By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — In the tense period following the Korean War armistice, Navy Lt. Robert Bentz of Champaign spent much of his time dealing with the Chinese — watching for spies on the sea and in the air, and sometimes escorting dangerous prisoners.
At the time, the U.S. and Chinese were very wary of each other, in large part because the Chinese entry to the war had prevented a quick U.N. victory.
Bentz, who attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., during the war, became a Navy ensign in September 1953, two months after the armistice was signed. He was then stationed as a gunnery officer on the USS Kidd, named for an admiral who went down with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
“I lived on that ship year-round,” said Bentz, who had top-secret clearance. And he credits his duty — in charge of a battery of 5-inch guns — with his use of hearing aids today, “which happens when explosions go off again and again in front of your face,” he said.
He has several stories to tell from his days on the Kidd.
For instance, once while submarine-chasing, the Kidd had passed an American submarine but didn’t notice it, Bentz said. But the sub certainly noticed the ship, Bentz said he later learned when a submarine officer showed photographic proof — an image of the Kidd in the crosshairs of a periscope.
Another time, Bentz said, the ship’s crew spotted a Chinese plane approaching.
“The captain said, ‘If it turns toward us, take it out,'” Bentz said.
They locked on the target.
“As soon as we locked on to the plane, they got out of Dodge,” he said.
And once, he said, South Koreans captured five or six North Korean prisoners who had somehow crossed the 38th Parallel, probably by sea.
The prisoners were handed over to men from the Kidd. And when the North Koreans were stripped of gear, it was discovered that, throughout the movement, they had been heavily armed.
“I never came up with a reason why they didn’t clean my clock,” Bentz said.
In all, Bentz said, he spent three six-month tours near Korea and Japan.
After serving for three years, he went back to school.
Bentz earned a master’s from Cornell in 1958, then his Ph.D. from Louisiana in 1961. That same year, he took a job as a professor at the University of Illinois.
He eventually accepted administrative duties in the president’s office as the chancellor system was being put into place, and was vice chancellor for operations at the UI Circle campus, now UI-Chicago.
But later returned to Urbana as associate director of UI Extension.
At age 60, he retired. Still, Bentz said he was called in for special assignments over the next five years, visiting China, Egypt, Pakistan and other countries, often for long days despite the part-time role.
“I feel good about my service in the Navy — and the University of Illinois,” said Bentz, now 87.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at email@example.com.