WVU Tech to Honor Vietnam Veteran William Benn and Award Posthumous Graduation at Opening Ceremony

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The West Virginia Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) will honor a former student and Vietnam veteran at its commencement ceremony in May. William “Bill” Benn died while serving in Vietnam during a hiatus from studying civil engineering at Tech. Benn’s siblings and several family members will travel from their New Jersey home to accept the degree on his behalf.

Benn made the trip from his hometown of Lakewood, New Jersey to Montgomery, West Virginia in the 1960s. He came to WVU Tech thanks to the suggestion of a former student, Edwin Brandt, who was his professor of high school physical education. Brandt was a former Tech football player and encouraged him to enroll in Tech. Benn came to Tech from a close-knit blue-collar family with five siblings. His siblings remembered taking him on the train from New Jersey to rural West Virginia.

“He had fond memories of Tech and his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon,” says Jerry Benn, one of William’s brothers.

“He told stories of pledges and social life [on campus]. He was more of an outdoorsman and loved the rural environment,” says Jerry.

While in school, Benn worked part-time at the West Virginia Department of Transportation. He was only a few semesters away from graduating when he ran out of school funding and decided to work full time to save money. According to Benn’s family, he planned to work for a year and then return to complete his education. It was during this time that Benn was drafted into the ongoing war in Vietnam.

“When he dropped out, he lost his draft student deferment and received his notice to report for a pre-induction medical in June 1968. He didn’t want to be drafted into the army, so he approached the Air Force and Navy for possible enlistment but was unwilling to serve the required four years. The Marines told him that their enlistments were only for three years and that he would most likely be assigned to work related to his major, perhaps on a survey crew. Instead, he was assigned to the infantry and sent to Vietnam in March 1969 after his training,” explained another of Benn’s brothers, Vincent.

Private First Class Benn was in the Marine Corps from September 1968 to June 1969. Tragically, Benn was killed in Vietnam on June 6, 1969, before he could complete his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Benn had been on active duty for less than a year and only in Vietnam a few months before his death.

Vincent recalls the circumstances surrounding his brother’s short stay in Vietnam.

He explained that William was serving as a fire crew leader at the time of his death. His unit (H Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division) operated in Quang Tri Province. On the night of June 5 to the morning of June 6, his unit suffered a mortar attack by the North Vietnamese army. The attack continued all night.

“A few years ago, I spoke with Larry Imus, his platoon sergeant, about that night. Larry said that of the two tours he had done, that night was the worst. Of the seven Marines killed in Vietnam that day, five were in Bill’s platoon. A few days later, the Air Force conducted B-52 strikes in the area and destroyed North Vietnamese Army units. Three weeks later, it was announced that his regiment was withdrawing from Vietnam,” he said.

The way Benn’s story caught the attention of the tech community is coincidental. Benn’s younger sister, Rita Benn Yhlen, was working in central Florida at Holmes Regional Medical Center where she met Rachael Hatfield, the sister of fellow WVU Tech alumnus Dean Hatfield (’81). After talking, they realized they both had brothers who had attended Tech, majored in civil engineering, and were in the same fraternity. Rachael relayed the coincidence to one of her brothers and soon reached WVU Tech administration. Tech quickly began the process to award Benn his degree after hearing his story.

“We are so fortunate to be able to honor William Benn and present the Benn family with the degree their brother worked so hard to achieve. We are grateful to be able to recognize William for his time as a Golden Bear and for his service to our country,” said Campus President Carolyn Long.

Another brother, Jerry Benn, described Bill as someone who was a doer and hard worker.

“He had a strong work ethic and was demanding of himself and others. He always encouraged and pushed people to achieve their goals. He was a person who would act rather than avoid what needed to be done. To this day, his high school classmates remember him as an inspiration and a great example to others. Bill was also known for his sense of humor and practical jokes about people,” Jerry said.

Tom Benn, another brother of Bill, echoes Jerry’s sentiment.

“I remember Bill as a determined and talented young man with an intelligent mind and a skilled artist. This honor means a lot to me personally. I am a Vietnam veteran myself,” he said.

“Bill loved the hills and mountains of West Virginia, loved the technology, and loved being a Sig Ep. He would have been very proud to be so honored. We are very grateful that Tech has helped us keep his memory alive,” said Vincent.

“It’s an honor that I’m sure he would humbly approve of,” adds Tom.

The WVU Tech Groundbreaking Ceremony will take place on Saturday, May 7, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. at the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center.


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