Every hero has a story
Lassen Unified High School and California State University, Chico graduate James Todd Bennett, 22, wrangles one of these B-24s over Italy with a 12-man crew on May 22, 1944. He’s an experienced bomber pilot with 14 successful combat missions under his belt. The planes hold a tight formation with their fighter escorts, and the flight crews even maintain a strict radio silence so they give no aid of any kind to the enemy.
Then disaster strikes. For some unknown reason, one of the engines on Bennett’s B-24 goes out, and he signals a pilot alongside him by dropping his wheels that he’s going to break formation and try to land on the nearby island of Corsica.
Ironically, just a few months before Bennett had written a letter to his brother, Frank, another flyer and Susanville native who was training young pilots, advising him to teach the new aviators the importance of staying in formation.
“Tell the boys you’re training to stay in formation,” Bennett wrote. “Breaking formation is how you get killed.”
Although he obviously knows better, Bennett apparently has no other choice. As his B-24 drops out of the formation and loses altitude, a German fighter pilot takes advantage and presses the attack from above. Despite its powerful arsenal of .50 caliber machine guns, Bennett’s lumbering and crippled B-24 is no match for the healthy and speedy German fighter,
Stuck helplessly in their protective formation, the other U.S. Army Air Force flyers watch Bennett’s doomed B-24 lose the life-or-death one-on-one fight, fall from the sky and slam into the Mediterranean Sea near Piombino. The plane and its crew are never seen again, but hope stays alive for several months because Bennett is listed as missing in action.
The day after Frank Bennett finally gets the word his brother had actually been killed in action, he requests a transfer to a combat unit. His request is approved.
That was then, this is now
Fast forward to May 2007. As part of a service project with California Kids to Kids, five CSU, Chico students and Ted Kromer, their professor and the group’s founder, launched a mission of their own last January to find out everything they could about James Todd Bennett and honor his memory this Memorial Day.
Kromer wanted to find a connection between the Florence American Cemetery and California. The students searched the American Battle Monuments Commission’s Web site and found 280 California soldiers were buried or memorialized there, including Bennett.
As a CSU, Chico graduate who completed a four-year degree in just three years, Bennett fit the group’s purpose perfectly.
While it might seem odd to us that five young female students and a college business professor would take an interest in a Susanville bomber pilot killed 63 years ago in a faraway war, it doesn’t seem the least bit odd to them.
Ilysa Laulom, Heather Morehouse and Ashley Albert will join Abby Backstrom, a business major, and Jennifer Hurlimann, an English major, travel to Italy May 31 through June 12.
They say see Bennett almost as a spiritual classmate. Hurlimann said Bennett came from a rural community and graduated from CSU, Chico just like she did, and that adds a special attraction. Backstrom said she feels the same way.
“He enlisted the very month we’re going to graduate,” Backstrom, the project’s prime mover, said. “We’re about to start our lives, just like he was, but his life was cut short. The World War II veterans were our age then, though we’re a world away from what it was like for them. Millions died in World War II. It feels like the world has become so much smaller.”
“Reading the old newspapers, the war completely consumed daily life back then,” Hurlimann said.
Backstrom said it’s especially important to remember heroes like Bennett at a time when the country is again at war.
“We’re going to Rome to visit the Vatican, to Venice for a gondola ride through the water-filled streets, to Florence to see the Tuscan countryside and to visit the Florence American Cemetery,” Backstrom said. “This trip is not merely a vacation; it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about a foreign culture, experience a different perspective and give something back to the community. We’re visiting the Florence American Cemetery to honor and remember a fallen soldier, a fellow classmate, and the millions of Americans who have lost their lives for our country.”
Backstrom wanted to thank the Susanville community for its support in helping the students find out about Bennett. In January the newspaper ran a story about the project. That story generated a number of emails and several important leads.
“A lot of people from Susanville wanted to help, and took personal time out of their day to help us,” Backstrom said. “Thank you all so much.”
The students collected several photographs from an old LHS yearbook, and interviewed Henry Sanchez, one of Bennett’s classmates from the class of 1939.
Luckily, through one of those leads, the students were able to meet Frank Bennett, 88, who lives in Chico with his wife Marian. The couple shared about a dozen letters James Bennett had written during the war as well as family photographs and a wealth of personal information.
“They were so gracious,” Hurlimann said of the Bennetts.
In an odd twist of fate, when Frank Bennett was returning to the states after the war, he happened to meet a man who provided many details about his brother’s last day. Bennett noticed the insignia on this man’s uniform, and struck up a casual conversation with him, adding his brother had served in the same unit. It turned out this man was his late brother’s roommate in Italy.
“What an incredible coincidence,” Hurlimann said. “Frank said conversation added some closure.”
Unfortunately, the students were unable to speak with Bennett’s sister, Mildred Before, who passed away just before they began their research.
The students found out there were four Bennett brothers, and three of them served in the war — James, Frank and Percival. The fourth brother, Fillmore, was too old for military service.
At the college’s library, with the help Dana Reedy, director of developmental research, they were able to uncover nearly a dozen articles from the Lassen Advocate about the Bennett brothers, including one that said he had survived going down in the Mediterranean.
The students also found old newspaper stories about the Bennett’s parents, who lived in Janesville during the war.
According to their research, Bennett served in the 765th Bomber Squadron, the 461st Bomber Group. His serial number was 0-742937. He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal with an Oak Leaf Cluster and a Purple Heart.
“We have dedicated our trip to James Todd Bennett and will visit the Florence American Cemetery where he is listed on The Tablets of the Missing,” Backstrom said. “We’re honoring the memory of all those who served our country and gave their lives for our freedom.”
Backstrom said they will take photographs of the memorial for Frank Bennett because he’s never been to Florence.
James Bennett may be unknown to most of us living in Susanville today, but this Memorial Day, his sacrifice will not be forgotten.
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