Sunspots: Bennie Hill
MORRIS -- Headlines in the local newspaper were chilling:
“Lieut. Bennie Hill Down in France”
”Lt. Bennie Hill, Bomber Pilot, Reported Missing in Action”
Then, finally, “Lt. Bennie Hill Free Again After Six Weeks as German War Prisoner”
A 1935 graduate of Morris High School, Bennie had received his preliminary flying instruction as a student in the Aviation School at the Morris airport. He joined the Eighth Army Air Corps in 1943 to become a pilot. After being sworn in at Fort Snelling, he trained extensively at schools throughout the United States.
“Former Senator George McGovern, a B-24 pilot like my dad, wrote, ‘A pilot occupies a position that requires sound judgment, a keen and alert mind, a sound body, and the ability to perfectly coordinate mind and body in the flying of an airplane,’ “ said son Blaine. “That said a lot about the attributes my dad possessed. Graduation from flight training meant a commission as a Second Lieutenant and your flight wings.”
Bennie was trained as a co-pilot on a B-24 Liberator bomber. After meeting the rest of the crew in Utah and training together in Wyoming, they arrived in England on May 3, 1944.
Following his return home from the war, Bennie eventually met his future wife, Elna, at the Morris VFW club.
“He didn’t talk a lot about the war to me,” she said. But at that first meeting he was celebrating his birthday, and he asked Elna to join him for dinner at the Pomme de Terre Golf Club.
“He said he would tell me the story once and then he would never repeat it again.” Bennie would later recount his experiences to his oldest son Benjamin, and son Bradley would write the details in a book about Stevens County in World War II, The 40s: A Time for War and a Time for Peace. Blaine would speak of his father in remarks shared at a local Memorial Day service.
“On June 17, Bennie was sent on a mission to attack the airfield of Guyancourt at Tours, France. The lead navigator was slightly off course and took them directly over the city of Caen, which was full of panzer units that opened fire on the squadron. The plane was shot down,” Bradley wrote in his account.
“Bennie was the only survivor in his crew of 10,” said Elna.
“His parachute had opened when he was thrown from the plane, but it was also on fire. By the time he reached the ground his hands were melted together and his eyes were melted shut. He was found by German soldiers and became a war prisoner for six weeks.”
Bennie was released by the Germans to Catholic nuns who cared for him until he was liberated by U.S. forces.
“The Yanks have arrived and I am now a free man again,” Bennie said in a letter before arriving home. “Being a prisoner of war, incidentally…wasn’t too bad, although the food was certainly inadequate… My right hand is still slightly burned and they have it bandaged to prevent infection so a buddy is writing this for me…tell everyone I am well and happy.”
Bennie’s arrival in the United States was followed by two and a half years in hospitals undergoing numerous skin grafts and extensive therapy.
“His own mother didn’t immediately recognize him when he came to his parents’ door,” said youngest son Brooks, who is still learning some details of his father’s war experience.
Elna was helping to organize the local VFW Auxiliary chapter, along with longtime member Norma Leuthardt, when she met Bennie. He was the club’s manager for about seven years in the 1950s. “This year marks my 65th year in the auxiliary,” she said.
The Hills were married at her parent’s home on Aug. 16, 1952. Bennie worked 25 years for the local Post Office. He bowled and managed the town baseball team. Elna worked for seven and a half years at Richter’s Variety, located in the block between Fifth and Sixth Streets, before becoming a stay-at-home mom.
Ten sons were born to the Hills. All except the youngest were one year apart in age, more or less.
All of their names begin with “B,” like the first letter of their father’s name. Benjamin. Barry. Brian. Blaine. Bradley. Brent. Barton. Blair. Brooks. Another son Boyd died at birth. Three sons—Blaine, Bradley and Brooks—live in Morris. The remaining sons live in North and South Dakota, in Texas and Arkansas, in Benson and Madison. Blaine is the city manager in Morris and served 33-and-a-half years in the National Guard and Army Reserves. Bradley works at the Morris Post Office.
Between school and sports—not to mention by sheer numbers—the Hill house was understandably a busy one.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Elna, 86, still a member of the Federated Church she has attended since she was three years old.
“I remember lying on the kitchen counter to get our hair washed and then being sent to Dad in the bathroom for our baths. We were always outside, sometimes sneaking out a downstairs window to meet our friends,” said Brooks, who was nearly 12 when his father died in 1982. “We learned by the actions of our parents. They were hard working.”
“We always had meals together. Mom baked. I remember the bread recipe that called for 30 cups of flour, and there were always homemade cookies in the freezer,” said Blaine.
Christmas was celebrated at the Hill home until the family expanded over the years to about 50. Now they gather at the Morris Eagles Club. “I had more space in basic training than I did at home,” said Blaine. “We had food and clothes and the basics. If you wanted something special, you had to earn it.
“I just knew him as ‘Dad’. As I got older I learned more about his military service and I think how he must have been traumatized by his experiences and lived with that his whole life.
“The children of crew members wrote letters asking whatever happened to the guy who parachuted out of that plane and wanted to visit him in the hospital. One morning while searching for information on the Internet I found a website for the 754th Squadron. I posted a note looking for information about Captain Bennie Hill. The same afternoon I received an email that said ‘your father and my father lived together in a farmhouse in England. Their two crews shared a plane. I’m writing a book about it.’ The author was Marilyn Jeffers Walton from Ohio, who wrote Rhapsody in Junk, the story of her father, Lieutenant Thomas Jeffers.”
“When you get old enough you learn more respect for what the soldiers did,” said Brooks. “I share stories about them with my own girls.”
“I always remember Dad as taller, but he was just 5 feet 7 inches,” said Blaine.
Remember the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country. Remember those who remain and serve at home. Remember those whose lives are forever changed by the memories of lasting friendships and unspeakable loss. Remember what you can only imagine as you listen to and read accounts in the media or turn the pages of a history book.
“I remember all the friends and relatives,” said Elna, whose three brothers and several cousins also served, and who leaves flowers at the cemetery on Memorial Day. “I think maybe God saved Bennie for me.”
Remember that anyone could be a veteran. Remember them. And remember Bennie Hill.