Ensign Darrell C. “Smoke” Bennett, A-V(N), USNR, stands beside his plane, a General Motors FM-2 Wildcat fighter, on board the Casablanca-class escort carrier USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73), 1 August 1944. According to reports, he had just arrived to join COMPRON (VC) 10 as Gambier Bay made Guam that day.
Born in Hamburg, Iowa 30 March 1924, “Smoke” Bennett joined the Navy as an aviation cadet volunteer 1 October 1943, age 19, and was a deployed combat pilot on his first flattop just 10 months later. He spent most of the war in ground support missions from escort carriers supporting the liberation of the Philippines and narrowly avoided going down with Gambier Bay in the Battle off Samar just two months after the above image was snapped.
He would survive WWII as well as later service in Korea, continue his Navy career as a pilot, a flight instructor, and as Commander Fleet Air Miramar, retiring in 1965. CDR Bennett received the following decorations: Air Medal (5), Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, WWII Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe), National Defense Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, Korean Service Medal, and the United Nations Service Medal.
Retiring to the Florida panhandle after a second career as a corporate and personal pilot to Hollywood types, CDR Bennett was a well-known supporter of the Pensacola National Naval Aviation Museum, where one of his former airframes was on display, and the USS Gambier Bay Association. He passed last December, age 96, leaving behind “two sons, seven grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.”