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Originally published May 17, 2013 at 10:12 PM | Page modified May 18, 2013 at 9:11 AM

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‘I came back. He didn’t’: 38 years later, closure for a Marine

Finally, 38 years after his chopper was shot down off Cambodia, there is closure for Marine Corps Pfc. Daniel Benedett, an Auburn High grad, and 12 others killed with him.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The two had known each other less than three weeks when they found themselves inside helicopters about to land off a Cambodian island, and were easy targets for a firestorm of Khmer Rouge bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

One would be killed as his massive chopper carrying 26 servicemen, mostly U.S. Marines, exploded on May 15, 1975.

He was among 13 who lost their lives, his remains not identified until this January. The arduous task included recovering bones using suction hoses in the sand.

The one who lived was in the CH-53 helicopter right behind and saw the fireball. Thirty-eight years later, Dale Clark cannot forget.

Bonded quickly

And so this week, he wanted to make sure his comrade in arms was remembered. Pfc. Daniel E. Benedett, 19, finally was given proper honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

Says Clark, 56, “I don’t want Dan to be forgotten. I came back, and he didn’t.”

It was the U.S. Marine Corps that bonded Dan Benedett, of Auburn, and Lance Cpl. Clark, 18, of Chicago.

Both had joined up right after graduating from high school in 1974 as the Vietnam War was ending.

“We hit it off right away. We both joined up because we wanted to see the world,” says Clark, these days a security specialist for Seattle Public Utilities. “We both asked to be assigned to the infantry because we were action-oriented type guys.”

They did not know each other in basic training, but met when assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines in Okinawa. They shared a pup tent.

The two talked some about their backgrounds, but not that much. Benedett said he came from a Catholic background, had two sisters.

Neither of these two young Marines were the carousing types who liked to go and drink in the nearby village, and that further cemented their friendship.

Honored in Auburn

Fifty percent of the people in the United States were born after 1975, so for many people, the war in Vietnam is just another episode on the Military Channel.

But there are some who’re now older, grayer, balder, who were there on that island off Cambodia, for what was called “The Mayaguez Incident.”

It was labeled by the military as “a near disaster.”

Earlier this month, Clark sent an email to Pete Lewis, the mayor of Auburn. He asked if the city could lower its flag to half-staff on May 15 in honor of its 1974 high-school graduate.

That was the day the remains of Benedett, along with those of the 12 others who had been aboard chopper Knife 31, were placed inside one casket and given an honor-guard burial at Arlington. It was the 38th anniversary of their deaths.

On that day, the flag atop Auburn’s City Hall was lowered.

Clark couldn’t make it to the Arlington ceremony, but a couple dozen members of the Koh Tang/Mayaguez Veterans Organization were there.

Koh Tang is an island some 60 nautical miles off Cambodia. It is where the SS Mayaguez, an American cargo ship, was anchored after being seized by the Cambodians. The Marines were sent to rescue the cargo ship’s crew of 39; then-President Gerald Ford had decided he needed to act decisively.

Among those at Arlington was Steve Simoni, 57, of Livermore, Calif., now a general contractor.

At the last minute on that day back in 1975, Simoni, a grenadier, was needed on another chopper. He was taken off the ill-fated Knife 31, and Benedett, a rifleman, went in his place.

“I still have survivor’s remorse. I should have been there,” Simoni says about the switch. “I have what I call my dark days.”

Little-known island

In 2012, Scott Baron and James E. Wise recounted what happened in their book, “The 14-Hour War: Valor on Koh Tang and the Recapture of the SS Mayaguez.”

Baron says about the young Marines:

“They haven’t even finished training. They’ve been on maneuvers for 48 hours. They’re tired. They’re dirty. But they’re the only Marines available.”

For Clark, that May 15 “was the first time I was issued a full amount of rifle ammunition and several live grenades. This would be the second time I was in a helicopter.”

On top of that, writes Baron, “There is no intelligence on the island. The only map they have is a 1 to 100,000 scale map, and the island is a green speck in a sea of blue. And the only intelligence they have about the island is from former residents. They say it’s only guarded by a couple dozen militia fishermen.”

What wasn’t known was that Koh Tang was being claimed by both Cambodia and North Vietnam.

“Cambodia had reinforced the island. It had 300 to 500 combat-hardened Khmer Rouge veterans in fortified positions with heavy weapons and established fields of fire. What the latter means is they already know where the bullets will go,” Baron says.

Three of the first wave of eight helicopters that made the four-hour trip from a base in Thailand to the island were so shot up they were out of commission, Baron says.

More than 200 rescued

Jon Harston, 64, retired in Mount Dora, Fla., was the flight mechanic on Knife 31.

For Baron’s book, Harston remembered:

“I saw many of the Marines trying to bust out the clear Plexiglass windows to escape the burning wreck. I yelled at them to come out the doorway where water would protect them from the fire ... I probably had made it about twenty-five yards off shore when I saw an injured Marine moving in the water near the chopper ... I swam back ... he hung onto my back ... ”

Then Harston helped another injured Marine, swimming out to sea.

“Rounds were constantly zinging past our heads and grenades were blowing up there and there ... One round found its target ... my helmet split right in two ... the helmet did its job and prevented the round from splitting my head open ... ”

In all, more than 200 troops were rescued, with American casualties at 18 dead and 50 wounded.

That figure included three Marines the military says were “inadvertently left on the island in the darkness and confusion” and were killed by Khmer Rouge.

It turned out that by the time the first choppers arrived, the Mayaguez crew had already been taken to the Cambodian mainland.

By then, the U. S. was bombing the mainland, says Baron, “and that convinced the Cambodians they wanted to release the crew.”

They were put on a fishing boat.

Baron says the young Marines, and the Air Force chopper pilots, should be proud of how they handled themselves.

“It could have been one of the greatest debacles in Marine Corps history. It really speaks to the discipline of the Marines,” he says.

Closure at last

At the Arlington ceremony, most of the 26 whose remains were in that casket had already received separate burial ceremonies, but a bit of their remains were placed in the single casket.

It was in a “process of elimination,” says the Department of Defense, that it decided which ones were Benedett’s remains.

DNA from family members helped identify 12 of the 13 remains.

Benedett’s family had not provided such information, says the agency, but since all other remains had been matched, his had to be the unmatched ones.

A sister apparently was at the Arlington ceremony, but could not be reached for this story.

For his Marine buddies who remember Benedett, even if they knew him for less than three weeks, what took place at Arlington was needed.

Says Steve Simoni, “Finally, closure. These guys are back on our nation’s soil.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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