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Clare County Airport Gets New Manager
Meet Gale Bensinger

 

bensinger n kennicott

 

By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer

HARRISON – The Clare County Airport recently came under new direction in the person of Gale Bensinger. He is filling the position vacated by Kim Kennicott, who has been the airport manager for approximately two years.

Hailing from Elsie, the new airport manager and his wife, Sue, have one daughter and grandkids who live near Petoskey and one son who lives in Mount Pleasant. The son owns M Double K Transport and dad helps out by making delivery runs in the Upper Peninsula when time allows. Gale said being closer to those children and grandchildren is an added plus, but that the ultimate goal for the Bensingers is to be even closer and have a home in the Petoskey area.

“My grandparents were from Walloon Lake, up there, years ago,” he said. “And my cousins are up there yet, so family’s there.”

The Bensingers purchased a cottage in the Cranberry Lake subdivision about 10 years ago and have spent a fair amount of time renovating and improving it.

“We’re still working on it,” Gale said. “We don’t have the kitchen into it yet, so we’re working on that.”

The couple has downsized from a 1,600 square-foot home to about a 500 square-foot home, so currently, that collection is in storage. And, of course, that means another part of the home property renovation will have to include additional construction for housing all those pieces of history.

“We’re talking about building a garage in there next year,” he said

Bensinger said he previously worked for the Village of Elsie for 12-14 years in the ’70s and ’80s, then worked as a semi driver for McDonalds out of St. Johns, which is M&M Restaurant Supply. He retired from there after 25 years. But not being one for idle time, Bensinger said he hired back part time with the Village of Elsie as cemetery caretaker. That work expanded into additional department of public works tasks, ultimately becoming full time. That relationship ended a few months ago, and as the saying goes: When one door closes, another door opens.

“My wife and I said, ‘Now’s our chance, let’s get up here,’” he said. “So, it’s a crunch, to move everything up. But I should say about 80 percent of it is mine, because of all the military items.”

As a serious collector of military items, Bensinger said he has items ranging from pictures to diaries to die-cast aircraft – enough to fill two pickups and one car.

Bensinger also shoots competition with a Civil War gun club and travels to Virginia in the fall and spring for national shooting competitions.

“I have muskets, uniforms, canteens from World War I, stuff from every unit,” he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing story Bensinger tells is of his great-great-grandfather William Bensinger who was from McComb, Ohio, and who during the Civil War became the second person ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

“Ever hear of The Great Locomotive Chase? Andrews’ Raiders?” Bensinger asked.

“In April 1862, 22 of the guys from Ohio went down to a Confederate camp, Big Shanty, Georgia, as spies in civilian clothing,” he said.

Bensinger went on to explain that when the regular passenger train [named The General] pulled into town, it would be shut down and people would go to get their breakfast at the nearby hotel-restaurant.

“Some of these guys [spies] were on the train already, and the others came out of the restaurant and they got in and unhooked the passenger cars,” Bensinger said.

He said they kept three boxcars attached and rolled it out of the camp headed north toward Chatanooga.

“They got 85 miles down the road before they got caught,” Bensinger said. “The object of the raid was to tear up telegraph lines, tear up rails, burn bridges, do anything to damage the route for Confederates on rails.

“Years later, down the road, we found that [William Allen] Fuller was a distant cousin of ours. He was a conductor of the railroad; him and two others took off on foot chasing the train, then later with a handcar and other locomotives.

“They ended up getting another train called The Texas that ended up chasing The General backwards,” Bensinger said. “Walt Disney made a movie of it called “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker as Andrews [the civilian scout who led the raid].

Unfortunately, there had been great rainfall and all available wood was too hot to stoke the locomotive, so about 6 miles from Chatanooga the train was abandoned and ultimately, the entire group was caught and taken to the county jail in Ringold, Georgia.

“Six, including Andrews, were immediately taken out and hung as spies,” he said. “The rest of them tried breaking out, which they did; they got out for a day then got brought back and put in Libby Prison. He was there for almost a year. But at the beginning of the war, they exchanged prisoners of war. Granddad [a private] was one of the lucky ones – I think there were six guys.”

It was in the early part of the Civil War that the Medal of Honor was first established, and Andrews’ Raiders would be its first recipients. In Washington, D.C., President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton awarded the first to Jacob Wilson Parrott, and the second one to William Bensinger. The youngest member of the group was John Reed Porter, age 18.

Bensinger said he believes it was a year later that the style of the medal was changed slightly, so everyone who got the first one also received the second one. Bensinger said his great-great-grandfather had received a field promotion to captain, and that his captain’s shoulder epaulets, some buttons, money, some photos and both medals are safely held in the library in McComb, Ohio [near Findlay, Ohio].

Additionally, Bensinger has the fourth book in a four-volume set of memoirs penned by one of the raid’s members, built on the memories shared by the survivors during multiple reunions.

The historic raid was also rife with “firsts”: It was the first ever commando raid; the first behind enemy line; and William Bensinger and Porter were the only two men from the same county in the same unit to win the same medal.

Bensinger said his family history goes back to the Revolutionary War, so it is no wonder there is such interest in memorabilia from all this country’s history.

When he was a junior in high school, Bensinger enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, entering initially as a jet engine mechanic and getting all his training at Amarillo, Texas. From there he was assigned to Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio, which at that time was a SAC [Strategic Air Command] base. It is now Rickenbacker AFB. The next step for Bensinger was cross-trained in Huey helicopters in Wichita Falls, Texas.

“So, I was a crew chief and a door gunner,” Bensinger said. “In ’68 and ’69 I was in Vietnam for two tours; I lacked a month of being there for two years.”

The job in Vietnam was basically to fly cover as troops were dropped in country, then return in as little as a few hours or as much as a week to retrieve them. Bensinger recounted the heroics of one member of the unit who had received the Medal of Honor for saving a reconnaissance unit of 5-6 men pinned down along a river by landing his helicopter on a sandbar, picking them up and flying to safety.

Bensinger said that despite suffering an injury to his knee while in service in Vietnam, when asked if he would do it again, the answer is alway, “Yeah. Do it in a heartbeat.”

Not surprisingly, Bensinger’s collection includes many photos from Vietnam. He said it also includes the first memorabilia item he ever had: a World War I pilot’s rag hat purchased for him by his grandfather at a yard sale for 50 cents.

“I have my fingers in quite a little bit of the military,” he said. “But I love aircraft; I love to fly.”

Being a person who simply has to work, when the airport manager position came to his attention, it was easy to know it was something he would truly enjoy.

Does he have plans for the airport? You bet. Bensinger said he realizes that projects depend on available funding, but that hasn’t stopped him from envisioning beneficial changes to the facility. He cited the taxi ramp coming up the runway which is sod and so a bit rough.

“It’s all right,” he said. “But if you get a flail mower up here, like you use for a garden, all you have to do is take the tops and drag that down, then hydro-seed it. Once it’s firm and established, then you can go to someplace else, like the one runway that’s really bad. That’s the only way you can cure that.”

So, Clare County Airport 80D has a new manager with an eye to helping it improve through practical means. And the community has a new member who is affable, accommodating, and who has a way of turning a few simple questions into an interesting tale of one patriotic American family.