Captain Charles Bennett - US Army - WWII - Jacksonville, FL
Charles Edward Bennett was bom in Canton, New York Dec. 2, 1910 at St. Lawrence College where his father was employed. In 1912 he moved to Tampa Florida where his father worked for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Bennett was an Eagle Scout and received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America later in life. After graduating in 1927 from Hillsborough High School in Tampa he attended the University of Florida. In the history of the University of Florida, he is the only person to have served both as editor of the student newspaper (The Independent Florida Alligator), and president of the student body. In addition to a wide range of volunteer activities and participation in political organizations, Bennett worked his way through college by waiting tables, working on a university farm, writing articles for local newspapers, and other odd jobs.
Bennett earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1932 and a Juris Doctorate in 1934 from the University of Florida. After graduating Bennett began practicing law in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1941, he was elected to the Florida State legislature. In early 1942 he-began campaigning for the U.S. House of Representatives, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he gave up his State legislative seat and his campaign for Congress, enlisting in the U.S. Army as a private.
Bennett had a distinguished military career. After enlisting in the Army in 1942, he served for 58 months. Bennett served with distinction in the Pacific during World War II, including fighting in the Philippines and New Guinea. He led guerrilla fighters in the Philippines in the Northern Luzon mountains and was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for gallantry in action and the Combat Infantry Badge. The Philippine government awarded him with the Philippine Legion of Honor, the highest award for a non-Filipino, and the Gold Cross for gallantry in action. He was elected to the Infantry Hall of Fame by the Fort Benning Officer Candidate School.
While in combat serving in the Philippines, he contracted polio, a disease that left his legs partially paralyzed for the remainder of his life. He went through 16 months of rehabilitation at a military hospital in Arkansas. Utilizing leg braces and canes and with the great help of an Army Nurse he learned to walk again. He would need these braces and canes for the rest of his life. When Bennett left Army service in 1947 he had attained the rank of Captain. He loved his service in the military and if it wasn’t for the polio he was considering remaining in the Army, as a lifetime career.
Following his honorable discharge and being classified as being 100% disabled by the Army, he didn’t let this keep him down. Bennett returned to Jacksonville and resumed practicing law. In 1948 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as the Democratic representative of Jacksonville’s 2nd district (which became the 3rd district in 1967). In 1953, Bennett married Dorothy Jean Fay, with whom he had four children: Bruce, Charles Jr., James and Lucinda. Throughout his life, Bennett was devoted to his Christian faith; he was a deacon and taught Sunday school for many years at the Riverside Avenue Christian Church in Jacksonville.
During his first campaign, some questioned his health and wondered whether he was physically able to meet his congressional responsibilities. In fact, Bennett was hospitalized several times during his first congressional term. But in the summer of 1951, Bennett decided that the best way to prove his physical abilities, mental resolve and commitment to the job to which he was elected, was to promise himself never to miss a legislative vote—and it was a promise he kept. To prove to his constituents that his handicap did not interfere with his serving in Congress, he amassed the record for the longest unbroken string of recorded legislative and roll call votes. He answered over 17,000 recorded votes and did not miss a single legislative vote from June 5, 1951 through to the day of his retirement. At the time of his retirement Bennett had the ninth longest record of continued service in the U.S. Congress, and he is the longest serving Congressman in the history of Florida.
His career was underscored by a devotion to political ethics, a strong national defense, veterans, anti-drug legislation, civil rights, environmental and historic preservation, animal rights, and legislation to help those with disabilities. Throughout his political career Bennett fought against corruption in legislature, promoting a code of ethics he co-authored for members of government that came to be called “The Ten Commandments.” After the Sherman Adams affair, the document was adopted as the first Code of ethics for Government Service in 1958. His strict adherence to a high standard of personal ethics resulted in his nicknames such as “Mr. Ethics” and “Mr. Clean.” but he found resistance to a standing committee to enforce it. Many powerful members feared that such a panel would facilitate political smear campaigns. In the mid-1960s, as the House was investigating alleged financial wrongdoing by Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D- N.Y.), Bennett chaired a study group that made a recommendation to establish a permanent ethics committee. Bennett said he would stay off the permanent committee if it would help his cause in its creation. It did, resulting in the establishment of a permanent House Ethics Committee in 1967.
In the mid-1970s, after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Pres. Nixon, Congress in an attempt to improve their ethical standing with their constituents elected Bennett to a seat on the committee, and rose to become Chairman of the Committee from 1979-1981. During his term as Chairman, the panel oversaw the Abscam bribery scandal and recommended the expulsion of Rep. Michael J. “Ozzie” Myers (D-Pa.) for corruption. After that case however, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) replaced Rep. Bennett as chairman with Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) a frequent committee critic.
Bennett was also a champion of this country’s Armed Forces, believing that our fighting men and women deserve the best equipment and training necessary to fulfill the missions to which they are assigned. As chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, Bennett fought to enhance America’s sealift capacity and enhance our U.S.-flagged fleet. In Jacksonville, Mr. Bennett is thought of as the father of the Navy. He worked to turn Mayport Naval Station, a surplus military facility when Bennett was elected to Congress, into an aircraft carrier homeport and the second largest such port on the East Coast. In addition, he successfully secured three naval air stations in Jacksonville. Bennett strongly opposed worldwide proliferation of nuclear arms, and in the 1960s he supported the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In the 1980s, he supported funding for more conventional weapons and reductions in Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) spending. His legislation also set standards for upgrades in military housing.
Domestically, Bennett was concerned with urban issues of poverty, juvenile delinquency and drug use, and the raising of auto safety standards. He also advocated better working conditions for migrant farm workers, increased awareness for animal rights, establishment of the National Teachers Corps, federal aid to hospital and school construction, child welfare programs, and establishment of the Small Business Administration. As a disabled person Bennett promoted the rights of handicapped individuals. He co-sponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act, fought for architectural improvements to aid the handicapped, and regularly sought to demonstrate the often underestimated capacity of disabled persons. The death of his third son at the age of 22, Charles Jr., in 1977 from a drug overdose inspired him to push for antidrug legislation, including a measure to authorize the military, primarily the Navy, to help civilian law-enforcement agencies interdict drug traffic outside United States borders.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, he voted with southern Democrats against civil rights and Great Society programs. But in 1965, he said he had a change in conscience. He broke with the southern bloc to support the Voting Rights Act (1965). “It may take courage for some of you to do this,” he said on the House floor. Bennett said, “Some constituents do not remember who won the War Between the States. Remind them that the greatest of all southerners, Robert E. Lee, wrote his mother, ‘Recollect that we form one country now.’ Bennett added, “We should show to the world that southern legislators and their constituents are today living in the southern traditions of high principle and clean courage.”
But one of Bennett’s first loves was the environment. He was quoted as saying, ‘I love the outdoors. It is the closest to God you can get while still on Earth.’ Because of his desire to protect this Nation’s natural and historic resources for future generations, Bennett authored and secured the passage of national legislation to preserve historic sites and treasure ships and protect endangered species and ecologically sensitive sites. He often sponsored bills to preserve or improve Florida’s environment, including the prevention of erosion on Florida’s beaches, creation of the Fort Caroline National Park Memorial and the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, and the Key Deer Preserve in the Florida Keys. He also co-sponsored the Wilderness Preservation Act and the Land and Water Conservation Act, and was instrumental in establishing the St. Johns River as a National Heritage River.
A sponsor of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, he walked with canes, the result of polio he contracted in the Army in World War II while leading guerrillas in jungles in the Philippines. Though Bennett, was declared 100% disabled after WW II he never kept the funds, returning hundreds of thousands of dollars in wartime disability checks to the Treasury, the Department of the Interior, the Florida State Park Service and to lower the National Debt. He declined to accept contributions from military contractors, even though he could have easily drawn such donations as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.
Fiscally conservative and a great opponent of waste, each year, he returned his veteran’s disability pension and Social Security checks to the U. S. Treasury. Leftover campaign funds were given to the National Park Service. According to the Almanac of American Politics 1980, “He opposes unofficial office accounts, outside income for members and congressional pay raises, which led one colleague to call him ‘a bit too pious.’ ” Putting his money where his mouth is, Bennett also donated all of his excess campaign funds, over $200,000, to the National Park Service for the purpose of land acquisition. In total, during his life Bennett gave back to the Federal Government and the State of Florida over 1 million dollars. Bennett also refused his congressional pay raises and voted against the practice in Congress. He received the “Watchdog of the Treasury Award” on multiple occasions for |iis strong support of economy in government and a balanced budget.
In 1955 his legislation required that the U.S. Mint put “In God We Trust” on all currency; the words appeared only on coins beginning in the 1860’s. The measure passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The next year, Bennett with the support of Congress made the words the national motto. He said of his bill from the House floor in April 1955. “America had to distinguish itself from other world superpowers. In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continuously look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom” “At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by his will and his guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail.”
During his 44 years in Congress Bennett rarely faced serious opposition, even as Jacksonville fell under increasing Republican influence, because of the respect he received from both the Democratic and Republican parties. This was due to his honesty, hard-work, legislative skills and his ability to cross the aisle to get the job done. For instance, in 1972 he won 82 percent of the vote against a Republican challenger (one of only six times the Republicans even put up a challenger against him) even as Richard Nixon carried the district by over 70 percent of the vote.
Bennett was set to run for a 23rd term in 1992 in the newly renumbered 4th District against Jacksonville City Council president Tillie Fowler (Republican). However, he abruptly ended his bid for reelection when his wife became ill with a stroke in the spring of 1992. Fowler went on to win in November. At the time of his retirement, he was the second longest-serving member of the House. He is still the longest-serving member of either house of Congress in Florida’s history. Proving just how Republican this district had become, the Democrats have only fielded a candidate in the district three times since Bennett’s retirement, and none of them have cleared the 35 percent mark.
In his spare time, Bennett wrote several books about Florida and U.S. history and gave away all the proceeds. Bennett was a historical scholar who researched and wrote nine books about the Florida and U.S. history:
- General MacGregor: Hero or Rogue ISBN 0970498721, River City Press 2001
- Laudonniere & Fort Caroline ISBN 081731122X, University of Alabama Press, 2001
- Three Voyages ISBN 0817311211, University of Alabama Press, 2001
- Twelve oh the River St. Johns ISBN 0813009138, University Press of Florida 1989
- A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution ISBN 0807819824, University of North Carolina Press 1991
- The Life of Charles Brockden Brown 1814 ISBN 0820111600,
- Scholars Facsimiles & Reprint 1999
- Florida’s “French” Revolution, 1793-1795 University Press of Florida 1982
- Settlement of Florida University of Florida Press 1968
The French government honored Bennett with the French Legion of Honor (for history) for his book Laudonniere & Fort Caroline.
He is the only person to receive the Jacksonville Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the society stated, “His contributions of original research and his additions to the body of knowledge on the area’s history are staggering.”
University of Florida
With funds from their estates the Charles E. and Dorothy J. Bennett Fund was established in 2008 at the University of Florida to encourage research and publication of Florida history. Before his death Bennett donated his papers to the University of Florida. The Charles E. Bennett Papers span the dates 1903-2001, with the bulk of the collection representing Bennett’s over forty years in the U.S. House of Representatives (1949-1993). The collection includes legislative files, correspondence and subject files, campaign materials, bills and Bennett’s voting record, press files, writings and speeches, biographical information, family correspondence, trip files, photographs, audiovisual recordings, scrapbooks and memorabilia.
Death & Legacy
Upon retirement from Congress at the age of 82, Bennett continued to serve Florida by accepting a position at Jacksonville University where he lectured on Florida history and 20th century politics. He refused payment for this position preferring to continue his life goal of giving back to the community which he so greatly loved.
Bennett suffered a heart attack and a stroke in 2002, after which he used a wheelchair. His health steadily declined, and he died in Jacksonville in 2003 at age 92. There were two services, the first at his church the Riverside Avenue Christian Church in Jacksonville and second along with his burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Both services attracted Jacksonville city leaders and dignitaries spanning generations, lrfe-long friends (Democrat and Republican), veterans, and people from all walks of life who he had helped during his long career of service to God, Nation, Florida and Jacksonville.
“He was always kind of a role model because of his honesty … and I represent this area now in the Congress,” U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw said as he arrived at the funeral. “He left a lasting legacy, and I’m just proud to be here an honor him.”
If you can emulate a public servant, he’s the one you want to emulate,” Duval County Property Appraiser Jim Overton said.
“He’s an icon in our time.” Pastor of Riverside Avenue Christian Church, the Rev. Fred Woolsey, recalled one of the Bennett’s more lasting marks on America — a bill he sponsored adding the words “In God We Trust” to the nation’s coins and currency and making it our National Motto “He did not do that because he sought popularity. It was done because he believed that trust in God is the vital basis of life. It was the motto of his life and the source of his own faith,”
President George W. Bush, in Jacksonville for a reelection campaign fundraiser and speech at a Riverside elementary school, didn’t attend the services, but took time out to remember Bennett as “a man who served his county and this community … who was an honest, honorable, decent man who loved America.” “Our thoughts and prayers go to his family during this tough moment,” Bush said.
The Charles E. Bennett Federal Building at 400 West
Bay Street in Jacksonville is named after him as is the Charles E. Bennett Elementary School in Green Cove Springs, Florida. The bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway on Jacksonville’s Wonderwood Connector was dedicated on August 27, 2004 as the Charles E. Bennett Memorial Bridge. A life-size bronze statue of Bennett was installed on a granite base in a shady comer of Hemming Plaza on April 23, 2004 in front of Jacksonville’s City Hall. The base of the statue reads:
Charles E. Bennett 1910-2003
“In God We Trust” Friend