WV Flying Corps Represents ‘Adventure, Determination, Sacrifice’

Photo Provided This photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown shows open-cockpit airplanes like those used by West Virginia Flying Corps cadets for training in 1917.

WHEELING — From a field in Beech Bottom to the skies over Europe, West Virginians who cherished freedom made the ultimate sacrifice in World War I.

Spoken word performer Judi Tarowsky of St. Clairsville presented her narrative, “Summit of Glory: The West Virginia Flying Corps,” at the Ohio County Public Library recently. She offered a Lunch With Books program to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Louis Bennett Jr., West Virginia’s only World War I flying ace.

Bennett, a member of a prominent Weston family with relatives in Wheeling, died of injuries sustained in combat over France. He created the West Virginia Flying Corps, but the U.S. government refused to accept the unit.

Speaking of the corps’ members, Tarowsky commented, “Their story is one of adventure, determination and sacrifice.”

At that time, British, French and German forces were using primitive airplanes as weapons, but “the United States was very slow to adopt a plane for combat,” she said, adding, “This (reluctance) didn’t go well with some of our young men who wanted to get involved and were antsy to fly.”

As war raged in Europe, Ivy League colleges established flying clubs. However, Tarowsky said, “Our government took a very dim view of these flying clubs. They thought the training would be inadequate.”

Bennett, who enrolled at Yale University in 1913 and joined the Aero Club of America, decided to establish an aerial militia from West Virginia. After the United States declared war in April 1917, he left school and incorporated the West Virginia Flying Corps at the Schmulbach Building in Wheeling.

With $10,000 in hand in May 1917, Bennett set out to train 12 pilots, Tarowsky said. The Whitaker-Glessner Co. donated 50 acres of land near its Beech Bottom steel plant for the training site. Hangars were built and Quonset huts were erected for living quarters and a mess hall.

Bennett acquired five Curtiss JN-4D planes, known commonly as the Curtis Jenny, and an old training plane. Cadets were recruited and included a man from Wheeling, a Wellsburg man and two of Bennett’s Yale classmates. Gov. John J. Cornwell commissioned the West Virginia Flying Corps in July 1917.

Tragedy struck on Aug. 3, 1917, when cadet C.D. Lambert — a race car driver and mechanic from Welch — took his first flight. The plane crashed and burned at the edge of a cornfield; Lambert was crushed under the engine.

Lambert’s body was taken to a Wellsburg funeral home, then was transported by car to Wheeling and by train to his hometown of Welch. “The largest crowd ever seen in that city greeted the casket,” Tarowsky said.

Flight instructor William Frey sustained a broken leg and jaw in the crash. He recovered from his injuries and later trained pilots in Europe, she related.

After other cadets were drafted into the military, Bennett disbanded the corps on Oct. 13, 1917, she said. Bennett went to Canada where he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps and was commissioned as a lieutenant.

Bennett earned his status as an ace by shooting down three enemy planes and five observation balloons between Aug. 15-24, 1918, she said. But, on Aug. 24, his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in flames in France. He was taken to a German field hospital where he died a few hours later.

He was buried with full military honors at a small church in France. His mother Sallie Maxwell Bennett, who was from a wealthy, influential family in Wheeling, had his body smuggled out of the country and reburied in the family plot in Weston, Tarowsky related.

In 1919, his mother traveled to France and paid for the church to be rebuilt in her son’s memory. She commissioned a stained glass window to honor the Royal Flying Corps at Westminster Abbey in London. Bennett is depicted in the face of an angel holding a shield; the great seal of West Virginia also is incorporated in the window.

His mother also commissioned a bronze statue, The Aviator, which was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1925 on Linsly Military Institute’s grounds at Thedah Place in Wheeling. The statue was moved later to Linsly School’s new campus on Knox Lane.

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