Military hospitals greatly improved odds of survival, but the trick was getting there

The jungles, rice paddies, rivers, coastal waters and mountainous terrain of Vietnam presented extraordinary challenges when troops were wounded or injured in combat. An estimated 96 percent of American casualties survived if they made it to nearby military hospitals. The key was getting them there, which was where the helicopter, to an unprecedented degree, came in—often under intense enemy fire. Until the medevac copter, called a “dustoff,” arrived, though, it was up to the medic to do all he could with first aid, triage and whatever unconventional improvisations it took to keep the casualty alive long enough to be picked up and rushed off for more specialized treatment. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, lacking the technology of their opponents, had little alternative to carrying their casualties from the battlefield on foot to primitive but often ingenious camouflaged field facilities or underground hospitals.


  • Navy Corpsman Ervin Bostick bandages a Marine wounded during Operation Georgia near An Hoa, in northern South Vietnam, on April 27, 1966, as an H-34 transport helicopter arrives to carry the Marine to a medical facility. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
  • Stretcher bearers at the U.S. base at Dak To in the Central Highlands, on June 11, 1966, dash to a Marine CH-46 helicopter that will take them to wounded troops who had been cut off for two days and had to fight their way out. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
  • A medic administers an emergency blood transfusion while a soldier in critical condition is being medevaced with his wounded comrades to a hospital in February 1968. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
  • Developed by three officers of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), this air-conditioned, sterile operating room, seen on Jan. 6, 1966, could be airlifted to a suitable position near any battlefield. (AP Photo)
  • Another approach to meet the need for medical facilities that could be set up quickly was an inflatable hospital unit, such as this one being readied on Nov. 18, 1966. (AP Photo)
  • With multiple inflatable units in place, a major medical complex is built within a day on Nov. 18, 1966. (AP Photo)
  • Captain Bernice Scott of the Army Nurse Corps joins the medical team during an operation at the 2nd Surgical Hospital in Lai Khe, a town north of Saigon, in 1969. (Getty Images)
  • Disease specialists examine blood samples to find the local strain of malaria that posed a threat to American forces in Southeast Asia. (Charles Bonnay/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images)
  • A wounded Marine undergoes surgery in November 1967 at a medical suite aboard USS Tripoli, a helicopter assault ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
  • Chief flight nurse Maj. Mary A. Goddard checks the condition of some of the 56 Vietnamese paraplegics being flown from Saigon to Travis Air Force Base in California on Nov.9, 1965. The mercy flight, ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, ultimately took them to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Castle Point, New York, for treatment. (AP Photo)
  • An ambulance bus backs into a C-141 Starlifter that has arrived at Travis Air Force Base with patients who will transported to the base hospital. (U.S. Air Force)
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