Brookings resident Shannon Wilson holds a plaque – honoring her former husband’s military service and sacrifice – she received from the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter. The Pilot/Jane Stebbins
Shannon Wilson was able to close a chapter in her life this summer when the bones of her former husband were finally laid to rest.
It had been 44 years since the Brookings woman had seen him last, they were a newlywed couple eager to start their lives together. In July, she watched as his coffin was lowered into the ground in a state 1,200 miles from her home. And she cried.
The two – she a nurse and he a pilot with the U.S. Air Force – met while stationed in Arizona.
“I joined the service to be with men,” Wilson said with a broad smile. “And they put me in pediatrics.”
Robert Elwood Bennett III was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and stationed in Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam with the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron. Bennett trained in a McDonnell-Douglas F-4C phantom. A cousin once asked him how that plane would fly should both engines fail, and Bennett responded, “Like a crowbar.”
It was almost prophetic.
On Dec. 13, 1967, he and Capt. William Sakahara were assigned to a close-air support mission in the Tra Vinh Zinh Province when they were struck by enemy fire and lost power. He had been overseas six months.
Wilson’s life would be turned upside down.
The retired nurse with whom she was living was shaking her awake: “Wake up; wake up; you need to come out in the living room,” Wilson recalled. “I walked in, and I saw all these uniforms. And I knew. No, no, no.”
Indeed the “uniforms” were there to tell her Bennett and Sakahara had ejected from their airplane, landing somewhere in the river below. Sakahara made it out alive – he told her at the funeral last month that he’d seen “two good parachutes” – but Bennett could not be found.
He was declared missing in action Dec. 13, 1967. He had turned 25 the week before.
“The river’s three-quarters of a mile wide,” Wilson said. “He could have been killed on ejection. He could have gotten tangled in his parachute, killed by gunshot. Who knows?”
The “uniforms” apparently didn’t; they returned to Wilson’s home two weeks later to tell her they’d “decided” he couldn’t have survived.
“What, just ‘decided’?” she said. “They didn’t have the facts.”
They wouldn’t, either, for another four-and-a-half decades.
Bennett was declared killed in action Dec. 29, 1967.
On March 17, 2010, workers were dredging the shipping channel in the Song Co Chien River and discovered human remains. They sent those remains to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii where they were positively identified to be Bennett’s.
The Air Force, Wilson said, had trouble locating any next of kin. She had remarried and moved – she moved to Brookings 17 years ago – his parents were dead, and Bennett was an only child. They found a cousin, in Montrose, Colo., a farming town in the southwest part of the state.
They didn’t located Wilson until 10 days before the funeral, and then, only through Social Security records.
Wilson attended the funeral, at which Sakahara gave a eulogy and the 343rd Bomb Squadron from Barksdale Air Force Base conducted a flyover, Boy Scouts lined the streets with American flags, and the Patriot Guard Riders – a motorcycle group comprised of veterans who ensure peace at Vietnam War funerals – rumbled through town. And Wilson finally felt a sense of closure.
“It was sad; it was like old grief reborn,” she said. “It’s always sad when someone gets killed. But it also was put to rest.”
Wilson had accepted years ago that her young husband had likely died and probably wasn’t being held prisoner by the Viet Cong or hiding in the jungles as many soldiers are reputed to be. There are still more than 1,800 Americans missing in action in that country, said Sam Vitale, chairman of the Curry County Veterans Memorial Association.
Wilson left the service as a captain in 1971, eventually remarried, worked as a stockbroker and finally found her home in Brookings. She still works once a month at the Good Samaritan Society-Hillside Manor in town.
The local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America presented her with a plaque this month honoring Robert Elwood Bennett III’s “service and personal sacrifices made in behalf of the United States of America.”