Editor’s note: Originally published on Veterans Day, 2010. Carl Bender passed away less than a year later. Today marks 50 years since Bender’s heroism facing the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
Carl Bender’s war in Vietnam started much like his time in Korea — in the air.
In the early 1960s he flew military “advisers” into southeast Asia.
Things changed dramatically when he got a new ground assignment.
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Bender had experience as a police officer in Belleville during his civilian days and later as a provost marshal after Korea. In April 1967, he was assigned to Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon as operations officer for the 377th Air Force Security Police Squadron.
Maj. Bender’s responsibility was to keep enemy forces off the air base grounds. That mission got off to a bad start on his second day in Vietnam when he had a contentious security briefing with an Army colonel.
Remembering the waves of North Korean soldiers he watched from the air as they attacked NATO forces in Korea, Bender asked the colonel what he should be prepared for from the North Vietnamese.
“He told me the most I could expect was an attack of a couple hundred disorganized and poorly armed amateurs,” Bender said. “I said ‘Is that right?’ and then I got up to leave.”
Bender immediately realized it was a mistake. The colonel, feeling disrespected, demanded to know just how long Bender had been in-country.
“I looked at my watch, and that really (ticked) him off,” Bender said. “And then I told him ‘about 37 and a half hours.’”
“And that makes you an expert?” the colonel demanded.
“No, sir. But this is my fourth tour of the Orient and I know what these people are capable of when they’re determined,” Bender said.
He told the colonel he anticipated an attack of 2,000 well-armed, well-organized soldiers that could come day or night. The answer made the Army colonel incredulous — and got Bender thrown out of the briefing.
Nine months later, on Jan. 31, 1968, Bender’s nightmare scenario became a reality.
North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched coordinated attacks across South Vietnam that were designed to capture key military installations, communication facilities and to capture military and political leaders in the south. It was the turning point of the war - politically if not militarily - and came on their biggest holiday, the lunar New Year known as Tet.
At about 3 a.m. four communist infantry battalions of more than 2,600 soldiers armed with mortars, rockets, grenades and automatic weapons began to fight their way through the perimeter fences at Tan Son Nhut.
Bender commanded 1,000 security personnel, but only about 850 were on the air base and only 151 of them - plus 60 Army soldiers faced the main thrust of the attack — Echo Sector near Bunker O-51.
They were armed only with .38 pistols, M-16 rifles and a few M-60 light machine guns. Military politics and the brass’s belief they would never face a major attack denied them the heavier weapons they were trained to use.
When the attack started communications were jammed with frenzied chatter between security outposts. Unable to see the battle unfold or communicate with his men, Bender left the Security Control Center bunker to check in person.
Almost immediately after leaving the bunker Bender felt a thud in his left arm. It spun him around. He was bleeding profusely, but the bullet narrowly missed the bone. He continued on.
One of his machine gun teams was quickly running out of ammunition. Bender grabbed two cans of 60mm rounds and two men.
“We were under heavy fire and had to get across an open field,” Bender said. “I told them I was going to run out 10 steps and hit the dirt and that they should cover me. Then they should run out 20 steps and hit the dirt while I covered them.
“They must have thought I was crazy, because I went out there and hit the dirt, and when I turned around to look for them, they were gone,” Bender said.
He got up and ran to the machine gun emplacement. He found the machine gunner bleeding profusely from his groin - his femoral artery was hit. The machine gunner’s assistant was shot in the arm and the bone was shattered.
Bender handed his radio to the machine gunner and his rifle to the assistant. He told the assistant to fire as best he could with his good arm to provide cover as Bender drug them both by their collars away from enemy fire.
He called frantically for an ambulance. Rescue workers refused to leave their station because of the heavy fire.
Bender finally got the wounded men into a Jeep and sent them off to the base hospital, He had little hope the machine gunner would survive.
As the battle unfolded Bender lay pinned down by bullets and mortars. He prayed.
“Lord if it is your will that I am not to survive this battle, then so be it. But right now our side is not doing too well. The enemy has penetrated our perimeter fences and mine fields, captured our primary defensive bunker, continues to rain down upon us with rocket and mortar fire, and somewhere out there in the darkness my field commander Capt. (Carl) Denisio and sector supervisor Lt. (Melvin) Grover are surrounded.
“Please protect them until I can effect a rescue. In addition, Lord, I need your help to monitor my decisions, as there are about 25,000 people on this base that right now are depending on me to make some hard decisions.
“Guide me in what I am about to do. Amen.”
As he finished, Bender noticed muzzle flashes to his side. They reminded him of his flying days when you could see flames coming from the exhaust pipes of planes in the night.
“With one quick roll and rifle extended I put five or six rounds into an old gravestone, which literally exploded,” Bender said. “I guess it took whomever was behind it with it as I never drew any more fire from that point.”
Gun, rocket and mortar fire continued all around him. Bender said he was about to make the toughest decision of his military career.
He realized some of the most damaging enemy fire was coming from within his own defensive position. North Vietnamese forces had captured Bunker O-51 and were using it to cover their attack.
Finally able to break through on the radio, the major called for air support. He discovered a pair of American helicopters were about two clicks - a little over a mile - away. He asked the pilots to hit Bunker O-51 with all the rockets they had. Then he asked that they come back around and hit the bunker with machine guns.
“I had five men in there and I didn’t know if they were alive or dead,” Bender said. “I didn’t know if the enemy had them captured in there or if they had been removed.”
He watched as the helicopter gunships pummeled his security post.
“I had to stop the enemy from using that bunker,” Bender said. “But I carried that decision around with me for 32 years.”
Four hours after the battle for Tan Son Nhut started, the Army made its way to the air base to help finish off the attackers. The Army commander was shocked.
“You mean to tell me this police squad held off a North Korean regiment for four hours?” he asked Bender.
In the aftermath of the fight, a man crawled out of Bunker O-51.
American troops raised their weapons. Someone shouted not to fire. The badly injured man had dark skin - an African-American, not Vietnamese.
Bender’s heart sank.
Maybe the five Americans inside were still alive when he ordered the air strike. Maybe his order killed the other four - the only U.S. service members to die in the Tan Son Nhut attack.
Bender was bleeding profusely from his left arm and both legs. His right leg was rendered practically useless by a mortar fragment resting up against the bone. Still, he insisted on driving himself to the hospital.
He nearly lost control of the Jeep as he double-clutched through the gears using his left leg, swerving in an out of a ditch by the runway. He planned to stop with the hand brake it did no good. The Jeep hopped over a curb and hit the corner of the hospital before coming to a halt.
When they got him on the operating table, doctors found that Bender had 54 injuries from bullets, rocket fragments, mortars and grenades.
He earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his actions that day.
Many years later, Bender called the house to check on the machine gunner so gravely wounded in 1968. He was alive and well.
“I asked his wife if they were able to have any children after he came back from the war,” Bender said. “She said not only were they able to, but the first one was conceived while he was still in a body cast from his injuries.”
But news about the man who crawled from Bunker O-51 didn’t come for more than three decades after the war.
Sgt. Alonzo Coggins, the lone survivor from the bunker, received the Silver Star in 2000 for his actions during the Tet Offensive. Bender was asked to participate in the ceremony. He asked to speak with Coggins for a few minutes before the presentation.
Bender cried. He apologized for calling the air strike. And the two men prayed together.
Coggins reassured him: “You did what you had to do.”
The other four men in Bunker 0-51 were killed during the North Vietnamese attack and before the helicopters arrived, Coggins said. Badly burned from an explosion and bleeding from severe wounds, Coggins survived by playing dead.
The details mattered.
“It was like a weight was lifted off my chest,” Bender said. “I agonized over that for 32 years.”
Bender is now 81 and lives back in Belleville. He retains physical and mental scars from the battle. It bothers him to no end that the American public viewed the Tet Offensive as a lost battle.
“We gave them a terrible beating,” Bender said.
American forces at Tan Son Nhut killed 957 North Vietnamese — eight of them killed by Bender — while only four U.S. service members were killed and 11 wounded.
“It was a hell of a way to fight a war. We would have won it if they would have only given us a chance.”