Chin out in a plexiglass bubble at 15,000 feet
“March 12, 1945 -Frankfurt”
“March 18, 1945 -Berlin”
“April 19, 1945 – Czechoslovakia”
Charles Bennett recorded each of his 43 combat missions – made in the nose of a B17 bomber during WWII – in a small leather-bound notebook.
The 43 missions earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, The Air Medal and five Oak Leaf Clusters.
“Not too many finished that many” combat missions, Bennett explained.
As a member of the 8th Air Force, Bennett was stationed at Framlingham, England.
“You got up at four o’clock in the morning and went down for briefing and breakfast,” Bennett recalled a typical day of the war. “They’d take a big string and stretch it across the map to show you” where to fly. We’d take off at about 7 in the morning. You’d circle around until you assembled all your planes then take off over the Channel.”
Bennett’s first missions were with a seasoned crew, typical for flight training.
He was a bombardier, the guy in the windowed nose of the plane, shooting guns at the enemy.
In 1942, missions Bennett accomplished at first included 400 planes or so; later – by 1945 and the end of the war – they included 1,000 planes per mission.
It was during one of his first missions that “flak … pieces of schrapnel … came through the window and ticked my boot,” Bennett said, pointing to his foot.”
But, when Bennett discusses the fear of being the first, chin out, in the nose of the B17, he denies feeling fear.
“You always thought it was genna be the other guy,” he said, shrugging a shoulder.
“We lost two engines once,” he said. “A prop that ran away, and they told us to prepare to bale out,” but “we made it in.”
On June 6, 1944, the crew took off, “climbed to about 5,000 feet,” Bennett said, “kept going up and up until we were at 15,000 feet. That was kind of scary.”
“You could feel the prop wash,” he said. “You knew there were a lot of planes up there,” even if you couldn’t see them, he remembered.
His flight crew bombed the beaches of Normandy with limited visibility and no knowledge of whether they would drive back the enemy for the Allies to come ashore.
“They told us, ‘If you don’t do anything else, you make craters so they have some place to jump in when they get on the shore there’.”
Bennett and his crew flew two missions on that D-Day.
“We bombed the beaches in the morning,” he said, “then a town in France, the railroad marshalling yards” (where trains are assembled and weapons loaded).
During the worst of the war, Bennett flew five missions to Berlin, one in which they monitored negative 60 degrees in that cramped nose of the plane.
But he didn’t feel the cold, watching the German anti-aircraft weapons.
“They had two rings of anti aircraft around Berlin,” he remembered, “1,500 guns. Going in you had to go through two rings, and coming out you had to go through two rings.”
Over Berlin, “we hit waterworks, electric plants, bombed it out pretty good,” Bennett said.
Again, they arrived back in England safe.
“We were pretty lucky.”
Bennett’s first 20 missions were in an F Model B17 bomber, “Shoot A Pound,” with a vulture painted on one side.
During a battle in flight, “a piece of flak went right through the vulture’s eye,” Bennett said, smiling. “That was a good plane.”
Bennett was less enthused with the G Model B17, in which, as bombardier, he didn’t hold the guns in his hands as he had before.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “You had two handles with two guns under the plane. If they jammed you couldn’t get at them to fix ’em. I liked the flexible (guns in the F Model). You could clear a jam.”
Bennett shot down a few planes during his bombardier career, but he is too modest to share the exact number.
On one mission, as he and his crew fired on a ME 109 Messerschmitt, Bennett said, “We were firing on this plane all the way in. He went down. The navigator and I both claimed him. When we got back we flipped a coin, and he got credit.”
Bennett was able to come home after 30 missions.
Normally, “when you got 20 missions, they sent you to R&R,” he explained.
He was home for a month then returned to Europe for 13 more missions.
It was during his final mission that Bennett felt fear. April 19, 1945, low squadron (in the bottom nose of the plane) to Czecholslovakia.
“The German jets made three passes,” Bennett remembered, “and got three of our planes.”
He remembers the mid-air battle like it was yesterday.
“They’d go shoooooo, right by us,” Bennett said, swooping his hand in a flying motion.
After he retired, Bennett was interviewed by Robert F. Dorr for his book “Mission to Berlin”: On March 6, 1944, American heavy bombers mounted the first ever full scale daylight attack on Berlin. It came after days of trying. “We tried twice to get to Berlin, the third and the fourth of March, and were recalled,” said former Capt. Charles Bennett, a bombardier in the 390th Bombardment Group. … striking Berlin remained a difficult task that meant terrible loss of life on the American side – the highest number of aircraft lost in any mission mounted by the Eighth Air Force – as crewmembers fought every inch of the way to their objective. “As we went toward Berlin, you could just about navigate by the planes that had gone down ahead of us,” said Bennett. “Every hundred miles or so, you’d see a burning plane on the ground.”
Bennett looks back on the beginning, remembering enlisting in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1942. During training in Nashville, Tenn., the officers explained they needed bombardiers.
“They took the first 35” as bombadiers, Bennett explained. Some of them had their pilot’s license. “They were really mad.”
And, in 1950, he was “called back” for the Korean Conflict for three years, four months of which were served in Japan as an air intelligence officer. He finished his service career as a captain with an EAME Theater Ribbon with 16 Battle Stars, an Air Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters and a Distinguished Flying Cross with three Overseas Bars and a Korean Service Medal. He finished WWII as a First Lieutenant, and served in Korea promoted to a Captain.
Charles and Dorothy – who went to high school together- were married at Trinity Episcopal Church in Warren. Their daughter was born at Barksdale Airfield where they were stationed in Louisiana. The couple moved 13 or 14 times during their marriage, Dorothy shared.
“Well, I was young then,” she said, smiling and putting her hand on Charles’ shoulder.
Bennett finished college at Edinboro and had a long career in teaching. In 1985, Bennett retired from teaching in Hilton, N.Y. He had taught at schools in Cambridge Springs, Youngsville and Fredonia, N.Y.
After a post-retirement career in the bed and breakfast business in Warren, Bennett, 91, and his wife Dorothy, 89, are enjoying their retirement in Warren. They have one daughter, Ann, who lives in Florida and a grandson who lives in Erie and takes after his grandfather, protecting the U.S. with the Border Patrol.