Hugh Bennett of Englewood, Fla. was a radio operator on a B-24 “Liberator” bomber dubbed “The Hard Way.” They were part of the 854th Bomb Squadron, 491st Bomb Group, 14th Wing of the 8th Air Force flying out of a base 90 miles north of London at Metfield, England.
Bennett was a 20-year-old farm boy who grew up in Interlaken, N.Y. and was drafted into the Air Corps. He went to basic at Atlantic City, N.J. and from there was sent to radio school in Salt Lake City, Utah. He formed up with his bomber crew in Tucson, Ariz. in Sept 1943. In April of ’44 he and “The Hard Way’s” crew flew the southern route to England.
Their B-24 landed at the base on May 10. On June 2, 1944, two days before D-Day, he and the other nine men in the four-engine heavy bomber flew their first combat mission. Their objective: knock out the fortifications along the beach at Normandy, France.
“The most memorable mission I flew was the first one,” the 90-year-old Bennett recalled. “We were over enemy territory along the coast and flew through a cloud bank. When we came out the other side the Germans opened up on us with their anti-aircraft guns.
“We had gotten out of formation and the pilot hollered for more power to catch up to the other bombers. Our copilot panicked, because of all the flak, and pulled the plane’s throttles back instead of pushing them ahead to give the bomber more power.
“We stalled and nosed down.
“I jumped up and saw one of our wingman’s number-3 engine get hit by flak and catch fire. The damaged B-24 started to spiral out of control toward the ground. All 10 aboard the burning bomber escaped the blaze, but two of them were shot in their parachutes before they touched ground.
“Bell Evans of Rochester, N.Y. was flying the plane that was shot down. He escaped capture by the enemy and was picked up by the French Underground. He returned to base a couple months later apparently unscathed.
The other seven members of the crew were captured by the Germans and spent the remaining months of WW II in a German Stalag until war’s end.
Bennett and the crew of “The Hard Way” continued on their mission and returned to base after they almost crashed.
“After slapping the co-pilot in the head with his hand, to wake him up and break his fright, the pilot shoved the throttles forward and the bomber started to level out once more,” he said.
What he remembers most about the mission they flew on D-Day, June 6, 1944, were comments the base commander made to the flight crews before they took off.
“During the briefing the commander said, ‘This is a day you’re going to be able to tell your grandkids about, if you survive. Today is the first day of the invasion of Europe!'”
Bennett’s take on England and the English people was that the country was a beautiful green place with very friendly natives. He added, “My ancestors came from Wales, so I felt like I was back home.
“I remember our final mission to Hanover, Germany. It was Sept. 9, 1944 and our target was an industrial complex. There were scores of bombers on this run. The sky was full of bombers as far as you could see in all directions,” he said.
“Luckily we were in one of the high squadrons because the Messerschmitt 190 German fighters hit the lower squadrons. I could see the enemy pilots in their cockpits as they flew under us.
“And of course there was flak. We always got flak. The Germans fired their anti-aircraft guns for elevation, not the individual bomber. They weren’t picking on anyone,” he explained. “They were just firing for a certain altitude and we had to fly threw it in formation with our bombers. Maybe you’d make it and maybe you wouldn’t?
“All of us on that plane wondered: ‘Are we gonna get it on the last mission?’ It didn’t happen. We returned to base with nothing more than a bunch of flak holes in our plane,” Bennett recalled
“When we first reached England they were flying 25 combat missions. When we got to 25 they increased it to 30. When we got there they upped it to 35, but they let us go home after we flew 31 combat missions,” he said.
He returned to an air base at Laredo, Texas and taught upper turret gunnery until the war ended. Then Bennett returned home to New York and went to work for the Ford Motor Co. where he worked for 28 years until he retired in 1985.
He and his wife moved to Englewood in 1998. Bennett has five children: Sharon, Bradley, Deaune, Milinda and Bryan.
Name: Hugh M. Bennett
D.O.B: 23 April 1923
Hometown: Interlaken, NY
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 16 Jan. 1943
Discharged: 13 Oct. 1945
Unit: 454 Bomb Squadron, 491 Bomb Group, 14th Wing, 8th Air Force
Commendations: European-African-Middle Eastern Medal w/4 Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Air Medal w/3 Bronze Stars. Aerial Gunnery Instructor 938, AAF Air Crew Member Badge Pistol
Battles/Campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, Air Offensive Europe, Germany
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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