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Col. H. ‘Ben’ Walsh, 1919-2010

Highly decorated World War II pilot was an active aviator his entire life and a longtime Santa Barbara community leader

Col. H. “Ben” Walsh was born in Iowa on Sept. 25, 1919, and passed away at his Santa Barbara home on Feb. 7, 2010, at age 90.

After a youthful dream to become a professional violinist with one of the Big Bands in Hollywood, Ben discovered his true desire was to fly. Flying was his passion through peace and war. He was commissioned an officer in the Army in 1941, received his pilot wings in 1942, and his adventure in the sky began.

Ben was a B-24 pilot with one of the first combat units in World War II, flying with the 8th Air Force out of bases in England and North Africa. On July 19, 1943, he was shot down by six Messerschmitt ME-109s over the Mediterranean Sea, but only after his crew had destroyed four of the enemy aircraft. With great difficulty, Ben flew his battered aircraft “Ten High” over Malta to allow his crew to parachute to safety before taking the mortally crippled aircraft back out over the water where he bailed out himself, moments before the plane crashed into the sea. After floating for hours, he was finally sighted at dusk and rescued by a Royal Navy ship. The ship’s doctor treated the wounds in his neck and back, having first given him a ration of rum — Royal Navy tradition! After recovering in a Malta hospital, he chose to return immediately to his combat unit. (After being shot down, an airman was allowed to return to the United States.) Ben continued to fly for the duration of the war, completing more than 50 combat missions over Europe. Following V-E Day, Ben volunteered for duty in the Pacific theater. Before he could arrive, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

On June 1, 1945, Ben married his English fiancee, Barbara Mary Eales, in Norwich, England. Then began a fantastic 64 years together, with diplomatic postings in Sweden and Denmark, and NATO assignments in France, Belgium and Washington, DC. During his 30-year Air Force career, Ben’s stateside postings included serving as a B-47 wing commander with the Strategic Air Command, and several positions with USAF headquarters in Washington.

He was always happiest when he was flying. Ben was the recipient of 14 U.S. military awards, as well as the Croix de Guerre avec Palme from Gen. Charles de Gaulle of France, the Knighthood of the Royal Order of the Sword from King Gustav VI of Sweden, and the Légion d’honneur from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. During his lifetime, he flew 51 different types of foreign and U.S. aircraft, ranging from the early open cockpit to jet fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Whenever asked which was his favorite, he always replied “the P-51 Mustang, of course!”

After retiring in 1970, Ben and Barbara traveled around the world and then discovered Santa Barbara, which resulted in them canceling their plans to retire in Europe. Ben soon became an extremely active community leader. Deeply committed to finding jobs for returning Vietnam War veterans, he became the regional director of the National Alliance of Business and served in that capacity for 12 years. He received commendations from both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the labor secretary for the outstanding results achieved during his tenure.

In addition, he served as chairman and president of United Way of Santa Barbara County and Santa Barbara Industry Education Council; chairman and director of UCSB General Affiliates; vice chairman of the American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter; president of Rotary Club of Montecito, Santa Barbara Air Heritage Museum, Retired Officers Club of Santa Barbara, Cosmopolitan Club of Santa Barbara, Men’s Garden Club of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Manpower Planning Council and Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association; director of Pierre Claeyssens Military Museum & Library and the American Freedom Coalition; a trustee of Direct Relief International, Santa Barbara Art Institute and United Against Crime; recreation commissioner for the city of Santa Barbara; junior warden and Vestry member of All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church; commander of Military Order of the World Wars (MOWW); and was a member of the SBCC President’s Council.

In recognition of his many contributions to the community, Ben was honored in 1982 with the Distinguished Citizen’s Community Service Award from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and a Commendatory Resolution from the California Assembly.

At the time of his death, he was an active member of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, two airplane pilots’ clubs (“The Quiet Birdmen” and “Harry’s Squadron), MOWW, Retired Officers Club, Cosmopolitan Club, Men’s Garden Club of Santa Barbara, Pierre Claeyssens Military Museum & Library, Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association and All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

Ben is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Santa Barbara; son Michael of Bellevue, Wash., and daughter Mary of Alexandria, Va.; and grandchildren Laura of San Francisco, Nicholas of Boston and Frederick of Boise.

A private family burial is pending.

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