Kelly Wenzel | News Record Photo
Story by Kathy Brown - Originally posted to the Gillette News Record
GILLETTE — Jack L. “Junior” Bennick left his mark on Gillette long before he served in World War II.
The Gillette native grew up with a camera in his hand after his mother gave him his first box camera as a child.
As a senior in high school in 1938, he took photographs of the annual homecoming parade as it wound its way down Gillette Avenue. He also took advantage of the old barnstorming days and his love of aviation to fly in a plane and take photographs of his small town from above.
But it wasn’t until Bennick graduated from Campbell County High School early and joined the Navy in January 1939 that he found his calling, one that led to numerous adventures — and nearly his death in 1942.
He not only took thousands of photographs to record those times — many of them unpublished — but he helped his son and family appreciate those in the community who also served in the war, some making the ultimate sacrifice.
Bennick died in 2003, but he continues to leave his imprint on the community. Hundreds of his photographs have been loaned to the Campbell County Rockpile Museum, which opened an exhibit based on his collection Thursday night. The exhibit continues through May.
Those superb photographs also provide details of the man who shot and preserved them for us to share more than 73 years later.
That, to his son, is the true gift.
Greg Bennick recalls being about 6 years old and pestering his father to let him see his photographs and mementos of the war. He’d see his father’s old uniforms hanging in the closet and take parts of them to wear when he played “soldier” with his friends.
That’s probably why some of the uniforms are incomplete today, he said.
It would take all day just to unpack the crates his father stored the material in, Greg said. It would also take that long to hear his father’s stories.
When he succeeded in getting his father to open the treasures in his collection — usually on one of those stormy winter days in Gillette — it fed Greg’s combined interest in the military and history.
He could picture his father as a young man taking those photos, one who enjoyed life to the fullest and was as adept photographing stars like Bob Hope and Jack Benny touring the Pacific in USO shows as he was with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting wounded GIs, native tribesmen, sailors, women (at least his many girlfriends) and as a crewman on Navy jets and planes.
“In my perspective, he was a bigger-than-life guy,” Greg said. “But most young men see their fathers in that regard.”
Greg was one of five children in the family, sandwiched between two older and two younger sisters. He learned, as they all did, that his father valued hard work. Jack Bennick rose from being a janitor at Stockmens Bank after the war to retiring as its first vice president.
He was an honest, respected and dignified man, Greg said. He felt, as did many of his era, that you could beat any odds with hard work. He demonstrated that with every challenge he took on.
“I know that his military service had a profound impact in his life because when he went in for heart surgery ... he talked about that before he went into surgery,” said an emotional Greg, wiping away a tear. “He said second to our family, his service was the most valuable thing he felt like he had done. What he did in the service stayed with him the rest of his life.”
When Bennick entered the Navy, most likely in San Francisco, he was assigned to the flight deck on the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier built in 1921. He worked to recover and launch planes.
Bennick was a child of the Depression. He was seeking opportunity and was in a rush to get there with the Navy. At 18 years old and on his first adventure beyond Wyoming, he loved romping in the sun on the beach with his friends. He loved Hawaii and the Pacific.
Assigned to help out in the photo lab on the Lex, Bennick tried out to become a photographer’s mate. He was good at it and was soon sent to photo school in Florida.
When he graduated from there, he was assigned to the newest aircraft carrier in the Navy, the USS Wasp. The ship was in Grass Bay, Bermuda on a training run when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened.
Briefly assigned to the Atlantic to help ferry British Spitfires from Scotland to Malta, the ship was sent to the South Pacific as the United States lost valuable aircraft carriers to Japan, including the Lex. The Wasp joined part of the Eastern Solomons campaign, including supporting the island-hopping invasion of Guadalcanal. She sailed often in a corridor soldiers had nicknamed Torpedo Junction. And it was there she met her end.
On Sept. 15, 1942, the Wasp fell in the sights of Shogo Narahara, commander of the Japanese submarine I-19. If Bennick hadn’t crossed over the international dateline, it would have been Sept. 14, 1942, his 21st birthday.
Shogo sent off a full contingent of six new long-lance torpedoes toward the Wasp. Three struck the ship within 30 seconds of each other. Another missed and nine minutes later hit the destroyer O’Brien, which later sank. A fifth traveled even farther, striking the battleship North Carolina a minute later. Many officials thought it had to be the work of two submarines because of how far the torpedoes traveled in the Pacific.
But it was the work of one submarine that caught the Wasp as she was turning and finishing recovering aircraft. That set off the aviation fuel lines and tanks on board in an explosion so violent that it shook airplanes off the deck on the first hit. It was eerily similar to the death of the Lex.
Bennick was inside the Wasp at the time, putting clean laundry into his locker when the first torpedo hit, he told the News Record in 1942 after being sent home to recover. He started above deck, then returned, locked his locker and went to look for his life preserver.
Later, the story said, he was in the water with eight shipmates battling the waves for four hours.
“I knew someone had to stay awhile, so I thought it might as well be me,” he said at the time.
“This aircraft carrier was one of the largest ships in the United States Navy and for it to shudder and shake like that, he knew something really bad had happened,” Greg said. “So he grabbed his camera and ran out on the flight deck and started taking photographs of everything that was going on. All he told me was the ship was on fire and they couldn’t get the fire under control.
“As you can imagine, there was an explosion, there was fire and the ship was completely engulfed from about the middle of the ship to the bow,” Greg said.
Capt. Forrest Sherman tried to put the Wasp into reverse to back the ship away from the fire roiling on its deck. He hoped to keep the fire isolated in the bow, Greg said. It didn’t work.
A short time later, knowing the crew couldn’t contain the fires, he ordered his men to abandon ship.
“All this time, dad is taking photograph after photograph after photograph and they’re trying to launch all the aircraft before the (ship’s) list becomes so bad they can’t see the flight deck anymore,” Greg said.
His father told Greg he grabbed several rolls of exposed film, put them in a canister and handed it to one of the pilots of the planes.
“He said, ‘Get these to a photo lab somewhere.’ And those pictures, unfortunately, were never seen again,” Greg said. “We don’t know what happened.”
His dad ran back to his quarters to grab the waterproof case he had made for his camera. He was unable to reach it, however, because of the fire.
“He didn’t know what to do with the camera, so he threw it into a gun tub that was there for one of the anti-aircraft guns and went over the side,” Greg said.
“When he got into the water, there was oil on the sea. There was fire on the sea. He swam a ways,” Greg said.
A strong swimmer, Bennick quickly realized there was a major problem. The ship was still making slow turns on one of her screws, and it could pull him in. He was wearing an aviation lifebelt around his waist.
“So somehow, in all of this excitement, he had torn a hole in this thing,” Greg recalled. “It wouldn’t hold air, so his little lifebelt wasn’t any good. But he swam around the bow of the ship then. He actually swam alongside the ship until he got up and crossed over in front of the bow to get on the side where the ship was now turning away from him.”
He was safe and tread water for about four hours with other sailors until he was picked up by a destroyer. The Navy later had to scuttle the Wasp to make sure she sank.
Covered in oil, Bennick was wrapped in a blanket and given a cup of coffee and a carton of cigarettes.
“He said that was when he started smoking cigarettes, but I knew he smoked cigarettes before that,” Greg said.
Bennick also had a different view of the incident than many history books.
He said it was uncomfortable, even painful, to be in the water while the destroyers set off depth charges trying to sink the Japanese submarine. But he disagreed with accounts that said the I-19 wasn’t sunk then and went down more than a year later after being attacked with depth charges by the USS Radford.
“He says definitely for sure the I-19 was sunk. He didn’t know it was the I-19 at all,” Greg said. “That didn’t become known until 25 years later or whatever from Japanese records. … But he knew that the Japanese submarine had been sunk because at one point there was a huge underwater explosion and then they saw the bow of that submarine broach the surface and then go down. That was his story. He believed that.”
To add credence to the story, he notes that the I-19 never reported on the success of the new torpedoes it deployed in one of the most damaging salvos of torpedoes in history.
The Navy conducted a hearing afterward to determine what had happened and Sherman’s role in the sinking that cost the lives of 193 men and wounded 366. Still, most of the ship’s contingent of 1,969 men survived.
Sherman, Greg said, went on to become the chief of naval operations for the United States.
“The miracle of this whole thing, the sinking of the Wasp, and it goes to Capt. Sherman’s credit, is that so many of these sailors were saved,” he said.
His father was one of them, going on to testify on Sherman’s behalf at the hearing.
After the sinking
Bennick went on to become a chief photographer’s mate when he returned to the South Pacific in 1943. America was continuing its island-hopping campaigns, and he covered those as either a photographer or aviator, Greg said.
His photographs show him in the Fijis, the New Hebrides, the Solomon Islands and Tonga. During that time, he began taking extensive photos of the native islanders and their lives.
“From the sinking of the Wasp to the end of the war, there’s a period of time from 1943 to the end of 1944 when he was in those Pacific islands,” Greg said. “He became the supervisor at the photo lab there at the Naval advance base at Espiritu Santo at some point.”
He believes his father and staff did some photo aerial reconnaissance work.
In July 1945, Bennick was sent to the photo unit at the Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington, D.C., where he worked on the high-speed cameras for reconnaissance as the war ended. He was discharged in November 1945.
The day the war ended, he shot a photo of those he was working with holding up a newspaper showing the Japanese surrender. It was Aug. 15, 1945.
In a way, his photographs — more than 800 in all — serve as an unwritten diary of his wartime service.
He returned to Wyoming and his family, then in Sheridan, after his discharge. There, he met Ruth Braun, who worked at a Red Cross canteen at the railroad station during the war. They were married in April 1946 after meeting at church one Sunday.
Quick-witted and gregarious, she often would tease Jack about the headline in the News Record in 1942 that said he “battled the waves for four hours before he was picked up.” Waves is also the term used for women in the Navy.
He tried to return to Gillette to open a photo studio but realized fairly quickly it wouldn’t work because some of the necessities, such as developing chemicals and film, were still rationed. So he sold it.
He remained enamored with photography over the years and marveled at the technological advances in the field. Greg describes him as a “techno junkie of his day” who read the Popular Mechanics magazines from cover to cover.
But there’s one basic he always used. What can be seen in Bennick’s photos is his love of people. It resonates from nearly every photo he took and kept during the war.
“He’s kind of shy, in a way. But at the same time, he just enjoyed taking photographs of people. He liked people,” Greg said. “He would always say when you take a landscape photograph, that’s OK. But when you have a person in that landscape photograph, it changes the whole dynamic of the photo.”
And as his collection shows, the dynamic of our lives.
It was 1971 as Greg neared graduation from CCHS when his father’s history with the sinking of the Wasp made another impact on his son, too.
That’s when his father sat him down and gave him three options: “You can live in Gillette and get a job, but you can’t live here. You can join the military or you can go to college, but I’m not paying for it. Those are your options,” Greg recalled.
The only option for Greg, truly, was enlisting in the Navy, where he considered a career as a welder or something in the nuclear power program.
“That was my dad. That was his view of life,” Greg said. “He never mollycoddled us as kids. He expected high things. … At the same time, he was funny and fun and had a great sense of humor, but it was a really dry sense of humor. That’s the guy he was. And I think that’s pretty well reflected in most of the photographs that you see.”
Bennick was a complex man and could be demanding, his son added, “but a more generous person, you couldn’t meet.”
That’s reflected in how his dad taught him about the heroes his neighbors were as a young boy, along with when Greg enlisted and was about to report to the Navy.
“It was one of the few times when he pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, I think you ought to rethink this,’” Greg said. “’Have you thought about becoming a corpsman?’”
He hadn’t, but his father had.
“He said, ‘You know, the most helpless feeling I ever had in my life was being around those guys that were wounded and I didn’t know what to do to help them,’” Greg said. “So I thought about that a while and then I changed my career plan, and when I joined the Navy, I joined as a Navy corpsman. So I think about that a lot.”
That is just one thread from history that connects the two Bennicks.
His dad gave the community and his family many gifts over the years.
Among them is leaving a record, a living diary, in his images. He wanted to preserve a history many of us never experienced.
His collection — which Bennick pared down as he became older — includes one of his liberty cards and his chow hall pass. There are his dog tags, too.
“These dog tags were probably with him swimming in the South Pacific after his ship was sunk,” Greg said. “So for me, the significance of these things enables us to put ourselves physically in contact with something that was there.”
That’s one reason he offered his collection to the museum, so there will be a historical record, as his father may have intended.
Going through that collection the past 18 months has also enabled Greg to see a different side of his father, perhaps more of the man he was.
“The great thing about being older now and looking back is I’m a lot more objective in how I view him. I think my view of him now is more realistic,” Greg said. “He’s still my hero and I miss him every day, but he was just more of a regular guy put in an irregular situation and he coped with it very well.”
Bennick never saw himself as a war hero. Few then did. Yet he was traumatized by the sinking of his ship and the sailors who died from burns laid out on decks for their friends and crewmen to try to identify.
He’d talk about Bob Hope, Eleanor Roosevelt and those he served with a smile. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about those he truly saw as heroes, those who couldn’t go on with their lives once that war ended.
He never forgot them. Now, thanks to him, his photographs and his son, we won’t either.
Views of Vanuatu opened February 15th and will run through May 1st. Please contact the Campbell County Rockpile Museum at 307-682-5723 with any questions.
Every year for the past 35, the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Gillette brings over 13,000 pounds of mud bugs to the Cam-Plex events center in April, as part of a huge fundraiser that benefits local families and helps pay for their medical expenses when in need.
Last year the annual Crawfish Boil raised over $160,000, and helped two dozen families. Our very own Dave Dorson, a Chamber Energizer and owner of Expresso Lube, organizes the event. This year it's been announced the fundraiser will be on Friday, April 27, so mark your calendars!
Tickets to the event, which includes live entertaiment and a meal of unlimited crawfish, potatoes and onions, is usually $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 4-11. You can pay at the door, or buy tickets in advance from Expresso Lube and the Chamber. We'll let you know when they go on sale!
The County Clerks Association of Wyoming is currently conducting a survey to help them shape how the next decade of voting looks in the Cowboy State.
"We must look to the future to keep our voting equipment updated to handle elections in Wyoming," they said in a Powerpoint presentation (slides below). "It's time to look for updated equipment and with the trends in America, also for the possibilities of what the next 10 years might bring to voting in Wyoming."
The 2002 "Help America Vote" Act (HAVA) provided over $8 million from Federal and State funding to try and replace punch card and lever voting machines, moving every state to a computerized voter registration system, and providing for ADA-compliant machines at every polling place. In 2005, then-Secretary of State Joe Meyer proposed House Bill 80, which would have set up a trust fund for replacing voting equipment. The bill failed the legislative session, and since that time, no efforts have been made to work on the replacement of voting systems in Wyoming that would need to be updated in the following decade. In response, "Plan for Aging Voting Equipment," or "PAVE," has been formed.
According to the County Clerks Association, counties across Wyoming are experiencing a lack of election judges, are losing polling places in rural facilities with limited accessibility, and have no money allocated to buy new voting equipment. The state of our current polling system is nearing the end of its usefulness, as outdated equipment will not be serviceable for repairs in the near future. Failure to comply with Federal standards could mean the Department of Justice would intervene in our election process.
Absentee voting has increased 35% across the state since 2012, in our "no-excuse" absentee voting state. Casting an absentee ballot, whether in person or by mail, also allows for "early voting," which helps every registered voter better work casting their vote in to their schedules. However, a true "vote-by-mail" process is only currently allowed under certain circumstances, and the state legislature would have to pass a law allowing this method to be widespread across the state. The County Clerks estimate a vote-by-mail system could decrease election costs to counties by 46%.
They are asking for your input in a Google survey to help guide the future of elections in Wyoming. The entire survey is less than 10 questions long. (Make sure you've read up on the different types of voting procedures in the slides above!)
According to the City's end of year report released January 19, requests for commercial construction permits were up 40% from 2016, though the valuation of those projects was down nearly $20 million from the year before. Construction was completed on Thunder Basin High School's Track and Field stadium, as well as new office buildings, gas stations and convenience stores, and an apartment complex that are all to be completed soon or were completed before the end of the fourth quarter in 2017.
The Thunder Basin High School Track & Field stadium was one of many projects completed in 2017 funded by the 1% Optional Sales Tax. Water and Sewer systems, sidewalks and street pavement, and additions like the Boxelder Extension and Gurley Overpass rehab were all major improvements to the City, funded by Penny Power. (You can view all the 1% projects here.)
Also in the City's development summary, unemployment in Wyoming -- and also Campbell County -- is down significantly from the year before, at 4.3%, though still above the national average of 3.9%. Apartment vacancies also continue to decrease, though the population for Campbell County is down to 47,190 from 48,803 in the previous year.
For a list of apartment complexes that are Chamber members, click here.