GILLETTE, Wyo. — 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.
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.
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.
A CHILDHOOD OF MEMORIES
Greg Bennick recalls being about 6 years old and pestering his father to let him see his photographs and mementos of the war.
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.”
LIFE ON THE LINE
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 he 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.
On Sept. 15, 1942, the Wasp fell in the sights of Shogo Narahara, commander of the Japanese submarine I-19.
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.
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 then 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.
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.
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.
ADVICE TO A SON
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.”
THE THREADS OF OUR LIVES
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, then.”
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 also has 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.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com