Third Field Hospital
On one of my photo forays, I visited the Third Field Hospital, where it was rumored that the halls were peopled by beautiful, round-eyed American nurses. Unless it was the Army medics or Navy medical corpsmen assigned to the fighting units, there was no one more dear to the hearts of grunts in Viet Nam than the American nurses who, to a woman, volunteered for very hazardous duty and bore the psychological brunt of the carnage they treated. Estimates are that as many as 50% of the nurses and even more of the field medics suffer PTSD. Many of them just out of nursing school, they saw duty under extremely harsh conditions often with few resources, learning on the job as the necessity of life and death dictated. For them safety was not a choice but nowhere in Viet Nam was safe. The Third Field Hospital testified to that most viscerally. In the heat of battle they were often called on to do much of the triage that doctors and surgeons normally did when the units weren’t so short handed. Many reported that on return to the states and civilian duty it was enormously frustrating to have to ask for express permission from interns and residents to administer pills for headaches.
The hospital was originally the American Community School, created in 1954. It was taken over by the US Army in 1965 when all American civilian personnel were ordered to leave Viet Nam by President Johnson. This was my friend, DBs, latest duty station, beginning with his second tour in Nam about August ’67. According to his most recent letter he was still there in 1969 when I arrived. DB was the supply sergeant for the hospital. I had written him when I got orders for Nam and again when I got settled in the city. He said to look him up at the hospital during business hours. He made no mention of his quarters or that I should meet him there.
That afternoon I took a series of photos of the Medevac helicopters landing and being met at the pad by military ambulances. The Bell UH1-A, nicknamed Huey, were the transportation workhorses of the military in Viet Nam. Civilian versions are still in use; and even today I cannot hear one of these on approach without reliving this scene. The Hueys, pilots, medics and all were the true heroes in a war in which heroes were in short supply. Not to short the doctors and nurses at the field medical units and hospitals but they weren’t getting shot at, usually. The guys on the Hueys took fire every day, as evidenced by the bullet holes in the sheet metal. They were sometimes shot down. They’d fly into the aftermath of a firefight to evacuate the wounded to a triage unit or MASH unit, drop them off, then pick up others for transfer to an evacuation hospital then pick up yet others for evacuation to the 3rd Field. The medevac Hueys were in constant use and though the mechanics did their best they just couldn’t keep up. There is still a “Huey Green” ducktape color available at hardware stores.
On this day the choppers came about five minutes apart. As I learned later that day, they came from the direction of the Iron Triangle, about 30 miles to the northwest. The Iron Triangle, contained Hobo Woods, which was a perennial source of casualties. It was the historical stronghold of the Viet Minh as they fought the French; and the VC carried on the tradition. It was riddled with tunnels to hide the guerrillas and was a strategically important launching pad for infiltration and raids on Saigon. This was the 25th Infantry’s territory and included the Town of Cu Chi. It was also the site of the 12th Evacuation Hospital, the origin of many of the Hueys that landed at the 3rd Field Hospital and the likely source of the choppers landing this day.
The pilots set their machines down on the landing pad. Liter bearers leapt from a waiting military ambulance and ran toward the chopper, whose doors were frequently open. The medical corpsman on board would help wrestle a couple of wounded soldiers on litters out the door to the waiting liter bearers. They’d sprint the ten or fifteen meters carrying the loaded stretchers, crouched down to avoid the rotor wash. Back at the ambulance, the driver flung the rear doors open and shut them behind the wounded men. Off the ambulance would roar off toward the ER receiving door, a few hundred meters away. The next waiting ambulance would pull up into position. This gruesome scene was replayed every five minutes or so for the entire afternoon.
Sometimes on landing the pilots would shut the rotors down to lessen the rotor wash. It depended on how much of a hurry they were in. Sometimes it was a great hurry indeed if as today there was a firefight somewhere nearby and they had to bring the wounded right from the battlefield and not from a triage or MASH unit. On those days they’d unload one every couple of minutes or less. There was also a second landing pad brought into service on busy days.
After a few landings, when the pad was clear for a few minutes, a man with bucket would sprinkle what looked like sawdust on the pad, sweep it and then turn a fire hose on it. This, I shortly learned, was to clean the pad of any loose parts, slippery red blood or leaking hydraulic oil that would endanger the litter bearers. I watched this drama as though at home baseball game, seen from the pitchers mound — too close for safety yet not quite far enough to obscure the grizzly scene; safe from the prop wash but close enough to get clear photos with a 200mm telephoto lens. The man with the hose saw me taking pictures and hailed me over.
“You a news photographer? Stars n’ Stripes?”
“No, just shooting on my own. For the folks back home. They want to know what it’s like here.”
“You think a few pictures will get the point across?! No fuckin’ way, man.”
“I can’t tell them what’s already happened to me. They’d shit, especially my mother. So I’ll just send a few pictures.”
He looked disappointed.
“Ah, the fuckin’ newsies never come out here unless some congressman visits. They never shoot rear areas, like a hospital. No drama.”
The whole of the hospital complex was drama enough for me. I asked about the cleaning routine and the blood that drained right under the chopper. I’ll never forget his response: “There’s a reason they don’t patch up the bullet holes in the bottom of these choppers.”
I’d like to think he was putting me on. He wasn’t.
I followed the ambulance to the ER and then walked the halls looking for a likely door announcing a “Supply Sergeant.” I eventually found the door marked “Quartermaster” and asked the clerk about my friend. “He’ll be in Hospital Emergency Supply. That’s by the ER.”
I found DB near where I’d come into the hospital. He was happy to see me. We agreed that he’d come by the hotel after work and we’d have dinner and a few drinks at the NCO club.