Mountaineer aviator

Most of us will have one memorial, our gravestone.

According to writer Derek Coleman, an England native living in West Virginia, Louis Bennett Jr. has at least 12, all funded by his late mother, Sallie Maxwell Bennett of Weston, Lewis County.

The memorials range from a stained-glass window in Westminster Abbey, London, England, to a bronze statue on the campus of Linsly, a private boarding school (grades 5 through 12), in Wheeling, W.Va.

Established in 1814, Linsly features a beautiful campus overseen by the bronze statuary, dubbed “The Aviator.” The sculptor was Augustus Lukeman, an artist of international fame. The face of “The Aviator” is that of Louis Bennett Jr.

The Aviator is 7-1/2-feet tall and made of bronze. It is atop a granite base at the Linsly school campus, 60 Knox Lane, Wheeling. It was formerly known as Linsly Military School.

Born in Weston, W.Va., Louis Bennett Jr. was one of the three children of Louis and Sallie Maxwell Bennett. Sallie came from a wealthy family and Louis Bennett was a well-connected politician and ran for governor of West Virginia in 1908. The family had the means to send their son to schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Louis Jr. studied at Yale and was nearing graduation when the war in Europe distracted him to loftier goals.

While at Yale, Bennett joined the Aero Club of America and learned to fly. He foresaw the potential of aircraft in military applications, which led to him volunteering his services to the United States Army. He established in 1917 his West Virginia Flying Corps at Beech Bottom, near Wheeling. State funds and donations were used to train the American volunteer pilots who hoped to serve the US Army efforts. But Bennett’s offer to attach the flying corps to operations in Europe was rejected by the United States. Frustrated and full of youthful determination and bravery, Bennett volunteered for the British Royal Flying Corps in Canada. He was sent to London and assigned to home defense of which he soon became bored. Bennett wanted to see more action than chasing down the occasional Zeppelin or Gotha bomber that came across the channel.

Assignment to the No. 40 Squadron in France on July 21, 1918, gave Louis Bennett Jr. his opportunity to demonstrate his bravery and skill. The Germans made extensive use of manned balloons that rose several hundred yards over the battlefields and worked with ground artillery to more accurately direct their fire. The balloons became an important target for the fighter planes of the flying corps.

After he and his West Virginia Air Corps were rejected for service in the US Army, Louis Bennett Jr. headed to Canada and joined the Royal Air Corps. Photo from the National Museum of American History.

Bennett was credited with shooting down nine of these German observation balloons. The Linsey website states that he also took out three enemy planes between Aug. 15 and 24. The latter was the day ground fire hit Bennett’s aircraft as he moved in on a balloon target. The plane caught on fire and Bennett was trapped inside. He was badly burned, both legs were broken and a bullet had pierced his head.

Barely alive, Bennett was taken to a German hospital, where he died within a few hours. He was buried in grave number 590 in Wavrin, northern France. 

Back home, his mother was grieving the loss her husband, who died while in Atlantic City three weeks prior to her son’s demise. During the agonizing two months following the incident, Sallie received a series of conflicting reports about her son’s status. As if her losses and struggles with settling her husband’s estate were not enough, Sallie contracted the Spanish flu during this time.

The Red Cross officially confirmed her son’s death in late October 1918. She began using her contacts and influence to do what she must: Travel to Europe, locate her son’s grave and have his remains returned to Lewis County for burial. She arrived in France in March 1919 to discover that the church at the cemetery had been destroyed during the war. Thus was established the first memorial to her son; Sallie Bennett paid to have the church at Wavrin rebuilt. Her generosity was an act of gratitude for the assistance she received from the citizens of Wavrin in finding her son’s grave, and perhaps more importantly, smuggle his remains out of France and back to West Virginia, illegal act under French law. He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery, West.

Neither the United States or British governments recognized her son for his bravery, loss of life and contributions to the use of airpower in war. For the rest of her life, his mother did all she could to make sure her son would not be forgotten by spending the family fortune on memorials.

A stained glass window in Westminster Abbey is dedicated to Louis and his Royal Flying Corps aviators who lost their lives in the Great War. It over looks the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and features Archangel Michael looking down at Louis, depicted as an angel. The memorial was established in 1922.

That same year she donated to Lewis County the mansion that had been the family home since 1875. The family’s extensive collection of books were also donated in memory of her son and husband, and The Louis Bennett Public Library was thus established the following year. The four-story mansion continues to meet the library needs of Lewis County.

In 1922, she donated to St. Thomas’s Church in NYC a 16th-century Flemish tapestry. Louis Jr. was confirmed there as a boy. Back in the Mountain State, she worked to rename the local airfield in his honor and establish a group to continue his memory.

It was Armistice Day 1925 when The Aviator sculpture was unveiled. Standing on a granite pedestal, the 7-1/2-foot-tall sculpture depicts her son with angel wings. The inscription at the base states “And thus this man died, leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto young men, but unto all the nation.”

The Aviator bronze sculpture is on the campus of Linsly in Wheeling, W.Va. It honors the sacrifice and courage of Weston native Louis Bennett Jr., a World War I aviator and West Virginia’s only World War I ace. Col. Charles Lindbergh placed a wreath at the base of this sculpture in memory of all World War I aviators. The base inscription is “Ready to serve.”

His courage, while not officially recognized by the governments he served, was ironically acknowledge by a German officer who was in the observation balloon that came under fire. Four years after her son’s death, Sallie Maxwell Bennett received a letter from Emil Merkelbach, who identified himself as that German officer. Of the events of Aug. 24, 1918, he wrote:

[I] had an opportunity to admire the keenness and bravery of your son; for this reason I should like to give you the following short description [of Louis’s final battle]. . . . I had been up several hours observing, and was at a height of 1000 meters. Over the enemy’s front circled continuously two hostile airplanes. . . . I immediately gave the command to my men below to haul in my balloon. . . . When still about 300 meters high, I saw [another] German balloon . . . plunge to earth burning. At the same moment I saw the hostile flyer (Louis) come toward my balloon at terrific speed, and immediately the defensive fire of my heavy machine rifles below and of the anti-aircraft guns began; but the hostile aviator did not concern himself about that. . . . [He] opened fire on me. . . . I saw the gleaming fire of the missiles flying toward me, but fortunately was not hit. The hostile machine was shot into flames by the fire of my machine guns. The enemy aviator tried to spring from the aeroplane before the latter plunged to the ground and burned completely.

Letter from German officer Emil merkelbach to louis bennett jr.s’ mother
letter in the National Museum of American History

Thus, the enemy placed one more memorial to this West Virginian aviator whose short life touched two continents and many cities where he is still honored and memorialized. On this Memorial Day, my first as a West Virginia resident, my thoughts echo those of the enemy rather than the government for which he fought. Merkelbach concluded his letter by stating, “I hope that the foregoing lines, a memorial to your son, will be received by you living—he was my bravest enemy. Honor to his memory.”

Sources/further reading

O’Gran, Patri. ” A mother’s solace: A letter from a World War I enemy | National Museum of American History (si.edu)

Lewis Bennett Library | West Virginia Mountain Mama

Louis Bennett Public Library

West Virginia Veterans Memorial – Louis Bennett Jr. (wvculture.org)

Coleman, Derek. W. Va. native started the West Virginia Flying Corps, sacrificed life in WWI | Putnam News | herald-dispatch.com

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Writer, photographer, video producer and film collector, Carl E. Feather has a passion for Appalachia and its people and landscape.

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