On this day in 1968, a member of the United States Army Special Forces engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Surely no one expected the orphaned son of Texas sharecroppers to one day earn a Medal?
Yet Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez did exactly that.
The story of his heroic action sounds a bit like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan reportedly noted that “you wouldn’t believe” Benavidez’s story because it sounds too much like a movie script.
On May 2, 1968, Benavidez was at a forward operating base in Vietnam. A twelve-member Special Forces team was then operating just west of Loc Ninh. Unfortunately, they were discovered and came under heavy fire. Three helicopters were dispatched to extract the team, but they were forced to turn back because of intense small arms and antiaircraft fire. A second rescue attempt was mounted. Benavidez volunteered for the mission.
“When I got on that ‘copter, little did I know we were going to spend six hours in hell,” he recounted years later.
As the helicopter arrived, Benavidez realized just how bad the situation was. “That’s when I really made up my mind,” he wrote later. “I couldn’t leave them down there. We had to do something. . . . I just couldn’t sit there and listen to my buddies die on the radio.”
The pilot dropped Benavidez in a nearby clearing. Benavidez had only a medical bag and a knife! He ran 75 meters to the spot where the American force had hunkered down. The Vietnamese were shooting at him the whole way. By the time he made it to his comrades, he was already wounded in his head, face, and leg.
Nevertheless, Benavidez took charge, administering first aid and organizing the men. He directed their fire, enabling an extraction aircraft to land. He assisted the severely wounded men to the helicopter, and he provided cover for others. He returned to the body of the dead team leader, knowing that classified documents needed to be retrieved.
Just as it seemed that the rescue might be completed, two terrible things happened: First, the helicopter pilot was killed, causing the helicopter to crash to the ground. At about the same time, Benavidez was struck by grenade shrapnel in his back, and he was shot in the stomach.
Americans were stranded yet again.
Benavidez kept the men together. He established a defense perimeter, and he radioed for air cover until another rescue attempt could be made. One of the survivors later testified: “I was ready to die, and I’m sure the other team members realized the futility of continuing on against such odds. It was Benavidez’s indomitable spirit and courage that made us hold on for an extra five or ten minutes that then dragged into hours . . . .”
Finally, the wounded men were loaded onto a second helicopter. Even then, Benavidez had to fight off an NVA soldier who came at him with a bayonet. Benavidez didn’t try to avoid the bayonet, instead grabbing it and pulling the enemy closer so he could stab him. Benavidez’s hand was sliced open, but the enemy combatant was killed on the spot.
As Benavidez climbed into the helicopter, he was carrying his own intestines. He was so badly wounded that the doctor at the base initially thought he was dead. Benavidez was being zipped into a body bag when he spat at the doctor’s face, letting everyone know that he was still alive.
The manner in which Benavidez received his Medal of Honor is its own story. However, that medal was finally given to him on February 24, 1981.
Benavidez later told a reporter that he leaned on his Catholic faith throughout that day in 1968. He was continuously making the sign of the cross. He was doing it so often, he said, that his arms “were going like an airplane prop.”
Benavidez didn’t think that he’d done anything extraordinary. “No, that’s duty,” he told the journalist.
An extraordinary act undertaken with a humble spirit. A true American hero.
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James H. Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Medal of Honor citation (Roy P. Benavidez; Vietnam)
Roy P. Benavidez & John R. Craig, Medal of Honor: One Man's Journey from Poverty and Prejudice (2005)