Silver Springs man, 93, was in the pilot’s seat for D-Day
June 6, 2013
In the early morning of June 6, 1944, Capt. Hale Bennett sat in the cockpit of Crime Doctor, his B-26 Marauder bomber. He was waiting to take off from an airstrip at Great Dunmow, England, to bomb targets at Utah Beach, France.
Bennett was a bomber pilot with the Army Air Corps, and his thoughts ran through the readiness of his squadron. Was the whole crew there? Were they reasonably sober? Were parachutes ready? Was the whole crew properly equipped?
“It’s pretty conceivable that I was thinking about girls,” Bennett, now 93, added with a twinkle in his eye and the memories of being a young pilot preparing for combat.
He recalled the tension and uncertainty of D-Day from the safety of his home in Silver Springs.
“We pulverized that entire transport system in France. We were accurate putting bombs in the end of rail tunnels. So we took out railroad bridges, took out all the tunnels, started taking out (Nazi) housing. We were doing everything we could to prevent the advance of the German army.”
Hale Bennett, who participated in the D-Day invasion
“We were sent to England to make war on Germany,” he said. “So we made war on them. I spent two years in and around Europe in World War II.”
From the advanced preparations, training and recent restrictions on passes, Bennett and his fellow pilots and crew in the 553rd Squadron of the 386th Bombardment Group knew a major campaign was in the works. But until they were rousted out of bed at 4 a.m. for briefing, they didn’t know when, what or where. Or that they were taking off for what later would be considered the most important mission of World War II in the European Theater.
Before D-Day, Bennett and his crew had participated in an aircraft-identifier project that Gen. George S. Patton had ordered. Now known as the “Flying Circus,” the fleet of U.S. planes flew over troops gathered on the ground holding pictures of U.S. aircraft so the ground troops could identify friend from foe.
Patton himself climbed into Bennett’s B-26.
“He wanted to fly over his troops,” Bennett said. “He climbed into a B-26, the hot rod of bombers.”
On June 5, exercises were cut off early and the pilots ordered to return to their bases before 5 p.m.
“What we didn’t know, because we went to bed, was that every one (of the planes) went to the paint shop and came out with a new set of stripes,” he said.
“Troops were notified, if it’s got white stripes, it’s friendly. If not, shoot the SOB down.”
Those stripes on the wings and fuselage, known as invasion stripes or D-Day stripes, are a distinctive marker on aircraft that were part of the D-Day invasion.
PICKED FOR EXPERTISE
Because the 386th Bombardment group had a record of hitting targets accurately and within the desired time frame, generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley picked the group to drop the last bombs before the troops landed on Utah Beach — just two minutes before the first infantry soldiers were to hit the beach.
Bennett’s squadron, led by Capt. Dave Dewhurst, was among the last of the last.
The bombardment needed to be close to the landing, but not so close as to endanger the troops, Bennett explained.
“It was a distinct honor to be in the last group to bomb. It was rewarding to get recognized,” he said.
Approaching the coast of France, Bennett could see the Allied fleet turning toward the shore.
“We weren’t stupid. We recognized that if we did good, we were going to wipe out the German defenses,” he said.
The 386th was preceded by heavier bombers that dropped their payload from higher elevations.
The B-26 Marauders came in lower for more focused attacks on fortified gun emplacements situated where they could shoot at troops coming ashore.
“They were very effective on Utah Beach,” Bennett’s wife, Kay, added. “So accurate that the loss of American life on Utah Beach was significantly less than on Omaha.”
The bombers were accurate and effective enough to create another type of hazard for the pilots.
“Flying at a low level (500 to 1,000 feet), a German gunnery went over my wing,” Bennett said.
“I saw a long pole tumbling toward us. I thought it was a telephone pole. It got close enough that I could see the gun holes on both ends.”
It was the barrel of a gun that had separated from the rest of the gunnery. Bombs from a plane ahead of Bennett’s had hit the gunnery’s foundation of reinforced concrete, blowing it into the air and over Bennett’s plane.
After the bombing sweep, Bennett’s squadron returned to England to reload and refuel. It took off again about noon, flying about 100 miles farther inland to Saint-Lô, France, to take out an intersection and block a major German supply route.
SAFE AND SECURE
At the end of the day, not one of the 386th’s bombers had been lost.
B-26 bombers had an aircraft-loss rate of 0.01 percent during World War II. That’s the lowest of any bombardment group in Europe, according to “The Story Of The Crusaders: The 386th Bomb Group in WWII,” published in 1988 by the 386th Bomb Group Association.
However, in the early days of the war, the B-26s were considered to be among the most dangerous planes of the U.S. fleet.
At a training base at MacDill Field on the outskirts of Tampa, Fla., the B-26 was considered so dangerous that it picked up the catch phrase “One a Day in Tampa Bay.” It also was referred to as “The Widow Maker,” “Flying Brick” and “Flying Prostitute.”
Kay Bennett, herself a private pilot, said little was understood about the aerodynamics of large bombers. The B-26 was produced and delivered without testing.
“It came off the assembly line to the pilots,” said Hale Bennett, who trained on the B-26 at Avon Park, Fla., and joined the 386th in England as a replacement group.
When pilots and crew members died in crashes, there was no firsthand information available about the cause.
To save the significant investment in the new bombers, then-Sen. Harry Truman ordered an investigation that led to the wings being made 1 foot longer and pilots being retrained to not be afraid of the high speeds and fast climb they believed the plane required. Those changes are thought to have fixed the problems with the B-26.
Bennett has another opinion.
“It was strictly a politician-induced solution,” he said.
He credits his squadron’s operations officer, Dewhurst and 1st Lt. B.B. “Skip” Young, along with other pilots, with finding the real solution after the group had shipped off to England.
Bennett’s respect for Dewhurst — who, a few years after the war, was hit and killed by a drunken driver — is readily apparent as he retells the story that changed the B-26 from “The Widow Maker” to one of the safest bombers in three wars.
“Dave was a big man. You thought of him as a guy that was 7 feet tall,” Bennett said.
Young had a theory that involved a risky test, which Dewhurst authorized, Bennett said.
The crashes were caused by one engine stopping, resulting in the planes immediately rolling over. Young took the B-26 into a steep climb to set up an engine failure. At 2,000 feet, an engine died and the plane flipped on its back.
“But he was expecting it,” Bennett said.
Young and his copilot pushed the throttles to get full power on both engines and finally rolled it back — at 300 feet.
In the process, they proved that what the pilots had been trained to do in that situation was what was causing them to crash.
“That plane will fly with a single engine from here to New York,” Bennett said. “They recognized that you can’t go first into a single-engine climb; you have to go into a single-engine dive.
“We never lost an airplane in France (caused by) that single-engine loss,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s admiration for his operations officer has led in recent years to a close relationship with Dewhurst’s sons David, now the lieutenant governor of Texas, and Gene, a prominent businessman.
The Dewhurst brothers expanded the World War II museum in Saint-Lô to include a wing with a B-26 on display in memory of their father. The Bennetts attended the grand opening of the wing.
The Dewhursts also spent several hours with Bennett recording an oral history of the war and his memories of their father, who died when they were very young.
“It was very, very personal for them,” Kay Bennett said.
Through the course of the war in Europe, Bennett flew 68 bombing missions. In addition, he went out on about 100 others that returned without dropping bombs due to bad weather or other hindrances.
After D-Day, Bennett was sent home. Fifteen days later, he was recalled to train French pilots to fly the B-26. Years later, he was recalled again for a short, inglorious stint in the Korean War.
“It was a different kind of war we fought (in Korea),” he said.
The war on Germany was a different matter.
“We pulverized that entire transport system in France. We were accurate putting bombs in the end of rail tunnels. So we took out railroad bridges, took out all the tunnels, started taking out (Nazi) housing,” he said.
“We were doing everything we could to prevent the advance of the German army.”