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Louis Bennett Jr.

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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Louis Bennett Jr.
1894-1918

“And thus this man died—leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto your men but to all the nation.”

Inscription on the base of “The Aviator”

Louis Bennett Jr. was born September 22, 1894, in Weston, West Virginia, the third child of Louis and Sallie Maxwell Bennett. Both parents were from prominent families, and his father was influential in West Virginia politics. The younger Louis showed signs of being mechanically inclined at an early age and at age 12 built both a motorcycle and an automobile. He was educated in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before enrolling at Yale in 1913, where he was a member of the lacrosse and wrestling teams. Louis Bennett Jr. graduated from Yale in 1917.
Louis Bennett Jr. with his father
Louis Bennett Jr. with his father, Wheeling, 1918

Beech Bottom flight school
Beech Bottom flight school
Ar1734, WV State Archives
Louis Bennett learned to fly while a member of the Aero Club of America and the Burgess Company of Massachusetts, and as he read accounts of the war in Europe, he realized that aviation, about 10 years old at this time, could be a factor in the war effort. The military potential of the airplane and the desire to play a role in the war inspired him to form the West Virginia Flying Corps headquartered in Beech Bottom. The corps was modeled after the French Lafayette Escadrille. Louis secured financing for the flight school from Governor John J. Cornwell, who provided state funds, and from private sources.

The flying corps failed to achieve military status in the fall of 1917 in spite if the governor’s efforts to secure the corps as a flying unit. Frustrated, Louis enlisted in the British Royal Flying Corps in Toronto, Canada, in October 1917 and underwent additional flight training at Camp Talliafero, Texas, which was sponsored by a U.S.-Canadian agreement.
Louis Bennett Jr. letter to Gov. Cornwell
Louis Bennett Jr. to Gov. John Cornwell, May 9, 1917.
Ar1734, WV State Archives

Louis Bennett Jr., Wheeling, 1918
Louis Bennett Jr., Wheeling, 1918
The newly commissioned lieutenant arrived in London on February 25, 1918, and was first assigned to “A” Flight of the 90th Squadron stationed in Shotwick, England, for home defense. He petitioned for reassignment for front line aerial duty in northern France and received orders on July 21, 1918, to report to No. 40 Squadron based at Bryas, France.

Observation balloons were important to the war effort on both sides because they could be used to observe enemy troop movements and to direct artillery fire on a chosen target. As a fighter pilot Lt. Bennett engaged in “balloon busting,” the shooting down of German balloons using incendiary ammunition. Bennett is credited with shooting down nine German observation balloons.
Beech Bottom airplane
Airplane at Beech Bottom
Ar1734, WV State Archives

On August 24, 1918, Louis Bennett was shooting down balloons over Provin when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and fell near Marguillies. The Germans freed him from the plane still alive but badly burned and took him to the German Field Hospital in Wavrin, where he died. Originally buried in Europe, the body of Louis Bennett Jr. was disinterred after the war and is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Weston.

Memorial window at Westminster
Memorial window at Westminster Abbey
Ms80-150, WV State Archives
His mother Sallie Maxwell Bennett sought solace through the dedication of several memorials to her son. A stained glass window in London’s Westminster Abbey honors Louis Bennett and the Royal Flying Corps. Through her efforts, Saint Martins Church in Wavrin was reconstructed in 1919 and a plaque placed there in memory of her son. She also gave the Bennett home in Weston to Lewis County for a public library in memory of both her husband and son, and commissioned “The Aviator” bronze sculpture that was dedicated in 1925 at Linsly in Wheeling.

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West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.


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