NO. 17668 • 28 August 1927 - 24 October 1997
Died in Montclair, VA
Interred in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
BERT BENTON ATON was the son of Zelma Dora Benton and William Frank Aton from Louisville, KY. His family was modest in material wealth but abundantly blessed with important values for nurturing traits that held Bert to high aspirations. His parents encouraged Bert and his brother William to study diligently and actively pursue extracurricular programs. He became a class officer and, on the gridiron, he played on the Varsity football team for the Brook and Breckrenridge High School in Louisville.
He was selected for academic and athletic scholarships to 12 major universities, including the United States Naval Academy, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Georgia, and Tennessee. Bert elected to attend Georgia Institute of Technology and study engineering. At the end of his freshman year, he was drafted and entered the U.S. Army at Ft. Bragg. He was trained as a 105mm howitzer gunner, but this fledgling career was interrupted by an offer to attend USMA and play football. Entering West Point in 1946, Bert played on the illustrious Army team on both offense and defense as either tackle or end. He shared the field with Army’s most famous teams under the legendary Coach Red Blaik. He also played during the last year of "Mr. Inside" - Felix "Doc" Blanchard, and "Mr. Outside" - Glen Davis. The Army team during 1944-46 was the consensus National Champion. Bert's outstanding athletic ability was recognized by the professional New York Giants, who offered him a tryout but instead, he committed to service in the military after graduation.
Being ranked first in the class in EngIish early identified Bert as an inquiring and articulate intellectual whose pursuits in later years would reflect this attribute. Bert enjoyed music and participated in the Cadet Chapel Choir, the Glee Club, and the 100th Nite Show - he played the headmistress at Skidmore, a New England women’s college. As a new yearling at Camp Buckner, he and a few classmates stealthily and nocturnally transported the "Reveille" gun from its usual location at headquarters to a water-locked emplacement on Lake Popolopen - this is still a secret to protect unnamed participants.
At graduation, Bert chose to enter the newly-created Air Force. After finishing flight school in August 1951, he became a flight instructor for the T33 T-Bird and its sister ship, the F-80 ShootingStar. Following this tour of duty, he embarked on a long career as a fighter pilot, achieving distinction as the first pilot to break the sound barrier in the F-86H "Saberjet," and during level flight in the F-100D. He flew the F-41 Phantom II and also qualified as a special weapons pilot. Tours of duty in Korea, Japan, and Thailand included Bert's participation in the Korean War and the Viet Nam War, flying numerous combat missions.
Bert's early physical challenges on the gridiron developed his strength of body and will that helped him cope with an injury in Jungle Survival School in 1968 that led to many years of back and leg pain and ultimately, to partial paralysis of both his legs. Yet, after an operation provided temporary relief, he returned to his interrupted jungle training to finish the course, return to flight status, and fly 22 combat missions in the F-4D in Viet Nam and 12 more with forward air control aircraft.
Bert’s academic interests continued throughout his life. He was selected to teach military history to First Classmen at USMA where, just before the 1962 Army-Navy game, he was called upon to give an inspiring address in Washington Hall to the Corps on "The Spirit of the Champion." Graduate studies in history at Columbia University, a master of engineering administration from George Washington University, and further study with GWU and the University of Louisville, KY, rounded out a diverse educational endeavor that Bert used in his creative work - in and after USAF service. Military studies were included in his Air Force training, culminating in Bert's selection as a distinguished graduate of the Air War College at the Air University, Montgomery, AL.
Honors included the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal. He was made an honorary member of the Royal Thai Air Force after having assisted them in special training. The state governor appointed him a Kentucky Colonel. Listed in Jane’s Who’s Who in Aviation and Aerospace, as well as in the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals, he also was recognized as a member of Mensa, a society for those with a high IQ.
After retiring from the USAF in 1973 for medical disability, Bert began a civilian career that found him working in technical aviation related enterprises, such as Sperry Flight Simulation Systems, Gould Electronics, and Oracle Complex Systems Corporation. Ultimately, he became a freelance writer and editor, giving his endeavor the name "Cyrano."
Bert's many fine qualities endeared him to his family, classmates, football teammates, and co-workers. Intelligence, common sense, and leadership stand out founded on his keen awareness of loyalty, integrity, and responsibility. Threaded through these attributes were a wonderful sense of humor and a ready chuckle, giving him an ease of approach in life that made relationships a pleasure. Perhaps, Bert portrayed the "Flanker" spirit of his cadet Company M-2.
In 1991, Bert was diagnosed with lung cancer that he fought like the iron man that he was, only to have it claim his life in 1997. Bert is survived by his wife Mary; his two daughters, Jennifer and Kim; and two grandchildren.
- Family, George Lear and Classmates