Ben Ryan Autobiography
I was born in Belleflower, California in 1923. My father was an oilfield worker and wildcatter. Mother graduated from college at age seventeen with an engineering degree from Penn State University. Teaching was her first career but much later, she went into the contracting business. At one time was the only woman in California to hold a license as a Class A General Engineering Contractor.
I have one sister five years older. She retired as a Department Head at the University of South Carolina and still lives there. I also have a half brother living in Texas. He is considerably younger than me. He was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, despite the fact that he did not graduate from high school.
My family moved to Three Forks, Montana, in the summer of 1931 where my father drilled a wildcat well that turned up dry. It was his norm to roughneck it in the oil fields until he earned enough money to finance another wildcat well.
I was introduced to airplanes in the summer of ’32 or’33. Two airplanes landed on the airfield at the north edge of town. The arrival of the planes attracted most of the town’s boys. Because I was the smallest boy, the pilot of the twin Lockheed boosted me up on his shoulder to retrieve the mail pouch from the nose baggage compartment. This was a one-time event for Three Forks.
The family moved to Livingston in 1936 where my father drilled several wildcat wells southeast of town and worked as a roughneck in other oil fields. All his wildcat wells were dry, but I did pan an ounce of gold out of the drill cuttings. I graduated from high school in 1940. I worked on oil wells until the fall of ’41, when I entered Stanford University. My sister had gone to college there, and Stanford had a good geology school. If you were in the petroleum-engineering program, the university waived the required foreign language courses, which at that time would have been in German.
While I was at Stanford, I enlisted in the Army Reserve for training as an aviation cadet. In May of 1943 the Army called me to active duty. A year later, after finishing my advanced training at Williams air base near Phoenix, I earned my wings. The Army, for publicity reasons, flew my mother (then a WAC corporal) out from Los Angeles to pin on my wings. I was surprised to see her on the stage and I was the first graduate to get my wings, ahead of all the others. No other graduate received this special treatment. Apparently, this was written up in the LA papers and afterward I received several letters from young ladies whom I had never met.
I joined the 32nd Fighter Squadron in September 1944, flying on patrol from the Canal Zone. The planes were already in Panama. Each squadron consisted of eighteen planes, four echelons of four planes each plus planes for Commanding Officer and Operations officer. We flew P-39s until the following spring when we changed to the P-38. The P-39 was very light on the controls and a joy to fly on the deck. But with its high wing loading, it was a dog above 15,000’. The P-38 was fast and very maneuverable. Its only drawback was its tendency to tuck under in a high-speed dive. The plane was red lined at 450 miles per hour. I named my P-38 the “Jolly Roger” and this was painted on the forward side of the fuselage.
In August, 1945, I met a cute little Army nurse on a blind date. Her name was Agnes Butchkosky, affectionately known as “Butchie.” She was on a hospital ship that was broken down in the Panama Canal for several weeks. Butchie grew up near Hazelton, PA and did nursing work in New York City hospitals before enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps. After a nine-month courtship, we were married in Denver in June 8, 1946. Read More>>