When Marine Staff Sgt. James Beningo Jr. returned in 1969 from Vietnam, he was scorned, ignored and even spit on. There was no hero’s welcome for Veterans returning from an unpopular war.
On April 15 on Mill Road in Morgantown, a surprised Sgt. Beningo was greeted by a convoy of more than 70 motorcycles pulling up in front of his home. American Legion Riders Post 209 of Scotch Plains, N.J., and the Eagle Riders Aerie 2137 of Bridgewater, N.J. along with others from Pennsylvania area legions, VFWs and other clubs had met at three checkpoints to converge in Morgantown.
“Here is our hero,” said Army veteran John Fleming of North Wales, who had researched and obtained all medals and ribbons that Beningo earned, some he had never received.
Fleming played a key role leading up to the day’s ceremony and had carefully placed them all in a shadow box.
“Our veterans should be treated like rock stars. They deserve it. Our organization says, ‘We Got Your Back at Home,’” said Bob Crawford, national coordinator of Warriors Watch Riders.
This “Mug and Hug” was a long overdue welcome home.
An emotional Beningo was greeted by Danielle Fialkowski, Rider captain and the national director of Warriors Watch Riders. She is the daughter of the organization’s 2008 founders Tony “T” Fialkowski, and Kathryn “Kat” Fialkowski. They are currently 3,000 members strong from Florida to Maine, California, Texas, Chicago, Wisconsin, Kentucky and growing.
Beningo was shaken as Marine Col. Kenneth M. DeTreux, commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, and University of Pennsylvania Naval Science Professor, pinned the Purple Heart and Combat V on Beningo’s chest. In the Marine Corps, the V is worn to denote combat heroism or to recognize individuals who were exposed to personal hazard during participation in combat.
The tears flowed as he was also presented with coins from Warriors Watch as well as ITTA, and a Marine logo blanket made by the Blue Star Mothers of America PA9, a local chapter.
Col. DeTreux was presented with the Kathryn Fialkowski Memorial Award.
Beningo’s daughter Shirley had gotten the ball rolling after telling her father’s story to a co-worker who turned out to be the Warriors Watch Riders National director Danielle Fialkowski.
Her father’s war story was held tightly in his mind as many veterans do theirs, never spoken about.
Born in Lackawanna, N.Y., in 1940 my dad joined the Air Force in 1957 when a Marine recruiter told him to “go back to school and grow some more.”
In 1961, he returned as Airman Second Class and two months later he was back at the Marine Recruiter’s office. In 1964, he met my mother, a vacationing school teacher, when he was stationed in Hawaii.
A few months later he showed up on her parent’s doorstep in Morgantown with a diamond ring and a marriage proposal. Shirley Montgomery married Jim Beningo Dec. 30, 1964; they celebrated their 52nd anniversary this past year.
Camp Le June, Vieques, and Pendleton were some of the places the couple called home. In January 1968, he said goodbye to his pregnant wife and toddler son, Christopher immediately after the Tet Offensive (one of the largest military campaigns of the war) started, participating in Operation Bold Mariner,
He worked with the 19th Interrogator Translator Team and was trained by medics to render aid to villagers. He soon became known as “the Pied Piper” with his large following of village children.
The loss of his Captain Willard Dale Marshall, killed June 11, 1969, still haunts him to this day. When Marshall was mortally wounded on June 11, 1968, his last words were, “Take care of my Marines,” Beningo said.
“These men were not (just) loyal,” he said of the captain. “They were fiercely loyal and that’s why we would have followed him into hell.”
A few weeks later a corpsman dove into his foxhole and handed him a telegram stating his wife and baby daughter were doing fine.
He returned home in early ’69 and after making it past the protesters, spent six months trying to convince the paymaster that he was not dead. Eventually he was granted his back pay. Although earning the Purple Heart (drove over a land mine, shot in the leg, took shrapnel in his back several times) he never received his official citation. Still wanting to serve, he joined the Coast Guard Reserves working in Gloucester, N.J., inspecting ships at Marcus Hook and hauling drunks out of the Barnegat, N.J. surf. He retired in the early ‘80s as a Chief Petty Officer.
With an illness upon him, one of his ‘end of life’ issues was resolved on April 15. He was honored for shedding his blood for his country by receiving his Purple Heart.
“I feel like I have come home,” Beningo said, thanking the crowd.
U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-7th Dist., wrote up a Congressional citation and presented it to him.
“It is a long overdue healing. He is now able to make peace with his place in the war,” said his daughter.
“There is no place on earth I would rather be today, than to thank Sgt. Beningo for his service and sacrifice for his country that provided a blanket of safety so we may sleep good at night. We honor and appreciate all the men and women who have answered the call. I ride in honor of my parents,” said Fialkowski. Her father is a Vietnam veteran and a Marine.
“We come in like smoke and go out like smoke,” she added and they were gone, as Beningo stood proudly and humbly watching.