Benjamin Cero was born and raised in Danville, one hour up the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. He graduated from Danville Area High School in 1959 and went on to attend Dickinson College in Carlisle.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in English in 1963, Cero taught English in Haverford and Sunbury for four years and tried his hand at being a salesman for another year before volunteering for the U.S. Marines.
“It’s not a job, not a profession. It’s a calling,” Cero said.
With his wife and two daughters at home in Sunbury, Cero went to Officer Candidate School in 1968 at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, where, at 26, he was the oldest in his platoon and nicknamed “Gramps” as a result.
“It’s a funny experience as long as it’s not happening to you,” he said. “The drill instructors are along the lines of what you may have seen in the movie '(This Is) Parris Island.' They had the Smokey-Bear hats and they get up close and yell at you and scream and make you do things you never thought you could do or ever really wanted to do, for that matter.”
Cero still remembers standing in formation with 40 other men during one inspection when an M14 rifle cartwheeled across the room in front of him because it was found to be “unsatisfactorily dirty.”
After five months of training, Cero was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve. He was then sent to The Basic School for six months to learn how run an infantry platoon. After graduation in June 1969, 249 of the 250 graduates in Cero’s company received orders to Vietnam.
Cero went to Communication School where he learned all about radios and telephones, which were the primary lines of communication at the time.
Two months later, Cero flew from Harrisburg to the West Coast where he waited for a week before boarding a contracted civilian flight with other troops to Okinawa, Japan. Once there, the troops were stationed at various bases before traveling “in country.” He said his first impression of Vietnam was of the heat, which he estimated to be about 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Here, in Harrisburg, you think August is hot and muggy,” Cero said. “Then you go down to Washington, what they call ‘Foggy Bottom,’ and then you say, ‘Man, this is nasty down here.’ Then I flew to Okinawa and thought, ‘... This is bad.’ Then I got to Vietnam and I thought, ‘Jeez, it was nice on Okinawa.’”
On Sept. 15, 1969, Cero arrived as a radio platoon leader in the 5th Communications Battalion stationed at Camp Hoa Long in Da Nang, Vietnam. Five days later, he received his first decoration, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, for simply being there.
Cero’s company had 2,000 telephones and all of the equipment necessary to construct an entire telephone network. His platoon had five big radios, the same long-range radios his instructor had glossed over while he was in Communication School.
“So I said, ‘lance corporal, we’re going to have a school session here. You show me how this thing works.’ And away we went,” Cero said.
Cero learned that with these long-range radios, his platoon could send signals from central Vietnam to Hawaii or even the East Coast. For the next year, he spent the majority of his time on China Beach, where his hut was 100 yards from the South China Sea. He pointed out that his experience was nothing like the '8os television show "China Beach."
“There were no nurses. It was just our communications unit,” he said. “It was known as the rear echelon ... If it were any closer to the rear, I would have floated at high tide.”
His platoon’s primary job was to maintain communications between the III Marine Amphibious Force, which was one of the largest Marine units in Vietnam, and Marine headquarters in Hawaii. Over the course of his 12 months in Vietnam, Cero remembers going on only two or three missions to support combat units.
Otherwise, Cero’s time was spent carrying out his secondary duties, which included the job of Slot Verification Officer.
“I thought they were kidding,” he said. “It was my job once a week to take whatever tools I had and go check all the slot machines in the various clubs ... I would go check to see that these slot machines were functioning properly.”
Cero and several other Marines with teaching experience also taught in the military compound during the night in order to help Marines work toward their GEDs while they were in Vietnam.
During Cero’s tour, so many of the troops joined recreational sports leagues to pass the time. Cero played baseball, basketball and football, and his baseball team won the Army baseball league in Vietnam.
On Feb. 1, 1970, Cero was promoted to first lieutenant and left Vietnam several months thereafter. He received his law degree from Dickinson School of Law, returned to active duty in 1975 and went on to conduct sea trials as a defense lawyer, prosecutor and military judge at various points in time for the Marine Corps and U.S. Navy. While conducting sea trials, he would travel to any Navy vessel in his circuit requiring his services, whether it was in Scotland, Spain or Italy while he was stationed in Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii.
Cero retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel in 1992 and continued to work as a lawyer and then as a judge until 2006. During his service he also received the Meritorious Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and a National Defense Service Medal.