Morrow County gathered in April 1973 to welcome home one of its own. Michael “Butch” Benge, a graduate of Ione High School, was taken prisoner during the Tet offensive in 1968 in Vietnam. Following five years as a civilian POW, Benge was freed by his captors and flew home for a brief visit with his family.
Benge joined the International Volunteer Services in Vietnam in 1962 and then the Agency for International Development in 1965 as an area development advisor. He was adopted as a blood brother by the Montnegards, with whom he was working in the central highlands in Vietnam. Captured by the Viet Cong on Jan. 31, 1968, Benge was held in various places in South Vietnam for two years before being taken to North Vietnam.
“Welcome Home” signs on the walls of the Morrow County fair pavilion greeted Benge as he and his family joined 450 Morrow County residents at a potluck welcome reception April 16, 1973, in Heppner. Mayors Robert Drake of Ione, Gene Orwick of Lexington and Jerry Sweeney of Heppner presented Benge with keys to their respective cities, and other gifts included a tape recorder and typewriter, as Benge planned to write a book about his five-year captivity. He also was invited to attend the Oregon Legislature as an honored guest of State Rep. Jack Sumner of Heppner. Glenn Ward, chairman of the “Michael Benge Day” committee, said the outpouring of support was so great there weren’t enough jobs to give all the volunteers.
When Ward, a friend of the Benge family for 20 years, asked Benge how he was able to keep up with all the activities since his return, Benge replied, “Well, for five years I’ve been doing nothing.”
Benge returned to Washington, D.C., the following Monday, where he was being treated as an outpatient at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Following his release from the hospital, Benge planned to campaign around the U.S. to push for an accounting of other prisoners of war and those missing in action.