Retired U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Ben Funk, a commanding officer in World War II and a key figure in developing America's ballistic missile program and launching the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, died Jan. 21—three months before his 99th birthday—at his home in Long Beach, Calif.
Born Ben Ivan Funk in Wray, Colo., on April 21, 1913, he entered the University of Denver in 1932. After experiencing the thrill of flying in a Fokker Trimotor during a fraternity event, Ben decided to leave college to become a pilot, entering the Army Air Corps flight school in 1935 and earning his wings in 1936 at Randolph-Kelly Field in Texas.
In 1939, on a tour of Paramount Studios in Hollywood, Ben met Judy King, a young actress who became his wife and lifelong love until her death in 1994. They are survived by their two children, Judith Funk Albert and John Christian Funk.
At the beginning of World War II, Ben flew numerous missions in his B-24 bomber, nicknamed "Bag of Bolts," to evacuate American and British citizens from the Philippines and Java. Returning to the U.S. during the war, Ben played a pivotal role in improving the B-17 and B-24 and developing the B-29 Superfortress. In 1945, then-Col. Funk led a group of 2,000 men in 45 B-29s to Okinawa for the bombing of Japan.
In 1948, Ben earned a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He graduated from the advanced management program at Harvard Business School in 1949. From 1951-54, having earned his first star, Ben commanded Erding Air Depot in southern Germany. It was there that Ben and Judy conceived "Operation Christmas," a U.S. military program that provided gifts and meals to thousands of war orphans throughout Bavaria.
As commander of the Ballistic Missile Center in Los Angeles from 1956 to 1960, Ben supported the development of America's first generation of ballistic missiles, the intermediate-range Thor and the long-range Atlas. He was the recipient of the first Missile Badge in 1958 and was promoted to major general in 1959.
Ben completed his career as commander of the Space Systems Division in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1966. His teams at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral carried out missile launches at a rate that remains unsurpassed. Gen. Funk oversaw the development of the Titan III, which launched not only communications and military satellites, but also the Mercury and Gemini manned spacecraft. For these accomplishments, he received NASA's Space Achievement Award from President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1966, Ben went on to 10 years as an executive at Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation. After fully retiring, Ben and Judy enjoyed time traveling with their grandchildren throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico by Airstream trailer and on Princess Line cruises.
In the last 10 years of his life, Ben shared a home in Long Beach with his daughter Judy and her husband, Charlie Albert. During most of those years, Ben was able to travel and visit with his family, including his grandchildren, Cathy Schufreider, Christopher Cale, Matthew Funk, Allison Funk Fleischman, Jeff Albert and Karen Albert Radford. His other grandchild, Jennifer Funk Volpe, died in 2001. He is also survived by his great-grandchildren, Daniel, Emily, Madeleine, Natalie, Sarah and Jackson.
Ben Funk will be remembered as an honorable gentleman who lived up to his own advice: "Find something in life that you love to do." His passion was flying, and he was able to be a pilot one last time in 2005, when, at the age of 92, he flew a PBY Catalina over the hills of southern England.
Memorial services are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Alzheimer's Association at www.alz.org or P.O. Box 96011, Washington, D.C. 20090-6011, or the University of Denver, Chancellor's Innovation Fund at P.O. Box 910585, Denver, CO 80291-0585.