Pearl Harbor Survivor Overcame Early Tragedies

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George Bennett
Former Hermiston resident and Pearl Harbor survivor George Bennett is seen here at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF EILEEN LARAMORE

[quote style=”2″]Longtime Hermiston Resident, George Bennett, Passes Away at Age 90[/quote]

George Bennett was a mere 17-year-old radioman stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941. He was one of the lucky survivors. But the former Hermiston resident was no stranger to survival, having overcome more than his share of trauma in his early years.

The ranks of Pearl Harbor survivors diminished by one on April 7 when Bennett died at his home in Battle Ground, Wash. His daughter, lifelong Hermiston resident Eileen Laramore, said her father was a generous and self-made man who survived more than his share of trauma growing up.

Bennett not only survived Pearl Harbor, but he made it through another tragedy at a much younger age. When he was 6 years old, his parents were killed in an auto accident in Los Angeles. Bennett was seriously injured in the crash and spent nearly a year in the hospital. After the accident, he and his brother and sister were raised by their grandparents in Southern Oregon. When Bennett was 9, his grandfather died of a heart attack, leaving him without a father or father-figure in his life.

Laramore says her father was a true patriot and enlisted in the Navy in September 1941. Bennett kept a souvenir from the attack on Pearl Harbor – a bullet that strafed the airplane hangar where he was fighting fires.

“He leaped inside the building as the bullets landed all around him,” Laramore said. “The bullet he picked up was still hot.” While on a mission during the war, his best friend’s plane was shot down and Bennett’s plane was forced to fly through the falling wreckage. But as he had his entire life, Bennett survived.

George Bennett PT 109 replica
George Bennett, right, rides on a replica of a PT 109 boat during a Pendleton Round-Up parade. Bennett’s Naval Reserve unit built it and Bennett would drive it down I-84 from Hermiston to Pendleton for the parade.
He spent 40 years in the Navy and the Naval Reserves and was a decorated Sailor during the war. For years, Bennett was an active member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, at one point serving as national secretary. In his post-war years, Bennett traveled around the Pacific Northwest giving talks about his experiences in Pearl Harbor – all at his own expense. He later served as a local Navy recruiter.

Following World War II, Bennett went to work in the communications field for Western Union, then Union Pacific Railroad. He later managed the Hinkle depot. Bennett spent many years as a Boy Scout leader at the First Christian Church, receiving the Boy Scouts of America Scoutmaster Silver Beaver Award.

“Now and then, I still hear a story about the troop’s escapades from one of dad’s scouts,” Laramore said.

Bennett was a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason and was twice grand master of Hermiston’s Masonic Lodge. Laramore said her father spent countless hours on the road driving Job’s Daughters to various functions around the state – again, at his own expense.

Bennett first came to Hermiston in 1951, moving into a house on Joy Lane where residents got their water from wells. Laramore says her dad took over the leadership of what was called the North Hill Water Corporation.

“He took no payment and spent a lot of his own money keeping the neighborhood’s water system running and delivering safe water,” she says. He also installed the First Christian Church’s sound system.

One of Laramore’s favorite memories of her dad was a story he told when he was a member of the local Toastmasters. She had asked her dad if she could see Paul Revere & The Raiders in the Tri-Cities.

“He thought it was a patriotic movie,” she says. “You can imagine what happened when he found out I had gone to a rock and roll concert!”

Laramore says her father kept involved in a number of activities. He helped restore Pendleton’s clock tower and was one of the founders of the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor. He also spent many hours working on the Maxwell Siding Railroad Museum in Hermiston. In his later years, Bennett was a greeter at Wal-Mart in Hermiston.

Laramore says her father was a quiet, unassuming man, but not without a sense of humor. She says she can now tell a story she promised not to tell until Bennett passed away. It took place in the early 1950s when President Eisenhower attended the dedication of McNary Dam. One of cars in the presidential motorcade was a little different than the others. The driver was wearing a Halloween mask of all things. The driver was Bennett.

Bennett was married to his second wife, Barbara, for 53 years before she passed away. After moving into the Mallard Landing Assisted Living Community in Battleground a few years ago, he met Donna Higgins. It wasn’t long before they began spending a lot of time together, fell in love and decided to get married. Donna had previously been married to the same man for 56 years. Laramore said it was only natural for the two to take the next step in their relationship.

“They were both used to being married and didn’t’ want to spend the rest of their lives alone,” she said. So, on Feb. 15 of this year, the 90-year-old Bennett married his 77-year-old sweetheart. The toppers on their wedding cake were a pair of salt and pepper shakers in the form of a soldier and nurse that Bennett had picked up at his last visit to Pearl Harbor.

Laramore says her father may have been short in stature, but to many people – including herself – he was bigger than life.

“He was a self-made man who moved past those painful early years and was a hero in so many ways.”