Before completing 21 years of service in the U.S. Army’s Dental Corps, Col. Carl Hansen of Punta Gorda, Fla. made five-star Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group in Europe during World War II who also served as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after the war, a set of dentures during the last years of his life.
“While serving at the Army base in El Paso, Texas my most famous patient was Gen. Omar Bradley,” he explained. “The old general came to the office in uniform and you did whatever he asked.
“He would tell me a joke or two and a few war stories,” Hansen recalled. “At the time he was in his 80s and in a wheelchair. After I made him a set of dentures he’d came back from time to time to have them adjusted.”
Bradley was the first member of the Joint Chief of Staff, immediately after the Second World War. He was also the last surviving American five-start general. The others included: Gen. George Marshall, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. H.H. “Hap” Arnold and Gen. Douglas Mac Arthur.
Hansen graduated from dental school at Northwestern University in Chicago in 1961, served a couple of years in the regular Army and returned to civilian practice after being discharged from the service.
“After three years I went back in the service because I decided I missed the Army. I went to Fort Polk, La. when I returned,” he said. “I returned to the Dental Corps in 1966.
“Two years later, in ’68, I arrived at the Saigon Airport in Vietnam. I was eventually sent to the Sixth Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay,” Hansen said. “When we got to Saigon, I think they were still suffering from shell shock because of the Tet Offensive.”
Tet was the enemy offense launched in the south by Vietcong guerillas and the North Vietnam Army regulars to topple the government and skew the outcome of the war in favor of a Communist. It was effective and decisive.
Upwards of 80,000 North Vietnamese Communist soldiers and guerillas attacked more than 100 towns and villages through the southern part of the country killing and damaging as much of the country’s infrastructure as possible. It started Jan. 30, on Tet the Chinese New Year in 1968, and ran for weeks.
Militarily it was a decisive defeat for the Communists. Tens of thousands of NVA and VC soldiers were killed during Tet. Politically it was a disaster for U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese govrnment it supported.
Tet was the largest battle of the Vietnam War. After Tet the U.S. military was working on ways to extract itself from the southeast Asian country. Both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and their Congresses eventually supported the pull out.
On April 30, 1975 Saigon fell to the NVA and VC. The Communists took over the country. The South Vietnamese and American forces lost the war.
Years before the fall, Maj. Hansen was a young dentist who served a tour in Vietnam.
“We flew into Saigon and from there flew on to Nha Trang. We took deuce-and-a-half Army trucks up Highway One to get to Cam Ranh Bay where my assignment was,” he said. “On the way up we drove around a bridge that the enemy had blown up. Five or six VC bodies were stacked up near the bridge. That was kinda scary.
“We had a hooch, living quarters, and a hooch-maid who took care of seeing that our quarters were maintained along with our uniforms and boots. The hooch maid’s father was a fishermen. I bought blue crabs from her.
“One day she invited me to come out to the village where she lived. I took her up on her invitation and came calling in uniform carrying my sidearm ( a .45-pistol),” Hansen said. “I got a ride in an Army truck half way. The rest of the way I took a sampan to her home because her village was on a little island.”
Her home was north of Cam Ranh Bay, up Highway One, then down a path through the jungle for a mile to the waters edge where one took water transportation.
“When I reached her home her father brought in a couple of flounder she cooked up that evening for us. It was the best fish I ever had in my life,” he recalled. “Time got away from us and I had to return back to base in the twilight.
“It was almost dark when I crossed the bay by boat and started walking down the path through the jungle back to Highway One. It was at this point I realized what I had gotten myself into. I nervously chambered a round into my .45. I told myself if anything happened I’d jump in the ditch that paralleled the path I was walking on.
“About that time a biker came down the path I was on and offered me a ride. He took me back to Highway One and then headed south toward the military check point where he dropped me off. I could get a ride back to base in an Army vehicle from there.
“Why did I do what I did, go visit my hooch-maid? I was young and indestructible,” Hansen said more than 40 years later with a smile.
He met his wife, Barbara, in Vietnam. She was a captain in the Army Nurse Corps. At the time they were both serving at the Army medical facility in Cam Ranh Bay.
She was about to be relocated to another Army base away from Hansen. She decided to get out of the service, become a civilian and get hitched. She and her intended, who was being relocated back to the States, flew to her home in Portland, Maine and took their vows.
Hansen took his residency training for the next two years at Fort Benning, Ga. His specialty was prosthodontics. In other words, he could fix one up with a new set of teeth or a partial set.
For the next dozen years he served at bases around the country making sure servicemen and women could chew their food. In 1985 he retired a full colonel. His last base was Fort Knox, Ky. By that time he was teaching other military dentists how to make false teeth for soldiers.
“I immediately got a job working as a professor teaching students at the University of Nebraska. We stayed there for eight years,” he said. “We decided o move south, where it was warmer. I got another position teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville. We spent 10 years there before I retired and we moved to Punta Gorda in 2003.”
Although Hansen still offers his services to U of F’s Dental College, he spends much of his time golfing and flying fishing around the country. The couple has four children: Marcus, Kevin, Susan and Scott.
Name: Carl A. Hansen
D.O.B: 11 Oct. 1936
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 4 Sept. 1961
Discharged: 4 Sept. 1967
Unit: Dental Corp, Fort Knox Dental Activity
Commendations: Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (3), Legion of Merit, Army Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry w/Palm, Overseas Service Bars (2)
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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