44 Years After the Death of 1st Lt. Robert Bennett, a Burial in Cedar Cemetery
MONTROSE – First Lieutenant Robert Elwood Bennett, III, probably never imagined that so many strangers would attend his funeral.
A U.S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam, Bennett would likely have been met by strangers protesting the war had he returned home.
But Bennett didn't return home, and for 44 years his body lay in the Song Co Chien River of the Tra Vinh Zinh Province of South Vietnam, near where his plane was shot down.
On Saturday, July 7, however, Bennett received the respect and honor from his country and its citizens that he deserved, and was laid to rest at Cedar Cemetery, in Montrose.
"Everyone was so respectful. It made me proud to be an American," said First Lt. Johnny Lupo.
Lupo, who works for the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, was charged with escorting Bennett's remains from the Hawaii-based Joint Prisoners of War-Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) to Montrose for the burial in the family plot of Bennett's cousin, retired Air Force Maj. William Bennett of Montrose.
As a young serviceman – Lupo is now as old as Bennett was when he was killed, in 1967 – he said it was his first "repatriotization of a past conflict," and he was grateful to be part of it.
"There is no way to describe it. You really our doing your country's work, and being a part of something that is bigger than yourself," Lupo said. "To be part of the legacy of a Vietnam vet…it humbles you."
Such an event was not always so humbling, however.
"I don't know what they did in Montrose” in the Vietnam era, said William Bennett, the cousin of the fallen pilot. "I wasn't in a small town like this before I retired, but I know it would have not been a celebratory occasion in most cities that I was in."
Lupo said he had been told about the overwhelming support the Montrose area community shows for its veterans, but he was astonished nonetheless with the hero’s welcome accorded pilot Bob Bennett’s casket, upon returning stateside. Airline employees and staff reserved an honorary seat for Bennett on the plane, announcing its departure and arrival to standing ovations. They were greeted warmly upon arriving at Montrose Regional Airport, and the show of support at the memorial service and gravesite included several hundred people.
"I don't know where I've ever seen more dignity, honor and respect shown to a veteran," Lupo said. "My boss always says, 'You can tell the character of a nation on how they treat their fallen.'"
Bob Bennett joined the U.S. Air Force Reserves, learning to fly and graduating with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1964. Upon graduation, he became second lieutenant in the Air Force.
In 1967 – at age 24, now a first lieutenant – Bennett was stationed in Cam Rahn Bay, a province of Vietnam, with the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
On Dec. 13, 1967, Bennett and Capt. William Sakahara went up in a F-4C for a close air support mission in the Tra Vinh Zinh Province. After completing a low-level bombing run, the aircraft was hit by enemy fire. Both pilots ejected and landed in the mile-wide Song Co Chien River, according to the Bennett family.
Sakahara was rescued, but Bennett was not found; after extensive searches, he was listed as missing and killed in action.
His name is engraved on panel 31E, line 85, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
At the time of his death, Bennett was survived by his parents, Robert Bennett, Sr., and Helen Bennett, of Asbury Park, N.J., and by his wife, Shannon, an Air Force nurse.
Upon the deaths of his parents, Bennett’s cousin, William, was officially his surviving next-of-kin.
In 2010, a Vietnamese citizen reported to authorities the discovery of human remains and military equipment while dredging sand from the Song Co Chien River. Those remains, rolled up in a parachute and found about one mile from Robert Bennett's last known location, were turned over to the JPAC.
Bennett's identity was confirmed through hair samples in his military files, and in November, 2011, a representative of the Air Force Mortuary Service visited William Bennett in Montrose to explain what had happened.
William Bennett wanted his cousin to rest with his family.
The city donated a plot in the cemetery, and William bought two more, next to his cousin, for his wife and himself.
"He could have gone to any national cemetery, but I think it's kind of cool to be where your family is," he said. "I didn't question my decision of bringing him here. I knew it would be well- received, but it was much more well received than I had thought."
William Bennett, who also served in the Air Force during Vietnam, said a service like Saturday's brings closure to more than just family and friends.
"It's important for closure for a lot of those people who served, who came home and weren't treated right," he said.
Bennett remembers his own return home, arriving just 24 hours after leaving Vietnam. Still in uniform, he rushed home to put on street clothes. "No one was happy about that war," he said. "It was a time when the military stopped wearing its uniforms in a lot of places."
But that was not the case on Saturday, and veterans of many branches of the military wore their uniforms proudly, with American flags held high, offering a fallen soldier with a long-overdue welcome home from the Vietnam War.