Bennie Howard Jr., the reluctant hometown hero who visited Wendell on Independence Day to collect his long-lost Army dog tag in a ceremony at the town square, has died. He was 93.
Howard grew up in Wendell, but enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war he settled in New Bern and began a long career in the insurance business.
But he was drawn back to his hometown after town planner Patrick Reidy tracked him down and told him a man in Italy had discovered his dog tag on a beach near Pisa, Italy.
Jury Galli flew to North Carolina to return the dog tag to Howard in person and Wendell officials arranged for Galli to make the presentation during the town’s Independence Day celebration.
Howard, at first, didn’t want a big fuss made over the discovery. He was happy that someone had found the dog tag and wanted to return it, but that was good enough.
He acquiesced to requests to make a bigger deal out of the dog tag’s return and agreed ultimately to serve as the grand marshal of last year’s Independence Day parade. And he was all smiles as he sat on the stage during a brief program to return the missing ID badge.
Howard operated radar systems during World War II and trained other soldiers in how to use the technology, which was new at the time.
“He definitely was a humble man about what he did, even though though the stories you hear about his radar skills say what he did was really important,” Reidy said.
Reidy said he was glad the town was able to give Howard his moment in the sun. “When I talked to his son, he said his father was reluctant to come, but when he did come, it just made his day. It was one of those things where I’m glad we were able to do that for him while he was still alive to enjoy it,” Reidy said.
Sheree Hedrick struck up a fast friendship with Howard when he returned to Wendell. Howard knew Hedrick’s father, the late O.W. Hedrick and remember Sheree from when she was a little girl. After the July 4 ceremony, Hedrick stayed in touch, visiting with him at his home in New Bern and later at the nursing home in New Bern where he died.
“We stopped to see him on New Year’s Day. He showed me his wife’s picture and said he knew it wouldn’t be long before he would get to see her. He said he wasn’t afraid and that he was ready to died.”
Hedrick said the recognition in Wendell meant a lot to Howard. “He would refer to it as ‘His shining day.’ July Fourth was his moment in the sun,” Hedrick said.
A memorial service is set for Saturday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m. at Centenary United Methodist Church in New Bern.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been completed.