Andrew W. Thundercloud
Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class
January 1967-March 1968
I was always aware of the warrior. There were certain times in my life when I heard warriors tell their stories. At the Winnebago Pow Wow in Nebraska, the oldest celebration in the United States, the head dancer is always a combat veteran. I thought, I’d like to do that someday, and be able to wear two feathers. A man who has faced an enemy is entitled to wear two feathers in his head dress.
I finished college and enlisted in the Navy in January 1963. I had an ambition to be a pilot, but had a bad left eye. They wanted me to go into submarine service, but I declined. Reminding me that I had a six-year obligation, they asked me what I would like to do. I wanted to be a hospital corpsman. So they made a sign of the cross over me and sprinkled water on my forehead and said, “OK, you’re a corpsman.”
I always had an interest in medicine. My grandfather, who was a healer, taught me a few things when I was younger… about the mind and body and how to do certain healings. My father had been a Marine during WWII and credited a corpsman with saving his life, so he was very proud of me.
In January 1967, after corpsman and medical schooling, I got my orders and was assigned to the 1st Marine Division. We landed at Da Nang, and it didn’t take long for the heat to hit us, and the smell. There was a fence that separated us from the guys who were going home. Their fatigues were all worn and faded, and they were yelling at us: “Oh, new meat is here. You guys are really going to regret this.” With all the obscenities being used, I remember thinking, “When I go home, I will not do that to the new guys.”In my first six months I was with the grunts, and the Marines really took good care of me. And I did my best to take care of them. I hoped that when somebody said, “Doc Thundercloud,” they’d say, “Oh yeah, I remember him. Damn good corpsman.”
In either late July or early August, one of the chief hospital corpsmen from MAG-16 came to our unit looking for volunteers to go to the Air Wing to fly medevacs. It was an opportunity for me to fly, so I went. We were on the South China Sea at a place known as Marble Mountain Air Facility.
I remember the first day that I flew. We lifted off and headed southwest from Da Nang. God, it was beautiful country! And when you’re flying at 1,000 feet, everything is so quiet. You think it’s impossible that there’s a war going on. But as you approached the LZ, things changed quickly.
I saw everything imaginable. I did my damnedest and don’t recall losing anyone. I primarily flew in UH-34s. We never really knew where we were going until we got aboard and they announced the map coordinates. Some coordinates were notorious—like those for the A Shau Valley. There were stories about helicopters going in there and not coming out.
We flew every three or four days, from 0600 to 1800, then another corpsman would relieve you. I probably flew on a couple hundred medevacs. I think all of us corpsmen wanted to be the best we could possibly be. It brings to mind two young men who wanted to fly more medevacs than anyone else…trying for 1,000 missions. They both extended for six months, and they both died. It was dangerous to set that kind of goal but I can understand it. I really, really didn’t want to go home either. But then I remembered what my wife told me: “Don’t try to be a hero. You don’t have to win any medals for me.”
On my last night there, I was sitting in the NCO club and everybody’s buying me drinks, “Hey, Doc’s going home tomorrow, get him a drink,” you know. I sat there thinking, “Well these guys are going to stay.” I wanted to stay, too. The thought running through my head was, “Who can take care of these guys better than I can?”
The guys drove me to the airbase the next day. It was my turn to leave. And like I said, I saw these new guys on the other side of the fence, getting off the planes, and heard all these obscenities—but I kept my promise and didn’t say anything to them.
I left Vietnam at the end of March 1968 and took my time coming home to Tomah, Wis. I stayed in California for a while, came through Arizona and went to the Grand Canyon, trying to become a human again. When I got home around May, my parents said, “We’re going to have a dance for you.” Hundreds and hundreds of people came. My father gave me items of regalia. “These are yours,” he said. “You have earned these.”
In 1992 I went to the Winnebago Pow Wow and fulfilled one of my dreams—being a head dancer and wearing two feathers, the sign of a combat veteran.
From the documentary Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories, by Wisconsin Public Television, www.wisconsinstories.org/vietnam.