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It's never too late to attend your first convention

The 99th Infantry Division Association held its 59th annual convention Aug. 6-9 at Kansas City MO. I was one of the 85 World War II veterans attending who had served in that division, once nearly 15,000 strong. I am 85, and was 18, a University of Illinois freshman, when America entered the war on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941. So most of those veterans are near my age.

In addition to the 85 veterans attending, the wives, children, grandchildren, and other guests raised the attendance to 250, a far cry from the 1,200 who attended my first reunion in 1990. Many of the old soldiers were in wheelchairs, or with walkers or canes, and many were to able to attend. Those who attended enjoyed the camaraderie of old friends with whom they served 63 years ago in the Battle of the Bulge, the Remagen bridgehead, the Ruhr and Bavaria, or in Nazi prison camps. It was good to be able to share with these aged Americans the memories and freedom for which our comrades gave so much. Next year, possibly our last, our reunion will be June 24-27 at St. Louis MO.

Until March 17, 1990, I was not aware that there was a 99th Infantry Division Association or annual reunions. That day I received a phone call asking, “Are you the Phil Benefiel who was in ASTP at Commerce TX, and went to the 99th Division at Camp Maxey [Texas]?” I answered, “Yes, who’s this?” The caller replied that he was Jim McIlroy and “You’ve been lost for 45 years.”

McIlroy (“Mac”) was then president of the 99th Division Association and had been searching the records and locating many of his fellow GIs, especially those who had been in the ASTP unit at ETSTC (East Texas State Teachers College) at Commerce, now Texas A&M-Commerce. Mac and I were among the 200 American soldiers sent to Commerce in 1943, and among the 200,000 soldiers sent to the numerous colleges and universities across the nation in the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program.)

I never fully understood the Army’s purpose in sending me to college, but after a hot summer and fall in artillery basic training at Fort Sill OK, I was happy to live in a college dormitory, eat in its cafeteria, and march in my uniform from class to class. The college’s female population was 600 co-eds and its male population we jokingly said was 200 soldiers, one draft-dodger, and one 4-F. A good ratio.

It was too good to last. Suddenly the Army decided it needed our bodies, not our brains, and nearly 200,000 GIs packed their duffle bags and headed for the army camps and the army routine, barracks, mess halls, KP, rifle ranges, bayonet drills, forced marches and obstacle courses. And then overseas.

Forty-five years later, Mac “found” me and invited me to attend my first 99t reunion at Louisville that year. There I was reunited with comrades from ASTP and the 99th. Each year, even this year, there are a few “first-timers” at our convention who have just learned that their old division has reunions. Those of us who have participated in the conventions and activities of our association have gained priceless understanding and appreciation of our part in history and in preserving and memorializing that history.

Not the least among the 99th’s continuing services to its veterans, their families, our memories and history, is the MIA Project which, in cooperation with our Belgian “diggers,” continues to recover the remains of our comrades, missing more than half a century.

Old soldiers will die, but their service lives on and inspires new generations of patriots.

Phil Benefiel F/393
1308 17th St.
Lawrenceville IL 62439

Last modified Dec. 17, 2008

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