Enjoy all your local news and sports for less than 5¢ per day.

Subscribe Now

Marble Falls veteran’s tinkering turns into 65 patents, autobiography


MARBLE FALLS — John D. Bennett stared at the breech of the howitzer. The crew attempted to load a round, but, because of damage sustained during the transit, the 105-mm shell wouldn’t go all the way in.

In training, this wouldn’t have been too much of an issue, but Bennett and his crew presented the only defense between an advancing German assault and the rest of the second wave of a landing Sept. 9, 1943, in Salerno, Italy, during World War II.

“I had 12 guns lined up ready to go,” Bennett recalled. “But the shells wouldn’t go in.”

Bennett yelled at the rest of the crew to get out and ordered someone to get him an ax.

“That’s one of the things about being the man in charge, you have to do the tough things,” he said.

Bennett grabbed the ax, turned the flat side toward the breech and swung.


The shell slipped into the breech. And down the line the artillery captain went, hitting each shell with the ax and forcing it into the gun. Once fired, the shells expanded in the breech, smoothing any dents, and ejected with ease.

While taking an ax to the bottom of a howitzer shell might seem suicidal, Bennett knew exactly what he was doing.

“I knew that firing pin was recessed just enough, so if I hit it just right, I wouldn’t hit the pin,” he said with a grin. Still, the idea of striking the bottom of a 105-mm shell isn’t exactly the best way to find out.

“Nobody probably ever heard that story, I bet,” Bennett said in his room at Gateway Villa in Marble Falls. “You know why? Because we were the only ones there. And we just did what we needed to do and went on. There’s a lot of stories like that one (from World War II), but you’ll never hear them because we just really didn’t talk about them much.”

Bennett, 95, remembers many stories from his war service, as the “dumbest farm boy” in Frio County and as a world-class inventor, which landed him 65 patents.

“You were always telling stories,” said his son, Wayne Bennett. “You had so many stories, it just made sense that you write them all down.”

Wayne Bennett’s wife, Allison, agreed. “You two would get together and start telling stories,” she said. “It was just one after the other.”

So John Bennett decided to put them in print for all to read. With his son helping, the war veteran wrote and published his autobiography, “Oh No! Not That! The Life of John D. Bennett, Inventor and Artillery Captain.” It’s available at

“There never was a person who lived who had so much fun growing up and doing the things I’ve done,” Bennett said. “I just have so many stories. And I think I got them all down in that book there, at least the important ones.”

His son chuckled. And Allison Bennett pointed out a story her father-in-law told her and others several times that isn’t in the book.

“Well, I guess if I put ’em all in there, I’d never get the book done,” he said with a grin. “It took me 10 years just to get this done. I had to get it done before I’m not here anymore.”

The book doesn’t just focus on his World War II service. The heart of it is Bennett himself. The book starts by tracing his family’s genealogy. He grew up on a farm in Derby, just north of Dilley. While farming was his family’s livelihood, he was bent on not making it his.

“I was one of those kids who absolutely didn’t give a hoot about farming,” Bennett said. But as a boy growing up on “the farm,” his father expected him to help. Bennett, however, would rather have spent his time fixing and building things. So one day, while he was running the tractor along one of his dad’s cotton fields, he “accidentally” plowed up a few rows of cotton plants.

“My dad said, ‘You must be the dumbest farm boy ever,'” Bennett said and laughed. “But it got me off the tractor.”

Instead, he found himself under the tutelage of a local fix-it man, Concho Valdez. The man shared his knowledge with the young boy, who already had a penchant for fixing, building and creating.

“He could do anything with a pair of pliers, hammer and a chisel,” Bennett said. “He taught me how to do so many things.”

But Valdez was only feeding a desire and an ability that was already there in the future inventor.

One of Bennett’s early hobbies was rebuilding Ford Model Ts. He would scavenge the nearby Dilley dump for old Model Ts. Then, there at the dump, he would take pieces from one, put them on another and keep working until he came cruising onto the farm in his own Model T.

The first time he did this, Bennett was about 10.

“I had 17 of these at my daddy’s farm when the war started. My daddy was the patriot, so he ended up turning them into scrap metal for the war effort. Was I ever mad,” he said. “But that’s what I did in my spare time, I piddled.”

One day, when he was a bit older, his father remarked he really needed a peanut thrasher. He also needed another tractor but couldn’t afford both. Bennett told his dad about a 1916 Cadillac truck at his grandma’s house and an old Buick his aunt had but didn’t use. If he could get his hands — and wrench — on those two things, Bennett was sure he and Valdez could build a peanut thrasher.

The two did just that, building a peanut thrasher from scraps and pieces from the two vehicles. They also created what is probably the first power-take off, which allowed the peanut thrasher to operate without someone constantly needing to stop, unhook one piece and hook up another in order to keep the machine working.

As word spread about this, tractor companies sent people to study the device.

“I really believe that’s where they got the idea for the power-take off,” Bennett said. “Had I patented that, it would have been worth more than all my other patents combined. But what does a farm boy know about patents?”

All those early experiences and lessons led Bennett out of farming and into mechanical engineering. After the war, he began working in the oil industry, where he would look at problems and come up with solutions, often that included getting patents.

At one point, Sun Oil Co. assigned a patent lawyer to Bennett. The attorney, Lee Murrah, set up his office right next to Bennett’s so whenever the engineer/inventor came up with an idea, he began the patent process.

In 1948, Bennett invented what went on to become the shorty block. The device is used on oil rigs to help safely raise the tubing from the well. The idea, he said, came from studying a 75-mm French artillery piece at Texas A&M University. The breech used a mechanism to load and unload it. Bennett took the concept and applied it to the oil rig.

“And, to this day, that block is probably the standard on every rig in Texas and in the world,” he said.

The book also shows a personal side of Bennett, especially when it comes to his wife, Wynona. He tells of how they met and their life together. No matter where he went or what he did, Wynona was there supporting him.

The couple had two children, Wayne and Barry. Both, Bennett said, inherited a bit of the inventing gene.

Wynona passed away May 23, 2006. The two were living in Marble Falls since Bennett “retired.” They had been married 64 years.

Even after retiring and settling in Marble Falls (his sister, Betsy, and her husband, George Kemper, had purchased a camp that would become Kemper’s Korner), Bennett kept tinkering and building.

He continues to study things of interest. Books line part of his room, while he pointed out he can do a lot of research on the computer.

And when he’s not researching or studying, he’s probably sharing a story or two with people who stop by.

“Yeah, I got a few of them,” he said with a laugh.