On March 27, 2020, the Marine Corps lost one of their own with the passing of Maj. Lawrence Bender. All Americans should know about him because he was a patriot.
In other words, he truly loved and defended his country with devotion. This is particularly important today since many—like the multi-million-dollar athletes who refuse to stand for our National Anthem—have lost the notion that patriotism is a virtue. Maj. Bender put his life on the line for our country.
Early Recollections of a Country at War
As a young child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, during World War II, Lawrence Bender recalls what it was like to live in America that was deeply involved in the war. For example, he told how everyone was recruited to find the minutest ways of collecting tin foil found in cigarette packages and chewing gum wrappers so as to purchase war bonds,
Larry, as he was called as a boy, recalls awards being given at his school for those who collected the most tin foil and mock trials for those who lagged behind. To be found guilty of not doing enough in such a time of need brought shame on a person.
The almost daily air raid drills also brought wardens out of the woodwork. They would sometimes tap on the window as his frightened mother pulled back the curtains.
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“Seal this window tighter,” the warden screamed, “I can still see the light of the candle inside.” This was exhilarating for young Larry and gave him a sense of urgency.
“That Is What I Want to Do.”
Larry recalled watching newsreels of Leathernecks fighting the Japanese. The first time he met a Marine was when his father took him to see a group of them getting off an LST (Landing Ship Tank) after returning from the war. They were all dressed in their uniforms, which impressed the young Bender.
He later joined the Merchant Marine Corps in high school because of his insatiable sense of adventure. The day after his graduation in 1955, his father drove him to Toledo, Ohio, where he boarded the motor vessel Joseph H. Frantz. He shoveled coal into the hearth for the next two-and-a-half months to keep the ship running. Although he liked the food, he did not like being denied any liberty or free time off the ship.
We catch a glimpse of young Larry’s adventuresome side with his decision to become an iron-worker. One beautiful day, he caught a glimpse of these men building a bridge over the Cuyahoga River. He found it exhilarating to watch them walk across steel beams, hundreds of feet above the earth.
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“That is what I want to do,” he exclaimed. The job fit this man, who would later earn the reputation among Marines as being fearless.
He Loved the Corps
In 1957, Larry sensed that he was going to be drafted and decided to volunteer. With images of wartime Marines swirling around his head, he asked the man at the Induction Center about the chances of being a Leatherneck.
“Very slim,” he was told. This did not deter Larry, who walked around the corner to the Marine recruiter’s office. He was only thinking of serving two years because he wanted to return to his worldly life and good job. He took the General Classification Test and scored very high. The recruiter noticed and did not let him slip through his fingers.
Larry signed a contract but failed to read the fine print. He later found he had committed not to two but six years of service. The mistake did not matter. He fell in love with the Corps, and the men he served with simply adored him.
Upon joining, he acquired a nickname. Larry describes how his drill instructor chose his new moniker.
“The only thing uglier than you,” he said, “is a moose, so that is what I am going to call you from now on.” This name stuck, but later people referred to him as “Ben.”
“They Were Still Trying to Kill Me”
He personified the Marine saying, “No better friend and no worse enemy.” He was proud of being part of the first official landing of Marines in the Vietnam War in 1965. He later distinguished himself in the Marines elite 1st Force Reconnaissance.
In May of 1968, he led a Recon team going into the Truoi River Valley and ran into an NVA encampment. One of the Marines shot dead an enemy combatant as he was reaching for his gun. The camp erupted in gunfire as now Lt. Bender got down on one knee in a defensive posture. When two NVA appeared ten feet away, he eliminated the first but fell to the ground in pain as he reeled around to take care of the second. He had taken two AK rounds in the groin area, which severed his femoral artery. His men arranged to airlift him through the thick canopy in a basket as the enemy kept firing.
“They were still trying to kill me,” Ben said, reflecting on his dramatic rescue. Going through the “death hatch” of the CH-46 helicopter, he described the strange sound of bullets penetrating its shell. Seventeen rounds hit before he was whisked away to safety.
Maj. Bender survived due to the quick action and expertise of Corpsman Doc Merrithew. However, the injury caused him pain for the rest of his life.
He eventually became a Marine advisor or co-van (Vietnamese for trusted friend) with the 5th Vietnamese Marine Battalion. His Vietnamese counterpart was Capt. Phan, who treated Ben coldly at first. Gradually, he earned Phan’s respect by sharing the rigors of jungle life and trying Vietnamese food with great docility.
The two taught each other card games. On many evenings, both would lie under the stars and marvel at the spectacle while dreaming of a time of peace.
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In this way, the two established a fraternal bond that would get them through a hellish twenty-hour battle.
“‘Dai-uy,’ We No See Sunrise”
The battle began inauspiciously as the two, with their Marine regiment, paddled down the Mekong River. They got a glimpse of what lay ahead when they saw the headless bodies of Vietnamese civilians on the riverbank, who the NVA had murdered. They soon took fire from a battalion-size communist force. Thus, they were outgunned five to one.
The battle began at 10:30 a.m. It was so intense that Capt. Phan told Ben in very poetic oriental terms, “Dai-uy (Captain), we no see sunrise tomorrow!” He then put out his hand and added, “But we take many with us.” Ben returned the handshake with a big smile. The engagement then blazed and only ended at five o’clock the next morning. Maj. Bender explained to the author the exhilaration he felt that day.
“I have never taken drugs in my life,” he said, “but that morning, as I crawled out of that foxhole and walked over the bodies of the dead enemy, I had a euphoria which I imagined it must be like for those who take drugs.” He was later awarded the Silver Star for his fearless leadership that day.
“It Was Easy to Admire Him.”
Ben eventually became a Major. If ever a man could be a poster child for the Marines, Lawrence Bender was that man. At 6 ‘4”, he towered over many of his fellow warriors.
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It did not take much to get his Polish warrior blood boiling. He preferred much more to fight than philosophize. He neither feared a scuffle nor did he shudder at the pain it might bring. Many times, he was the “clean up” man when some drinks with his fellow Marines turned into a brawl. This unruly side of his nature often got the best of him.
Only those who knew him best, like Col. Donald Price, could see through the rough exterior and provide precious insights into Maj. Bender’s intellect. Col. Price points out how Ben not only understood Polish but also knew its history. He was also an expert numismatologist: a collector and student of money and coins. Coin collectors nationwide would frequently call upon him to identify rare coins or appraise their collections.
The first mistake most people made upon meeting Ben was to underestimate him. Col. Price explained how Maj. Bender exploited this simpleton image. He talked loudly, laughed uproariously and gestured grandly with his powerful oversized hands to convey a carefree image. Col. Price concludes:
Ben was an ultra-patient listener. He took his time and was always careful to let others talk as much as they wanted. He would only ask an occasional question like ‘How did that happen?’ or make a comment like ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ While listening to the monologue, Ben maintained an attentive poker face as he sized up the speaker. It did not take him long to summarize a man’s worth as a Marine with a succinct understatement such as, ‘He’s the real deal,’ or ‘I wouldn’t want him in my foxhole.’ Once you understood he was playing his mental cards close to his chest, it was easy to admire him and covet his friendship.
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Maj. Bender never understood why he was so revered among his brother Marines. He would frequently comment on the mystery of how men of higher rank, such as Generals Larry Livingston, Tom Draude, Bill Eshelman, and Col. Don Price, would show him such deference. They loved him not only for what he did but who he was: a true patriot and a loyal friend.
His Wife Mary
What made Lawrence Bender so unique was not the Silver Star and other medals adorning his chest but his moral code. He benefited from a very devout Polish Catholic mother, a disciplinarian father, and even his service as an altar boy.
However, he was the first to admit he was no innocent choir boy. He struggled to curb his coarse bad language and the urge to resolve a conflict with violence.
“I go to Mass and pray,” he once told the author, “so I can resist the temptation to punch someone.”
His Catholic faith attracted him to Mary, the love of his life. He adored her, and she was the ideal Marine wife. She understood her husband was a warrior and did nothing to deter his vocation. Mary was so ardently Catholic and devoted to the Blessed Mother that many described her as being like a nun.
In letters to one another, they always signed respectively “Your woman” and “Your man.” Such archaic terms of endearment shocked people with more liberal attitudes. Maj. Bender frequently told the story of introducing Mary as “my woman” to a Marine officer and his shocked wife at a social event.
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The two of them would always get a laugh out of such reactions. Mary never took offense since she understood her husband, like any true man, was not only there to protect but to honor her in any way he could. She preceded him in death, and until his last days, he longed to be reunited with her.
“Equality Is Killing This Country!”
This wait became more difficult in the last years of his life because of his anger with the socialist direction America was taking. This Vietnam veteran was frustrated because he had bled for his country in the battle against communism. Now he was seeing America going in that very direction.
His patriotic side shines through most when addressing these concerns. He would raise his booming voice in exasperation at the inability of most people to see this dangerous path.
He wanted America to reclaim her greatness but was forced to witness the communist philosophy of egalitarianism run rampant. He once exclaimed to the author, “Equality is killing this country!” He could have easily paraphrased Madame Roland’s last words on the way to the guillotine during the time of the French Revolution: “Equality, Equality, how many crimes are committed in thy name.”
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Maj. Bender understood all men are created equal in their essence but did not shy away from affirming how people are very different in their accidents. Some are naturally stronger, more musically talented or intelligent than others, and no socialist leveling program can change that reality.
“Go Home and Live Life”
In August of 2019, Maj. Bender was diagnosed with lung and pancreatic cancer while in the hospital with a kidney issue. He reacted like a bull in a china shop. He did fear pain or death but did not want to be “cut on and poked.” To his great relief, he was eventually discharged and placed in the care of Dr. Robert Whorf, who Maj. Bender described as “an angel sent from heaven.”
Dr. Whorf took one look at his new patient’s Force Recon hat and gave him a big hug. He knew how special this unit was and wanted to express his gratitude. An hour-long conversation followed about the Marines, the Vietnam War and related subjects.
The doctor was straightforward in his medical evaluation. He knew this Marine had looked death in the face on many occasions and had no fear of passing to the next life. He also knew that he liked to smoke and still enjoyed an occasional shot of Jim Beam.
“I could tell you to stop smoking,” the doctor said, “but I know you would not listen. So go home and live life and if you need anything for pain, just give me a call, and I will arrange it.” Maj. Bender followed the doctor’s orders. When possible, he walked around everywhere and in his last months attended the weekly breakfast at Bob Evans with a veterans group.
Rekindling the Crusading Spirit
He was eventually put on steroids, and the pain he constantly endured, since his injuries in Vietnam, disappeared. Those near him thought that it was God’s benevolent way of rewarding this Polish warrior for his selfless service.
“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”
As his cancer progressed, he found consolation by looking at the Crucifix in his living room and reflecting on how Christ suffered for him. However, he never stopped being a leader of men, inspiring others, even if it meant raising his voice.
A week before he died, Maj. Bender had a fitful night which deprived his daughters of much-needed rest. His daughter Mary recalled him belting out a World War II song he learned as a boy.
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” he repeated three times, in his booming voice before finishing, “And we will all be free!”
“He Just Faded Away”
Although Maj. Bender was eventually confined to a hospital bed and put on morphine. His mind was sharp long past the time when others might become foggy. As his strength faded, his Marine Corps determination to follow the doctor’s order—“go home and live life”—remained intact. He took phone calls and received visits from friends. He always deflected talk about his sufferings and spoke of those in worse condition.
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Days before dying, he asked to receive Holy Communion and was refused because measures to prevent the spread of the Chinese virus would not allow it. It was incomprehensible for a Marine who faced death for his country that he would be denied a priest to give him spiritual strength.
The family found a priest to come on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, to give him both Communion and Last Rites. After the consolation of receiving our Lord, he kept repeating, “Thank you God!” From that moment to his death two days later, he remained asleep and comfortable.