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WVU Tech to honor William Benn, Vietnam veteran, and grant posthumous degree during commencement ceremony

Black and white photo of a young man, William Benn William Benn, photo courtesy of Benn family

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

Benn made the journey from his hometown of Lakewood, New Jersey to Montgomery, West Virginia in the 1960s. He came to WVU Tech through the suggestion of an alumnus, Edwin Brandt, who was his physical education teacher in high school. Brandt was a former Tech football player and encouraged him to enroll at Tech. Benn came to Tech from a tight-knit, blue-collar family with five siblings. His siblings recalled him taking 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 would tell stories of pledging and the social life [on campus]. He was more of an outdoor person and liked the rural environment,” says Jerry.

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

“When he dropped out, he lost his student deferment from the draft and received his notice to report for a pre-induction physical in June 1968. He did not want to get drafted into the Army, so he approached the Air Force and Navy for possible enlistment but did not want to serve the required four years. The Marines told him their enlistments were only three years, and he would most likely get assigned to a job related to his major, possibly on a surveying team. Instead, he was assigned to the infantry and sent to Vietnam in March 1969 after his training,” explained another of Benn’s brothers, Vincent.

Black and white photo from a WVU Tech yearbook of a group of men in a fraternitySigma Phi Epsilon at WVU Tech in the 1960s. Benn is in the second row, fourth from left.

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 finish his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Benn was on active duty for less than a year and only in Vietnam a couple of months before his death.

Vincent recalls the circumstances around his brother’s short time in Vietnam.

He explained William was serving as a fire team leader at the time of his death. His unit (H Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division) was operating in the Quang Tri province. On the night of June 5 into the morning of June 6, his unit came under a mortar attack by the North Vietnamese Army. The attack continued throughout the night.

“A few years ago, I spoke with Larry Imus, his platoon sergeant, about that night. Larry said of the two tours he served, 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 the North Vietnamese army units. Three weeks later, it was announced his regiment was pulling out of Vietnam,” he said.

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

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

Jerry Benn, another brother, described Bill as someone who was a doer and worked hard.

“He had a strong work ethic and was demanding of himself and others. He was always encouraging and pushing people to accomplish their goals. He was a person who would act rather than avoid what needed to be done. To this day, his classmates from high school remember him as inspirational and set a great example for others. Bill was also known for his sense of humor and springing practical jokes on people,” said Jerry.

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

“I remember Bill as a determined and talented young man with a clever wit and was a skillful 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 Tech and loved being a Sig Ep. He would have been very proud to be honored this way. We are very grateful that Tech has helped us keep his memory alive,” said Vincent.

“This is an honor I am sure he would humbly approve of,” adds Tom.

WVU Tech’s commencement ceremony will be Saturday, May 7, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. at the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center.