by Dick Hefton
The present environment, for lack of a more definitive word for “these days,” should be giving us all some long moments of “Reflection!” It has for me, and struck quickly.
I ran across an obituary in the Sunday paper this week for a veteran of the U.S. Air Force which naturally caught my attention. The location, Oklahoma City, the name did not register at first glance, but “Royal Canadian Air Force” captured my attention, knowing that many of our original Greatest Generation heroes of WWII volunteered for combat as much as two years before our nation by joining a near defeated Ally stand against Nazi world domination.
Harold Lee Bennett, subject of the obit, was born 1922 in Kansas City, Mo. After high school he worked shortly at the headquarters of Western Auto, but with our country not in the war, the only place to follow his dreams of flying was to hitch a ride to Canada and join the RCAF.
He was in pilot training when the U.S. joined the war, was then discharged and completed training at Hatbox Field, Muskogee, OK. And Victoria, TX before heading to the China-Burma, India-Theatre where he flew P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustangs completing over 80 missions.
It was while stationed at Muskogee Hatbox he met his wife to be Joe Ellen Hamilton. They married in 1945 after his return. They settled in Oklahoma where they purchased Western Auto stores, his first employers, and became one of the largest Store In the company’s system.
Still having the drive and love of flying Harold joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve assigned, again to Muskogee, OK, as an Instructor Pilot with the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron flying C-119 cargo/troop aircraft. His squadron was recalled again for the Cuban Missile Crisis. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Lt. Colonel.
Meanwhile, against all my fighter pilot instincts, putting pride aside for a time I wanted to keep flying, the “BOXCAR” squadron was the only game in town, so I join the 65th Troop Carrier outfit. There I was indeed an unhappy camper and assigned to the toughest, meanest Instructor ever to take to the skies, Harold Bennett! We did our best to tolerate one another but he never backed down on his insistence that Instruments, particularly, had to be done with precision.
Shortly, on a January overnight layover in Gulfport, MS our crew was called out to fly to Detroit to transport 55 troops back to Gulfport. We made the pickup including all their footlockers, which put us close to max total weight. After three hours in flight on the return, we were halfway between Nashville and Gulfport in Radar no-mans-land when Harold announced we lost one of our two engines and instructed me, his unqualified co-pilot to declare the emergency and request a vector to the nearest suitable airport!
No air route traffic centers had us on radar. We were alone in the sky, but for a voice which came on our channel saying, “This is Navy McCain GCA (ground-control approach) Controller. I think I may have you on my screen at 9500 feet, 20 east!” He told us start a turn toward him making immediate identification. His shortest runway was on our nose and Harold chose to stay on track rather than go for the longer strips. We began our descent on controller commands who giving minute corrections for distance and altitude in degrees and hundreds of feet. At his call of “100 feet below glide slope – three quarter mile,” I believed we could not make it considering our excessive load. But suddenly, Harold, who had been calm and stoic throughout the entire emergency, without a word crammed the good throttle hard to the firewall which should have blown the engine away, but the last blast of power ballooned us and as we crossed the end of the runway he rounded out for a gentle touchdown and roll to a stop.
The sleepy passengers never the wiser.
Harold Lee Bennett saved my life that night along with some 60 others.
His demand for excellence on me would repeat itself numerous times later, always due to the relentless training he gave me.
My failure has been that I never told him the Thanks he deserved or the many times later his efforts averted disaster.