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Doctors in the Vietnam War: The Ultimate Training Ground

6/12/2006 • Vietnam

U.S. Army Captain Doctor Eugene Fishman had been in Vietnam only two months when the Bell UH-1 he was flying in down Highway 1 (‘friendly territory) from Nha Trang to Cam Ranh Bay took a round in its rotor, forcing the pilot to autorotate the Huey to the ground.

I remember the pilot saying, `Hold on, I’m taking her down,’ said Fishman. It was an unconscious feeling: I didn’t think we were going to die. I knew the Huey could feather it. Dr. Fishman and the others aboard were lucky. Thanks to the pilot, they landed safely and were evacuated out on another chopper.

Terrifying as it must have been, Fishman’s experience was soon alleviated by the sort of humor combat veterans deem necessary. As he later described it: I remember turning to my medic afterwards and saying, `I feel so embarrassed. I pissed in my pants.’ He turned to me and said, `Don’t feel bad, Doc, I shat in mine!’

Fishman, who had never been out of his native Los Angeles before being assigned to Vietnam, was considered one of the old guys when the then 27-year-old physician hit the beach, World War II style, in a Navy landing ship at Cam Ranh Bay in 1966. When we landed, we pitched our tents in the sand, he remembered. Obviously, a buildup was happening. Cam Ranh was turning into a major port.

The next morning Fishman got a hell of an awakening. To shake up the newbees, a GI discharged dynamite in the distance. And, of course, we turned around and did it to someone else the next day, he said, laughing. He was soon off to the arid Top Cham region of Vietnam, where he ran a nonsurgical dispensary unit for GIs at the 101st Airborne Division compound at Phan Rang Air Force Base. They moved in on the 101st, since the Airborne were always out on patrol, according to Fishman. Humor abounded, but Vietnam quickly became…Vietnam.

With a standard-issue sidearm holstered on his hip, Fishman would often go out on Medical Civil Action Program (MEDCAP) operations in the area near Phan Rang to dispense medicines to the indigenous population and to set up public health programs. MEDCAP missions included treating sick village chiefs and providing entire villages with anti-malarial medication, topical creams for a variety of skin conditions and antibiotics.

Pondering those patrols, Fishman later recalled how villagers would often invent reasons to see him, such as pinching their skin until it bruised. Culturally, it was an honor to be treated by the Bac Si Hoa Ky (American doctors), and, so villagers thought, it would have been insulting not to respect their presence with a visit. Fishman marveled at the often-traded story among Vietnam doctors of packing off down a hill, only to turn around to witness villagers trading little blue pills for little yellow ones.

It wasn’t altogether altruistic, Fishman now concedes. We wanted to provide American personnel with a safe-as-could-be environment. To that end, Fishman, now a 60-year-old Los Angeles-area internist, also implemented a system whereby an American GI who contracted venereal disease could identify the prostitute who gave it to him and keep the hooker off the streets until she was cured. Every town in South Vietnam had its strip with the Hollywood Bar, New York Bar, he recalled. When a GI came in with a case of VD, he would be asked who his sexual contact had been. Invariably he would say, `She was about 5 feet tall, had long black hair and slanted eyes, and I met her at the Playboy Bar.’

Of course, that description matched practically every woman in Vietnam, working girl or not. So Doc Fishman saw to it that prostitutes were given photo IDs with their name, a number and the club in which they worked. If a GI then got VD, the notorious White Mice (South Vietnamese police) would pay the girl a visit, get her treated by Vietnamese doctors and require that she stay out of the bars for 10 days.

While it was true that evacuation hospital medical personnel worked from one dustoff to the next, carting traumatized soldiers with head, limb or torso wounds off Hueys and into surgery, Fishman believed most of the doctoring done in Vietnam paralleled the type of work he did and that many Americans have a misconception about physicians who served there. The war wounded went to field hospitals set up for major trauma, he said, but most people don’t understand that most docs were in fairly safe areas treating run-of-the-mill colds, skin infections, diarrhea and self-induced injuries like accidental gunshot wounds.

Perhaps the most difficult pill Fishman himself had to swallow before his tour of duty was up in July 1967 was something that occurred one day after he heard a gunshot in the distance. A Korean artillery unit was stationed on the western perimeter of the base. Somehow the Koreans always knew, even before their American counterparts, when a new shipment of goods had arrived at the PX. They would pile aboard a 3/4-ton or 2-ton truck and race there to load up.

I was going back to my detachment and heard the shot about 200 yards away, said Fishman. A Korean GI had been late for the truck and come running as it pulled out. His buddy gave him the barrel of his carbine to hold onto–intending to haul him aboard. When he grabbed it, the trigger jerked.

The soldier was not killed, but, as Fishman painfully recalled, The bullet went into his right eye and exited his left. When I got there he was conscious and talking, but the orbits had been shot out. He was lying there vomiting up the rice that he had for lunch through what remained of his eye sockets. I lost it too, Fishman admitted.

Later, a Korean doctor came to Fishman’s hooch to present him with a bottle of Korean ginseng liquor in a beautifully lacquered box as thanks. He never could drink it.

Although Gene Fishman was not through with the Army when he left Vietnam in 1967–he was reassigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey–his tour of duty affected him deeply, as it did every doctor in-country. Years later, he still had vivid memories of how the people of the anti-war movement had greeted returning Vietnam vets with their spit and curses.

I’d heard about it from my brother’s roommate, who was the liaison officer at Travis Air Force Base, Fishman recalled. He advised me to change out of my fatigues. I did, took the bus to San Francisco and flew home to L.A.

Fishman has visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., several times during conferences he has attended at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, but does not plan to do so again. It’s just too painful. I can’t do it anymore, he said, holding back tears. I know some names on that wall, but it’s not a matter of knowing the names. It’s just so powerful seeing them.

Fishman stated that Vietnam completely changed the rest of my life. Before ‘Nam, I had been offered a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in hematology/oncology. If I hadn’t gone [to Vietnam], I would have ended up an oncologist–and hated it! When asked if Vietnam had given him his sense of compassion, Fishman was not sure. I guess after Vietnam I knew I had seen enough of death and dying, he suggested.

Doctor James Turpin, who headed two hospitals in the Montagnard villages of Dampao and Rolom, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, for the San Diego-based humanitarian group Project Concern, had also seen enough death and dying by his first Christmas Eve in-country in 1964. Rumors had been circulated that local VC cadres would have his head and the heads of five of his medical staff by Christmas Day.

It was very tense, recalled Turpin, but we just stood around a mortar pit the Green Berets had left, singing hymns and holding each other. He also thought God might have heard their prayers, because Special Forces Captain Vince Triano, who ran a strike force 25 kilometers from Rolom, having heard that same rumor, came down from his headquarters at Psourr and heavily fortified the village. No one from Project Concern would die that day.

When Turpin first arrived in Vietnam from Project Concern’s mission in Hong Kong, he, like Fishman, was deeply affected. In Vietnam I saw people with nothing, he said. I thought that there was a better way to relate to them than by fighting. Many times the GIs whom we would treat would say to me, `If I could only spend my year here … .’

During his tour of duty, which lasted until 1972, Turpin was made an honorary Montagnard brother. In a ceremony for the occasion, he was required to imbibe the notorious Montagnard liquor called Nam Pe, sipped from a huge jug through a long communal straw, and dress solely in a loincloth. I kept hoping the thing would hold together, he recalled.

Turpin and his staff of Vietnamese nurses and medical assistants led very busy lives for the eight years Project Concern operated in Vietnam. Every day they would don emergency room attire, scrub and start rounds at the 18-bed Lien Hiep Hospital.

You had to be careful where you stepped because of all the roundworms that had been vomited up during the night, Turpin remembered. The Montagnards had thousands of roundworms swallowing their GI [gastrointestinal] tracts. The Montagnards, too, had to take care where they walked. Kids walked around barefoot and often stepped in hookworm-infested dog feces, Turpin said. The worms then bored through to their stomach linings. It was so bad that we even had worms that showed signs of malnutrition.

In the afternoon, Doc Turpin, whom the Montagnards called Bac Si Hakkah (doctor who remembers us), manned an outpatient clinic in which locals were treated for various ailments, including starvation, cholera, typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, iron deficiencies and anemia. The level of hemoglobin in their blood was often so low, he said, that the Montagnard kids had…not even enough to sit in school and think.

When it came to surgery, Project Concern’s facilities were primitively equipped. Nonetheless, Turpin and his staff were often able to perform miracles. One that he never forgot was delivering a Koho Montagnard woman’s baby.

It was midnight, Turpin recalled. The baby presented itself upside down. Our generator had little fuel. When it died, we switched to batteries. They lasted 15 minutes. Then we used candles. At 3 a.m. we had a healthy baby and mother, but wax had dripped inside her. I tried to get it out but couldn’t. So we closed her and, luckily, her tissue never reacted to the wax. Turpin was ecstatic that night, for it had been a triumph in more than one way. We lost so many babies brought to us. It was tragic, he said.

As time passed, Turpin was increasingly critical of what he observed in Vietnam. Years later, however, he preferred to call himself pro-nation building as opposed to anti-war. Every time we turned around, the war interfered with our work, Turpin lamented. We were not allowed to go to villages unless a Huey would take us. But we were not high priority. There were so many frustrations. I often thought, `What I could do if there weren’t a war.’ It got increasingly dicey. Though we were in a pacified area, there was increasing potential for harm.

One day in 1972 a Katusha rocket accidentally fell upon the village, killing two nurses–one American and the other Vietnamese. At that point the Project Concern administrators ordered all its personnel out of Vietnam.

Much like his predecessor Dr. Tom Dooley, who had been on a similar mission during the First Indochina War, Turpin wrote two books about his tenure–Vietnam Doctor and A Far Away Country. According to Turpin, Project Concern had carried no banners during the war. But it was still a bit of a surprise to him when, 20 years later in 1992, on the first of his two trips back to Vietnam since the war–with Hanoi continuing to scrutinize requests for travel to the Central Highlands by those who had served there–not only was a visa to return granted him with ease, but mysteriously without the usual fees attached. Permission to travel about at will in the region was approved as well.

It seemed that a Dr. Thien, who during the war had been the VC doctor for the same province, was responsible. One night over dinner at the elegant Dalat Palace Hotel (once one of many retreats for the late emperor, Bao Dai), Thien confided to Turpin that Project Concern had in fact not only trained Vietnamese loyal to the ARVN, but had also unknowingly trained several VC.

I told him, `So we have you to thank [for] keeping us alive,’ said Turpin. He answered, `Oh, we’d have fought to protect you.’ On his trip, Turpin found several of those whose loyalties he had never questioned still employed at Lien Hiep. Today the 70-year-old Bahai physician and resident of Fairview, N.C., provides medical services for inmates at two of the state’s correctional facilities at Marion and Craggy, with 1,000 and 500 prisoners, respectively, under his care. Turpin insists that his staff refer to those he treats as patients, not prisoners, saying, When you salvage people, you salvage yourself.

Doctor Amos Townsend, who is now a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, had occasion to salvage a lot of soldiers and locals during his tour of duty in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971. The Lee, N.H., resident ran medical facilities at Pleiku, at the U.S. Air Force headquarters for II Corps, just outside the Army evacuation hospital, and at Phu Cat Air Base, in Binh Dinh province. His doctoring took place on the ground as well as in the air, since, as a flight surgeon, he was also required to ride shotgun in OV-10 Broncos over the Ho Chi Minh Trail as they attempted to spot VC for the bombers who waited upstairs. He never forgot one such flight.

They put me with a green, hyperactive lieutenant, remembered Townsend. Farther up the trail I heard him chat with bomber pilots. Then he put a rocket into the jungle so they would know where to lay their loads. We circled hard. He put the nose down a bit and then quickly veered off to the right. All of a sudden, a dozen tracers whizzed by to the left. We watched the bombers do their thing. I could see the VC shooting at them. When we landed, I asked him, `What was that stuff off the left wing?’ `What stuff?’ he asked me.

But the bitter memory of another pilot, whose job it was to lay down fire suppression from his McDonnell F-4 Phantom to aid the rescue of downed choppers, remained with Townsend years later. He came to me and said, `Doc, I feel funny about this mission.’ His plane never came back, and I could kick myself for not grounding his butt.

The hazards of duty were unpredictable. They never allowed us to fly over North Vietnam, said Townsend. But if you flew over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, you often didn’t come home. His cousin, CBS-TV cameraman Dana Stone, had been killed in Cambodia along with flamboyant photojournalist Sean Flynn (son of Errol) in 1970, after the two motorbiked off into the Indochina sunset.

Like Fishman’s, Townsend’s routine on the ground was not overly exciting. He and the two general medical officers and two flight surgeons under his command had sick calls, did physical exams [and] headed downtown to the provincial hospitals to `play obstetrician.’ Then [we] would help out at the Buddhist and Catholic orphanages.

When Townsend was not treating orphans and delivering babies, he was combating black plague, leprosy and gastrointestinal problems. As with Turpin, Townsend and his staff may also have inadvertently treated the enemy, since, as has been well documented, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish friendlies from the VC. This deception was especially problematic at Phu Cat, which, Townsend learned, had been infiltrated by the other side. Still, he worked on.

My job was to cure people. I had to do what was medically appropriate. We may have shown a side of ourselves which had a beneficial effect in the long run, he said, echoing Fishman’s sentiments. Look at the tremendous exodus of Indochinese refugees who came to us as total strangers.

And it is with those refugees that Townsend, still bitter about the way the war ended, chose to continue his work. In 1979, two weeks after he retired from the Air Force, both he and his wife volunteered through the International Rescue Committee to go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Khao-I-Dang camp along the Cambodian border with Thailand. They remained there to help the refugees for nearly five years. We did it out of a sense of obligation, he explained.

During his time in the camps Townsend’s connection to Indochina and its people deepened. Prior to Vietnam, he had been attached to the Army Chemical Corps at Camp Detrick in Frederick, Md., where he studied biological warfare. We looked for ways to soup up bugs and things more dangerous that protected the other guy [and] would do the same for us. We tested protection equipment. But we didn’t do any harm, he stressed.

In 1981, Townsend was appointed chief medical officer for all UNHCR camps. Shortly after that he was in the Mekong River town of Nongkhai, Thailand, about 30 kilometers downriver from the Laotian capital of Vientiane, on loan to the U.S. State Department. One night Townsend was approached by a former U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel and a man from British Intelligence, both in their civvies.

They wanted me to do a job that should have been done by the DOD [Department of Defense], CIA or DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], Townsend recalled. But Uncle Sam didn’t want to play the intel game and get his hands dirty, he said. Ultimately, what Townsend did, at a time when the United States aligned itself with the murderous Khmer Rouge against Vietnam, was travel the banks of the Mekong, attempting to contact Lao escapees as they came across and before the notoriously corrupt Thai police apprehended them. We had been hearing reports from the hill tribes in the camps about how they had been hit with chemicals, he said.

Townsend also packed into Cambodia on an elephant, ironically with a Khmer Rouge escort, as deep in as Battambang to investigate the reports of Yellow Rain, a chemical warfare agent supplied by the Soviets and dropped by the Vietnamese, predominantly on the Hmong hill tribes of Laos. The Hmong, who were tenaciously protected by the mountains, had no love lost for the Vietnamese, and after 1975, the Viets controlled the skies, he said. It’s easy to see how they could have incapacitated, even killed some people who already had two or three indigenous diseases and were already semi-starved. They didn’t even have to aim.

While in the Indochinese jungle he did indeed encounter and examine tribes who had come into contact with mycotoxins commensurate with what could have come from chemical attacks. The logic seemed so reasonable, it infuriated me, said Townsend. I found sick people. However, whether or not their illnesses were due to chemical warfare, I have no way to know.

What he did know, as Vietnam had taught him and as it had taught Fishman and Turpin, was that his medical work in Vietnam had changed his life and brought him unexpected rewards.

 


This article was written by Marc Phillip Yablonka and originally published in the February 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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2 Responses to Doctors in the Vietnam War: The Ultimate Training Ground

  1. Steve "Jacko" Jackson says:

    Just visited your web site awsome guys!. I was a medic in the British army being invalided out of service last year. I served in the Falklands war in 82 (although I wasn’t a medic then) as well as 3 years on the streets of Northern Ireland and Kosovo. It has been very interesting reading about other medics experiences. I would be very interested in swapping experiences with other vets.

  2. Rob Plawecki says:

    If Dr Fishman was 27 in 1966 how could he be 60 in 2006? How much death and dying did he he see treating VD? Facts don’t add up.

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