A VISIT TO FIRST MED

Or-Sometimes a hospital isn’t a good place to be in a combat zone

In the winter of 1968 I left 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines and joined Task Force X-Ray, a brigade sized headquarters of 1st Marine Division and was assigned as an assistant operations officer. The X-Ray headquarters was located at Phu Bai, a large base north of DaNang and the Hai Van Pass and a few miles south of the city of Hue. We were heavily involved in the recapture of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the 1968 TET Offensive.

At some point after my arrival at Phu Bai, I got sick. I was suffering from alternate chills and hot flashes, and thought I might have malaria. This puzzled me because I had faithfully taken my malaria pills ever since arriving in Vietnam. The first night after the sickness afflicted me I was in my hootch, laying on my cot when one of my hootch mates, LT Earle “Spike” Dashiell, Dental Corps, USN, checked me out and said, “You’re going to the hospital. You have a high fever.” “Bull shit”, I said. “I’ll just sleep it off.” Spike dragged me out of my cot, got me dressed, got a jeep from somewhere, and drove me to the 1st Medical Battalion’s field hospital. There it was determined that my temperature was 105 degrees. I was given a choice…either to be put into a bathtub full of ice, or to stand in a cold shower for 10 minutes. I chose the shower, and after freezing my ass off there, my temperature had dropped to a manageable level. In addition to that, it was cold outside. Vietnam does get chilly in the winter. One of the coldest nights I ever spent was sitting in a foxhole half filled with water in the Hai Lang National Forest south of Quang Tri. My company radio operator and I huddled as close together as possible to exchange whatever body warmth was left. Fortunately we didn’t get attacked on that night.

I was diagnosed with pneumonia, stuffed full of antibiotics, and was admitted to the hospital. I shared a ward in an inflatable tent-like structure with maybe eight or ten other patients. The field hospital sat on the south side of the Phu Bai runway directly across from the helicopter hangars on the north side. I can’t remember exactly how long I was a patient at 1st Med…probably three or four days, but what happened in the interim was both exciting and terrifying.

The Phu Bai base had been subject to VC and NVA rocket attacks periodically, and was especially hard hit during the TET Offensive. These rockets were Soviet made 122mm “Katyusha” rockets which came into existence and were heavily used during World War II. They were normally launched in salvos from launchers mounted on the back of trucks, but in Vietnam the VC and NVA launched them from primitive ground mounts. They are area rather than precision weapons and are not very accurate. More recently, Hezbollah has launched numerous Katyushas at Israel, so they are still around.

In any case, on my second night in the ward, Phu Bai was hit with a rocket attack. The main targets appeared to be the helicopters and hangars across the runway from the field hospital. The hospital was on the gun-target line of the rockets, between their launch point and impact area. At first warning of the attack, the Hospital Corpsmen moved all of the patients from my ward outside and put us behind a zigzag wall of sandbags about three feet high. We were all laying low behind this wall, when just on the other side there was a tremendous explosion and the whole world turned orange. Then we were all showered with falling pieces of concrete.

What had hit us was a short round from the rocket attack. All the rockets but one had impacted on the other side of the runway amongst the helicopters and hangars, but there was one that fell short and landed on a concrete sidewalk in the hospital compound just on the other side of our sandbag wall. The rocket had a delay fuse, which penetrated the concrete before detonating, thus the concrete shower after the explosion. Had it been a contact fuse, we may all have been killed since the impact was so close to us. Nobody behind the sandbags was seriously injured, but one Corpsman who had been inside the inflatable ward was knocked unconscious when the concussion of the explosion slammed the wall into him.

Anyway, upon my release I returned to my hooch and thanked Spike profusely for taking me to the hospital where I almost got killed. That wasn’t the closest I came to being killed in Vietnam, but all the other times involved infantry combat. It would seem pretty ignominious after all that to be blown away in a field hospital wearing a Navy issue bathrobe. But I guess dead is dead, either way. I probably owe my life to a sandbag wall and a delay fuse.

Semper Fi

Dirck Praeger sends