|What Bennie Hill heroically flew in WWII: the B-24 "Liberator."|
Friday, December 27, 2013
Survivor of flaming aircraft: Bennie Hill of World War II
I can relate to having a celebrity name. For most of my life I did not, but then Brian Williams the anchorman came along. I get occasional teasing. Network anchorpeople aren't the celebrities they once were. The media have fragmented in countless ways. Come to think of it, I haven't been teased about my "celebrity name" for some time.
The late Bennie Hill of Morris had a World War II background that was amazing. He could feel very thankful to be alive to have raised a large and robust family. I'm close in age to more than one of his children. I read that he didn't come forward and talk about his war experiences much. This was a common trait for people who had been exposed to the horrors of war.
The Greatest Generation had to roll up its sleeves to take care of some very unpleasant business. The Nazis asserted themselves like the devil himself across Europe. The Japanese were a horrible specter with their expansion in the Pacific. What was it that possessed mankind in the 1940s, that so much violent conflict came forth? The Allies asserted violence for good. But why was it necessary? Could it happen again?
I remember when Bennie Hill passed away in 1982. His family came to the Morris Sun Tribune office and I hadn't yet heard about his passing. The trials of his mortal life were going to be behind him. My own father Ralph E. Williams said goodbye to those worldly trials in February. My father served Uncle Sam in the Pacific Theater.
Bennie Hill went to work over France, working to eradicate the Nazi menace. He flew a B-24 Liberator bomber. What an aircraft that was! A heavy bomber designed by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego CA, it had a more modern design than the Boeing B-17 "flying fortress." It had a higher top speed, greater range and heavier bomb load.
However, we learn that it was more difficult to fly, as it had heavy control forces and poor formation-flying characteristics.
From Morris to Oklahoma, then Wyoming
Bennie was a skilled pilot whose instruction began at the Morris Aviation School. He completed his advanced training in February of 1943 at Altus OK. He received his commission on December 5, 1943, and was sent to Casper WY where he received his training as co-pilot of that Liberator bomber. It was state of the art weaponry but it had those limitations. Skilled hands would be required at the controls. Bennie surely had the background and the resolve.
Finally to England, and then. . .
He arrived in England on May 3 of 1944. The fateful day arrived for all these gallant young men to be sent out on a trying mission. Uncle Sam gave a thumbs-up. Uncle Sam gave his blessing for Bennie and his fellow aviators to take off toward Tours, France, on June 17. The objective there would be to attack the airfield at Guyancourt, a city on the Loire River.
France was a hell hole in the tug-of-war between Nazi occupiers and the "good guys" of the Allies. Watching the movie "The Longest Day," you might think that once the beaches of Normandy were taken, the main obstacle was surmounted. Seeing Robert Mitchum smell his cigar at movie's end, you get a feeling of triumph and resolution. If only that were true. The campaign to move into France was grudging and took a heavy toll.
Hill ascended skyward in his B-24 Liberator, going out over the channel at Beachy Head and then south over Normandy. As so often happens in war, tactics as they are originally drawn up are disrupted. Accident and chaos can take over. I once read that generals who write books about war aren't to be wholly trusted, because they make battles seem more organized than they were!
The lead navigator for Hill's squadron wasn't precise and the result was being over the city of Caen. Nazi Panzer units were on the prowl in this much-contested city in the European theater.
Nazi commanders in the movies seem always to be pleading for reinforcements in the form of Panzer units. It's easy to see why. They were lethal. The Panzers opened fire on Hill and his fellow fliers. Hill's plane could not escape the barrage. An attempt was made to turn back to England. Hill's plane had received too much damage. It became engulfed in flames.
A further study of the B-24 shows how it was susceptible to battle damage and to fire in particular. The placement of the fuel tanks throughout the upper fuselage, and the plane's lightweight construction (for increased range and to optimize assembly line construction) made the craft vulnerable.
We learn that the B-24 was notorious among U.S. aircraft for its tendency to catch fire. Also, its "Davis wing" meant it was dangerous to ditch or to belly-land, because the fuselage tended to break apart.
Hill's airplane burst into flames. It seemed "a giant blinding flash of fire," according to an account that appeared in a book put out by the Stevens County Historical Society. The whole tail section fell off. A nearby flyer who shared an account said that only one parachute came from this hellish situation. What remained of the plane fell spinning into the countryside of France.
Cascading to the ground, hurt, but alive
That lone parachute was that of Bennie Hill, survivor. The parachute had caught fire. He landed on the ground with a horrible toll from the fire, his hands melted together and his eyes melted shut.
"He may have been burned badly, but at least he was alive," wrote his son Brad in that Historical Society book. The book's title is "The '40s, a time for war and a time for peace." Brad reported that the rest of Hill's crew had been killed.
"After being found on the ground, he became a German war prisoner for the next six weeks, until he was rescued," Brad wrote. "On October 4, 1944, he left England and was back in the United States on October 10."
The road to recovery was arduous for Hill. He spent much time in hospitals going through extensive therapy and skin grafts. He was able to resume a normal life. We were blessed having the large Hill family in Morris. There were ten boys, one of whom passed away a few days after birth.
Hill may have suffered because of the minuses associated with the B-24 Liberator, but the pluses could be most awesome to offset that. That's why it was sent airborne toward the Nazis. The aircraft provided excellent service in a variety of roles, due to its large payload and long range. It was the only bomber to deploy our first forerunner to precision-guided munitions in war: the 1,000-pound "Azon" guided bomb.
Bennie Hill's skilled aviator hands used this power for good. By 1945 the Nazis were crushed.
City of Caen, in thick of the war
Bennie Hill flew his B-24 over Caen, France, in June of 1944, the first month of the fierce campaign for that city. The campaign lasted three months and had the British and Canadians mainly involved. The battle for Caen was part of the battle for Normandy.
Actor Mitchum (in "The Longest Day") may have smelled that cigar with such a sense of calm triumph, but the beach landing would really prove to be a prelude. Meanwhile the Russians were moving from the east. The Germans were far more scared of being taking by the Russians than the Americans.
Caen was one of the largest cities in Normandy. It was deemed a vital objective by the Allies. It was a road hub, so in German hands it could enable the enemy to shift forces rapidly. The city lay astride the Orne River and Caen Canal. The area was valued for airfield construction.
The Germans prioritized the occupation of Caen. They applied potent armor reserves. But with so many German divisions held up defending Caen, U.S. forces were eventually able to break through to the south and east, threatening to encircle the German forces in Normandy from behind.
Caen was a historic city with many buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. The Allies had to bomb relentlessly and this took a toll on the grand old city. Little of the pre-war city remains today.
On D-Day, Caen was an objective for the British Third Infantry Division. The Allies could not take Caen as planned. Paratroopers managed to establish a bridgehead north of the city, on the east bank of the Orne. The Germans' 21st Panzer Division was a stubborn roadblock. Those Panzers! Robert Vaughn pleaded for relief from Panzers in the movie "The Bridge at Remagen." They did not arrive.
Near Caen the 21st Panzer Division launched a counterattack that blocked the road to Caen. General Montgomery decided on a new plan for the Second Army: Caen would be taken by a pincer movement. But the Allies got bogged down in the "bocage" country (hedgerows). Those Panzers loomed. A storm on the English channel disrupted the beach supply, setting back efforts more. Poor weather delayed bombing that was to precede a new attack. The Germans threw in their last reserves.
General Montgomery, who you might remember from the movie "Patton" as Patton's big rival, decided on a frontal assault. The Germans finally crumbled under the Allies' persistence. The campaign captured vital new ground and it tied down four German corps, at the time when U.S. forces were about to launch Operation Cobra.
Important strategic aims were achieved, even if from a tactical standpoint, the campaign couldn't be judged wholly a success. In the end it was the British and Canadians taking Caen.
The city's population before the conflict was 60,000. And after: 17,000. About 35,000 were left homeless after the Allied bombing. The city was re-built from 1948 to 1962.
Bennie Hill flew directly over the city while war raged. He wasn't British or Canadian but he was surely kindred in the cause, a cause destined for triumph after all the tragedy and sacrifice.
Why? Why did the Germans behave as they did in the 1940s? Why was it necessary for Hill's life to be disrupted? And for my father Ralph's life to be disrupted? We remember on Memorial Day. But is it enough? Can the speeches genuinely remind us of the extent of sacrifice made by the young men of America in the 1940s? Must we worry about such a conflagration happening again?
The future is impossible to predict. But we can be aware and vigilant, hearing the story of the late Bennie Hill and his aviation talents employed on behalf of the Allied cause. God bless the memory of all this.
I can visualize Mr. Hill like it was just yesterday - his affable presence at the front counter of the Morris Post Office. "Make sure to cover 'B' team wrestling," he said to me one day. What a trivial matter compared to all he had seen and experienced! But his family was his focus for his present. These veterans indeed "moved on," to the extent Bennie didn't wish to discuss much his wartime experiences. I failed to get Willie Polk to go "on the record" about what he saw at Pearl Harbor. It's all so understandable.
The WWII veterans of Stevens County were once all around us in our daily lives. They have faded from that due to the passage of time. It's important we never forget.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org