This essay is about the only First World War casualty commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in West Virginia.
Few know more about the life and exploits of Lieutenant Bennett than Dr. Charles D. Dusch, Jr., the Deputy Command Historian of the United States Air Force Academy, whose comprehensive and extremely well-researched thesis ‘Great War Aviation and Commemoration: Louis Bennett, Jr., Commander of the West Virginia Flying Corps’ led us to his door.
This shorter piece by Dr. Dusch was written for this project. It describes Bennett’s involvement with aviation in the United States, his service with the Royal Flying Corps in France, his untimely death and his mother’s efforts to commemorate her only son. More information about Dr. Dusch may be found at the end of the essay. Footnotes are by the project editor.
West Virginia’s only Great War ace, Louis Bennett, Jr. was born in Weston, West Virginia, on 22 September 1894. Unlike many of his peers who were merely enticed by the thrill of flying and became good pilots in the war, Bennett was much more. He clearly thought about aviation keenly and its impact on the war in larger terms, and he also took action on his ideas to bring them to fruition.
Bennett was strategically positioned as an undergraduate at Yale University at a critical time in history, on the eve of American entry into the Great War. In 1915 with war raging in Europe, Bennett announced to the president of the Aero Club of America that he wanted to establish a volunteer aviation unit in his home state that would be ‘Ready to Serve’ in time of war. He discussed the idea with other distinguished members of the Aero Club. He took a job in an aeroplane factory to learn all he could about how aircraft worked as well as how aircraft were produced. He learned to fly. He shared his ideas with his classmates at Yale who caught his enthusiasm and joined him. His ideas spread around campus and likely influenced Trubee Davison to form his own volunteer aviation unit, the First Yale Unit, dubbed by the press as ‘the Millionaires’ Unit.’
In the spring semester of Bennett’s senior year at Yale, the young man from West Virginia purchased an aircraft and outlined his plans for a ‘West Virginia Reserve Aerial Unit’ composed of volunteers. To make his reserve flying corps a reality, he enrolled pilots, ground crew, and support personnel on his own initiative. He established an airfield, aviation school, and maintenance facilities for the unit and recruited instructor pilots. He also convinced both the governor and legislature to financially support the West Virginia Flying Corps, and the governor issued Bennett a state commission as the unit’s captain. As the idea came to fruition, it had the hallmarks of an aerial militia—a state volunteer unit similar to the volunteer units of the American Civil War. However, as a modern man and product of the Industrial Revolution, Bennett also partnered with his father and brother-in-law to begin aircraft manufacture in his home state. Bennett understood that the new air weapon needed a steady industrial base and his aircraft factory would supply his unit, maintain it logistically, and provide aircraft and parts for the Army’s war effort. He built the West Virginia Aircraft Factory near his airfield to sustain flight operations and persuaded investors from the nearby industrial city of Wheeling, West Virginia to help finance it.
Immediately after the United States declared war on Imperial Germany, Bennett contacted the aviation section of the Signal Corps to determine the Army’s standards for aviation training so he could offer a credible combat unit to the U.S. Army and the nation. When war was declared, the Army’s aviation section was woefully unprepared for combat on the Western Front. By some accounts, it only had 131 officers, 65 of whom were aviators, and only 26 of them were fully trained. Its enlisted force consisted of 1,087 men. None of its aircraft were capable of flying in combat in Europe and were only good for training. This lack of readiness in the aviation section reflected the overall unpreparedness of the War Department itself. One senior Air Service officer remarked that prior to American entry into the war, the War Department “had made no plans as to what it would do in case we were suddenly called upon to become one of the great military nations of the world.” Bureaucratic ‘red tape’ combined with sudden expansion, congestion, confusion, and lack of organization to disrupt the mobilization process and delay correspondence by weeks or even months. Young Bennett quickly learned he was on his own if he wanted to make the West Virginia Flying Corps a viable combat unit.
By the summer of 1917, Bennett had acquired additional aircraft and his unit was actively training. As his worldview expanded, Bennett foresaw the need for a national aviation reserve with aviation units in every state and major city. These units would support both military as well as commercial aviation, and each unit was to have a supporting airfield, aviation schools, skilled personnel, and factory. They would be funded by the state and federal governments as well as private and corporate investors. Therefore, in addition to his West Virginia Flying Corps, he acquired aviation schools in New Jersey and Florida and sought to expand even further. In August 1917, Bennett passionately lobbied giant businesses like the DuPont Corporation in Delaware to support his idea for a national aviation reserve system. Additionally, Bennett continued his efforts to garner recognition from the War Department. Even if the War Department were inclined—or capable—of helping him, the Wilson administration prohibited admission of volunteer units into the Army, fearing the resurgence of former president and political rival Theodore Roosevelt. Secretary of War Newton Baker declined numerous requests from volunteer groups who offered their services, including those formed by both Bennett and Davison.
Secretary Baker recommended that Bennett and his pilots apply for Army aviation training through the Signal Officers’ Reserve Corps aviation section as the best means of obtaining a commission as an Army pilot. Under no circumstances would he accept a state volunteer organization. Bennett was equally as persistent as the intractable Wilson administration, insisting that the unit represent his beloved home state and pushing the War Department to grant conscription exemptions to its personnel. The War Department held all the cards, however, and when conscription began the West Virginia Flying Corps lost both pilots and mechanics to the Army. Its future as a military unit was precarious.
At this point, the frustrated Bennett made a fateful decision. Placing the future of the unit and his idea for a national aviation reserve with his brother-in-law, Bennett went to Canada to join the Royal Flying Corps. He knew from his Yale colleagues in the Army Air Service that the Army training program was often inept and delays were interminable. Bennett concluded that the fastest means of learning to fly and getting into the war for any American pilot was to go to Canada and join the RFC. This view was shared by the Director of Aeronautical training for the Air Service. In fact, the Director himself was sent to Canada in May 1917 to learn first-hand from the RFC how to put together the training program for the U.S. Air Service.
After completing his training with the RFC in Canada and Texas, Bennett sailed for Britain to complete his training. Although initially posted to a home defense unit, No. 90 Squadron flying Sopwith Dolphins, Bennett managed to wangle a transfer to a front-line unit. He arrived in France about 21 July 1918 and was posted to the pilot pool in Boulogne. Soon, he found himself flying with No. 40 Squadron equipped with the S.E. 5a, a product of the British Royal Aircraft Factory.
No. 40 Squadron had a strong reputation for aggressive fighting, or as “Hun-getters” to use Bennett’s words. After his initiation as a new pilot, it was not long before Bennett was making an impact. By August 1918, the young West Virginian was the leading American ‘balloon buster’ of the day. In one week, Bennett had destroyed seven balloons, driven a Fokker scout down ‘out of control’, shared in the destruction of one L.V.G. observation aircraft and destroyed another. On 19 August, Bennett destroyed four German observation balloons (Drachen) in four hours, emulating the great British ace Mick Mannock, who also had destroyed four German aircraft in one day. It was a rare event and earned Bennett’s combat mention in both the London and Manchester Daily News. On 24 August 1918, he quickly destroyed two balloons near Annay and Provin, France, and he had increased his total victory tally to 12. When he tried to shoot down his thirteenth victim, incendiary rounds from the Drachen’s heavy machine gun defenses struck the fuel tank of Bennett’s S.E.5. The fiery aircraft banked to the left towards the allied lines as it fell. Bennett tried to save himself by jumping from the flaming machine only a few moments before it hit the ground from a height of about 25 meters. He landed some ten meters away from the burning wreckage, which came to rest near the railroad station at Marquillies.
The German balloonist that Bennett was trying to kill landed and ran to the fallen allied aviator. He found him unconscious and badly injured, and called for a medical orderly and ambulance from his unit to provide proper care. The injured flier received treatment and was evacuated to the hospital at Wavrin, where Bennett later died without regaining consciousness. The Germans buried him the next day with full military honors. After the war, the German balloonist sent Bennett’s mother a map that showed Bennett’s flight path and crash site.
Armed with this information, Bennett’s mother—like so many others after the Great War—travelled to the war zone to find her son’s body and began the process of commemorating his memory. She was Sallie Maxwell Bennett, and Sallie was formidable in her own right. She came from a very prominent southern family in Wheeling and belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a ladies’ memorial association which played a central role in the commemoration of Confederate war dead from the great ‘War Between the States’. Their commemorative effort reached its peak in the United States between 1903 and 1914, with a number of monuments unveiled during the First World War. Sallie’s identity as a member of the UDC was a powerful stimulus for her efforts to memorialize her son.
After her son was reported missing ‘over the lines’, Sallie waited in agony. Her world came crashing down when she received the fateful telegram that announced his death. Like many family members of the fallen, she sought to recover his body, bring him home, commemorate his memory, and convey to future generations her account of what her son’s life and death truly meant. When Sallie arrived in France and found his remains, she learned that she was prohibited from removing them. So she conspired with the local parish priest to have them secretly exhumed and returned to the United States in defiance of French law.
In gratitude for the help of the local village, she had a church built to commemorate her son with a small monument next to it. For the next six years, she actively sought to memorialize her son across borders and continents. Besides the church in France, she donated a statue of George Washington to a Paris museum. She commissioned a sculpted wreath at the Cenotaph in London and a memorial RFC window in Westminster Abbey. At home in the United States, she dedicated an airport, donated a tapestry, and sponsored a parachute contest in her son’s memory. Her crowning achievement was to commission a statue by a noted sculptor and place it in Wheeling, the city where her son’s dream became reality. In all, she dedicated some twelve memorials to him.
In many ways, the story of Louis Bennett, Jr. of Weston, West Virginia is both an account of a remarkable individual and the saga of a generation. From the American perspective, the roots of the story originated in that country’s Civil War and became part of a larger transnational narrative when he joined the RFC and fought in Europe. The story returned again to its post-Civil War heritage through the commemorative efforts of his very tenacious mother.
Dr. Charles D. Dusch, Jr. served as a United States Air Force Weapon Systems Officer—accruing over 2,000 hours in RF-4C and F-15E aircraft, including 28 combat missions over Iraq and Bosnia—before entering academia. He specialises in air power history and the Great War. Currently, he is the Deputy Command Historian of the United States Air Force Academy where he teaches World, Military, and Air Power History; he also teaches Military History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Dr. Dusch received his Ph.D. from West Virginia University (‘Great War Aviation and Commemoration: Louis Bennett, Jr., Commander of the West Virginia Flying Corps.’) and has been published by the Institute of National Security Studies, the Journal of Military History, the Journal of West Virginia History, Airman Scholar, The International Journal of Naval History, and Proceedings Magazine. His most recent work in progress is a book titled, ‘Americans ‘Ready to Serve’ in the First Transnational War: Heritage and Commemorating U.S. Aviation in the Great War’.
Rich McGervey for the photographs of the Louis Bennett Memorial Library, Weston.
Stephen Miller for the photographs of Louis Bennett’s grave and of the Aviator statue.
RAF Museum for the photograph of the SE5a of No. 40 Squadron.
1. (Back) Louis Bennett Jr. was the only son of Louis Bennett (27 November 1849-2 August 1918) and his wife Sallie Jane (née Maxwell) (23 June 1857-19 May 1944). A first son, James Maxwell Bennett, died as an infant (27 October 1891-after 1900) and he had an older sister, Agra (later McKinley, later Williams) (3 April 1893-13 January 1968).
2. (Back) Frederick Trubee Davison (7 February 1896-14 November 1974), later the first Assistant Secretary of War for Air.
3. (Back) Bennet’s aircraft on 24 August 1918 was SE5a serial no. E3947.
4. (Back) Luftverkehrsgesellschaft m.b.H. (L.V.G.), a German aircraft manufacturer.
5. (Back) For his gallantry over this period Lieutenant Bennett was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. Like all British gallantry awards, other than the Victoria Cross and a mention in despatches, the DFC, instituted in June 1918, could not be awarded posthumously, i.e. if the potential recipient died before the award was authorised. For his gallantry, Bennett was mentioned in despatches: London Gazette 12 January 1920. Issue 31728, page 499.
6. (Back) Sallie Bennett was the victim of two different constraints. The first was the decree banning the exhumation and movement of war remains passed by the French Ministry of the Interior in February 1919—it was not revised until conferences between French and American authorities in the early spring of 1920. The second was the decision by the United Kingdom that war dead would remain abroad where they had fallen. This latter decision was reversed later in the case of those casualties from the United States serving with Imperial forces, the remains of a number of whom were repatriated to the United States (and, indeed, other countries designated by the next of kin).
7. (Back) Louis Bennett Jr. was buried in Machpelah Cemetery, Weston on 14 April 1920 in Lot 82, Space 4, alongside his father. His mother was buried beside them in 1944. Bennett is commemorated incorrectly by the CWGC as having been killed on 7 October 1918.
8. (Back) He is commemorated also by Yale University on the memorial in the lobby of Woolsey Hall.