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Searching for the fallen heroes of WWII
P-47 plane in DC, similar to Hodges plane, which was typeD-25RE - photo by Submitted Photo

Most school history projects don't take you halfway around the globe, but for Rockdale County High senior Benjamin Smart, research on the fate of a fallen World War II pilot turned into a life-changing trip.

Through researching the history of a fallen World War II pilot, Smart, along with his AP History teacher, Kenneth Tucker, was one of 13 students selected nationwide to attend the Normandy Institute in France last summer.   

One of the project’s requirements was to select a fallen WWII soldier from his home state. Smart chose Second Lt. Benjamin Hodges, a native of Reynolds, Ga. During the reading and research phase, Smart visited Hodges’ relatives to learn more about the pilot. Hodges, a Mercer University merit scholar and avid piano player, was studying civil engineering when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He had logged less than 100 flying hours before engaging in combat in his P-47. 

The information exchange was a two-way street. Smart, along with Tucker, traveled to Washington to attend lectures at George Washington University and pursue further research at the National Archives. There, Smart discovered formerly classified information on Hodges’ final mission he was able to share with the family. Part of the Normandy Institute goal was to create a memorial website — is where Smart describes the assignment. 

Targeting strategic German points of interest, Hodges’ goal was to take out V-1 rockets, an early long-range missile counterpart. En route, his formation encountered over 100 German aircraft, and he was shot down in the dogfight near Roy le Petit. 

“It’s a rare pop to get to a place you’re learning about in a classroom and immerse yourself there,” said Tucker.

With the research phase completed, Tucker and Smart traveled to the Normandy Institute in France last summer to study for two weeks followed by a few days in Paris. They visited many key sites of the war including – Omaha Beach, Longes sur Mer and Pegasus Bridge. For Tucker, visiting the Normandy cemetery where German soldiers were buried particularly “brought home the price of war.” 

Smart said it was very evident in Normandy they wanted to preserve the memory of war – 70 years later craters left from bombing were purposely unfilled. 

Finally, at the American cemetery in Normandy, Smart was able to “pay homage to a pilot who gave the ultimate sacrifice in combat.” Each student gave a eulogy in remembrance of their fallen soldier. 

During the ceremony, they placed an American and French flag and a rose at their soldier’s marble cross rubbing sand from the beaches over their name. Hodges’ family also gave Smart money to purchase a special bouquet.

Back stateside, both Smart and Tucker reaped benefits from their research and “life-changing” journey. Tucker was named a national AP consultant and will be training AP U.S. History teachers in a course re-design. 

Smart has received many accolades – the University of South Carolina’s $180,000 McKissick Scholarship and the Navy League Outstanding Cadet Award, to name but two. 

“Everybody left having felt a profound experience of sacrifice,” said the articulate, engaging young man. He closed Hodges’ eulogy with these words, “Ben, you fulfilled, you became, you are:  Duty, Honor, Country. Thank you, sir, God speed and God Bless.”

The pair recounted the events for the Conyers Civic League last month. Tucker introduced Smart, revealing his student’s ultimate ambition, after following in his father’s footsteps as a military pilot. “Think Smart, Vote Smart, Ben Smart.” Look for him on a future presidential ballot.