division—attempted to neutralize the Japanese  threat to Port Moresby, the territorial capital of Papua, and to maintain vital Allied communications and shipping lanes between the United States and Australia.

A Japanese invasion force made landfall on the northern coast of Papua in late July 1942, rapidly moved inland, and began an improbable march over the imposing Owen Stanley

Mountain Range using a footpath known as the Kokoda Track. Their objective was to seize Port Moresby; from there Japan could threaten Australia itself. Allied officials hurriedly deployed Australian infantry units that engaged the Japanese force in a series of desperate and vicious battles along the Kokoda Track. Meanwhile, the Allies acted quickly to move elements of the U.S. 32nd Infantry Division, including the 126th and 128th Infantry Regiments, from training assignments in Australia to camps on the outskirts of Port Moresby The 128th Infantry Regiment arrived in Papua by air from Sept. 21-23, 1942. With the enemy advancing toward Port Moresby, it took up defensive positions north of the city. Cannon companies, a recent innovation in Army doctrine, had been added to each infantry regiment to provide mobile firepower; the companies consisted of approximately 120 soldiers responsible for six self-propelled 75 mm howitzers and two self-propelled 105 mm howitzers. But logistical challenges and New Guinea’s inhospitable terrain meant that the 32nd Infantry Division had abandoned much of its equipment— including infantry howitzers, divisional artillery, and most of its 81 mm mortars—in Australia.

Cpl. Benak and the other members of his company found themselves in New Guinea without most of their heavy weaponry and would fight in Papua with small arms and precious few mortars.

Around the same time, the Japanese force in the mountains received orders to withdraw to its fortified beachheads on Papua’s northern coast. Reeling from losses on Guadalcanal, supply shortages, and the tenacious resistance of the Australian Army, Japanese commanders suspended their campaign to seize Port Moresby. Meanwhile, Imperial transport vessels had landed fresh troops on the coast to reinforce their coastal redoubts in Papua. The Allies moved quickly to exploit the enemy withdrawal. The Australian 7th Division pursued the Japanese to the coast, while the 32nd Infantry Division airlifted elements of the 126th and 128th Infantry Regiments over the mountains to recently constructed airfields close to the front.

In mid-October 1942, the 128th Infantry Regiment —137 officers and 2,825 enlisted men—boarded transport planes and landed at Wanigela, approximately 70 miles southeast of Buna, and proceeded north toward the front.

In mid-November, the Allies advanced against a 20-mile-long front on the northern coast of Papua. Japanese infantry and marines concentrated around three seaside villages—Buna, Sanananda, and Gona—prepared to defend their beachheads in Papua. Allied officials divided the front into two parts, using the meandering Girua River as a natural boundary. The 7th Australian Army Division, in charge of the western side of the river, was given the task of attacking Sanananda and Gona from the southwest. The responsibility for capturing Buna fell to the 32nd Infantry Division, which included Cannon Co of the 128th Infantry Regiment, commanded by 1st Lt. Omar S. Crocker, and with a strength of approximately five officers and 110 enlisted men, including Cpl Frank Benak. Cannon Co. marched toward Buna and joined an Allied detachment codenamed the “Urbana Force.”

Papua’s coast was flat, a checkerboard of dense jungle, coconut groves, and thick stands of tall kunai grass. That last feature explained Buna’s strategic importance to both sides: engineers could easily turn the grass clearings into serviceable airfields. But Papua was also hot, humid, and often inundated with rainfall that added to the misery of infantrymen as they navigated the island’s many rivers, creeks, fetid swamps, and endless mud.

The 128th Infantry Regiment and local porters wade across a river during their march to Buna, November 1942

Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, I Corps commander, called the swamps areas of “vast tactical importance” and a “stinking jumble of slime-covered roots and muddy ‘soup..’”

The initial American and Australian attacks proved costly. Dense jungles and chest-deep swamps slowed progress, and Japanese resistance—well-camouflaged machine guns and snipers—inflicted heavy casualties. Japanese engineers, adept at using cast-off supplies and local materials to construct their defenses, built bunkers out of coconut logs that they reinforced using steel oil drums and ammunition boxes filled with sand, as well as log piles and rocks.

When such a bunker was camouflaged with fast-growing jungle vegetation, it became almost impossible to spot in the tangled underbrush. Worse still, the Japanese used the dense brush and surrounding swamps to their advantage. They positioned their fortifications so that any attack, funneled down narrow causeways, advanced directly toward waiting snipers and machine gun crews.

By the end of November, the Allied advance against Buna had stalled, owing to the nearly impassable terrain and the determined Japanese resistance.

Lt Gen Eichelberger

In his report on the battle, Lt Gen Eichelberger wrote that the condition of the ground forces—inexperienced and poorly supplied—was the “unhappiest of November’s hard realizations.” During “their grueling baptism of fire,” he added, “they found the Japanese in perfect defensive positions.”

The U.S. riflemen found little room to maneuver; “to their front was thick jungle bogged into swamps,” with the few trails well-covered by “prepared positions,” he wrote.

On Dec. 1, 1942, Lt. Gen. Eichelberger arrived at the front to take direct command of the Allied ground forces at Buna. The Allied units took the next four days to reorganize, rest, and bring up additional supplies, including ammunition and food. Senior officers planned a coordinated attack across the Buna front for Dec. 5. Cannon Co, 128th Inf. Regt., and 2nd Battalion, 126th Inf. Regt., occupied a line that arched south to southeast of Buna. The Girua River was to their left, and Entrance Creek was to their right. Cannon Co and the four companies from 2nd Battalion, 126th Inf. Regt., received orders to attack specific points on the enemy perimeter outside Buna.

At 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 5, in a “preliminary air preparation,” twin-engine B-25s bombed the village in advance of the ground attack. A 30-minute barrage of artillery and mortar fire followed the aerial bombardment. The infantry units “pushed off” at 10:30 a.m., advanced rapidly, and initially encountered little opposition. At 11:05 a.m., Cannon Co, on the far left of the Allied line, advanced a short distance but ran into enemy mortar fire.”

Ten minutes later, Cannon Co personnel manning mortars in the rear received orders to move to the front. At the same time, Cannon Co sent out patrols ahead toward Buna village. They entered a clearing south of the village and drew fire from an enemy machine gun. Cannon Co attempted to flank the machine gun, but failed. They were pinned down.

To ease the pressure on the Cannon Co patrols, Maj. Chester M. Beaver and 2nd. Lt. Paul L. Schwartz of Co F, 126th Inf. Regt., recruited a small patrol from Cannon Co and a platoon of Co F—to flank the enemy position. Moving up the eastern bank of the Girua River, “it was necessary to crawl on our bellies through a swamp,” 2nd. Lt. Schwartz later wrote.The improvised patrol managed to knock out the Japanese positions and reached the perimeter of the village.Moreover, other elements of 2nd Battalion, 126th Inf. Regt., created a salient that extended to the ocean. “As a result of the day’s operations, Buna Village has been isolated and cut off,” U.S. officials reported.

It is unclear when or precisely where Cpl. Benak went missing in the sequence of events outside Buna on Dec. 5, 1942. However, the sworn statement of another member of Cannon Co offered some clues.

In September 1943, Pvt. Kenneth J. Mahoney told an Army investigator that he and Cpl. Benak were part of a small patrol that left at 11:30 a.m. (local time) from a point 250 yards southeast of Buna village and along Buna Creek (Girua River). Approximately 50 to 75 yards beyond the Allied lines, Pvt. Mahoney was wounded and decided to return to the U.S. position, and Cpl. Benak was walking approximately 15 yards behind him.

“There was quite a bit of firing from both sides at the time,” Pvt. Mahoney noted. Cpl. Benak never returned to the U.S. position. “I heard no sounds from him to indicate he had been hit or captured,” Pvt. Mahoney told officials.

Concerned, he reported Cpl. Benak’s absence. Pvt. Mahoney did not see Cpl. Benak again and had no knowledge of any kind of a search effort. Officials reported Cpl. Benak missing, absent any concrete information about his status or disposition. In late 1943, an Army investigator from the 128th Infantry Regiment recommended that Benak continue to be classified as Missing in Action (MIA). Headquarters, 32nd Inf. Div., disagreed with that status and argued that the circumstances of Benak’s disappearance merited a change in status.

Cemetery in Buna village, Memorial Day, May 1943

There was “heavy enemy fire, one man being wounded, and no searching party made an effort to trace the whereabouts of this enlisted man,” division officials wrote. On Dec. 5 it was  recommended that Cpl. Benak’s status be changed to Killed in Action (KIA), recording his death as “as a Battle Casualty due to enemy action.”

On Dec. 13, 1945, the War Department reached a presumptive finding of death for Cpl. Frank Benak, pursuant to Section 5, Public Law 490 (March 7, 1942, 77th Congress).

The Graves Registration effort, both during and immediately after fighting, failed to meet the overwhelming need at Buna and elsewhere in northern Papua. Crude, isolated graves and tiny cemeteries dotted the landscape, and dozens—or perhaps hundreds—of commingled bodies exposed to the elements, half-submerged in water and half-decomposed, littered the ground.

Combat soldiers often took it upon themselves to inter the remains of the American and enemy dead whenever the exigencies of the situation permitted. One veteran recalled such duty after an engagement near Buna village. “The next morning we buried as many as we could reach,” he wrote, “the smell of those we couldn’t, who were lying in the intense tropical sun, was soon practically unbearable.”

Absent clear guidance or established procedures during the early phase of the battle, infantrymen and Graves Registration personnel initially established no less than 13 temporary, or improvised, cemeteries in the Buna sector. At those early burial grounds, makeshift markers, fashioned from local material, indicated gravesites

In theory, “technical specialists” attached to combat units were responsible for the collection, identification, and burial of the dead; however, in Papua, that effort had little organization and “no over-head supervision.” Understrength combat units simply did not have the time, resources, or manpower to properly care for the dead. Soldiers, without training or supervision, did what little they could during lulls in the fighting. “Apart from an occasional order by regimental commanders,” historian Edward Steere wrote, “there is little to indicate that combat officers exercised any influence or authority over graves registration activities.”

Frank Benak’s identification tags

Lt. Gen. Eichelberger’s after-action report of the battle echoed much of that same criticism. “Adequate provision was not made initially for graves registration and this persisted through the campaign,” he wrote, and, moreover, “too few personnel were assigned and too little supervision was given.” Similarly, the report noted that a “graves registration unit large enough to perform its duties” should have been assigned at the start of the battle. The report recommended that “cemeteries should not be located in places frequently passed by combat troops.”

The first commissioned officer responsible for the disposition of the dead, 2nd Lt. Roy F. Sulzbacher, and 18 personnel of 1st Platoon, 48th Quartermaster Graves Registration Co, did not arrive in northern Papua until Jan. 5, 1943. Second Lt. Sulzbacher later noted that, when the 32nd Inf. Div. left for the front, “they had no Graves Registration Men with them” and there was “no preparation for Graves Registration work.”

But with the arrival of more Graves Registration personnel, work began on consolidating the numerous burial plots and isolated graves near Buna into two organized cemeteries, Buna Village Cemetery and Duropa Plantation #1A. More permanent in appearance, the burial grounds included fences and flagpoles, and Army personnel performed regular maintenance.

The “battlefield cemeteries” were later exhumed, and the remains were concentrated at larger cemeteries at Soputa, a consolidation point for U.S. service members killed in northern Papua.

On July 6, 1944, U.S. personnel exhumed a set of unidentified remains and reinterred them in U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery Soputa #1B (Grave 210), labeled as “X-9 Soputa #1B. Initially interred at Buna Village Cemetery (Row 3, Grave 35) as an “Unidentified American Soldier” on Dec. 14, 1942, the same day U.S. forces secured Buna village, the remains reportedly belonged to a Soldier KIA by a fatal gunshot wound.

In 1945, U.S. personnel again disinterred the remains and transported them to U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery Finschhafen #2 in New Guinea, one of five cemeteries at Finschhafen selected as a regional concentration point for all remains from New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, and nearby islands. Cemetery workers interred the unidentified remains, relabeled Unknown X-168, at Finschhafen #2 (Grave 3914) on June 29, 1945.

After World War II, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS), organized under the Office of the Quartermaster General, launched an ambitious, worldwide effort to recover and identify the remains of over 360,000 U.S. personnel who died overseas during the war.

Teams of specialists exhumed temporary cemeteries, located isolated burials, and recovered the remains of the unburied dead from battlefields and aircraft wreckage. In the Pacific, AGRS personnel searched cemeteries, dense jungles, swamps, and coral atolls for the remains of war dead. Many of the remains could not be identified immediately.

Beginning in May 1947, AGRS personnel and local laborers began the formidable task of exhuming the remains from approximately 11,000 graves at Finschhafen and preparing them for shipment to the Central Identification Point (CIP) at the Manila Mausoleum in the Philippines for analysis and final disposition. Workers at Finschhafen disinterred Unknown X-168 in

November 1947, completed a dental chart, and prepared the remains for shipment to Manila, where Unknown X-168 was again relabeled, this time as Unknown X-3217 Manila Mausoleum. After examining the partial skeleton, mortuary personnel placed the casketed remains in aboveground storage on Jan. 7, 1948.

The final area search of northern Papua for unrecovered casualties took place from July 28, 1948 through Dec. 18, 1948. A team of specialists—U.S. officers and enlisted men, as well as local guides, interpreters, and laborers—questioned hundreds of local officials and residents but collected no additional evidence specifically related to Cpl. Benak.

In September 1949, with ground searches concluded and no positive results from comparisons of Benak’s biological data with the unidentified remains recovered from Papua, AGRS officials recommended that his remains be classified “non-recoverable.” Officers in the Memorial Division, Office of the Quartermaster General, approved that recommendation in October 1949.

In Manila, AGRS officials again reviewed the records for Unknown X-168, including skeletal and dental charts completed by the Identification Section at the CIP, and concluded that “insufficient evidence is available to establish the identity of this decedent” and that the remains should be declared “unidentifiable.”

The Memorial Division of the OQMG approved that recommendation in March 1950. On March 13, 1950, cemetery caretakers interred Unknown X-168 Finschhafen #2 in Plot C, Row 7, Grave 93, at the MACM.

In May 2012, Australian Defence Force personnel from Unrecovered War Casualties-Army looking for unresolved casualties near Buna observed an identification (ID) tag in the possession of a village chief or counselor at Buna. The tag was stamped with Cpl. Benak’s name, service number, and hometown of record. The village counselor denied knowing where the ID had been found. (Analysts later noted that it was likely found by another village resident and handed over to the village counselor.) The Australian investigators forwarded the information about the ID to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii.

In April and again in August 2018, DPAA investigators interviewed Buna residents as part of a joint search with Unrecovered War Casualties-Army personnel for evidence of missing casualties. In addition to conducting subsurface testing and mapping of the area, investigators also contacted the individual who had reported the identification tag. He reported possible wartime burials but did not provide any information on, or turn over to investigators, the identification tag that belonged to Cpl. Frank V. Benak.

In May 2019, DPAA investigators returned to Buna and conducted archaeological testing that yielded possible human remains and material evidence. Additionally, individuals turned over other ID tags for individuals who survived the war. Investigators also met, again, with the individual referenced in the 2012 report. He cooperated with the investigation but did not provide additional information or turn over the identification tag for Cpl. Benak.

In August 2019, DPAA personnel visited Buna Village, investigated additional leads, and took custody of possible remains and two identification tags, neither of which belonged to Cpl. Benak. Meanwhile, historians and anthropologists at DPAA reviewed historical documents— including unknown and casualty files—and concluded that Unknown X-168 was one of Unknowns potentially associated with unresolved casualties from the 1942-43 campaign in northern Papua, including the battle to secure Buna Village.

DPAA historians further concluded that the remains of as many as 97 individuals lost during that campaign were not recovered or identified. Historians and anthropologists recommended that the “best way forward for the Buna-area unknown remains is to pursue a strategy of disinterment.”

MACM and DPAA personnel exhumed Unknown X-168 on 6 January 2017, and U.S. military personnel escorted the remains to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for analysis.

Frank Benak, who was 24-years-old, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals for his service and supreme sacrifice.

Frank’s nephew, Frank G. Benak, said he and his family have been thankful and impressed with the amount of detail and concern the Army has put into identifying the remains of his namesake and uncle. He said the family chose to have Cpl. Benak interred in Miami because that’s where his parents are buried. He said the Army told them to expect 500 to 1,000 people to attend the memorial service that will include full military honors.

MCP will post a follow-up story following the service.


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