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Larry Schwab, M.D.

Captain, U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Division

October 1967 – October 1968

At 26, I had been married less than a year and was completing a rotating internship at the Charity Hospital of Louisiana in New Orleans when I received my draft notice. I had secured an assignment with the public health service to do research with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and planned to continue a career path in ophthalmology training, but that would have to wait. I was opposed to the war on philosophical and conscientious grounds; nevertheless, I was conscripted, and trained in the medical corps field service school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and then sent to Vietnam.

In Xuan Loc, at the 7th Surgical Hospital, attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry, I was one of two general medical officers (GMOs). We did ward rounds and admitted patients with malaria and various other tropical infections.After a big contact with the enemy, we might go on for eight or 10 hours straight, triaging casualties for surgery. To help unwind, we devised a basketball court and took photographs for slide shows. We had very little contact with the soldiers of the 11th or the nurses, who were sequestered and protected.

Halfway through my tour, I was transferred to the 25th Infantry Division and was assigned as a battalion surgeon to a unit of 18 105mm howitzers that provided artillery support for ground infantry operations. I was garrisoned to the division’s 1st Brigade at Tay Ninh, and attached to the medical section of Headquarters Battery of the 7th/11th Artillery. The Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Tay Ninh Province, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war occurred in 1968. Although I was required as a noncombatant to carry a .45-caliber pistol, I never fired it.

Our unit was constantly on field combat operations at fire support bases wherever military strategy dictated. We experienced some close calls and some very bad times. I got to know the soldiers in a way that I didn’t know the soldiers in my first assignment. When you are constantly at risk and being threatened, there’s a bond that’s just naturally there to protect each other. They were my source of confidence, along with my family. My wife and I wrote letters to each other every day.

On May 9, 1968, Fire Support Base Maury—a small artillery outpost southwest of Trang Bang near the Cambodian border—began receiving incoming mortar rounds. Two medical corpsmen and I were awakened by the initial explosions and flashes of rounds impacting nearby. This was not unusual, but this attack continued until more than 200 61mm rounds had fallen. Then, in the blackness and warm rain, NVA sappers and riflemen came through a hole blown in the concertina wire perimeter. Dozens of our soldiers were injured and killed; some were charred by the exploding and burning self-propelled 155mm artillery pieces.

I was trying to take care of 19-year-old kids who had been maimed and were missing limbs and had 90 percent second and third-degree burns. And it wasn’t country, flag, liberty that they were fighting for. They were fighting to stay alive and come home. I saw that. They wanted something for pain, they wanted water and they wanted their mothers.

The battalion commander, Billy Leathers, sustained injuries to both legs and was sheltered in the fire direction center (FDC) bunker, the largest protected enclosure on our small base. He received morphine for pain, and because of his detailed knowledge of our location, was able to coordinate air support by radio while lying flat on his back, with F-5s and AC-47 crews overhead. The attack lifted just before daybreak. We sustained 80 WIA and five KIA, or more than one-third of our battalion of almost 240 men. One entire battery of six 155mm howitzers had been destroyed by NVA satchel charges and rocket-propelled grenades. There wasn’t an intact window or inflated tire on any of our vehicles.

That night, as I treated more than a dozen of the most seriously injured men in the FDC, I was visited by a number of experiences previously unknown to me. Primordial terror. Mental disassociation. Dry heaves. Near death. I recited the Lord’s Prayer amid satchel charge explosions and the agonal keening of mortally wounded boys. Something of me died in Vietnam. And at the same time, something was born. Since my return from Vietnam in 1968, my wife Martha and I have celebrated Fire Support Base Maury annually, every May 8-9. And life. And for good measure, we also celebrate the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Chinese Lunar New Year.


From Dr. Schwab’s writings and oral history, preserved at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project,

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.