June 6 marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion to liberate France from the Nazis during World War II. As a follow-up mission to D-Day, one young Georgia flyer risked everything to do his part. He never returned.
Now, some of the mystery of what happened to 2nd Lt. Ben Hodges of Reynolds, Georgia has lifted, thanks to another remarkable young Georgian.
June 20, 1944: The allies were working hard to capitalize on gains made since D-Day. Lt. Hodges may have been thinking about the terrible weather, the fact that he had less than 100 hours flight time, or about his young wife back in the states.
Ben Smart just graduated at the top of his class from Rockdale County High School. He’s working hard so one day he can fly for the Navy.
Even across the decades, Smart told GPB’s “On the Story” he can understand that anxiety.
“It’d be a challenge,” said Smart. “And I can’t stand here and tell you I would do it without feeling any second thoughts.”
Smart took a challenge last summer, sponsored by Albert H. Small, a D-Day veteran and philanthropist who urged young people to do more than just read about history. Smart agreed to really get to know Lt. Hodges, with the help of his teacher, Kenny Tucker of RCHS.
“This is how history comes alive,” Tucker told GPB. “It’s not something that’s just in a book. We actually made learning relevant. And he was able to research a soldier who lived 70 years ago and lost his life – sacrificed everything so that we can enjoy the freedom that we have today.” The quest took Smart and Tucker all the way to Utah Beach and a white marker in Normandy, France, where Smart placed flowers on Lt. Hodges’ grave. During the remarkable journey, Smart’s research uncovered facts about Lt. Hodges’ final mission that even his family never knew. Smart says Lt. Hodges, “was outnumbered approximately 5 to 1 in a storm, the worst the region had seen in recent years.” It’s not clear whether it was the storm or the Nazi Messerschmitts, but Lt. Hodges’ P-47 “Thunderbolt” vanished, crashing into a marsh near Le Petit Roy, France. “All they were able to find were a boot and some of the wreckage of the plane,” Smart said, “But no Benjamin Hodges.” It is a bitter price to pay for Freedom, but the sacrifice is not lost on him. Kenny Tucker said Ben Smart is “very idealistic” and so was Benjamin Hodges. “However, I do think that time and place really does mean a lot in a person’s lifetime and I think they both were born in times of great change,” said Tucker. Over several months, Smart was able to unearth new details. He learned that Hodges was escorting bombers on a “Crossbow Mission” to knock-out German V-1 rockets, which flew over cities, then dropped from the skies to slaughter civilians. Hodges’ family was grateful to be able to fill in the gaps. In return, they allowed Ben to go through a chest containing the flyer’s uniform and some personal belongings. Smart’s family has been so moved, they’ve decided to place a marking stone in Conyers’ “Walk of Heroes.” It will sit close to the family’s own, which include one for Smart’s father, Freddy. Freddy also spoke with GPB about how proud he is that his son is carrying on the family Navy tradition. He says he’s also proud of Lt. Hodges. “I think he [Lt. Hodges] saw the call of duty and he stepped in and did what he felt like he needed to do and he I think he did the right thing.” To which his son, Ben, added: “You’ll never look in a history text book in school and read his name. So, I felt it was fitting to be sure his story is told.” Ben Smart plans to attend the University of South Carolina, before getting his Navy wings. Ben Hodges’ family still lives in Reynolds. His widow eventually re-married… to another flyer, together enjoying a long life. Slideshow