In the first hours of the Tet Offensive, Wayne Slagel earned the second star to his Combat Medical Badge— one of America’s rarest military awards.
At the age of 45, Wayne Slagel had been around. In 1968 he was in yet an- other combat zone, in yet another war, and now, in the first hours of the first day of February, he found himself in the middle of the most intense enemy onslaught of the Vietnam War:
February 1, 1968. It was about 1 a.m., and this would be the first day of Tet in our area. All hell broke loose and we took about 30 or more rounds of mortar fire in our part of the base camp. Tents and latrines were blown to shreds. At the time, I was using the drainage ditch next to the “Punji Pit,” our NCO club, with a few other men when the rounds came in. Everyone started yelling for all of us to get out of our tents and into bunkers and bomb shelters. “Medic! Medic!” was heard, and I was treating a few of the wounded and having a litter bearer take them to the dispensary and then later to the base hospital. I got a few pieces of shrapnel in my hands and legs, which got me a Purple Heart within the first few minutes of Tet in the Cu Chi area.
So wrote Wayne Slagel years later, reflecting on his time as a combat medic in Vietnam. Having already served in battle in World War II and Korea, the action at Cu Chi would earn Slagel his third Combat Medical Badge, making him one of only two soldiers known to have received the award in three different wars. Behind that silver badge with two stars are countless lives that Slagel touched during his 25 years in the military, on the far-flung battlefields where he treated and saved many who went on to recover, and comforted many others as they took their final breaths. Only a couple of days earlier, it had seemed like business as usual:
January 30, 1968. Our troops came in from the field for a few days rest at the division base camp at Cu Chi. Everyone got some well-deserved sleep and relaxation. At night, we went to our small NCO club, where we sat together and exchanged war stories. They always laughed at me for carrying around this big demolition bag of medical supplies instead of the smaller regular issued bag. I carried the bag to the latrine, shower, mess hall, movies, and everywhere else I went. As I found out in World War II and Korea, that one large bag was a must when everyone else is out of bandages, morphine, splints.
As the battalion’s oldest NCO, Slagel took his comrade’s barbs in stride, knowing that being always prepared for the unexpected, as during the Tet attack at Cu Chi, would be the difference between life and death.
Born in 1922 to young parents unable to care for him, Wayne Slagel was raised by his maternal grandmother in Taylorville, Ill. She was unsure of his middle name or the proper spelling of his last name, so it came as a bit of shock to 45-year-old Wayne Rupert Slagle when he finally saw his birth certificate in 1967 and discovered his name was actually “Wayne Eugene Slagel.”
While growing up in poverty during the Great Depression, Slagel always dreamed of leaving his hometown to see the world. At the outset of World War II, the 18-year-old decided to join the Navy, a branch of the service he soon found he was especially unsuited for because of acute motion sickness. After being honorably discharged in June 1941, Slagel enlisted in the Army.
The remarkable trajectory of Slagel’s 25-year Army career was set into motion in 1942 at basic training when his destiny was determined by a simple random act: “They stood us all up in a line and they said from here to here, you will all be truck drivers. From here to here, these men will all be medics.”
After completing his medical training, Slagel deployed to the South Pacific in June 1943, landing in Port Moresby, New Guinea. From there he went on to the 62nd Station Hospital in Oro Bay, serving as a surgical and emergency room technician through October 1944. But he wasn’t satisfied and desperately wanted to get out into the field, where he knew he was needed most.
After some medics from the 124th Infantry in Morotai, Dutch East Indies, visited the hospital where he was serving, Slagel requested a transfer to their regiment. He was sent to the 124th Infantry Regiment, 31st Infantry Division, in Morotai, but was almost sent back because the regimental surgeon there had too many corporals. Slagel wouldn’t be deterred, and for the chance to stay until he could be assigned to a field unit, he voluntarily took a reduction in rank back to private. He ultimately served in three campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II. During this time, Slagel went beyond treating his comrades and often provided medical care to sick and wounded civilians in remote locations, on his own initiative and with limited protection. He would replicate this humanitarian characteristic during his service to come in other theaters of war.
On May 1, 1945, while in Kibawe, Mindanao, Philippines, Slagel was awarded his first Bronze Star Medal for heroism while attached to a rifle company. The citation read: “Private First Class Slagel voluntarily and with complete disregard for his own safety moved forward under the heavy enemy machine gun and mortar fire to administer aid to the wounded and remove them to safety.” He also earned his first award of the Combat Medical Badge there.
At the end of World War II, Slagel was still stationed in the Philippines, where he befriended the local people. His humanitarian efforts brought him awards and recognition, such as being named honorary captain of the Manila Police Force, Native Son of Cebu and honorary lieutenant of the Angelese Police Force. He also worked to open a library in Alcantara, which was named after him.
On December 21, 1945, Slagel was discharged from the Army. Within a month he had reenlisted, returning to active duty on January 19, 1946. He then spent eight months in Chonju, Korea, with the 6th Medical Battalion, 6th Infantry Division. In 1947 Slagel returned to the United States for seven months, serving as an instructor at the Medical Field Service School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
On what was supposed to be his return to Korea in September 1947, he was taken off his plane at Hawaii and reassigned on the spot to the 26th Station Hospital at Schofield Barracks. He spent the next nine months as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge (NCOIC) of the hospital’s dispensary and emergency room. In June 1948, he was assigned as a medic to the 30th Topographical Battalion, which was surveying Bougainville and Buka Island in the North Solomons, as well as Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. When Slagel got back to Hawaii from the survey mission six months later in January 1949, he was assigned to Tripler Army Hospital and later Schofield Barracks’ Hawaiian Infantry Training Center.
In March 1952, Slagel finally returned to a Korea deeply embroiled in war. He was initially assigned to a hospital near Pusan at the southern tip of the peninsula, but he asked for field duty again so he was sent as an aid man for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 27th Infantry (Wolfhounds), 25th Infantry Division. Through January 1953, he was in three campaigns, including actions at Heartbreak Ridge and the Punchbowl. These earned him his second Combat Medical Badge and a second Bronze Star Medal.
Most of Slagel’s military career was spent in the Far East, where he developed especially close bonds with the people of the region. In 1961 he was made an honorary captain and lifetime member of the Reserve Officers’ Legion of the Philippines, an honor bestowed upon him by the Secretary of National Defense, General Alejo Santos. When retired General Douglas MacArthur arrived for a final return visit to the Philippines, Slagel attended the welcoming ceremony and several other functions in MacArthur’s honor. An autographed picture of General MacArthur was one of Slagel’s most cherished military mementos.
After Korea, Slagel was stationed at Tripler General Hospital in Honolulu during most of the next eight years. In October 1961, he was assigned to a medical dispensary with the 1st Cavalry Division in the Philippines, and from there he returned to Korea. He retired from the Army in November 1963, deciding to remain in Seoul with his Korean wife and their family. There, as a contractor to the U.S. Army, he worked on a rodent control program with American and Korean military engineers.
Realizing that the Army was short of seasoned combat medics in the expanding war in Vietnam, Wayne Slagel didn’t stay retired long. He reenlisted in June 1967 and was shipped to Vietnam, where he was once again assigned to the Wolfhounds of the 27th Infantry, initially training medical personnel as the NCOIC of a battalion aid station.
So it was that he found himself in Cu Chi when the NVA and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive:
Late February 1968. We had lots of gunships out at dawn after Tet started. They shot up everything that moved around the base camp but our troops stayed put and didn’t move from the Cu Chi area for a few days. The first thing Civil Affairs wanted us medics to do was send out MedCaps [Medical Civil Action Program] to treat the Vietnamese civilians. In the area of our operations, we could see and hear what was happening to them and get a little intelligence information on Charlie and where and what he was doing. It was a little scary at first. I headed the first team with one of my medics. We had infantrymen to guard us along with one tank, a half-ton truck of medical supplies and two machine gun Jeeps. The Vietnamese civilians sure were happy to see us as they were in bad shape. Some had arms, legs and eyes missing. Many were dead or dying. It was very sad to see the little wounded children suffering and crying over their wounded or dead mothers, fathers and siblings.
We did the best we could to relieve them of their pain and suffering.
Many of our men were really touched and saddened by the destruction of human life and would try to play games with the children. Some would give the children candy, clothing, soap and toys. Many of us cried alongside the children as their parents died from their wounds. I put myself in their place. How would my children react if they saw their father die from wounds right in front of their eyes? Or for that matter, how would I take it seeing the same thing happen to my children? I thought of my father and mother and even my grandmother and wondered how I could take it if I saw my home blown away or burned to the ground with all my possessions destroyed and my loved ones killed. It made me always aware of the innocent victims of war.
In 1968 Slagel earned his third and fourth Bronze Star Medals, in addition to his Purple Heart and third Combat Medical Badge. In total, he saw action in five campaigns in Vietnam. During his last three months there, he served in the III Corps Tactical Zone as a medical adviser with Mobile Advisory Team 111-80.
Slagel’s long combat experience gave him a unique perspective on the Vietnam War:
At 45, I was the oldest non-com in the battalion. Our sergeant major was the next in age at about 40. He was a rough, tough, no-nonsense type of professional soldier. We became good friends as we talked about the Korean War. He was also a Wolfhound with the 27th Infantry Regiment. We couldn’t get over the good food we were eating in Vietnam. It was nothing like in World War II where we ate K rations or in the Korean War where our food was ice cold by the time we ate it. Our new type C rations in Vietnam included candy, cigarettes (I didn’t smoke) and double edge “sword” razor blades that were made in England. I used the blades once. Wow, what a waste, but I was still very happy to have all the supplies we needed or wanted.
It seemed like every day was at least 100 degrees. The heat and humidity together were like my days in World War II in New Guinea, the East Indies and the Philippines. I couldn’t help to compare these places in weather, including their monsoons. These places in the tropics feel as though you can wring water out of every cloud. Our clothes were always wet with perspiration. You could wring the salt water from your body out of them and crystals would form again on your clothes before noon. If you didn’t bathe or wash up each day, you’d end up with a rash or jungle rot, and that was miserable.
As the NCO in charge of Headquarters Company’s medical aid station, it was part of my job to see that we had plenty of supplies for our aid inspections in the field as well as at base camp. Our combat medical aid men were high-caliber types of soldiers with lots of guts and determination.
After Vietnam, Slagel returned to Korea, assigned to the 548th General Dispensary in early 1969. In September 1970, he retired from the Army for the second and last time, as a sergeant first class.
Even though he had spent almost all his adult life overseas, Slagel always planned to settle down in his Illinois home- town. In 1976 he returned to Taylorville after a 35-year absence. He worked for the Taylorville water department until he retired in March 1987 to spend many happy years with his wife and children. But his military career had been impressive enough to bring him frequent attention from the media.
In February 1993 Slagel received a phone call from an Army historian at Fort Sam Houston. Retired Sgt. Maj. Ronald Still of the Office of the Army Medical Department (AMEDD) Regiment told Slagel he had been searching for him. Still had heard of a soldier who had received the Combat Medical Badge in three different wars, and at the time Slagel was believed to be the only soldier with that record. Still invited Slagel to visit the AMEDD facilities at Fort Sam Houston to speak to instructors and students in training.
The visit also gave AMEDD an opportunity to record an interview with Slagel about his medic experiences in three wars, intended to be shown to all future medical recruits. In the interview, Still asked him what a Combat Medical Badge meant to him personally. “When I look at my badge…all I can think of is the wounded and the dying, the dead,” Slagel replied. “You try your best; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I realize that, and I always considered myself as being very strong. Nothing ever bothered me and I never cried in Vietnam. But, this brings it all back. That’s what the badge does to me.”
Directing his comments to young soldier medics, Slagel said: “It’s an honor to be a medic because you’re helping people.”
In November 1996, Slagel represented the Army Medical Department when it received the American Medical Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Slagel died of cancer on April 15, 1998. The following November, a mess hall at Fort Sam Houston was named the Wayne Slagel Dining Facility.
It was Slagel’s unshakeable faith in God and an afterlife that made him the person he was. Although he treated so many soldiers, it was always the memories of the ones he couldn’t save that meant the most to him. They were comforted by his words and compassion. He said that sometimes a dying soldier would lie in his arms and say, “‘Doc, am I going to be OK? Am I going to make it?’ Half of the soldier’s body might be missing and all you could say was, ‘Son, you’re going to be fine,’ as he slipped away.” To be the last person to communicate with a dying soldier is a great burden, and he did not take it lightly. He could make anyone instantly feel like a lifelong friend. It was truly a gift.
He posessed an inner peace and believed that we all have a destiny to fulfill. When asked why he would voluntarily take a reduction in rank or come out of retirement to serve in another war, he said it was his calling. It was because he knew that he could be of service to others that he made the choices he did.
Shortly before his death, Slagel told one of his children about a dream he had just had in which he stood on a hilltop and as far as he could see stretched a line of people trudging toward the distant horizon. Some were soldiers, others civilians. As they passed him, they paused to shake his hand, said “Thank you” and moved on.
Princess Slagel-Bucshon, Wayne Slagel’s youngest child, lives near St. Louis. For additional reading, see: Borrowed Time: A Medic’s View of the Vietnam War, by Charles M. Kinney and Pamela Gillis Watson; and Combat Medic—Vietnam, by Craig Roberts.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.