Lt. Col. Louis Benne
Louis Benne was the eldest born of Italian/Austrian immigrants in Quecreek, Somerset County, PA on 28 June1921. At age six, he intently followed Charles Lindbergh’s adventure across the Atlantic to Paris after which he made up his mind to become a flyer. To earn money for flying lessons, young Lou picked potatoes after school at a nearby farm and then walked to Somerset’s Rhoads Field on Saturdays to trade his earnings for a one hour flying lesson in a 1935 Moxie Fleet F1 biplane.
As the 1930s concluded, hostilities had erupted throughout Europe including the region vacated by his father and mother and still inhabited by his ancestors. By the time Lou graduated from Somerset Township Schools in 1940, he was already fostering some of the leadership qualities and guiding principles that would ignite Lou’s patriotism and define his destiny as Somerset County’s lone WWII flying ACE.
Following graduation, Lou enlisted as a private at the Washington, DC recruiting office on 20 June 1940. He prepared for and passed the 2-year college entrance exams required to become a flying cadet. From 1942-43, Lou was enrolled in Aviation Cadet Training Class 43-D where he earned his wings and graduated as a fighter pilot. Lou then enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was assigned as P-40, P-51, and P-38 Fighter Pilot of the 49th Fighter Squadron, 14th Fighter Group, Fifteenth Air Force.
While overseas, Lou flew 52 sorties from 9 Jan 44 to 14 June 44 escorting B-17s and B-24s as well as strafing and sweeping missions in the European and Mediterranean theaters over various locations in Italy, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Having already completed the fifty missions required to be rotated home, he decided #52 on 14 June 1944 would be his final mission. What was to follow left Col. Benne with the impression that his 52nd mission was the morning he should have "stayed in bed."
WEDNESDAY, 14 JUNE 1944
STRATEGIC OPERATIONS (Fifteenth Air Force): B-24s sent to hit five oil targets, including Petfurdo, Hungary. The 49th Fighter Squadron was assigned to escort the bombers—16 P-38s off at 0853 hrs.; 15 reach the target area. 1 down early due to medical issue; 2 lost over target, 3 missing; 10 return to base at 1345 hrs. Total run = 850 miles.
Official Mission Report:
- Mission: Rendezvous with 55th Wing at Barc providing cover on penetration over target and on withdrawal. B-24 Bomber escort to the Petfurdo oil refineries in Budapest.
- Target = Petfurdo Oil Plant, Hungary. Excellent bombing results.
- Formation Leaders: Lt. Louis Benne and Lt. Musgrove led the squadron. Lt. Purdy and Lt. Lenox led the other flights.
- Route: As briefed, Base/Drvenik/Barc/Nasyvasony/Target. Return to base along same route.
- Enemy Air Resistance: the 49th squadron found itself alone in the target area covering the withdrawal of the last group of bombers. At approx. 1105 hours, the squadron was jumped by two separate groups of ME-109s. In order to protect itself, the squadron dropped belly tanks and turned into both enemy formations. In the fierce combat that followed, the P-38s had to go into two Lufberys. Two of our P-38s were damaged. Not a single e/a (enemy aircraft) was seen attacking our bombers. Lts. Jones, Jule, Benne, Williams, and McLaughlin are reported missing; last seen over the target at 1130 hrs. One of our P-38s was hit by ME 109 gunfire and exploded. A second P-38 was seen going down in a glide with both engines on fire. Three other planes are downed and damaged. ? E/A: lost two planes and one pilot, 2nd Lt. Gyula Kiraly.
COMMENTS: the 49th squadron was able to hear other two squadrons on the radio when the ME 109s jumped the 49th. However, when the 49th squadron called for assistance, no contact could be established and so they were forced to beat off the attack alone and unaided. As is common practice, a new recruit (1st mission) was flying as the lead wingman for the squadron commander, Lt. Louis Benne. Spotting the enemy and without orders, the inexperienced wingman peeled off in a manner to avoid the fight. When he saw this, 1st Lt. Louis Benne recognized that the odds were better than even that he and his P-38J (Wr. Nr: 42-104229) would be shot down.
The following narrative from 14 June 1944 was gleaned from first-hand accounts of Lou Benne and squadron mate, Jack Lenox:*.
BENNE: Although it was to be a milk run, we were awakened early and there was the usual rush to dress, get breakfast, and get to the briefing. My tour was actually over, as the rule was fifty missions and you went home.
We were providing close escort for heavies (B-24s) attacking Petfurdo, Hungary. Numerous groups would attack from different directions, dispersing the Luftwaffe's counter effort. We were to cover the area north of the target, the most likely place for enemy action and I felt uneasy at the briefing. I was leading the squadron and my own flight was very low on experience. The other three pilots had less than ten missions between them.
Over the target, aircraft were called out at nine o'clock and six o'clock positions, and I radioed the squadron to drop belly tanks. The enemy consisted of about fifty ME-109s and FW-190s. 'This will be interesting,' I thought to myself. 'Fifty against fifteen P-38s.' We were soon in the thickest battle I had experienced. I found myself firing at an ME-109, got some hits and continued around. I then noticed I was alone. Later I found out my number two man had trouble dropping his tanks and kept going down 11,000 feet before getting rid of them. Numbers three and four followed him leaving me at 22,000 feet attempting to join the rest of the squadron.
I saw a ME-109 making a pass at another flight. I dove down and commenced firing from approximately five hundred yards to one hundred yards, and from thirty degrees to dead astern. I registered fatal hits and saw the enemy burst into flames. I turned toward the squadron again and found myself on the tail of another 109. I fired short bursts and began to get angry at myself for not registering a fatal hit. Pieces of the canopy flew off the 109 when I myself was hit by another ME-109 behind me.
There was nothing to do but bail out of the stricken P-38. My right engine was shot out, the instrument panel shattered and the left engine was burning. I was also hit in the shoulder by fragments of a 20mm shell which exploded in the cockpit. I had to leave my airplane due to the fire and snapped it into a spin. I bailed out and was captured by the enemy shortly afterward. (His chute had just barely opened when he hit the ground and was immediately captured. After parachuting, blood was gushing out of his arm and he struggled to hold the blood in. Farmers immediately came with pitchforks and held him at bay until German soldiers came and took him to a Budapest hospital.)
The pilot who shot me down, Gyorgy Debr?dy buzzed me a few times on the ground and later visited me in the hospital in Budapest. Through an interpreter, he told me that I was not as fortunate as the pilot I was shooting at when he shot me down. That pilot had bailed out and was flying again. Debr?dy also told me that I was his thirteenth American victory and that he had been flying ME-109s for six years.
LENOX: On our way to the target, skies are clear. Over the target, some flak, no fighters. After the last wave of bombers passed over the target and headed for home, we (the escorts) made a wide sweeping arc of the city watching the oil refinery belch out its dying gasp of smoke and flame.
Then the sky fell in as the pilots ran into a hornet’s nest. Diving from all directions above us were about 50-75 “Bogies”. This was the checkered nose and tail outfit who had scrambled late and no one was left in the target area except the fighting 49th--all 15 of us.
Lt. Lou Benne, leading the 49th that day, summoned the other squadrons as he began firing at the ME-109s. One went down, then he called his outnumbered unit to form a Lufbery circle. As Benne destroyed a second 109, his P-38 was hit by a fusillade of fire. On the enemy's first pass, I turned my flight into the diving ME-109s, destroying one aircraft with a long burst of fire from a head-on position. I wheeled my flight around and rejoined the squadron which was in a breaking circle to the right. This is how our formation ended up, a large Lufbery circle that we were unable to break out of.
Around and around we went, climbing for altitude. I avoided using combat flaps for fear that my wingman wouldn't be able to stay with me. No one could tell now who was leading who as we continued the circle.
Below and to my left, I noticed another P-38 being attacked by two ME-109s. I shallowed out my bank and slid in behind the 2 enemy fighters. From this position, I dumped combat flaps and sucked my aircraft into a tight right turn ending up directly behind the two attacking ME-109s. A long burst from my five guns knocked down one of the 109s, the other half rolled and headed for the ground. I rejoined the Lufbery hoping the other P-38s had also managed to get back in the circle.
We continued to follow each other around the circle, climbing for altitude. Every muscle in my body ached and I wondered how much longer this could last. Suddenly out of nowhere, a ME-109 appeared in front of me. I assumed that he had been diving from above us and, overshooting in his dive, had skidded in front of me. At 50 yards, I couldn't miss. I pressed the trigger releasing a short burst of perhaps 3 or 4 rounds, then nothing. But it was enough. The 109 exploded at the rightwing root and the canopy came off. I continued around in the circle but with my guns either empty or jammed, I wondered what's next?! We had no leader because Benne was shot down. I believe Moose Musgrove broke us out of this thing. He said, "Follow me!" and turned out of the Lufbery and climbed into the sun.
Suddenly we were alone in the sky. As fast as the enemy had come, they had gone. The only explanation I could fathom was either that they were out of ammunition or low on fuel.
Regrouping as well as possible, we headed for home. I counted the P-38s and could only find four. Shortly thereafter, two more joined us. Tom Purdy, Moose Musgrove and myself were there. Benne was not. The six of us returned to the base. A little behind us came in the seventh one, Lt. Short. We had started that morning with fifteen and only seven returned. (Three more would eventually return to base.) Half our squadron had been lost on one mission. We didn’t want to talk, we didn't want to debrief. All we wanted to do was sit down and cry.
I didn't go to my house. Instead, I went with Moose and Tom to their tent. As we entered the tent, we noticed Benne's bed, as always made up and neat. Lying on the bed were a set of orders for Lt. Benne which read, "Having completed a total of 53 combat missions, more than a normal tour of duty, you are being returned to the United States for rest."
There was no word on my friend for six months. Then in December 1944, I received a letter from Lt. Benne's parents. They informed me that though seriously wounded and his aircraft on fire, he had bailed out and had been taken prisoner of war.
EPILOGUE: Despite their disadvantage in position and numbers, the furious 20-minute dogfight of the 49th Fighter Squadron extracted a heavy toll from the Hungarian Air Force equipped with German Messerschmitt 109s.
Benne was alive but “being returned to the United States for rest” would not come for another eleven months. He was taken to a hospital near Budapest where other US airmen joined him. They later witnessed a horrific Fifteenth AAF bombing attack that destroyed some of the hospital buildings. As they were being prepared to be moved, Lou Benne was found among the wounded. Many moves later, all of them ended up in Luftwaffe prisoner camp from where they would be liberated by Gen. Patton's forces in April 1945.
*Jack Lenox is the last survivor of the 49th Fighter Squadron, Army Air Forces. He is 95 and currently lives in Shreveport, LA. In addition to providing her with his diary pages detailing the action on 14 June 1944, Jack was personally interviewed by Louis Benne’s niece, Denise Doyle in Feb. 2017.