By Cliff Collins
From Coast Guard officer to lawyer
to author. Bill Benedetto has lived
by one motto: "Never give up."
At William R. Benedetto’s 25-year law school reunion this fall, most of his former classmates were around the age of his children.
That’s because Benedetto, now 77 and retired, did not go to law school until he was in his late 40s and had completed a 28-year career as a chief warrant officer with the U.S. Coast Guard. Now he is many leagues deep into a third vocation, as a nationally published author. In March, his nonfiction account of a dramatic Vietnam-era ship disaster hit bookstores.
In true Horatio Alger fashion, Benedetto was born and raised "dirt poor" in a small town in Maine. His father died when Bill was 8 years old, leaving eight children. Of his mother, Benedetto says: "She was so tough. She wouldn’t let us fail." Every child finished high school, and all worked from a young age. For him, "just getting through high school seemed like a major accomplishment." In looking at the prospects for his future, a paper factory was "the only thing in town," he says. So he joined the Coast Guard, married and began raising a family.
Over the years, as his rank and duties changed, Benedetto variously did search and rescue around the heavily fished Grand Banks off Newfoundland, handled shore security on the Great Lakes and, in the later years, worked as a marine investigator. He was stationed from Connecticut to Texas to California, was shipping commissioner in New Orleans during the 1965 Hurricane Betsy and ended up in Portland at Swan Island in 1970, where he remained until he retired in 1974. Oregon’s emphasis on environmental protection, exemplified by then-Gov. Tom McCall, attracted him and his fmaily to this area.
Benedetto’s involvement with marine investigation got him interested in becoming a lawyer. He had accumulated two years’ worth of college credits after several years of night school, so he completed his bachelor’s degree at Portland State University and then was accepted to law school at the University of Oregon.
These major steps in his education inspired everyone in his family: His wife, Barbara, got a bachelor’s degree from PSU; three of his daughters all went back to school, with one becoming a pharmacist and two registered nurses; and his son became an engineer and later a physician. "Education really bonded the family," Benedetto observes. "One of the things I’m most proud of is my family."
And one of the things Benedetto was most certain of after the Coast Guard was that he no longer wanted to take orders from anyone. When he obtained his law license at age 50, he never considered any route other than hanging up a shingle as a sole practitioner. He and his wife opened a Beaverton general practice, which they maintained until he retired in 2001. "Becoming a lawyer was the greatest thing in the world to me," says Benedetto, who still retains his New England accent.
But the former seaman also harbored another strong interest. He "always had the hankering to write." In the 1950s he had taken a correspondence course in short fiction writing, he penned several stories for the Coast Guard’s magazine, and in 1965, he sold a story to Harper’‘s magazine. After closing his law practice, he embarked on a project that had interested him from many years before: writing a book about the S.S. Badger State, a merchant marine freighter that sank in spectacular fashion and became the deadliest sea disaster of the Vietnam War.
The ship had left Seattle in late 1969, bearing 5,000 tons of monster-size bombs weighing up to 2,000 pounds apiece, all headed to Da Nang in support of American troops. The Badger State then encountered a convergence of two gigantic storms and a horrific series of events that made one wonder if "a malevolent spirit" was bent on sabotaging the mission, says Benedetto.
The angry sea shook the bombs loose from their cargo holds, and one went off, tearing a hole through the hull and forcing the skipper’s order to abandon ship. Then another bomb hurtling out of the doomed ship capsized one of the two lifeboats the storm hadn’t taken away, after which a flock of albatrosses attacked the survivors and "tried to land on their heads and peck at their eyes," he says.
Twenty-six crew members died, and 13 survived, including the captain, who is still living and became a key source during Benedetto’s four years of research for his book, Sailing Into the Abyss. His model was the bestseller The Perfect Storm, both because of the obvious story similarities and what Benedetto considers its top-notch writing. His volume is published by Kensington Publishing Corp. and available through bookstores and Internet booksellers. A paperback version will be out in 2006.
Benedetto now holds out hope that his agent can land a successful film contract. He admits that the odds are daunting — just as they were that he would ever obtain college and law degrees and sell a publisher on his book: "My philosophy is: Never give up."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2005 Cliff Collins