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My War - Navy Dentist Jon E. Schiff

By Jon E. Schiff, DDS 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: February 01, 2009 
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"On Feb. 4, 1968, with incoming exploding all around, I was the 'Doc' who used an ink pen tube to open the airway of a badly wounded Marine." (Courtesy Jon Schiff)
"On Feb. 4, 1968, with incoming exploding all around, I was the 'Doc' who used an ink pen tube to open the airway of a badly wounded Marine." (Courtesy Jon Schiff)
Jon E. Schiff, DDS
Colonel
Navy Dentist, Cam Lo Hill
December 1967-December 1968

 

It was early December 1967 when I arrived in Vietnam and was sent to Phu Bai to join the 3rd Marine Division. I was a dental officer, a lieutenant, not a grunt like so many of the fine young men I would meet in this strange place. I spent my first night in Phu Bai in a muddy-floored tent next to a 155mm artillery battery that was firing outgoing rounds all night long in a constant rain. I had volunteered for Vietnam to get away from a failed marriage. That first night I began to wonder, "What have I done to my life?"

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I reported the next morning to the dental commanding officer, a colonel. I had already been in the Navy for three years and now, at the ripe age of 26, was considered an old, experienced dentist, as most of my contemporaries were right out of school. The colonel said he needed someone with experience to go to a place called Cam Lo Hill. Marine field commanders there had men who were unable to go on patrol or sit a night listening post because they had become "dental casualties." The commanders wanted a Navy dentist near the field Marines to treat them and relieve their pain so that they could return to the fighting.

Units rotated in and out of Cam Lo, including the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines; the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines; the 3rd Tank Battalion and various 81mm mortar crews and artillery units firing 8-inch guns and other artillery pieces from the hill.

My assistant and driver was Dental Technician 3rd Class Larry Kent, from Pennsylvania. We took a jeep one day each week from Cam Lo to Con Thien to treat the Marines there. The ground commander at Con Thien didn't allow any Marine on his hill without a helmet and flak jacket. I would line up the Marines with dental problems in a bunker, usually the battalion aid station, and then inject Xylocaine from the front of the line to the end. After everyone was numb, I would go back to the beginning of the line and start removing abscessed teeth and treating infections. We used a box of portable instruments, throwaway gauze and a flashlight or lantern.

At Cam Lo Hill, I was given an old trailer filled with empty sandbags and converted it into both my clinic and hooch for the next five months. I outfitted it with an air compressor, put a 55-gallon drum of water on the roof, hooked up a faucet my father had sent and soon had running water. There were no other buildings at Cam Lo, only bunkers. These places, including Con Thien, were taking a lot of artillery and mortar rounds, so everyone lived below ground in some type of bunker. My trailer, however, was above ground, and I noticed it took on more and more shrapnel holes. One night while reading by candlelight, I got up when the rounds started, ran out and jumped into a slit trench. When I got back, I found a jagged hole through the back of my lawn chair. After that, I imposed on the 11th Engineers to dig a revetment into which they rolled my clinic/hooch.

One night, in early January, the whole sky lit up with parachute flares, tracers (red and green—ours and theirs) and lots of firing in Cam Lo village near the base of our hill. I sat on top of my hooch thinking it was quite a show. All of a sudden, I heard what I thought were wasps or bees buzzing past my ears. Just as quickly, one of these wasps turned green as it flew by my head. Any farm boy from southern Indiana knows that wasps and bees don't swarm at night. These were tracers, and I realized I'd better get off the top of my hooch and into a slit trench.

Schiff's basketball court at Cam Lo is flanked by his buried hooch/clinic at right, his supply tent at left and a mess tent in the distance. On Feb. 4, during an afternoon basketball game, an incoming 122mm rocket hit the basketball court seconds after the men had scattered.
Schiff's basketball court at Cam Lo is flanked by his buried hooch/clinic at right, his supply tent at left and a mess tent in the distance. On Feb. 4, during an afternoon basketball game, an incoming 122mm rocket hit the basketball court seconds after the men had scattered.

I really came to like the Marines at Cam Lo Hill. The mortar crew would let me drop the shells down the 81mm tubes, and I'd watch the 8-inch howitzer crews fire their missions. I had the Seabees scrape off a flat place for a basketball court, and we would have basketball games every evening after chow. I usually ate with the gun crews because they had better chow.

February 4, 1968, started out as a quiet Sunday. Hue City to the southeast had been captured, and Khe Sanh to the southwest was under siege. Being in Leatherneck Square just south of the DMZ, we were often taking fire, so when Tet had started on the 1st, it didn't seem all that different. We had an afternoon basketball game in progress on my court when suddenly an ear-shattering "crack" exploded nearby. Someone shouted "Incoming!" and we all ran for cover. The next round smashed right in the middle of the basketball court. I lay in my slit trench trying to burrow deeper in the bottom of the hole. Several more rounds came crashing in, CRACK, CRACK, CRACK. I burrowed even deeper, trying to get into a fetal position. In the distance I could hear someone screaming "Doc!" I thought,"Christ, I don't want to get out of this hole."

The scream came again, "Doc! Help!" 

These Marines were my friends, my buddies. I wanted to help and was quite capable of doing so. Before leaving for Vietnam, I had spent a month at Camp Pendleton, training at its Field Medical Service School where all Naval medical personnel must pass through before going to a combat zone. How could I lie there, relatively safe, while some of them might be wounded? They called me by my name, perhaps unusual, but I seemed to be the only "corpsman" available.

As I leapt from the hole with my helmet bouncing up and down on my head, I thought, "This is crazy, I can't hear the incoming rounds with this over my ears," so I threw off my helmet and ran as fast as I could to the sound of the screaming Marines. What I came upon was a scene from Dante's Inferno.

The first 122mm rocket had hit adjacent to the Marine mess tent during noon chow. It was an open, flat area with no real cover, and wounded were everywhere. The first one I encountered had a ruptured femoral artery spurting blood. I pulled off my belt to tie a tourniquet above the wound to stop the bleeding. I glanced to my left and saw a wounded Marine on his back who had taken a chunk of shrapnel to the forehead and was now reflex vomiting, drowning from it. I yelled to a nearby corpsman, "Give me your scalpel!"

He did, and I quickly opened the wounded Marine's throat at his trachea, took a ballpoint pen from my pocket, unscrewed it and inserted the tube into the opening. Immediately, I heard the life-giving air rush in and out. Two other Marines, Paul Scaglione and Mauricio Orasco, helped me move him, but before we could get him to a bunker, the next barrage of 122mm rockets came in, bracketing us as they landed. There was no place to run to. I just lay down over my wounded buddy. I didn't know it at the time, but I had an audience of other Marines watching the whole ordeal from their bunkers surrounding the impact zone.

Another Marine performed the bravest act I saw that day. One 122mm round hit near our ammo bunker, causing the inside of it to ignite. I don't know the Marine's name, but he ran into the burning bunker with a fire extinguisher and put the fire out. If the projectiles inside had cooked off, it would have leveled much of our hilltop. In spite of the attack, there was no mayhem or panic. The Marines then policed up their areas, and life went on.

Fortunately, no one was killed in action that day, but 14 Marines were wounded. Later, we had two Marines killed in a jeep just outside our wire when an RPG hit their jeep and the gas tank exploded. I had to identify their bodies from dental records.

I worked out of Cam Lo for five months, and spent the next seven months at Quang Tri Combat Base near Dong Ha. In May 1968, the U.S. Marine Corps awarded me the Bronze Star Medal with the Combat "V" for my actions on February 4, when I performed the emergency tracheotomy and tended to the injured Marines. My tour ended in December 1968. I continued to practice dentistry in the Navy, including aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga. I left the Navy in 1972 and went on to have a successful dental career in Florida while finishing out my time in the Army Reserve and retiring as a colonel.

In the 40 years since these events took place, I have tried to put them out of my mind, but I realize that I've thought of them every day, and quite often at night. Strange as my year in Vietnam was, it had ended not with the question I asked myself the first night, "What have I done to my life?" but rather with the satisfaction of looking at what I had done to help and serve my Marines in a combat zone. It turns out 1968 was the biggest year of the war, with more Marine casualties than in any other year.

When Navy medical personnel serve with the Marine Corps in a combat zone, they wear Marine Green, not their Navy  uniforms. An unknown Navy corpsman from an unknown war best summed up the way we Navy guys feel about our Marine buddies: "…in a larger sense, our greatest honor came many years ago at Camp Pendleton Medical Service School when we were issued the green uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps. Yes, we were issued the very uniform that you earned by enduring the great ordeal of boot camp. I know what the uniform cost you, yet you gave it to me. To have been considered worthy to have worn the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps is the highest honor that you and I will ever have."

The events in Vietnam changed my life forever. Even in civilian life, I feel, to this day, more comfortable in the company of others who have experienced the military world, especially Vietnam. I've served with all four branches, but always, always, I remember my Marines.

This story was originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam magazine.
 


19 Responses to “My War - Navy Dentist Jon E. Schiff”


  1. 1
    Stu Nichols says:

    Mr. Schiff,

    After reading your story I remembered Dad's reading it to Mom and me in the family room not so long ago. He was filled with awe at your bravery and he loved your respect for his beloved Corps.

    Thanks for all you have done for our Country and for your lasting and loyal friendship with my father.

    • 1.1
      Jon E. Schiff says:

      Stu, what can i say. Your dad was a really fine man. I'm so happy that
      Tom, Bix and Bert were able to be there. I always remember tellin you
      father that he would have been a great, combat, Marine. Semper Fi, Jon

  2. 2
    Caldwell Wright says:

    Doc!! I hope all is well with you as it is with me. I ran across a letter and pictures that you sent me Jan.2nd 1983. It stopped me in my tracks to see if I could find you. I hope to hear from you soon.

    I'm in some parts of Florida once or twice a year heading out on a cruise to somewhere. Are you still there? Caldwell

    • 2.1
      Jon Schiff says:

      Caldwell, my God, I can't believe it's you. I've been thinking about you, your
      brother, and the great basketball games we played on the court you saw in
      the photo. I tried to track you down and remember talking to you on the phone when you lived in Memphis (I think). I lived and practiced dentistry in
      North Florida for about 16 years and then went back in the military. I retired
      from the Army Reserve in 2000 as a Colonel. I now live in Austin, TX and I
      want you to call (512) 369-3611 (H) (305) 849-4468 (Cell). I'm visiting a friend now in Rancho Mirage, CA. We just returned from 29 Palms where
      I saw an exhibit with the tank both you and your brother crewed with 3rd
      tanks when we were at Cam Lo together. Please call me on the cell. Doc

  3. 3
    WWU says:

    Colonel Schiff,

    Greetings from an old shipmate!

    …W.Wu, DTC, USNR (Ret.)
    …(NAF, Naha, Okinawa, '65-'67)

    • 3.1
      Jon Schiff says:

      Wilford, I recognized your name immediately. We worked in the quonset
      hut together with Tony Babauta and Dr. Knehans who lives in Palm Coast,
      FL. Tony and Julie retired and returned to Guam. Where are you? I've lived
      pretty much everywhere in the world since then. I practiced dentistry in Key
      West, Fl and retired as a Colonel from the Army Reserve. I now live in Austin, TX. My phone # if you get this and care to call, is (512) 369-3611 (H). My cell is: (305) 849-4468. I'd like to hear from you. I remember you as
      an extremely intelligent young man and I'm sure you have had a successful life since Naha, Okinawa. Semper fi, Doc Schiff

  4. 4
    Fred Quarnstrom says:

    What a great story. I am a dentist who graduated from U of Washington Dental School in 1964. I had joined the Navy reserves while in dental school. They did not pay us but at least I would have a job once I graduated.

    I discovered I had been assigned the Fleet Marine Force at Camp Pendleton. After about 9 months, I switched with another dentist and was sent to a Seabee Battalion, MCB-10. I was back in the Navy. MCB-10 was going to Okinawa to do public works projects. I picked up my Seabee greens and within a month was back at Camp Pendleton taking military training with the battalion.

    How silly to teach a dentist to fire machine guns, throw grenades, set up fighting positions and fire bazookas. Little did I realize.

    We went to Okinawa and 6 weeks later were on an LST,1066, on our way to an across the beach amphibious landing at Chu Lai. I found my self on a beachhead with a drill powered by a small electric motor or foot treadle. I had no x-ray, suction, air or water. I made due with large ear syringes.

    We were lucky. 1965 was early in the war, before it started to heat up. The Seabees had constructed an operational airfield in a little over 3 weeks. Marine A-4 fighter bombers landed with arresting gear, fueled, loaded up with ammunition and bombs and flew missions supporting the Marines that afternoon. They used JATO to take off as the field was a little over 2500' at that time. Often they went into a bomb run shortly after retracting their landing gear.

    I did join a rifle squad every now and again and hike through the rice paddies and fields to small villages to do people to people dentistry. All I could do was extractions and the locals did not like local anesthesia. The Marines would only stay an hour so we worked very fast. I was not about to hike back the 5 miles to our jeep by myself.

    We visited one of our folks who was in the field hospital one evening. The medics needed our ambulance because there had been a battle and they were overrun with casualties. We took a load wounded to a waiting C-130 at the airfield. The crew said, "You are coming with us. We do not know about taking care of these folks." Our medical officer was along on this trip. That night I started my first IVs. I had received no emergency training when I joined the Navy.

    One young Marine said, "Sir I am going to get sick." It was pretty bumpy that night. I gave him my hat; there was nothing else to catch it. He said, "I cannot barf in your hat." I said, "You always wanted to barf on an officer; this is the best chance you will ever have." So he filled my hat. I was able to wash out the hat and it kept the rest of the wounded from getting sick from the smell.

    Another medical evacuation flight was in a Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw helicopter. Looking out the window I watched tracers come up toward us. Fortunately we were high enough they could not reach us. Landings were a very steep approach, more a crash than a landing.

    While our camp came under attack a few times we were will protected by 3 battalions of Marines. I remember the sign at one of their camps. "The harder we work the luckier we get; the Magnificent Bastards, 3-3" if I remember right.

    I came home and left active duty in 1966. I am left with a bit of an identity problem. I was in the Navy, but spent almost all my time with Marines. I was in the Navy but my uniform was green with the anchor globe and eagle insignia. I was a Navy dentist; but in my heart, I was a Marine. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Marines.

    I have practiced dentistry for 47 years and taught at 3 dental schools for over 40 years. Life has been very good to me. The harder I worked the Luckier I got. See, I did learn from those Magnificent Men.

  5. 5
    Jon Schiff says:

    Fred, what a great story you told. We have so very much in common.
    I'm in California right now visiting a dental school classmate and friend
    from my home town in Indiana. He lives in Rancho Mirage and I like this area for tennis and the weather. We took a short ride today to the
    Marine Base at 29 Palms, just north of here. We ate lunch at the officers' club and my friend Dave started to bring up the subject of the
    artical I wrote for "Vietnam" magizine. We were with a mutual friend of
    ours who was a Marine corps aviator flying A1-E skyraiders during my
    year in Vietnam (67-68). I said , "you tell him about what happened."
    He started to do so and then he turned to me for details. I started to tell
    about the details and found myself starting to cry uncontroulably.I would really like to speak with you. Please e-mail me if you care to do so. Semper Fi, Jon Schiff, DDS

  6. 6
    Alfredo Fernandez says:

    Jon, glad to hear you are well and around.
    Heck of a story….. those Marines were lucky
    to have an officer of your character and valor
    with them that day. God Bless You All.
    I am so proud of the friendship we developed while
    serving in the US Army Reserve with you.
    You are a true leader.
    To use an Army term… HOOAH!
    Stay safe. If in Florida,.you know were to find me.

    COL Alfredo Fernandez, USArmy Reserve

  7. 7
    SgtMaj SkyHawk says:

    Doc,

    I lost three brothers in Vietnam and that is the reason I joined in 1977 and did nearly 31 years as a ScoutSniper. I learned many years ago, how valuable Doc's were in the Marine Corps. We love them as brothers and always made damn sure we had their backs when kick the crap out of the Navy guys who tried to give him a hard time. It is an honor to know and to have spoken with you at the Cedar Park VA. It would be an honor the next time to have a picture taken with a Vietnam Vet that served during my brothers times (who unfortunately never came home and are still somewhere in SouthEast Asia). The only thing I ask is that when someone ask you what service you served in, that you never tell them you were in the Navy, because you were and are considered a "Damn Marine" and nothing less. So Semper Fi Marine and may you always be blessed to be surrounded with beautiful women and strong Marines.

    Semper Fi,
    SgtMaj SkyHawk

  8. 8
    Jane Hedges says:

    I have a copy of this article in my file cabinet. I read it again, and it always makes me cry. I sure wish I could be there Feb. 4th. Unfortunately, I ordered these tickets in August. I will be there in prayers and spirit on your special day with April All my love, your sister, Jane

  9. 9
    Charles Oster, DDS says:

    Hey Doc,

    Just wanted to throw you a Semper Fi. I've known lots of dentists who served in the military, but none who saw what you saw & went through what you went through. Well, Fred (above) too, I guess.

    Glad u made it back, as we Vietnam vets like to say to each other. And thanks for the inspiring story.

    U still practicing? Been cutting back some, myself. Presently working 3 days a week for the VA & doing a little teaching.

    Regards,

    Charlie Oster

    Former Lance Corporal, radioman, Kilo company, 3/9 Marines.

    • 9.1
      Fred Quarnstrom says:

      I am a failure at retirement. I sold the practice but still work for the new owner 2 days a week. I do insurance reviews about 6 hours a week. I will teach 20 full days this year mostly CE Fr, Sat, Sun. So I am down to maybe 30 hours a week.

      I became a docent at our Museum of Flight I spend another 30 hours a month there. But mostly I am having fun. Good to here from you.

      I think 71 is to young to hang it up completely.

      I am glad to hear about Jon's bronze Star. I did not do anything that heroic, the ribbons I should have received never caught up to me. Maybe some day I will write my congress woman.

      When I was there my mom sent a letter telling me she was sending a 2 lb coffee can full of cookies. I waited and waited. We got turn around mail in 8 days. I told her I was really looking forward to the cookies. The finally came 8 weeks later unfortunately she put a can of right guard in with the cookies. The only think worse than cookies that taste like right guard is no cookies. The same day we got a letter from on high asking about Lt. Quarnstrom's cookies.

      Because I had not received them she had written our Congressmen. We had messages going back and forth to Wash DC about my cookies for two months. Never piss off a mom.

      Fred

  10. 10
    Jon Schiff says:

    Fred, sorry that I havn't gotten back to you sooner. I really hope all is well with you. I,'m writing this fro a hospital room as I just had knee surgery. I'm really getting tired of these many orthopedic surgies. I was thrown from a horse, in the fall, and had to have rotator cuff repair. I don't even think of working anymore with all of this going on. I'm going through a divorce ( married two years) and will probably move to CA when all is done. I guess it's better to find out now rather than latter that is wasn't the right mate. Anyhow, we Vietnam vets don't seem to make very good marriage material. Good luck to you in all that you do. Semper Fi, Jon

  11. 11
    Debbi Milner says:

    Dear Mr. Schiff,

    My husband and I are the owners of your old home in Ormond Beach. We love this house but would like to learn more about it. We would be very grateful if you could contact me at dmilner@milnerhome.com.

    Thank you,

    Debbi

  12. 12
    Debbi Milner says:

    Dear Mr. Schiff,

    My husband and I own your old home in Ormond Beach. We love it and would like to learn more about it. Would you please contact me at your convenience at dmilner@milnerhome.com?

    Thank you,

    Debbi

  13. 13
    Linda Hartman Zimmer says:

    Hi Jon

    How are you – other than your multiple injuries? I was looking through a box that had Marion General Hospital written on it and found a very old letter from you. Brings back memories. Some good times. Sorry to read about your divorce but you were not meant to be married. Take care of yourself.
    Linda

  14. 14
    Linda Hartman Zimmer says:

    problem is, you want to be married but live by the single guy rules—–



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