Picture:  Althanase Benoit, a veteran of four branches of the service over much of two decades, moved into his Bridge City home in 1981. He says a flag pole for Old Glory was his first addition, then a red, white and blue replica cannon to sit beside it. (Photo by Dave Rogers)

Dave Rogers

For The Record

It’s not much of a secret that Bridge City’s Althanase Benoit loves his country.

Maybe the flag pole in his front yard gives him away.

If not that, how about the red, white and blue cannon replica parked next to it?

“Oh, you better believe I’m proud to be an American,” Benoit says. “I was patriotic before 9/11.”

If you need more proof, consider this: Benoit served his country in three branches of the service, four if you count the merchant marines.

Most people nowadays do.

The 88-year-old kept re-upping for more than a decade, each time a different branch. He was in the Navy and merchant marines during World War II and the Air Force after. It was the Army that sent him in to battle in Korea, where he was wounded.

“I was 10 years in the service. Some of it was good. Some of it was bad,” Benoit said. “I was able to serve Uncle Sam and the American people 10 years of my life and get an honorable discharge.

“I learned a lot in the service, believe it or not.”

Benoit will be among thousands of Orange County and Southeast Texas veterans being honored this weekend in various observances for Veterans Day, which is actually Saturday, Nov. 11.

But he’s one of a fast-disappearing subset of veterans: those who served in World War II in the 1940s.

Of the 16 million Americans who took part in the war effort between 1940 and 1945, only 558,000 remain alive, according to the Veterans Administration.

For that Greatest Generation, there was not only a World War to cope with but also the Great Depression.

“I was born in 1929, right before the stock market crashed, and times were tough,” Benoit said. “We didn’t have anything to eat.”

Raised in Gueydan, Louisiana, he was the 16th of his parents’ 17 children, he said.

The U.S. Navy welcomed him aboard in early 1944, despite the fact he was only 14.

“I dropped out of school at 14. I had relatives over here [Port Arthur]. So I came over and joined the merchant marines in 1944,” he recalled.

It was just a short time before he forged his father’s signature on the enlistment papers and joined the Navy.

He made it all the way through boot camp in San Diego, California.

“When I finished my training, they assigned me to Coronado, California, to train on landing craft. When I turned 15, they called me in and the guy told me, ‘You gotta go home, boy.’

“I said ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘When you get old enough, come back.’ Somebody had turned me in.”

So Benoit returned to the Golden Triangle.

A few months later, he was back out at sea as a cook and deck hand on merchant marine ships hauling freight across the oceans blue.

“Right after Hitler surrendered in 1945, I boarded a ship at Smith’s Bluff [Port Neches]. I was privileged to see both devastations, Europe and Japan. I crossed the Atlantic three times and the Panama Canal three or four times,” Benoit said.

Within a year, Benoit was 17 and he joined some friends in enlisting in the Air Force.

“I stayed in the Air Force for three or four years, and then I decided to get out,” he said.

After basic training in San Antonio and a stint as a drill instructor, Benoit was a guard for a few months in Hickam Field, which had been shot up by the Japanese during the Pearl Harbor invasion in 1941.

Benoit was moved to logistics – shipping and receiving is another term — and island-hopped in the Pacific for a while. But eventually, he found himself stationed at Johnston Island Air Force Base a few hundred miles from Hawaii.

“It was a small island, less than a one-mile radius. It’s not easy being confined on a place like that,” Benoit said. “That’s one reason I didn’t go back to the Air Force.”

He remembers he was working on a tug boat in the intercoastal canal when North Korea invaded South Korea early in 1950.

“Me and a couple of guys, we wound up in the Army.”

Benoit was a mortarman his first time in Korea. He was wounded right before Christmas, 1950, by an ammo explosion during a large troop movement.

He suffered a shrapnel wound in his right shoulder.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “Some of my buddies didn’t make it.”

After surgery on the hospital ship USS Constellation, Benoit eventually returned to the conflict, but on limited duty. He served in the Army through 1956, then resigned, only to join the merchant marines a third time.

In 1959, he married and settled down. They had five children. In 1963, he severely burned his hands in a neighbor’s house fire.

After that, he worked as a pipefitter’s helper and for a time painting tanker ships for Gulf Oil. He moved to Bridge City in 1981 and the flag pole went up soon after.

“I didn’t have a formal education, but I learned a lot in the military,” Benoit said.

“In civilian life, if you didn’t finish school, you’re out. But not in the service. If you apply yourself in the service, the sky’s the limit.”