Vet's military service a rarity



In his heart, Benton Potter is a Marine.

He enlisted in the service in August 1934, following in the footsteps of his relatives during a time when jobs were scarce. His great-uncle was a Marine aboard the Great White Fleet that signaled the emergence of the United States as a global military power.

"You go through a Marine boot camp, they take everything out of you, and you're a Marine," the 88-year-old Olympia native said. "They brainwash you -- I guess you could put it that way."

But Potter also has been a soldier, a sailor and an airman during his 25-year military career. He was stationed in China as Japan ratcheted up its aggression against the nation and survived a kamikaze attack while serving aboard an aircraft carrier. He retired as an Air Force master sergeant in July 1959.

On Saturday, Americans will celebrate Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the union of all of those armed forces under one agency -- the Department of Defense.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said statistics aren't kept on how many people served in four military branches, but all indications are that Potter is a member of an exceedingly rare breed.

Potter said he was surprised at how many men he came across who had served with him in other military branches.

"I've never run across anybody that knew anyone that has been in four branches," he said. I know some that have been in three. But never four."

South Sound veteran leaders also had never heard of such a feat.

"Two's common, but four -- I've never heard of it," said Don Archer, a former president of the Lacey Veterans of Foreign War post.

Seeing the world

Potter appreciates that his service enabled him to see every part of the United States and most parts of the world, but he said he doesn't know if he'd do it all over again if given the chance.

"I wouldn't recommend it," he said from his home overlooking Summit Lake west of Olympia. "You're always starting out fresh, new. It's just like changing jobs every four years."

For the record, Potter served in the Marines from 1934 to 1938, the Army from 1938 to 1941, the Navy from 1941 to 1947 and the Air Force -- his longest stint -- from 1947 to 1959.

He can recite from memory his four-dozen station assignments, from Marine boot camp in San Diego to his final overseas assignment at the now-closed Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda.

At 88 years old, his mind is sharp and his body is still nimble. He said he enjoys boating and lamented that the rain was keeping him from his yard work.

Moving around

Potter's path through the armed forces had more to do with circumstance than conscious decisions.

Life in the Marines was reasonable. While stationed in the Philippines, Potter saw that Army soldiers ate and lived very well.

But he grew tired of the world travel -- "living out of a seabag," as he called it -- and wanted to remain closer to home.

Potter returned stateside from China just before the Japanese sinking of the USS Panay on the Yangtze River in December 1937, which turned U.S. sentiment against the Far East nation.

Enlisting in the Army, Potter spent most of his time at Fort Lewis, serving in a field artillery unit before transferring to the military police.

But the buildup toward World War II changed things in the Army, especially with the institution of the draft.

Supplies were short, and new draftees were showing up for duty with gear from World War I.

At the end of his enlistment, Potter intended to return to the Marines, but the recruitment station he visited didn't include the Marines, so instead he signed up for the Navy.

It was a fateful decision, as Potter is fairly certain he'd have been in the thick of combat if he had rejoined the Marines.

"The Navy is the best place to be in time of war," he said.

USS Randolph

But life aboard a ship -- in this case, the USS Randolph -- wasn't without its risks, as Potter found out March 11, 1945.

The aircraft carrier was returning from Iwo Jima, where it had launched air strikes to support the ground invasion. Potter and an ordnance chief were walking on the deck after watching the first movie of a double-feature shown on a screen installed on the hangar deck.

Potter recalled the chief hearing an airplane and remarking that it was flying low. Moments later, he said the plane was flying really low.

That's the last thing Potter remembered. A Japanese bomber struck just below the flight deck, killing 25 men, including the chief, and injuring more than 100 sailors.

Potter received shrapnel wounds to his legs, and it took months for him to recover.

He remained on the Randolph through the end of the war. He took 60 days of leave while awaiting a discharge from the Navy, but his discharge orders didn't come through.

Fearing he'd lose his culminated time in the military and retirement benefits, Potter decided to rejoin the Army. But by then the Army's air corps had become a separate service, the Air Force.

"When I went into recruiting there, the guy says, 'Well, what do you want? The Air Force or the Army,' " Potter recalled. "I said it didn't make any difference to me."

Air Force duty

His time in the Air Force, where he worked primarily as a supply sergeant, took an odd turn.

The military told him he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurological disorder, and he spent time in two military hospitals for treatment.

He was set to be discharged from the Air Force because of his physical condition. Initially, he was to get full disability benefits but then was told that he'd receive only partial benefits.

The cut in benefits was too severe for Potter, so he pushed to be reinstated. His request was granted in the mid-1950s.

The diagnosis was later found to be incorrect. Potter said he was suffering only from a bad back.

He spent what he called a miserable first year of a two-year assignment in Bermuda before finally retiring from the military.

He said he didn't consider joining the Coast Guard, saying, "I was too old."

Potter said he's proud of his diverse military service and the opportunities it offered him.

"Well, I'm kind of glad I did, because you stay in one branch of the service, you're not going to see as many places or have been to as many places."

Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and the military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or chhill@