Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vietman -- Hospital Ship Sanctuary: There are some things you can't forget

Most of us who went to Nam pretty much figured out we weren't in front of our TVs watching John Wayne getting reincarnated, The Lieutenant or Sergent or for that matter any show where the hero somehow manages to show up all clean, in one piece and just hankering for another peacemaker 12 noon showdown.

Took one filled body bag, the destruction of 122 rocket or the smell of freshly spilled blood to slap you in the face with the facts of war. Glory flew away like the parrot did in Pirates of the Caribbean  in the face of oblivion crying out "Abandon Ship".  The echo went on for a good 30 seconds as it faded in the safety and tranquility of the cloaking mist.

It got replaced with a full tank of survival. I don't think Steven King could conjure up a script of his worst nightmares to equal what some of us saw or lived through over there. None of us expected to live, all of us expected to die. There was no in between.

But for a lot of us who didn't have an 11B target attached to our backs, who didn't have to carry a radio while on patrol -- even bigger target in bright colors --, being in the larger areas such as Camp Eagle and supporting our infantry counterparts kept most of us out of harms way from enemy face to face combat and gunfire.

We just had to deal with enemy 122mm and 140mm rockets, their mortar rounds and our own psychopaths  who used marijuana as their drug of choice and would kill you without hesitation if you looked at them sideways.

So being a non-drinker or a marijuana user, you were pretty much a loner. Weave into this time spent playing ping pong with the bored officers, running around the flight line until 2am and making coffee and you pretty much have my daily routine.


Add, to this my daily duties of helping to rebuild our unit after May3rd and I've pretty much covered the basics.

One thing I left out. I have a lazy left eye. And it turned in when I was tired. While it kept me from guard duty while doing my special assignment, it raised eyebrows when I was transferred over to headquarters as the Battalion Stringer.

So the powers to be decided that I should see an Ophthalmologist to decide whether or not I was legally safe to perform guard duty with technically one eye.

So, I was told to report to the Medivac pad and fly out on the chopper at 9am.


This is an image of the ship:

This is what it looked like to land on the back end of it.



The Sanctuary rotated between stations, such as Da Nang, Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Dong Ha. The ship was close to Phu Bai on the day I was flown out to it.

Keep in mind that this ship was a Navy ship and its primary mission was to support the Marines. Not sure when that started including Army.

Anyway, you could actually feel the tension as we got close to the Sanctuary and asked for permission to land. And I think you can appreciate why.  The ship was long meaning swells could bring the back end of the landing pad up and down by 10 feet without warning.

So you didn't want to hover long above the platform.

Also a bit unnerving is to have sailors crouched behind metal protection while holding fire extinguishers.

Since we didn't have any wounded, we were instructed to evac the chopper as swiftly as possible and  do the same between the chopper and the ships entrance way.


For me, this experience was like a living oxymoron. Here I was on a hospital ship -- with no combat related wounds, who works for a Battalion whose sole purpose is to kill the enemy within 5 meters of our friendly forces -- whose sole mission is to save lives.

I really felt out of place. Really, really, badly out of place.

A few moments later after sitting down an orderly comes along and asks why you are there and for papers. About the same time you want to go to the bathroom, the alarms go off.

There is a rush of humanity to helipad. Like a tide going out, they come back in with a gurney, the ARVN officer and an American Officer talking to him in Vietnamese.

He died a few minutes later. They pulled the blood colored sheet over his head.

Later, an American soldier was wheel chaired past us, was taken down the hallway and was clearly drugged into senselessness stupor. A few minutes later coming from the direction where he was taken, wailing screams of pain and anguish sent chills down my spine. Like the pain I felt when I broke my arm in three different places.

I can only summarize that he was told of the extent of his injuries. The half blown off foot was one of them.

After a while, we were told about the mess hall (which I'm sure, that's not what it is called on a Navy ship or maybe it is) and that we would be processed through after that.

I don't think any of us were hungry after what we just went through. I just asked where I could go to the bathroom and grabbed some coffee at the mess hall.      

When it was my time, an orderly came to me and told me to follow him.  We walked through an open bay where men were recovering from their wounds.  I saw men with chunks of skin missing and lots of bloody bandages. Many had smiles on their faces as they were glad to be alive -- and probably still high from the drugs given to them to overcome their pain.

The ritual of seeing the Ophthalmologist was one I was familiar with. Eye drops, eye chart, which lens is better, this one or this one or this one?

So much a routine I could do it myself.

The Ophthalmologist comes in, flips through the charts and says, "I see you have amblyopic left eye.

"Yes, sir. I was diagnosed with it at the age of 6. When I get tired, it turns in. I've learned to live with it."

"Well, apparently, the Army hasn't. How well did you shoot in basic?"

"Sir, Sharpshooter with the M16, Marksman with the M14."

"Okay, so I'm going to approve you for guard duty. How would you like 20/50 in your left eye and learn how to strengthen your muscles so it doesn't cross in?"

So, he ordered me a pair of prismatic lenses to help the two eyes work together and told me about some exercises I could do to strengthen the muscles.

I was never so happy to get off that ship!


So, I'm out in evening formation for guard duty. Both Headquarters and B Battery soldiers were in that formation and so, the guys frm B Battery started ribbing me about whether or not I had a bolt in my rifle.

12 midnight and we're given the green light for what we call a mad minute. We were allowed to fire our rifles. The wind was blowing over the B Battery soldiers. One of my rounds accidentally went through the CS gas container in front of me and it was white phosphorous tipped tracer round.

They weren't happy with me.

Few weeks later, they got back at me by firing an M79 CS gas round at me. And I almost got an article 15 for destruction of government property.

Is there such as thing as an accidentally with prejudice?    


Below is a from this PDF. from the nurses who were on board the Hospital Ship Sanctuary. For all of those who were on that ship, I salute you all.

 The SANCTUARY was the second hospital ship recommissioned for Vietnam service

SANCTUARY arrived on station in April 1967 with 29 nurses assigned and served in this capacity until November 1972.

If the American people could only have experienced what it felt like to be present when
our young men were dying, they would not have to ask me - should you have gone to Vietnam?

To be the last human being to whisper some words of comfort into their ear, the last one
to touch their cold hand or wipe their forehead, was a privilege afforded to

(Juel A. Loughney, USS SANCTUARY, March 1968-1969)

The Blood of Heroes I cared for each as though my brother.
No time to cry, must tend to another, and another.
Time has passed
I still recall
your courage,
your struggle and
your fall.
Rest in peace, your war now done
How brief your life—as the setting sun
(Helen DeCrane Roth, USS SANCTUARY, 1968)

We cleared out several surgical wards to make room for an influx of troops with malaria.
These men had fevers up to 106...the ship was on "shower hours" for water conservation.
The corps men found a wrench so we could turn on the showers to cool them
(Jane McGrath Bolduc, USS SANCTUARY, 1968-1969)

U.S. Navy Support Activity,Da Nang, South Vietnam

The first Navy nurses reported to the station hospital at Da Nang in August 1967 which was
to become the largest combat casualty treatment facility in the world with 600 beds
and admissions of 63,000 patients. The Da Nang hospital was turned over to the Army
in May 1970.

My year at NSA Da Nang taught me much about people. I remember the bravery and endurance of the wounded and the concern for their Marine “buddies”. In pre-op many would ask about members of their platoon and were they OK? I think we care-givers: corpsmen, doctors, and nurses were able to work so well under adverse conditions because of support from and concern for one another. So many times that support was in the form of being a good listener. I am proud to have served in Vietnam. That tour was the most difficult and the most rewarding in my nursing career.
(Florence Beatty, Da Nang, February 1968-1969)

Outside the Combat Zone the care-givers continued their work. Once stabilized the most
seriously wounded were flown to hospitals in the Far East and at home in the U.S. Our
story continues.

I was overseas at Naval Hospital Guam in 1966-1968. My most vivid memories are
threefold...caring for the massive numbers of many facing bleak challenge in their future...the hospital corpsmen, getting them ready for Fleet Medical School and then on to Vietnam, with their high morbidity and mortality rates. And the most traumatic of all the long suppressed dread accompanying the duty of my husband, a Marine stationed at Da Nang during the Tet offensive and how I would tell our
sons if something happened to their father.

While you think you have dealt with all those dreadful feelings-mine were triggered again and all came roaring back when we deployed a thousand Navy nurses to the Persian Gulf, the largest number since the second World War. And finally after what seemed forever getting all one thousand safely back home. Each subsequent experience of war can become more devastating and there is a cumulative price that one
can pay for the rest of their lives.
(Mary Fields Hall, Director, Navy Nurse Corps, 1987-1991)

I was a “novice” nurse when sent to US Naval Hospital,Yokosuka, Japan in April 1968. Our patients, mostly Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, were “fresh from the field.” They’d been triaged and initially treated, but were generally a day from the horror. When I think of those two years in Japan,

I remember all those young men - thousands of them - rows and rows in perfectly lined-up beds on open wards - serious, sad, scared...desperate...eyes - some to recover and return to "Nam", more evac’d to the States, once stabilized - many never to recover - the open wounds that defy description - how could they survive those wounds?

I remember - the 19 year old triple amputee who planned to be a sculptor - before the war - before he lost both arms and a leg
I remember - the smell of Pseudomonas
I remember - the pain of dressing changes
I remember - the cries in the night
I remember - their nightmares...their memories...memories
they often couldn’t describe - only their tears told

During those 2 years I learned the senselessness of war and understood the loss of innocence of all who were there - who listened, who cared.
(Mariann Stratton, NH Yokosuka, April 1968-70, Director, Navy Nurse Corps, 1991-Present)

When I think of Vietnam, I immediately remember being a young LTJG to care for the POWs upon their return. Privileged to be one who helped fill in the "information gaps " and listening as these men described their lives and existence for the past 57 years. Their tears of joy and sadness; their fears of the past and hopes for the future; their need for comfort and support!
(Mary Houser, NH Portsmouth, VA, 1973


No comments: