December 7th marked a “day that will live in infamy” for many Virginians. However, for one Richmond family, the crucial day fell not in 1941, but in 1955. On that day, at approximately 9:23 am, the three small children of Benjamin Dennis III and his wife Jean were upstairs in their Windsor Farms home watching Captain Kangaroo, a children’s program that had debuted two months earlier. Minutes later, flames shot out the windows of their home. A U.S. Navy McDonnell F2H Banshee fighter jet had crashed outside their house, twenty-five feet from where the children were happily watching television.
Coverage of the immediate aftermath of this alarming event can be heard on recordings made by Richmond radio station WRVA. The newscasts have been migrated and saved on compact disc at The Library of Virginia, through funding from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The recordings capture the accounts of WRVA reporter Alden Aaroe on the scene minutes after the crash, as well as those of eyewitnesses. Coverage can also be found in newspaper accounts in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond News-Leader.
Ensign Robert Ammann of Dallas, Texas, was on training maneuvers in his jet based at Oceana Naval Air Station, near Norfolk, with a fellow pilot in another aircraft. Traveling at 300 miles an hour, the two jets were flying about 20 miles northwest of the airport in Richmond, when the tail of Ammann’s jet was hit by the wing of the other aircraft. Ammann tried to regain control, realized he couldn’t, and parachuted out. He landed safely in front of a residence of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis D. Gooch at 401 Bancroft Avenue in Highland Park. According to WRVA’s Bill Willis, after Ensign Ammann safely landed, he was invited into their home and offered coffee. He was then escorted to police headquarters.
Meanwhile, five miles away, his Banshee was spiraling out of control towards Windsor Farms, a neighborhood located just off of busy Cary Street. A workman building an addition to a home on nearby Canterbury Road recalled that “the plane was completely out of control and in flames and twisting when I first saw it. As far as I could tell it was intact when it came over us.” Moments later, the jet crashed in the backyard of the Dennis home at 105 Tonbridge Road.
Mrs. Dennis was upstairs in another part of the house. She ran into the room where her three children were watching television. “I dragged them out,” she said. The children, Benjamin IV, David, and Deborah, ranged in ages from 21 months to 5 years old. A fourth Dennis child, 2-month-old Charles, was still in his crib upstairs in another room. The house was engulfed in flames and quickly filled with smoke. Mrs. Dennis tried to get back inside, but couldn’t due to the flames and smoke. She became frantic, shouting, “My baby, my baby!”
Windsor Farms quickly became crowded with curious onlookers, filling with “thousands of spectators who covered the Windsor Farms area like a giant ant hill,” according to WRVA’s George Passage. Another construction worker, Leland McCauley, who had been nearby when the crashed occurred, saw Mrs. Dennis as she tried to save her young son.
McCauley climbed the exterior of the house onto the porch roof and broke out the window to the room where little Charles lay, and climbed inside. He went partway in, and then stuck his head out the window, coughing smoke. He re-entered the house, then seconds later came out onto the porch roof, carrying the baby under his arm “like a football,” according to an eyewitness. He lowered the baby to his fellow workers below, and then dropped to safety.
Leland McCauley was truly a hero that day. Three weeks after the incident, the Richmond City Council awarded McCauley a citation for his heroism. Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Dennis III showed their appreciation by presenting him with a monetary gift as well as a gold watch. The reward helped McCauley complete a bathroom in the new home he was constructing for his family. The Dennises also gave his daughter a $500 savings bond, a doll, and doll carriage. McCauley planned to cash the bond to help pay for the bathroom’s completion. “I know my daughter would rather have a bathroom than to walk half a block outside in the cold as she does now,” he remarked. Four months later, on 27 April 1956, McCauley received the Carnegie Hero Bronze Medal for his bravery, and the commission that awarded him the honor also sent a check to his mortgage company to help reduce the mortgage on his home.
It is truly amazing that no one was seriously injured in Windsor Farms that day in December. The Dennis family soon rebuilt their home, which was almost completely destroyed by fire, water, and smoke damage. David Dennis, one of the children, was reached by the author by telephone in 2004, and remarked that people continued to ask him about the crash, associating the name “Dennis” with the event in Windsor Farms.
Benjamin Dennis III died tragically on 17 August 17 1963 at the age of 36, in a car crash near the family’s vacation residence in Richmond County. He had been an executive with the Dominion Oil Company. Jean Dennis remarried, and the family continued to live in the Windsor Farms home until the early 1970s, when they moved to Powhatan County. Jean Dennis Larus died on 23 March 2013 at the age of 85. Charles Dennis, who was rescued by McCauley, died on 12 February 1995, at the age of 39. The hero of that day, Leland McCauley, died on 7 June 2003 in Richmond. His obituary cites his service as a Navy veteran and his work as a brick mason for sixty years. It also mentions his receipt of the Carnegie Medal Award for heroism.
For more about WRVA recordings, check out the online exhibit Radio in Virginia.
–Jim Greve, Former Senior Collection Development Archivist