MASON CITY — When J.O. Benson was on a plane approaching Vietnam, where he was to serve in the infantry, he looked down and saw explosions on the ground.
The Mason City resident remembers thinking, “Whoa, this is for real.”
Serving in the Vietnam War was “quite a life-changing event,” said Benson, now 71.
Benson, who is originally from a small town in Minnesota, was drafted into the Army in 1968 after graduating from Winona State University with a degree in business administration.
He said the draft board told his father, “We are just waiting for him to graduate.”
He was sent to Vietnam in May 1969 as part of a rifle platoon. He was a sergeant and second in command under a lieutenant.
“It made you grow up in a hurry,” he said. “You are responsible for guys’ lives.”
Benson said the most difficult part was “keeping everybody alert and aware.”
They would be inserted by helicopter into an area and left there for five to seven days. They did patrols during the day and ambushes during the night.
He said it was stressful but “you grew accustomed to it.”
Benson said the members of the platoon didn’t know each other at the beginning but became close as time went on. He said some of his friends were killed and others were injured.
He said he is glad there were no accidental shootings in his platoon.
“You are always worried about that,” he said.
He said some of the others had the following saying written on their helmets: “When I die I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell.”
They fought mosquitoes, leeches and red ants. Benson came back with a staph infection in both feet because “we were always wet.”
A lot of the men developed skin issues, he said.
Benson was in Vietnam for 10½ months. He was sent home when President Richard Nixon began drawing down troops.
“I was elated,” he said.
After coming home he began working for Briggs Transportation in Minneapolis. In 1973 he moved to Mason City to become a Briggs terminal manager. He later served as manager of Fast Food Merchandisers.
In 1994 he developed a hearing problem that led to his retirement.
He and his wife, Gwen, have been married for 47 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.
Until recently “I didn’t talk about my experiences (in Vietnam) much,” he said.
Benson said a lot of people aren’t even aware he served there.
“The They Served With Honor” series in the Globe Gazette on Vietnam veterans “made me think a lot about that period of time,” he said.
Attending Operation LZ in Forest City with his friend Bob Kolbet also made him reflect on Vietnam.
“It was a hell of an experience,” he said. “I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”