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WWII fighter ace laid to rest in Arlington

Dec. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
An Army honor guard escorts the caisson carrying the remains of Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Ben Drew, a flying ace from World War II, during a burial service Dec. 19 at Arlington National Cemetery.
An Army honor guard escorts the caisson carrying the remains of Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Ben Drew, a flying ace from World War II, during a burial service Dec. 19 at Arlington National Cemetery. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)
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Drew received the Air Force Cross for becoming the first pilot to shoot down two enemy jet-powered aircraft during World War II. (Army)

Even as a young boy, David Drew knew his father was a real-life war hero. Maj. Urban Drew — Ben to those who knew him — flew 75 combat missions over Europe during World War II, taking out at least six German fighter jets and a Luftwaffe Flying Boat in his P-51 Mustang. Then he took to the skies over Iwo Jima, where he served until the war’s end.

Ben Drew went on to work as a commercial airline pilot and an aircraft broker in Europe and Africa. But his son said he was most proud of his military service.

Toward the end of his life, when dementia dulled his memory, Ben Drew saluted every American flag he saw, recalled David Drew, standing next to his father’s final resting place in Section 55 of Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 19.

Minutes before, Ben Drew was interred with the pomp and circumstance that befitted him: A caisson pulled by seven black horses, three rifle volleys, a flyover by a P-51 Mustang tipping its wing as it growled overhead.

“My father would have been very happy,” said David Drew, who traveled to Arlington from San Diego with his family to carry outthe World War II ace’s final wishes.

Ben Drew was born in 1924 near Detroit. His father, like his grandfather, died at just 29. Ben Drew and his brother were raised by their mother, a school teacher and devout Catholic, his son said.

In 1942, at age 18, Ben Drew enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He completed his pilot’s training in Florida, served as an instructor pilot and then headed off to war. He was assigned to Royal Air Force Station Bottisham, England, where he began as a replacement pilot in the 375th Fighter Squadron of the 361st Fighter Group and later became the “A” flight leader flying a P-51 called the Detroit Miss. Ben Drew engaged in perilous dog fights with German fighters who came so close he could see their faces.

Nearly four decades later, he was awarded the Air Force Cross for two aerial victories in a single engagement over Achmer, Germany, in October 1944, a first for an Allied airman.

Back in Michigan after World War II, he joined the Air National Guard, flying the P-47 and C-54 and serving as the first Air Adjutant General of the postwar ANG, according his biography. He separated in 1947 at the rank of major.

“Twice in his life after the war, he was called upon by the U.S. government to work on clandestine bases in the Belgian Congo and Vietnam,” his son said.

As a young boy, David Drew spent several summers with his father overseas. A strikingly handsome man, Ben Drew could take command of a room as easily as he took command of an airplane.

For many years, he believed he would die at 29 like his father and grandfather, his son said, which perhaps accounted for the way he lived his life.

Ben Drew worked hard and played hard; he liked women and whiskey. He would make a lot of money on a business venture and then lose it all.

“He lived 10 lives,” his son said.

David Drew loved to share his father’s stories. When he returned to school in the fall, he’d write about their adventures. More than once, the teacher sent a note home praising the boy’s “imagination” but asking that he be more honest.

That all came to a halt when he was 7. After an acrimonious divorce, Ben Drew was awarded custody of his son. David Drew’s mother took him to California, where she raised him under a different name.

David Drew did not see his father — or speak of him — for a dozen years. They reunited when he was 20 and remained close until Ben Drew’s death in April at 89.

In his later years, Ben Drew participated in the airshow and Fighter Ace symposium circuit, his biography said. He belonged to the American Fighter Ace Association and the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. He put his memories to paper in a book called “The Katzenjammer Ace,” by Robert Powell.

After Ben Drew’s death, his son took a portion of his ashes to South Africa, where they’d spent a year together after their reconciliation. The rest went to Arlington.

After the ceremony, under a contrail-streaked sky, David Drew lingered, watching as his father’s remains were lowered into the ground.

“He had 89 good years,” he said, looking out over hills dotted in white marble. “That’s a lot more than some of these guys and gals. What an honor to share this sacred ground with so many heroes.”

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