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Alumnus, D-Day Veteran Earns Top Honor from France

Former agriculture student recounts horrors of Omaha Beach.

Written by John Davis

Jack Bennett recently was honored for his service by the French government as a Knight of the French Legion of Honor – the highest honor bestowed by the European country to either members of the military or civilians.

Jack Bennett recently was honored for his service by the French government as a Knight of the French Legion of Honor – the highest honor bestowed by the European country to either members of the military or civilians.

Before he landed at Normandy , 20-year-old Jack Bennett said he hadn’t even been to a funeral.

Once the door of the landing vehicle swung open and he waded neck-deep through the surf with a 90-pound pack on his back, he saw the horrors of death up close. D-Day, code-named Operation Neptune, became his first real combat experience. Bodies of the 16th Regiment, men who had come in the first wave at low tide, floated in the waves and lay on the sand of Omaha Beach.

“It was a real shock to me to see those bodies in the water,” he said.

On that fateful day, June 6, 1944, he and his other buddies in the 18th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division waded out and ran for the cover of the cliffs. They were the second wave to arrive in a surprise attack that would ultimately end with the liberation of France and turn the tide against Hitler’s Nazi war machine.

Bennett, who first came to Texas Tech University in the fall of 1942 hoping to play a little football and earn an agriculture degree before he was drafted, recently was honored for his service by the French government as a Knight of the French Legion of Honor – the highest honor bestowed by the European country to either members of the military or civilians. Wearing his Army suit and medals, he received it May 10 during a small ceremony attended by neighbors and family at his home in Richardson.

Frédéric Bontems, the consulate general of France at the French Consulate in Houston, presented the medal to Bennett. He said Napoleon Bonaparte , who was then the First Consul of the First French Republic, instituted a new order as a way to recognize merit, the National Order of the Legion of Honor. This was meant to reward civilians and soldiers who had achieved great things in the service of France.

Bennett

Bennett entered active service as private first class. He trained with the famous 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kan., known as The Big Red One.

“Since its creation, the award has never been abolished, and has remained the highest, most prestigious, decoration in France,” Bontems said. “This order is awarded solely as a recognition of merit or bravery, being open to men and women of all ranks and professions. A few years ago, France decided to follow a more active policy of awarding this medal to the American veterans of World War II. And, not surprisingly, a very significant number of these veterans were identified in Texas, because Texas has a long tradition of fighting for freedom and standing against tyranny. This state paid a very heavy toll during World War II. Receiving the title of ‘knight’ means that you have demonstrated virtue, bravery and strong commitment to a noble cause.”

Bennett said that French officials tried to give him this award since December, but he couldn’t make the trip down to Houston.

“I said, ‘When you’re in Dallas or somewhere close, let me know, and that would be fine.’ I waited all those many years, a few extra months wouldn’t hurt. So, they just came to my house May 10. I was the only one receiving the award that day. We had a few children and a bunch of old neighbors – about 30 people here.”

From West Texas to the Front Lines

Born in Oklahoma in 1924, Bennett said he spent most of his life growing up in Vernon, Texas.

“My father worked for Phillips Petroleum, and we lived all over West Texas,” he said. “I graduated from a little country school outside of Vernon. So, I call Vernon my home. It was mostly a farming community and oil people. After I graduated, I went to Tech for one semester. I went up there really to play football. That’s another story. But I didn’t play football. I paid my own way. It was kind of cheap in those days. I couldn’t do it today. It’s a different story now. But, when I went home for Christmas, I found out the draft board had told my father I was going to be drafted in the spring. I didn’t go back to Tech for the spring semester. Sure enough, I was drafted and went into service April 1 of ’43 and took basic training.”

Just a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Bennett entered active service as private first class, training at Fort Riley, Kan. He was shipped to England the first week of November where he trained with the famous 1st Infantry Division, known as The Big Red One. He was one of about 2,500 replacements for the division after troops had invaded North Africa and Sicily.

In the spring of 1944, Gens. Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery came to watch the group’s training and tell them about Eisenhower’s plans for them.

“They made a little speech and said ‘I know you’ve been through two invasions already,’” Bennett recalled. “But Eisenhower is insisting on infantry to lead this invasion. You’re it again. I’m sorry to say that. That’s the way it’s going to have to be.”

He can’t recall how long the troops were locked up in training prior to the D-Day invasion, but Bennett said he remembered getting briefings each day and viewing photos of where they were going to land.

Normandy

Soldiers storm Omaha Beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Call to Action

On June 3, the entire 18th regiment left camp and went aboard a transport in the harbor. After boarding they learned for the first time that they would land in the second wave on Omaha Beach.

“We finally left port the evening of June 5 and anchored 10 miles off the coast of France,” Bennett said. “Early the next morning we were offloaded by company, by cargo nets over the side and into landing crafts 30 to 40 at a time. That was really tricky as waves were making the landing crafts, which were flat-bottomed, bounce up and down. Some broke legs and others missed entirely.

“Once loaded, the landing crafts began making large circles around the Battleship Texas, which was firing at the shore. Finally after receiving a signal the boat made a right turn and raced for shore at full speed.”

The plan was to wait for the 16th Regiment to clear the path. Once they were five miles inland, the 18th regiment would come behind and take over from there.

“That didn’t happen,” Bennett said. “Lots of mistakes were made D-Day morning. There were supposed to be 250 planes that would bomb the coast. They bombed farther inland, because they were told, ‘Unless you can see the target, don’t bomb.’ There was supposed to be a 45-minute bombardment by Naval ships. It did happen. They couldn’t see targets very well, and battle ships and cruisers were battling artillery off the coast. That didn’t happen. Five minutes before the first troops arrived on shore, there was supposed to be bombardment off platforms in the bay. That happened, but most of them fell short because the waves were about 10 feet tall. So, that didn’t really happen. There were supposed to be places like holes to jump into for first waves that landed. Well, that didn’t happen.”

The 16th Regiment was routed. That left Bennett’s regiment to forge ahead.

The ship turned toward the coast, Bennett said, and the men could hear shooting and see shelling. Inside the landing vehicle, he and 30 other men watched as the door came down about 9:30 a.m. and the sea presented itself.

“The officer said, ‘Get on shore as quick as you can. Get up against the cliff, and we’ll go from there,’” Bennett said. “Well, I can’t swim. I’d step in a hole, and the water would go over my head. We had life preservers, though. Some of the short fellows were in over their heads until they got near shore. If they got turned upside down, they probably drowned. It seemed like it took forever to get to shore. When we got to shore, the officer knew we were in the wrong spot. He said, ‘We’ve got to move left,’ and we ran for cover at the bottom of the cliffs.”

Because no roads existed, the 18th Regiment’s new orders were to take the gullies washed out by rain and use them for roads to the top of the cliffs. The men finally came to the right place and started up the cliff face. Bennett remembered the time – about 1:30 p.m.

Halfway up the cliff, a cement pillbox stood sentry over the gully, Bennett said. A gunner inside fired on troops as they tried to come ashore. Some of the demolition crew tried to blow up the structure, but were killed when they stepped on landmines.

Barrage balloons protect landing craft.

Barrage balloons protected landing craft headed to Normandy from aerial assault.

A tank that managed to come ashore was knocked off its tracks and couldn’t move. Still, it fired on the pillbox, though it’s shells bounced off the thick concrete walls.

“Then this destroyer started steaming toward shore,” he said. “I thought they were going to run aground because the water is very shallow there. It fired two salvos. One just went over the pillbox. The second hit it. So then, all we had to contend with then were German soldiers. We tried to pin them down as we got up on top. Some of the infantry riflemen started going up and down the ditches and blew up where they were coming out. We stopped some of the small arms fire on shore. We were just worn out. The officer said, ‘Let’s just wait here a minute and rest.’”

Radios weren’t working. Confusion set in until Bennett’s regiment received word from a battalion runner that their target had changed and they needed to back up another group that had been routed about a mile inland. They got to their spot in Colleville-sur-Mer where the 16th Regiment was supposed to go.

“We got into that little town, and all night long the Germans were trying to get out of there,” he said. “We didn’t know where they were. They didn’t know where we were. It was bedlam all night long. We got reinforcements, got organized, moved out and didn’t cease after that. We captured lots of little farms. Dairy farms, mostly.”

Unlucky Day

On Oct. 13, 1944, as Allied troops fought their way through France, Belgium and Germany, Bennett’s regiment had holed up in a barn outside the small farming village of Aachen blocking reinforcements from coming in.

“I was in a mortar squad,” Bennett said. “I was right on the front line all the time. I was on duty, and I was looking out to see if our mortars were hitting our guns. I forgot about this wooden door behind me. A shell hit that door, and it blew it on top of me. The shell must have been a mortar shell because nobody heard anything coming. I thought it took my right leg off because it blew my leg back. They came and got me while there was still shilling, and were running me on a stretcher to an aid station in the basement of a big house. One fellow carrying me stumbled, and I went sliding off the stretcher. The doctors started dressing the wound and tried to stop the blood and gave me morphine. But we couldn’t evacuate anyone until dark. It was 1 p.m. on a Friday the 13th.  I always remember that real well.”

Luckily, shelling subsided that night. Bennett was transferred to three or four hospitals before he came to an army hospital in England. He laid there for six months before getting sent home in March of 1945.

“I missed all the other battles they had,” he said. “I missed all that. I stayed at McCloskey General Hospital in Temple for another 10 months or so. The doctors wanted to have my leg amputated. Since my leg was shattered up high I wouldn’t have had much of a stump. I resisted that, and the bone healed naturally. I walk with a limp. One leg’s a little bit shorter, but I have special built-up shoes. I do pretty well.”

Bennett's 1948 La Ventana yearbook picture.

Bennett’s 1948 La Ventana yearbook picture.

Back to School

When he was discharged, Bennett came back to Texas Tech to finish his agriculture degree in food science in the fall of 1946. At the time, about 75 percent of the students with him were fellow veterans using the G.I. Bill to help pay for their education.

The only grass on campus was around the agriculture building, he recalled. The rest was all dirt.

“We wanted to get out and get to work, so we took pretty heavy course loads,” he said. “I took 21 hours one semester. I had to get special permission to do that. It was tough. But several of us did that. I graduated in the summer of 1949. Got through it in three years.”

After a short stint at Borden’s Dairy, Bennett came back to work on a master’s degree in 1951 while working part-time at the City of Lubbock Health Department. In 1953 he met his wife, Dorothy, from Illinois, who was an X-ray technician. After dating a year, the two married in 1954. They had two daughters, who in turn gave them a granddaughter. They also have a great-granddaughter. For 37 years, he worked as the southwest sales representative in Dallas for Germantown Manufacturing, selling dairy product ingredients before retiring in 1990.

Certainly, the military shaped his life. Bennett said discipline was the No. 1 thing he learned from his experience. That, and accepting life as it happens.

“I take things as they are,” he said. “I’m kind of a down-to-earth guy. Nothing worries me. I just take things as they go. I haven’t been able to play with kids because of my leg, but I tried to take care of them. That’s the best thing I can do. Nothing seems to worry me too much.”

Bennett also credits his education at Texas Tech with giving him success in business and an edge over his competitors.

“When I worked, (my education) was fantastic really,” he said. “I was responsible for sales, but I also did technical work, especially for ice cream manufacturers. My competitors had no education. They just had experiences. When they couldn’t solve something, I was usually able to solve it. That really helped me in working. At Tech, you used to have to work on the things we were supposed to do in everyday life.”

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3 Responses to “Alumnus, D-Day Veteran Earns Top Honor from France”

  1. Lynn Boelter Says:

    Thank you very much for your service to the USA. Your sacrifice was our gain, and I am grateful. May your life be peaceful and filled with joy.

  2. Adrienne Says:

    Having just visited Omaha beach a few weeks ago with a small group of my high school French students, I was able to visualize the “pillbox” and cliffs Bennett spoke of in this article. I am touched by his detailed personal account of that hallowed day. As a French professor, I am also proud of the French for deciding to be more active in honoring those who helped free them. Please give Bennet my deapest regards and respect.

    Sincerely,
    Adrienne Smith

  3. Robert Rones Says:

    I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bennett. He is an amazing person. The world is a better place because of him and those like him. A true, not only American, but world hero!

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