Siblings recall WWII military service

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

A pair of siblings who did their part in helping the United States and its allies triumph in World War II — members of America’s Greatest Generation — still call the 501 home.

And stories such as those of Earl (Bimbo) Bentley, 96, of Conway, and his sister, Bonell Bentley, 93, of Plumerville, are worth saving.

Two older Bentley brothers, now deceased, also served in World War II. Bob Bentley, a left waist gunner in the Army Air Corps, was shot down and captured in North Africa and taken to Germany, where he was a POW in Stalag Luft 4. Russell Bentley served in the Army in Europe.

“Time is of the essence,” said Hugh Austin of Conway, a friend of Earl and Bonell. “People under 40 don’t remember anything about World War II and the war effort. It’s getting lost on that generation, and certainly for future generations, it’s important to actually have a few of these stories preserved.

“They were just everyday folks who went and served their country, did their time, did their duty, then came back home and lived productive lives. They’re great Americans, and their story needs to be told.”


Earl Bentley was born in Russellville on June 22, 1919, the fourth child and third son among the five siblings. The Bentley family had settled in the Morrilton and Cadron park areas four decades before the Civil War — before Arkansas became a state.

“Bimbo” is his childhood nickname, predating his education.

“The kids in school all liked it more than ‘Earl,’” he said. “I thought my name was Bimbo.”

He graduated from Morrilton High School in 1938 and headed off to Hendrix College to study chemistry. But after two years there, he was working in Memphis riveting plane parts at a former auto manufacturing plant that had converted to war plane production. He also taught aircraft riveting as part of the National Defense School’s training program.

Facing the draft in 1942, he chose to enlist in the Navy Reserve in Memphis as an aviation cadet.

“I wasn’t attracted to flying, and I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about it, having never flown. I had never been in an airplane until after I was sworn in the Navy. So many are attracted to the adventure and were looking forward to it. I wasn’t. For me, it was just a job.”

In 1943 and ‘44, he attended a series of seven flight and carrier schools in Georgia, Missouri and Florida. He said he learned the most in St. Petersburg under two instructors he called “the best in the world.”

“One was a crop duster and one was an acrobatic civilian,” he remembered. “The crop duster stressed to control what your plane can do and what you can do. Fly like you mean it. From the acrobatic pilot, I developed some skills that made the rest of it easy — my attitude toward flying. You just felt trained and confident. I was confident about my skills and what I could do and what I couldn’t do.”

By mid-1944, he had received the designation of Naval Aviator. With a 10-day leave during the summer, he married the former Sara Gordon, “she in her best blue dress and he in his dress whites,” granddaughter Gretchen Willis said, at Gordon’s family church in Morrilton.

Willis said her grandfather then shipped off to the Pacific as an FM-2 Wildcat pilot as part of Composite Squadron VC-9 aboard the U.S.S. Natoma Bay, a CVE-62 escort carrier (a smaller ship that protected the convoys). He and his fellow fighter pilots flew off that escort ship.

Besides combat air patrol duties, Bentley flew 20 four-hour combat missions. His one-passenger Wildcat could hold, at various times, four machine guns, rockets and light bombs.

“We couldn’t carry the weight others could,” he said. “Sometimes we used that terrible napalm.”

Although he was never shot down, he said his plane was crippled during some of his missions, calling it “pretty scary.”

Willis, his granddaughter, said he completed all of his missions, for which he received an air medal, two gold stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross, “many of which were part of the invasion of Okinawa and were subject to Kamikaze attacks,” Willis said.

He still has photographs of some of the damage done to U.S. equipment by the Kamikazes.

The Battle of Okinawa involved preparations for a planned invasion of mainland Japan. Those plans were scuttled after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, effectively ending the war.

“There were a bunch of battles in ‘45 prior to them dropping the bomb where they were trying to take out all of these Japanese bases in preparation for what they thought was going to have to be,” Bentley’s daughter, Lyn Willis, said. “What a traumatic experience that was.”

Bentley was released from active duty on Oct. 30, 1945. He returned to his family — ultimately Sara, daughter Lyn and son George — in Arkansas and worked as a deputy U.S. marshal in Little Rock in 1946-47 before going home to Morrilton, where he began a career with the postal service in 1947. He retired there as postmaster in 1978.


Bonell Bentley was born in Russellville on Nov. 8, 1922, the youngest of the five siblings.

She, too, grew up in Morrilton, where their father was a butcher, and finished high school there in 1941, the year their father died. Their mother had died several years earlier.

“I went to my sister’s house in Morrilton and became part of her family,” she said of her post-graduation life, referring to the eldest sibling, who was 15 years older. “Then I worked in a defense plant in Memphis. I didn’t work there long until I decided to go into the Navy.”

She said she made her decision for a practical reason.

“I thought it would be a way of releasing a man to go and fight,” she said. “I didn’t have anything better to do.”

There she was a member of the WAVES — a division of the U.S. Navy that consisted entirely of women. She was a Seaman First Class from Dec. 22, 1943, until July 30, 1946.

“I believed in my country,” she said of her WWII service. “I would fight for my flag then. That’s been so long ago, though, that I don’t really remember the feelings of World War II. I know it was strange, different. There’s really no way to compare then with now.”

After her discharge in Hawaii, she trained as a nurse on the G.I. Bill and also spent some time as a government employee (billet manager) in Japan.

“Heck, nurses have to work too hard,” she said. “I got in the operating room and the anesthetist was sitting at the head of the table saying, ‘You do this; you do that.’ I said, ‘Who is that? That’s what I want to be.’”

She said she didn’t have money for school, so she joined the Army on April 16, 1951, and was eventually approved for anesthesia school. She was discharged on June 10, 1957, and then spent about 30 years working for Veterans Administration hospitals in Little Rock and Jackson, Miss.

Following her Army retirement, she worked for years as a nurse anesthetist at the Morrilton hospital.

She never married.

“I never found anyone that’s No. 1 to me, and I never found anyone who wanted me to be No. 1 for them,” she said. “When that’s the case, it’s just better to be by yourself.”

Independent until just a few years ago, she drove regularly to Conway for a weekly women’s Bible Study Fellowship at First Baptist Church and to services at Woodland Heights Baptist Church. She lamented, though, that age and declining health were catching up to her.

“I don’t do things very long if I don’t enjoy them,” she said. “Life’s kind of short as long as it is. Once I was having a bad day, and I said, ‘Oh Lord, how long are you going to keep me down here?’ I heard this voice and it said, ‘112’. So who knows — I may still be here at 112.”

Earl laughed when told that story.

“She talks to the Lord regularly,” he said, chuckling. “I’d like to sit in on some of those conversations.”