A time to remember: Memorial Day comes often with Donny goneThey were like brothers. They were boys together. Same-age cousins who lived house-to-house on Harding Street. Hunting, swimming, school, goofing off. “We did everything.” They became men, and, in 1964, they went off to war in a place called Viet Nam – separated by branch, one a Marine, the other in the Navy.
They were like brothers.
They were boys together.
Same-age cousins who lived house-to-house on Harding Street.
Hunting, swimming, school, goofing off.
“We did everything.”
They became men, and, in 1964, they went off to war in a place called Viet Nam – separated by branch, one a Marine, the other in the Navy.
Donny came home a year later and Richard couldn’t be there. He had to suffer the pain of losing his cousin, his brother, while stuck on a ship on the other side of the Pacific.
They weren’t allowing soldiers in Vietnam to go back for funerals, family or not. They said “people don’t want to come back,” Richard said at his home north of Two Harbors this week.
He sat at a table laden with documents and pictures of Donny’s short military career. Behind him hung his cousin’s dress blues. Richard talked about two California kids with fathers who served in World War II simply doing their duty, defending the world against communism.
“We thought we could go over there and help solve the problems that were arising,” Richard said.
“We both understood that either of us could be killed.”
Not being able to go home for the funeral, Richard says, meant there’s never been “full closure.” In their minds, they should have reunited alive and well at home to “party it down.”
Instead, Richard arrived in Fairfield months later to an aunt bereft with grief and a public not in line with the views that inspired the two to enlist. Richard said his aunt went “crazy” at the loss of her son, especially when she disobeyed the military’s urging to not open Donny’s casket. She did, and “went off the deep end.”
Richard tried to console her and was stunned when she said: “Why couldn’t it have been you.”
He was in full view of the collateral damage war can cause at home and on the front. It’s why he remains active in veterans groups in Wisconsin. “People at home didn’t understand,” he said. He takes comfort for himself and others in talking about Vietnam, “passing stories on.”
It’s a final recognition. “It’s good to talk about it.”
And a nation’s wounds have healed somewhat after the bitter upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s that always had the backlight of Vietnam.
When he marches in parades today, people say “thank you” and it warms him. “It wasn’t that way when we came back. There’s more understanding now.”
Don Bennett went from a desk job to lance corporal after just a year in the Marines. Everyone said it fit because he was a “charger” and a “leader.”
On Sept. 14, 1965, Donny and five other Marines were killed by a sea mine along a beachhead in Da Nang.
The local paper carried the news of his funeral, what his cousin didn’t get to see. “Many people filed into the simple church behind the coffin bearing the remains of Donald Bennett, the local boy who only a year ago had stood behind a supermarket counter smiling at his high school chums and friends.”
Richard tried to keep doing his Navy best while wracked by the throb of loss. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it.” He wrote letters “like crazy” to stay in contact with home. “You keep thinking about it.”
“It was a loss like your own brother,” he said. “We were hoping we would rejoice at the end.”
Richard holds the ephemera about Donny after securing it from his father, who died two years ago. It was passed on from his uncle and his father had talked about throwing away the telegram death notice, the letter from the White House, the Purple Heart certificate, the newspaper clippings. Richard doesn’t need these things to remember, but he wants them to be seen by future generations.
He’s trying to find a place to display the items but is finding it difficult. In California, museums are “full up.” Here in the Midwest, it’s been difficult to find a place that will take the items without a local connection.
Richard retired from the Navy after 20 years of service. He moved to be with friends in Wisconsin, and see “the four seasons” he never saw in California. He hooked on with Lake Superior ore boats and met a woman who would become his wife. They moved to Two Harbors 15 years ago. Now he’s retired, “after 42 years of sailing.”
As Memorial Day nears, he thinks about Donny a lot. He enjoys going to Monday events and talking with family members about lost soldiers and keeping the light of patriotism burning.
“We need to remember our soldiers and the hardships our men and women go through,” he said. “All so we can have it better at home.”
He urges people to keep in touch with military members. Feeling alone in a war “brings sorrow,” he said. “Sometimes we forget.”
“I think he would have been something big,” Richard says of Donny. “He would have been productive.”
He was a small guy, Richard says while holding up the dress blue jacket and ruminating about what might have been. The world didn’t get to see this “go-getter” into his adult life. A “driven and intelligent” young man who likely would have been involved in “politics or own his own business,” Richard said.
“I think about him a lot. It’s too bad he can’t be here.”
They were brothers at home and in arms across an ocean.
They were boys together.
Honor the dead
Memorial Day services in Lake County
Event begins at 9:30 a.m. with city band playing at Two Harbors High School. Program at 10 a.m. followed by a procession to Lakeview Cemetery (bus provided) for laying of a wreath, American Legion gun salute, and Taps. Luncheon following at American Legion hall downtown.
Event begins at 10 a.m. with community band and choir, speaker at Silver Bay Veterans Home. Refreshments to follow and flags placed on graves at cemetery.
Sunday service begins at 10 a.m. at Crystal Bay Cemetery. Singing, reading of names, and Taps.