Remembering CIA’s Heroes: Nels “Benny” Benson
This is part of our series about CIA employees who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Here we will look at the lives of the men and women who have died while serving their country.
Currently, there are 117 Memorial Wall. The wall stands as a silent, simple memorial to those employees “who gave their lives in the service of their country.” The CIA has released the names of 84 employees; the names of the remaining 33 officers must remain secret, even in death.carved into the marble of the CIA
As chief of testing in the Directorate of Plans’ Technical Services Division (now the Office of Technical Service in the Directorate of Science and Technology), Nels Jennings LaVerne “Benny” Benson was a highly respected instructor. He was also a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and a war hero. Benny’s overseas OSS experience and proud WWII military service led him to become a highly recognized expert in sabotage, special warfare, and counterinsurgency.
While Benny was training Cuban exiles for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an explosive charge he was constructing burst into flames. As he attempted to move the burning mixture away from nearby personnel and flammable materials, he was severely burned. Tragically, he died a few weeks later.
A native of Eagle Bend, Minnesota, Benny attended Hamline University in St. Paul, where he studied chemistry and math. He then moved and worked in Washington, DC before joining the Army in May 1942. Benny attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in January 1943. He qualified as a paratrooper in September 1943 and joined the OSS in November.
After serving in Egypt, Benny parachuted into German-occupied Yugoslavia with a group of Marshal Tito’s partisans. At a DC-3 airstrip hidden behind enemy lines, he was in charge of receiving several hundred tons of supplies and evacuating more than 2,000 downed Allied airmen, political escapees, and partisans. Later, in Italy, he instructed Italian partisans in the use of weapons and demolitions. For his many heroic exploits, he was awarded the Bronze Star and Bronze Arrowhead.
He was discharged from the Army in January 1946 as a Captain with state-of-the art weapons and demolition experience.
Benny’s first job after completing his military and OSS service was with the Strategic Services Unit (SSU); a partial, short-lived successor to the OSS. He joined the SSU in February 1946 and served as an intelligence officer in Asia, recruiting and managing Asian agents.
In October 1946, he and SSU field personnel were transferred to the Central Intelligence Group and then to CIA when it came into existence in September 1947.
Life at CIA:
Benny returned to the United States and went to work at CIA Headquarters in 1948. He brought a wealth of relevant experience to his new position as an intelligence assistant.
After completing various operational training courses and Headquarters desk service, he was assigned overseas in 1953, where he served as an operations officer in Europe.
Upon returning from Europe in 1955, Benny was assigned to a US testing and training site, where he was a sabotage instructor for what was then the CIA’s Operations Directorate. In this assignment Benny clearly felt he was “in his element” --testing, documenting, and reporting on new demolition and incendiary techniques and devices. He also served as the senior sabotage-training officer for Agency personnel, providing countermeasures training to the military.
His Final Mission:
Benny was one of the instructors assigned to train Cuban exile guerrillas for the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was disassembling military ordnance items to construct a utility explosive charge, when the material caught fire. To keep anyone else from getting hurt, he attempted to move the burning mixture away from other highly volatile materials. While doing so, Benny suffered severe burns that proved fatal. He clung to life for a few weeks before succumbing on May 13, 1961.
As an OSS veteran, Benny was a living link to a proud WWII heritage of sabotage, special warfare, and counterinsurgency. His tragic death inspired rigorous safety practices for all the Agency’s covert action instructors and students in the years following his demise. Benny was posthumously awarded the Agency’s Distinguished Intelligence Cross and the Intelligence Star.