As America recognizes the accomplishments and sacrifices of its combat veterans, it’s fitting to salute a World War II veteran in our midst. The following is based upon several lengthy interviews with Dr. Bentley.
It was March, 1944, and World War II would not be over for more than a year. D Day was still ahead and Americans back home doubled-down in support of the war effort. All hoped for an Allied victory, but it was no sure thing at that point.
One early spring day in 1944, U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Jack Bentley had been sent on a mission to strafe barges over Belgium and Holland. Captain Bentley was piloting a P-51D. As such he was alone in his aircraft and flying in a squadron of some 500 planes. A veteran of many missions, he knew the dangers. And on this particular day, disaster struck this Michigan boy. The plane in front of Captain Bentley, piloted by a major, was hit by enemy fire. Both enemy bullets from below and debris from the major’s plane smashed into Captain Bentley’s fighter, damaging it severely. Miraculously he was able to stay airborne and found his way back to his home airfield in England. Once spotting the runway, he attempted to lower the landing gear, but it was a no-go. The extensive damage had jammed the wheels into the fuselage. There was no other option than to attempt a belly landing. At 120 mph, Captain Bentley’s damaged fighter slammed onto the airstrip. The plane finally ground to a halt, and it was fortunate that the fuel remaining in its tank hadn’t exploded. But the landing had been violent. As Captain Bentley was lifted from the plane, there was clear evidence of severe injury. He had no feeling from neck down—he was paralyzed. Years later, he recalled the first words said to him by the British doctor at the scene– “You’ll be okay soldier.” Those words of reassurance required a substantial leap of faith. A barely 21-year old Jack Bentley did not know if there would be a recovery. And for him, the war was over.
Six weeks later, Captain Bentley was transported from England to a hospital in New Orleans where he would spend June through December. Gradually there were glimmers of hope. At first he could move his toes, then his arms. But even as he made progress, others around him did not. In the same ward in an adjacent bed was a fellow soldier, who with his blond hair and young face appeared to be about 17 years old. He had lost all limbs and could only swallow, breath and talk. Jack Bentley recalled that this young soldier, from Iowa, was visited by his equally young wife and other family members who tried to comfort him. In the end, he didn’t make it—the fate shared by thousands in the war.
In those dark times, having a sense of humor was an important defense mechanism. Jack remembered one of those instances. Before he was able to eat on his own, he was being spoon-fed ice cream by a staff doctor, a large man who was at least 6 foot 2. Finding the whole incongruity of the situation amusing, Jack began laughing and the chocolate ice cream ended up covering the doctor. The doctor was very gracious; and as time went on, our patient got to know him well. It’s possible that this doctor, like many others in the medical field, understood the incredible challenges being faced by those in his care. This did not go unnoticed by Captain Bentley.
Leaving New Orleans, Jack Bentley was assigned for further rehabilitation at a hospital on an island off the Florida coast near Tampa. Anyone who has been in the Army may not be shocked at the surprise that awaited Jack. He learned he had been sent to a psychiatric hospital! The Army, in its bureaucratic wisdom, had placed the patient where he clearly did not belong. Yet it was here, that Jack began to understand more fully what had happened to him and to appreciate what was being done for him. He was impressed with the unselfish care he had experienced. With his ability to walk returning, he was more grateful. On strolls around the hospital, he pondered his future. Before going into the service, he had been studying pre-law at the University of Michigan. Medicine, as a career, had never entered his mind. As he improved each day, he knew he was changing in another way. In fact, everything became different. He would become a medical doctor.
When he arrived home, now-civilian Jack Bentley told his parents that he planned to study medicine. They were stunned. They knew his academic performance. He had not been a bad student, but not an excellent one either. Jack, himself, admitted that he had never distinguished himself in school. Could he handle the rigors of med school? One time in junior high, he had peeked at his IQ score. He had also been told by a teacher that he should be doing better than B and C work. Now after the war, he was equipped with a new mission that brought motivation to bear on his goal. He was back in school, but those B’s and C’s had turned into A’s.
The quest for good grades led to another unexpected turn of events. He met the woman who would become his wife. One of Jack’s Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brothers was dating a pre-med student from Jackson. It was at a cocktail party that Jack met Mary Nichols. He recognized her name from public grade postings, and Mary Nichols was usually right at the top. Jack found Mary fascinating and invited her to join a study group. She accepted and they became better acquainted. At the end of his freshman year, Jack married Mary.
Mary’s father was Senator Haskell Nichols. The Senator’s reach was far and wide–but in the summer, the place to be was Clark Lake. After graduation, Jack and Mary spent time contemplating their future at the Nichols’ cottage on the Eagle Point cove. Jack visualized a future in Colorado, close to the ski slopes.
But once again, things were about to change. He was getting to know others in Jackson and they knew him as a newly minted M.D. One of those he met was Don Kudner, a respected Jackson physician. Dr. Kudner was looking for someone to fill in for him during his vacation. He invited Jack to take over his practice while away. Through that experience, Dr. Bentley became acquainted with the workings of Foote and Mercy Hospitals and began to see how a life lived in Jackson and at Clark Lake could be a very good thing. After the war, new doctors were welcomed in Jackson. Both Dr. Jack and Dr. Mary were by far the youngest in town and found arms wide open. They established practices that grew rapidly. And being true to Clark Lake, the Bentleys kept a small office here for emergencies. If you needed a fishhook removed, you knew where to go. Both have dedicated their lives to service of others. And for Jack, his dedication to a life of service commenced during his long recovery from his war injuries–as he was being cared for by others.
Dr. Jack Bentley is now in his 90’s. Both he and Dr. Mary live at their long-time Clark Lake residence. As this country expresses appreciation for its military veterans, where does Captain Jack Bentley fit in? He volunteered for service, distinguished himself with valor, was severely injured under enemy fire, and was awarded the Purple Heart. When Jack Bentley heard the word “hero” mentioned in connection with his name, he quickly shrank from it and firmly dismissed it. Yet, by any standard, the word “hero” certainly applies.
Those who fought in and supported World War II have been called the Greatest Generation. Clark Lake is honored to have two members of that Great Generation in our midst—Jack and Mary Bentley.