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A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam

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Different Face of War is a riveting account of a Medical Service Corps
officer's activities during the early years of the Vietnam War. Assigned as
the senior medical advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in I Corps,
an area close to the DMZ, James G. Van Straten traveled extensively and
interacted with military officers and non-commissioned officers,
peasant-class farmers, Buddhist bonzes, shopkeepers, scribes, physicians,
nurses, the mentally ill, and even political operatives. He sent his wife
daily letters from July 1966 through June 1967, describing in impressive
detail his experiences, and those letters became the primary source for his
memoir. The author describes with great clarity and poignancy the anguish
among the survivors when an American cargo plane in bad weather lands short
of the Da Nang Air Base runway on Christmas Eve and crashes into a Vietnamese
coastal village, killing more than 100 people and destroying their village;
the heart-wrenching pleadings of a teenage girl that her shrapnel-ravaged leg
not be amputated; and the anger of an American helicopter pilot who made
repeated trips into a hot landing zone to evacuate the wounded, only to have
the Vietnamese insist that the dead be given a higher priority.

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1. July 1966

ePub

Chapter 1

Very early on Sunday morning, 3 July 1966, while the rest of the country was celebrating a long Independence Day weekend, I had the sad task of saying goodbye to my wife and children.

After hugging each of our six little ones and telling them how much I loved them, I kissed my wife goodbye and held her tightly. I then threw my military duffel bag and one small suitcase into the trunk of the waiting taxi and got in for the short ride to San Antonio International Airport. I had hired the cab, despite our tight budget, not wanting to subject my wife to saying goodbye at the airport and then having to drive home with all the children.

As the cab pulled away from our home I waved a final goodbye. There stood my wife on the front steps with tears in her eyes holding our fragile, one-year-old baby, Michael. Clinging to one of her legs was our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Steven, while five-year-old Laurie clung to the other. And clustered around their mother and younger siblings were six-year-old Kathy, nine-year-old Susan, and ten-year-old Leslie.

 

2. August 1966

ePub

Chapter 2

Each U.S. advisor worked very closely with a Vietnamese officer who occupied a senior position within the Vietnamese military hierarchy. The Vietnamese officer was referred to as the American advisor’s “primary counterpart.” My primary counterpart was Major Pham Viet Tu, the I Corps Surgeon. At the time I served as his advisor, Major Tu was a thirty-seven-year-old physician with a family similar to mine. He and his wife had four girls and two boys. His wife delivered their second son only a couple of months prior to my arrival.

I also worked closely with Captain Tran Tan Phat, commander of Duy Tan General Hospital. He was not, however, my primary counterpart. Captain Phat’s responsibilities extended only to Duy Tan General Hospital, whereas Major Tu’s responsibilities were much broader, encompassing ARVN medical activities throughout all of I Corps.

At about 1600 hours on 2 August, an invitation was placed on my desk. I was invited by Captain Phat to a dinner party to be held the very next evening in honor of three military physicians who were being transferred to new assignments.

 

3. September 1966

ePub

Chapter 3

On 1 September, I participated in the inspection of an ARVN medical unit in Quang Ngai and uncovered the fact that the unit had not pitched some of its larger tents in seven years. I told the commander, an ARVN officer, that I would be surprised if the unit could even get its large tents in the air, and if they did, I could almost guarantee him that dry rot or mildew would have made them totally unusable. The commander of the unit, a lieutenant, and his senior NCO seemed unconcerned when I talked to them about my concerns. The lieutenant smiled at me and said that since the tents hadn’t been used to support combat in the past seven years, he doubted they would be needed in the next seven. He explained that either U.S. Marine or occasionally ARVN helicopters evacuated most of the casualties from the battlefields directly to hospitals, frequently bypassing his unit altogether. He said he believed the big tents would never be needed and the smaller ones were enough to meet the unit's needs. Therefore, he wasn't concerned about dry rot or mildew having destroyed the large tents. When I pointed out that helicopters sometimes can't fly in monsoon rains and that the monsoon season was but a few weeks away, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said in pidgin English, “I take my chance that there be break in rain when sun shine and helicopter fly.”

 

4. October 1966

ePub

Chapter 4

Lang Vei and Khe Sanh are remote mountain villages near the DMZ and the Laotian border, both located in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam. The villages were populated primarily by Montagnards, staunch allies of the United States during the war.

I accompanied Major Tu, the I Corps Surgeon, on a liaison and fact-finding visit to these two villages in early October. When we arrived at Lang Vei by plane, it was nearing lunchtime. We were met by a Montagnard officer in the Regional Force or Popular Force. He approached us, saluted, and asked Major Tu if we would honor their unit by having lunch with them. We accepted the invitation. To do otherwise would have been a social affront.

We entered a small building, presumably their Officers’ Club, constructed primarily of bamboo poles and thatched vegetation with a tin roof. There were open spaces for windows but no glass. In the front of this one-room building was a roughly constructed wooden table approximately fifteen feet long and four feet wide. This table, the head table, was facing six or seven smaller tables, each with a few chairs. Seven or eight crudely constructed wooden chairs were sitting along one side of the head table. On the table, in front of each chair, was a barely opaque water glass, a thirty-two-ounce bottle of warm Coca-Cola, a small pitcher of water, and a bottle of whiskey. There was also a not-so-clean dinner plate, knife, spoon, and set of chopsticks.

 

5. November 1966

ePub

Chapter 5

When I looked out of the only window in my hotel room, I viewed a new building being constructed. One of the exterior walls of the building was less than thirty feet from my window. I had watched the progress of the building during the almost four months I had been in Da Nang. When completed, the building was supposed to be among the largest in the city. It was to be the headquarters for the United States Agency for International Development, an organization with which I frequently worked. Vietnamese civilians were hired to guard the construction site around the clock. At any given time, there were four or five men walking the perimeter of the building with slung rifles.

Several of the guards had moved their families to the construction site. Two or three of them had even built small lean-to habitats next to an exterior wall of the new building in which to house their families. Constructed primarily of tin and corrugated paper, the sides of these structures were open, so I could look right into their homes. They were only about eight feet by eight feet in size, but all daily living tasks were conducted within. I watched the families who occupied these structures do their cooking on small gas or sterno burners, eat their meals, wash their bodies, suckle and bathe their babies, and wash their dishes and clothing, all in that tiny space. When nature called, they simply walked to the other side of the building to relieve themselves.

 

6. December 1966

ePub

Chapter 6

On Thursday evening, 1 December, I was sitting in the Officers’ Club dining room enjoying a second or third cup of coffee with friends when a man approached our table and introduced himself as David Burrington of NBC News. He told me he wanted to do a human interest story on the repair of children's harelips that could be televised in the United States sometime during the Christmas season. He had been given my name as a point of contact. Specifically he was hoping to get some footage of a child, boy or girl, with a harelip prior to repair, during surgery, and a couple of weeks after the repair had been completed. I told him I’d be pleased to work with him but that I could make no promises because I did not know if Dr. Giles would allow television cameras in his operating suite. I said I would discuss the matter with Dr. Giles. We agreed to meet again a few days later.

I talked to Doctor Giles the next day and he agreed, providing the camera would be positioned in a place of his choosing and that Mr. Burrington and his cameraman would stay behind the camera. I relayed that information to Burrington when next I saw him. He agreed to the terms Dr. Giles had established. I also told him that I would notify him just as soon as I had a child scheduled for harelip surgery.

 

7. January 1967

ePub

Chapter 7

For New Year's Day, our acting commander, Colonel John Beeson, decided on minimum staffing. The temporary truce was holding up quite well, and he decided that everyone needed a break. One of the newly assigned medical NCOs was providing the necessary coverage for our office. I spent the day in the office typing letters to family and friends and reflecting upon the events of the past six months, many of which I would remember for the rest of my life.

On Monday, 2 January, I arrived at the office very early, intending to take care of all the administrative reporting requirements that had accumulated during my absence. Lying prominently in the center of my desk was a note from my boss that read, “Jim, pack a bag Monday night. You’re going to Bangkok Tuesday morning.” It was signed “Fred Mabra.” I thought it was a joke until LTC Mabra arrived at the office. As he entered, he smiled broadly and asked, “Did you get my note?” I told him that I had and asked what was going on. He then queried, “You did want to go to Bangkok, didn't you?” I responded by telling him that, yes, Bangkok was my first choice for R&R. I then added that there were no slots available until February.

 

8. February 1967

ePub

Chapter 8

As February arrived, plague again broke out in I Corps, this time in Hue. The outbreak caused a great deal more concern on the part of public health officials than usual. First indications were that they were dealing not only with bubonic plague, but with pneumonic plague as well. I knew very little about the pneumonic strain except that it was infinitely more deadly because it could be transmitted directly from person to person. It didn’t require a flea as carrier.

On 1 February, I experienced something that was poignant and unusual. Captain Carlos De Los Santos, a liaison visitor from the MACV Surgeon’s Office, and I were at Duy Tan Hospital. As we were being escorted around the large 1,000-bed hospital and the adjoining grounds, we eventually got to the morgue, which was separated from the main buildings of the hospital. Outside the morgue, before the Buddhist and Christian altars, were eleven flag-draped coffins. Inside the morgue were four or five corpses being prepared for burial. All were the bodies of young seventeen- to twenty-five-year-old ARVN soldiers.

 

9. March 1967

ePub

Chapter 9

On the morning of 2 March, Sergeant Quan, an ARVN NCO whom I sometimes used as an interpreter when Sergeant Thong wasn’t available, came to me and said that he had a very sick baby. I asked him what the doctor had to say about the baby. He explained that he wasn’t married. and therefore a doctor within the ARVN medical system could not see his illegitimate child. He went on to explain that he was Buddhist and that his girlfriend, the mother of his child, was Christian. Neither his parents nor her parents would consent to an inter-faith marriage, so he and his girlfriend simply lived together. I was able to get the baby, only eleven days old, seen by an ARVN physician as an exception to policy. When the doctor saw the baby girl, she was near death. The Sergeant expected a miracle of medicine. The miracle didn’t happen. The baby died late that very afternoon. The next day, Sergeant Quan told me that he would now separate from his girlfriend. He said he and his girlfriend both felt as if they had failed their parents.

 

10. April 1967

ePub

Chapter 10

On 1 April, I sent a letter to my wife that I knew would not arrive until well after the date of full impact. It read as follows:

1 April 1967

Dear Pat,

I am so disgusted that I’m not even certain I can concentrate on writing this letter. I’m angry and frustrated. I’ve never understood the personnel policies of the army and now I’m even more confused. I would have thought that just after completing a combat tour and a year of family separation that I’d be given better treatment when it came to my next assignment. Pat, please get the family prepared to move yet again. We’ve been married almost 12-years and this will be the eleventh house that you’ve had to make into a home. I know that’s asking a bit much, but I have no recourse. I hate having to tell you this, but we’ll not be reassigned to Fort Sam Houston, as promised. Instead we’ll be going to, of all places, Fort Barkley. If I had to select the ten worst army posts in the United States to which to be assigned, Barkley would be at the very top of the list. But what are we to do? We’ve invested almost eleven years in an army career, and it would be foolhardy, economically speaking, to bail out now. I think I’m going to sit down and type a letter to the chief of the Medical Service Corps, Brigadier General Bill Hamrick, and vent my spleen. I just can’t see subjecting you and the children to the horrors of that post. I’m told that cockroaches, scorpions and rattlesnakes rule the post, intimidating all children and most of the wives. What did we do to deserve this?

 

11. May 1967

ePub

Chapter 11

Our flight from Saigon to Da Nang was late in arriving. We landed a few minutes after midnight on Monday, 1 May. I decided to swing by my office to type a brief letter to my wife and pick up my mail. Lying conspicuously in the center of my desk was a note telling me that, since 1 May was the biggest holiday in the Communist world, Colonel Hamblen had ordered all advisors to stay off the streets as much as possible on that day. The note said the threat of terrorism was high. Colonel Hamblen would not have been pleased had he known that I was driving around the streets of Da Nang well after midnight. During the trip, I heard small arms fire—or fireworks, I’m not sure which—but encountered no difficulty in getting to my hotel.

After sleeping for a few hours, I arrived at the office about 0600 hours and started working my in-box. It was then I learned that the U.S. Army's 2nd Surgical Hospital was being relocated from An Khe, in II Corps, to Chu Lai, in southern I Corps. The move was to take place on 8 May, with the hospital placed in direct support of Task Force Oregon, the first U.S. Army combat unit in I Corps.

 

12. June 1967

ePub

Chapter 12

On 1 June, I received encouraging news from my wife about our still fragile son, Michael. His lungs were now functioning at about 80 to 85 percent capacity. We could finally breathe a bit easier. My wife, Patricia, had done such a good job of looking after not only him, but the other five children as well.

On that same day, I wrote and told her that we had to tighten our belts. Our cost of living allowance of seventy-five dollars per month for service in Vietnam had been taken away. The day prior, 31 May, had been payday, and the change was reflected on my pay voucher.

We were again having medical supply problems. MACV Advisory Team #1 was supposed to receive its medical supplies, used to stock the dispensaries that treated the members of Advisory Team #1, from the navy. But the navy’s accounting system didn’t make allowances for supporting anyone other than the navy and marines. The navy was threatening to cut us off and force us to get our medical supplies from the nearest U.S. Army supply depot, which was a considerable distance away in Qui Nhon, a city outside of I Corps. This didn’t make sense and my commander, Colonel Hamblen, was fuming about it. I met with two navy logisticians that morning to try to hammer out some kind of a deal. I hated to leave my replacement with such a mess.

 

13. Reflections

ePub

Chapter 13

Upon leaving Vietnam I never imagined that the war would grind on for another seven long and tragic years. I thought there would be a negotiated settlement far sooner than 1975. The longer the war went on the more apprehensive I became. I feared for my former South Vietnamese military colleagues and civilian friends and acquaintances should the North Vietnamese prevail.

As a result of many discussions with ARVN officers and civilian government officials, I knew that many in South Vietnam, especially those in positions of influence and power, feared retribution should Ho Chi Minh and his generals prevail. They felt that once it became known to the captors that they had actively opposed the North they would be punished. This was especially true of those who had befriended the Americans. Later events proved that their fears were justified.

Saigon fell to the Communists on 30 April 1975. I watched with great trepidation, from the sanctuary of the United States, a world away, as the tragic events in Vietnam started to unfold.

 

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