American World War I pilot Louis Bennett deserved a medal for his bravery, but his only accolades came from the Germans.
Frank Luke, the leading American “balloon buster” credited with destroying 14 German kite balloons and four airplanes in two weeks, is well known to anyone familiar with World War I aviation. The second-ranking American balloon specialist, Louis Bennett, had just as meteoric a career, yet is virtually unknown. In fact, while Luke’s last sortie on September 29, 1918, earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor—the first awarded to a U.S. Army Air Service pilot—the only military honors Bennett received came from an unusual source: the enemy.
Born to a wealthy, politically prominent family in Weston, W.V., on September 22, 1894, Louis Bennett Jr. attended Yale and joined the Aero Club of America in 1916. On July 26, 1917, Bennett contributed to the formation of a West Virginia Flying Corps, which boasted 23 pilots and five Curtiss JN-4Ds before state funds ran out and the U.S. Army refused to accept it as a military unit. He and his brother-in-law, Johnson C. McKinley, also established the West Virginia Aircraft Company, which license-built “Jenny” airframes from 1917 to 1918.
Eager to enter the war, Bennett completed his flight instruction at the Princeton Flying Club and on October 5, 1917, left for Toronto, Canada, to fly with the British. After training in Texas and England, he flew Sopwith Dolphins on home defense with No. 90 Squadron, Royal Air Force, until July 21, 1918, when he transferred to S.E.5a-equipped No. 40 Squadron at Bryas, France.
Bennett flew patrols from July 30 through August 11, but saw few enemy aircraft. On August 15, his flight dived on five Fokker D.VIIs southwest of Douai. “I saw one scooting east,” Bennett wrote, “so dove to the left to head him off. Of course, my Vickers gun would not fire, so only got off half a drum of Lewis at him. I passed over him, a beautiful streamlined fuselage of a red chocolate color….As I turned he went into a spin and disappeared through the clouds.” A flight mate confirmed Bennett’s first victory as “out of control.”
On August 17, Bennett and Lieutenant F.H. Knobel downed an LVG two-seater east of Hénin-Liétard. During a second patrol that day Bennett burned a kite balloon east of Merville. With that victory, he had caught “balloon fever.”
“He immediately set out to down every captive balloon in the area and we were all talking about it in the squadron,” noted American squadron mate Robert A. Anderson with some trepidation. Captain George C. Dixon remarked that Bennett, like Frank Luke, “feared absolutely nothing, and we wanted the greatest care taken of him until he mastered all the tricks of aerial fighting.” For his own part, Bennett wrote a friend that “Shooting down balloons is not so bad if you’re a good bullet dodger.”
Two days later Bennett destroyed an enemy balloon east of Merville, then set another afire and saw the observer take to his parachute. After re-arming and taking off again, he destroyed two more, making him an ace within five days.
On August 22, Nos. 22, 40 and 208 squadrons raided Gondrecourt aerodrome and on the way back destroyed four balloons, two of which fell to Bennett. The next day he sent an LVG crashing south of Quiery la Motte. On August 24, Bennett set a balloon at Provin ablaze while its two occupants parachuted to earth, then destroyed a second gasbag at Hantay. He never returned from that mission, however, and was listed as missing in action.
Back in West Virginia, Sallie Bennett did not learn that her son was dead until October, when the American Red Cross confirmed it. “Never had I seen such sterling work done in so short a time,” Major Robert J.O. Compston, commander of 40 Squadron, wrote Bennett’s mother. “He gave his whole heart to it. We shall miss him here, not only for his work, but for himself….I have recommended him for the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
Strangely, though, Bennett never received any medal.
After a personal quest, in March 1919 Sallie Bennett found her son’s unmarked grave in a military cemetery in Wavrin. She violated French law by having his remains smuggled out of the Wavrin cemetery, but in return she rebuilt the church there, with a memorial to Louis. She also took it upon herself to commission memorial plaques in Britain.
In 1922 Mrs. Bennett was astonished to receive a letter from Emil Merkelbach, co-owner of a stoneware firm in Koblenz, Germany. In 1918 Merkelbach had served in Ballonzug (Balloon Company) 9 and had witnessed Louis’ last combat.
“[I] had an opportunity to admire the keenness and bravery of your son; for this reason I should like to give you the following short description,” Merkelbach wrote. “I had been up several hours observing, and was at a height of 1000 meters. Over the enemy’s front two hostile airplanes circled continuously….I immediately gave the command to my men below to haul in my balloon….When still about 300 meters high, I saw [another] German balloon…plunge to earth burning. At the same moment I saw the hostile flyer come toward my balloon at terrific speed, and immediately the defensive fire of my heavy machine guns below and of the anti-aircraft guns began; but the hostile aviator did not concern himself about that….[He] opened fire on me….I saw the gleaming fire of the missile flying toward me, but fortunately was not hit. The hostile machine was shot into flames by the fire of my machine guns. The enemy aviator tried to spring from the airplane before the latter plunged to the ground and burned completely….A bold and brave officer had met his death.”
The Germans pulled Bennett from the wreckage and rushed him to their field hospital at Wavrin. He had a broken leg, a head wound and was badly burned from the waist to the neck. Madeleine Dallène, a 20-year-old French nurse, recalled a doctor directing her to remove the American’s boots and hearing him call for his parents. He died before she could complete her instructions, and was buried with full military honors at the Wavrin German Military Cemetery. Such then, was the only wartime recognition afforded Louis Bennett—a final salute from his adversaries.
Merkelbach noted that “This brave and splendid aviator wore an identification plate marked ‘Louis Bennett Jr., Weston, W.Va.’” From that he eventually researched Bennett’s home address to write his mother: “Honor to his memory. With respect, Emil Merkelbach.”
Though Bennett’s country did not recognize his sacrifice, his state did. On November 11, 1925, a bronze statue of Bennett was unveiled at the Linsly Military Institute at Wheeling. Weston’s Louis Bennett Public Library is also named in his honor.