He was almost 109! "WWI veteran fought under Pershing, won French Legion of Honor BILL HUTCHENS; The News Tribune "Taps" played Friday for a veteran who saw parts of three centuries and was one of Washington's last living ties to World War I. Robert Hugh Benton died Thursday, exactly two months short of his 109th birthday. His family buried him Friday during a service laced with military honors. "He was a good man and a good father," said Roberta Dunagan, the oldest of Benton's four children. "He always had the biggest smile for everybody." Benton was born Nov. 30, 1895, in Vermont. He attended the University of Washington and, during his first year there, decided to join the military. He enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11, 1917, and went to France to fight in World War I under Gen. John Pershing. Benton's grandson Jon Dunagan presented a memorial message in the chapel at Woodlawn Funeral Home in Lacey. He said that, though his grandfather was hit with nerve gas during the war and suffered from shell shock during much of his later life, he was a caring man. "I always looked forward to visiting Grandpa," Dunagan said. "When he was in a conversational mood, he was pretty interesting." Ann Dunagan, Jon's wife, said that a new great-great-grandchild, named Christian Robert after Benton, was born a few hours before the veteran's death. Jon recalled that his grandfather was planting heavy fence posts well into his 80s and was famous for his sweet tooth. "He passed that on to all of us," he said, holding up a Hershey-bar cross fashioned by some of Benton's grandchildren. In 1999, an honorary French consul gave Benton France's highest award, the Legion of Honor, for his service during WWI. Benton, then 103, was one of eight state recipients of the award. It's unknown how many of those eight, if any, are alive today. Of 4.7 million "doughboys" who fought in World War I, fewer than 200 were alive last year. Benton's family said they have heard from numerous veterans agencies that Benton was the oldest living World War I vet. Benton's medal and other awards were on display Friday. Soldiers from Fort Lewis' 21st Cargo Transfer Company formed his funeral detail. The Color Guard from VFW Post 318 in Olympia played "Taps" and offered a rifle salute. Benton was a contractor by trade but for much of his life was in and out of various veterans hospitals, most recently the Veterans Administration hospital in Lakewood. He spent much of the late 20th century with his daughter in Olympia. A strong swimmer well after his 100th birthday, he went for frequent dips in Pattison Lake. He was well known for stockpiling candy and freely dispensing it to his numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. During Benton's past few years at the VA hospital, his sweet tooth was well-known. Doctors credited his good health and longevity to "the three C's," Roberta Dunagan said. "Chicken, coffee and chocolate." A perfect meal for him was a fried chicken dinner followed by coffee and a chocolate desert. The family had planned to take him to a Centralia restaurant for his birthday celebration next month. "He was really looking forward to it," Roberta Dunagan said. She said a VA chaplain told her that her father rarely missed a Sunday service and always enjoyed Monday night music sessions. Benton's second wife, Ivy, died in 1988, at the age of 88. He is survived by one brother, Alfred, who is in his 90s. A sister and two other brothers were in their 90s when they died."