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'Bittersweet' news gives closure to relatives of Iowa sailor

Courtesy of Molly Kohlmeyer

Robert James Bennett (left) with his brother Donald Bennett and his mother, Myrna Fett. Donald’s daughter, Molly Kohlmeyer, thinks this photo was taken in 1930. Robert would have been 7. He died in 1941 during the Pearl Harbor attack, and his remains recently were identified.
Courtesy of Molly Kohlmeyer Robert James Bennett (left) with his brother Donald Bennett and his mother, Myrna Fett. Donald’s daughter, Molly Kohlmeyer, thinks this photo was taken in 1930. Robert would have been 7. He died in 1941 during the Pearl Harbor attack, and his remains recently were identified.

Donald Bennett was 14 when his brother, Navy sailor Robert James Bennett, died in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

When Donald Bennett received news this month his brother’s remains finally had been identified, the now 91-year-old man was quiet.

“He didn’t have much to say, he really didn’t,” said Donald Bennett’s son, Matt Bennett. “You could see there were thoughts that went through his head, but he didn’t say anything.”

The family has known for years efforts were underway to identify the remains of the serviceman, who was born in Monona and whose family lived in Dubuque when he died at age 18. Matt Bennett said the conclusion of those efforts has been a relief.

“OK, they got him,” he said. “It was pretty good news — bittersweet, but good news. I wanted this all to be done while my dad was still alive.”

Matt and Donald Bennett live outside Milwaukee in Germantown, Wis. Because of his hearing, Donald Bennett was unable to speak to a reporter by phone.

Robert James Bennett — who went by Jim — enlisted in the Navy soon after graduating from Dubuque Senior High School, his nephew said. He was an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts and a quartermaster of the Sea Scouts.

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He did basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes and trained to be a machinist in Michigan, Matt Bennett said. He was a machinist on the USS Oklahoma before being classified as a fireman.

The Navy fireman third class was aboard the battleship, according to the Defense Department, when Japanese aircraft fired multiple torpedoes at USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941.

His brother didn’t speak of the tragedy often, said Donald Bennett’s daughter Molly Kohlmeyer, though she said she grew up with knowledge of her uncle Jim.

“He wouldn’t talk about him a lot,” said Kohlmeyer, 53, who lives outside Rapid City, S.D. “But he always told us he died at Pearl Harbor, on the USS Oklahoma, and he was down in the engine room.”

Servicemen in those quarters are believed to have been trapped in an air pocket when the battleship overturned, later drowning.

The serviceman’s mother, Myrna Fett, also was quiet about the death of her older son. She died in 1985.

“My grandma never really talked about him,” Matt Bennett said. “It was one of those things where you’d ask her, and she didn’t want to talk about it.”

Robert Bennett’s death “tore up” Robert’s father, Matt Bennett said, and he died soon afterward. Fett remarried and did not have more children.

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Kohlmeyer and Matt Bennett have children of their own, they said, meaning Robert Bennett is survived by, at least, his brother Donald, niece Molly, nephew Matt, a grandnephew and two grandnieces.

Their family tree is somewhat sparse, Matt Bennett said, and the woman whose DNA helped federal authorities identify Robert Bennett was unknown to him until recently. Lauri Waldbillig of Dubuque is a distant relative of Fett.

Matt Bennett said the family has not yet made funeral arrangements. Robert James Bennett will receive a military funeral, likely in Dubuque, Arlington, Va., or back in Hawaii.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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