FEDERALSBURG — After a chance meeting, a Caroline County woman is helping a woman on the other side of the country fight to bring home her Vietnam War veteran brother’s remains from where they lie on a mountain in Vietnam.
Marie Savage, of Federalsburg, said the story of Gregory Benton Jr.’s disappearance during the war and his sister Mary Benton’s decades-long personal investigation into what happened that day has inspired her to do what she can to help Mary fulfill a promise to see her brother laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Savage grew up in Bishopville, in Worcester County. In 1969, she bought two bracelets, each engraved with the name of a U.S. troop who was either missing in action or a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The idea was to hold on to those bracelets until the service member returned to the country; then the bracelet would either be returned to the service member, or if he or she were deceased, to family.
One of Savage’s bracelets had the name of a lieutenant commander, listed as a POW. He was later released, and Savage got to return it to him in 1982, when she met him, his wife and children at the newly-dedicated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The other bracelet read “PFC Gregory Benton Jr. 5-23-69.” Savage never got word of his return — in those days, she said, the names of returning troops were printed in newspapers — and eventually the bracelet was mostly forgotten.
Until about a year ago, that is, when Savage found the bracelet in a cedar chest. Her son Googled the name, and found out Gregory Benton had gone missing in action May 23, 1969, in a Vietnamese jungle, and never returned home.
That discovery led to contact with Benton’s older sister, Mary Benton, who lives in California and has been fighting since 1969 to find out what exactly happened to her brother and to have his remains, which have since been found by a farmer, returned to his family.
“Bring him home,” Savage said. “That’s all she’s asking for.”
Since getting to know Mary Benton, Savage has learned a lot about the short life of Gregory Benton Jr.
Emails from Mary describe a boy who grew up in a poor Native American family in Vallejo, Calif., but always dreamed of serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Mary said Gregory joined the Marines immediately after he graduated from high school in 1968. He needed a waiver to pass the physical; he had a metal rod inserted in his right femur after he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident while delivering newspapers on his bicycle two years earlier.
Mary saw Gregory for the last time in Feb. 1969, the day after Mary gave birth to a son. Gregory visited her and his new nephew in the hospital.
Gregory arrived in Vietnam on March 7, 1969, assigned to the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, Delta Company, nicknamed “The Walking Dead.” Mary said dozens of Marines in her brother’s company were being brutally killed on a daily basis.
Years later, Mary said, she learned her brother had joined the company as a replacement. Replacements, Mary said, were often ignored or isolated, as the seasoned Marines felt the new guys were a hazard.
After Gregory went missing two and a half months later, Mary said her family was told he was last seen standing near two dead Marines and one wounded one, from a different squad, during Operation Apache Snow.
The company investigation said Gregory had been on a four-hour patrol on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While on that patrol, another squad in his company was ambushed about a quarter-mile away, around 11 a.m. About four hours later, medical evacuation helicopters arrived. Mary said she immediately wondered why it took so long for the helicopters to arrive.
Mary said as soon as she received word her brother was missing in action, she got to work trying to get more information. She joined a POW/MIA organization based in San Diego.
In 1974, she visited Marine Corps Casualty Assistance in Washington, D.C. She was the first person related to her brother to see the official company investigation.
Mary said she was shocked to learn her brother’s fellow Marines described him in the report as a loner who ate and slept by himself and did not have any friends.
“That didn’t make any sense,” Mary said. “They were saying negative things about his character, but not much else about how he could just disappear.”
In 1976, when Mary was 33, she joined the U.S. Army as a stenographer for three generals at a recruiting command, to “understand the military from within and try to piece together myself what that investigation really was saying,” Mary said. She was not allowed to make copies of the reports on her brother’s disappearance, but she learned shorthand and took extensive notes.
More than 20 years later, in 1998, after Mary got her first computer, she found through the internet a man who was coordinating an upcoming reunion of her brother’s battalion. She reached out to him, asking for help getting in contact with anyone who might have been serving with her brother the day he disappeared. He got her in touch with Sgt. Cecil Phillips, who had been a guide in her brother’s platoon.
Mary said Phillips was eager to help, answering any question he could and even offering to send her copies of photos he had taken in Vietnam and his own daily diary.
After speaking with Phillips and another man who had been her brother’s platoon commander, Mary said she decided to make her own timeline of events the day her brother disappeared, piecing together notes from multiple sources.
“I put all the times together and nothing made sense,” Mary said.
For instance, someone had reported her brother missing at 2 p.m., though other Marines reported seeing Gregory near the helicopter’s landing area an hour later, near the dead and wounded Marines.
Mary dug up the helicopter pilot’s after action report — on May 23, 1969, the pilot reported completing duty at 1:55 p.m., meaning there was no way he was at the landing area an hour later, as the company investigation claimed.
Also, in the company investigation, members said Gregory left his assigned position to stand by the dead and wounded Marines, threw up and then sat down at the base of a tree. Members said they loaded the dead and wounded onto the helicopter, and when they turned around again, Gregory was gone.
“How could an ill Marine get up and disappear at a landing zone within 30 seconds and not one of approximately 50 Marines saw him?” Mary said.
In 2003, a team that searches Southeast Asia looking for tips on downed planes or buried Americans from the Vietnam War found people who had found the body of an American troop on a mountain, while they were hunting. The mountain was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where Gregory had been patrolling, but the location was about a half-mile from the location of his disappearance in the investigation.
Despite that discrepancy, Mary said she knew the hunters had found her brother. The people who found the body said he had light brown skin; the Bentons are Yaqui and Choctaw Indian. No other American is missing from that exact area.
“My brother fits every detail of that body found,” Mary said.
The problem was, Mary said, the official search teams from the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii go by the coordinates in the company investigation.
“It is up to me to find the truth and prove the investigation is all a lie,” she said.
In June 2013, Mary got in contact with the helicopter pilot, retired Marine Corps Col. David White, who served three tours in Vietnam and earned two Silver Stars.
White said he would have landed at the attack zone no later than 12:30 p.m. May 23, 1969, and possibly much sooner. He said he would have been there no longer than 30 seconds before taking off with the wounded. He had also made one more stop before ending his day at 1:55 p.m.
“How could everyone in the company investigation be so far off on all their times?” Mary said.
Mary said she got a copy of her brother’s medical records. Just before his final patrol, he fell and injured his right knee. She has a letter from him, saying he was not allowed to take any extra rest after he hurt his knee. Mary said her brother’s platoon leader told her he had pleaded with the lieutenant in charge not to send Gregory on that final patrol because he was so sick with malaria, but the lieutenant made Gregory go anyway.
Mary felt that after talking with the helicopter pilot, her investigation was complete.
“It is my finding that the members of my brother’s squad left him on that mountain during the final two hours of their four-hour patrol,” Mary said. “I believe (they) got sick of Greg’s complaining about being too ill to make it back to the command post and they just left him on that mountain all by himself.”
Mary said all she needs is for one person to tell the truth about what happened that day, so an official team can go to Vietnam and find what is left of her brother.
“For the past 45 years, I have shed tears every day because of what happened to my brother,” Mary said. “I sometimes wonder what he must have been thinking when they left him. How betrayed he must have felt, dying all alone 12,000 miles from home with no one to help him.”
Mary said she has pored over the investigation into the disappearance of the only other member of the 1st Battalion to go MIA in Vietnam, but found no discrepancies.
“The lieutenant that conducted my brother’s investigation obviously did not know what he was doing,” Mary said.
Since Gregory’s disappearance, both of his and Mary’s parents have passed away, and their other four siblings have let it go. Mary said she has not been in contact with two of those siblings since 1987.
“The loss of my brother destroyed our whole family,” Mary said. “I am all Greg has, but I will never stop searching for the truth to bring him home.”
Mary said she still hears from time to time from people like Savage, who bought a bracelet with her brother’s name on it. She responds to every one.
Savage said, after hearing Gregory’s story, she has promised Mary, who is in failing health, she will do whatever she can to help Mary bring home her brother’s remains, and continue to do so if Mary passes away before it happens.
“I will do whatever it takes, go to D.C., march, lay down in front of the memorial, contact senators, and my 11-year-old grandson said he’ll take up the cause too,” Savage said.
Savage said Gregory Benton’s is probably just one of many similar stories.
“How many more are out there?” Savage said.
Savage said she has eight brothers who served in the military; her youngest brother just retired after 45 years of service.
“Gregory Benton went into the Marines right out of high school; he was so proud of himself, because he would make something of his life,” Savage said. “A year later, there was no life.”