By Michael Ransom
Reading time: 8 minutes
Dr. Tom McDonald, born in Northern Ireland in 1940, graduated in 1963 from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and came to the United States the following year. He joined the U.S. Army and found himself in September 1966 stepping off a plane into the hot, humid air of Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War. In November, he was assigned to the 12th Evac Hospital on the 25th Infantry Division’s base hospital at Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon. He was discharged from the Army in 1968 and started a residency in the ENT department at Mayo Clinic. In 1972, he became a consultant, and later served as Vice Present of Mayo Clinic’s Board of Governors. He retired in 2007; he and his wife, Mary, live in Rochester, Minnesota.
The following excerpt is from Dr. McDonald’s to-be-published memoir, Far from Ballynahinch, which I have been privileged to help him write. As Memorial Day approaches, may this story help us remember and honor all men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military.
In November 1966, I was relocated from the Third Field Hospital to the newly built 12th Evac Hospital on the 25th Infantry Division’s base camp in Cu Chi, Vietnam. At first we were housed in tents with heavy tarp coverings and wooden sides. Security was provided by deeply built bunkers lined with cylindrical metal structures like those one sees placed for drainage purposes along new roads in the United States. Sandbags were stacked high on top, on each side, and over the entrance. The tarp tops of these tents attracted and retained a huge amount of heat, so the insides of the tents were always humid and uncomfortably hot.
The camp consisted of separate living quarters for approximately 200 people: the physicians and other officers, the first-lieutenant nurses, and the enlisted men. Conditions were sparse. Each building for sleeping and living, called a hooch, had six separate compartments located on floors raised about six feet from the ground. Bamboo curtains separated each small, barely private living quarter. Each hooch contained a small bed covered by a mosquito net, a table, a metal locker, and a fan near the window. Wire netting was draped over the window area to deflect any hand-tossed grenades. A bunker ran beside each hooch. Under his bed, everyone had a loaded .45 sidearm, a helmet, and a flak jacket, now known as body armor. Six hooches housed all of the physicians and officer nurse anesthetists.
There was about a twenty-yard run from the first building, the triage building, to the two helicopter landing pads. Six barely separated operating rooms with field-type sinks (portable sinks fitted with running water) and a surgical post-op building were near the triage building. The rest of the units of the 200-bed hospital were hospital post-op units and medical units. The nurses’ area was entirely separate. Our colonel’s and major’s quarters were private and nearby. There was a large eating area close to all of this. The only air-conditioned parts of the entire hospital campus were the triage building, operating rooms, and post-op building. By Thanksgiving of 1966, this hospital (essentially in tents) began to function, and by 1967 it was handling a thousand cases a month.
It is impossible to forget an attack, especially the first one. It was after sundown on March 17th, getting cooler, and most of the doctors and some of the nurses were reclining on lawn chairs, watching a bizarre movie on an outdoor screen. The lead actress, Ursula Andress, led a band of women fitted with .22-caliber pistols in their brassieres. They would capture a man, let him go free, and then pursue him! As we were engrossed in this absolutely senseless piece of entertainment, we heard the “harrumph” sound. Many in our group—including me—hadn’t heard the sound of an incoming mortar round and were blissfully unaware of its significance. Some of the soldiers with more experience yelled, “Incoming!” and pulled or cajoled the unbelieving others into the nearby bunkers. The attack was over in five to ten minutes, signaled by whistle blowing and Huey gunship helicopters whirling overhead. Flares fired down from the gunships on supposed enemy positions around the perimeter of the camp and hospital itself.
The 25th Infantry Division base, including our hospital, had more than twenty-five thousand people. Following this initial attack, we were attacked about three times each week. As you might expect, the firing of mortars and rockets into an area with that many people would cause casualties; we learned that after an all-clear sounded, we would rush into our hooches, throw our pistols under the beds with our helmets, don our scrub suits, and head for the triage area some twenty yards away to receive the first of many casualties. We would work through the night and into the next day. Soldiers would carry their wounded comrades in their arms to the triage area and drive them to us in Jeeps, or if they were further away, fly them in by helicopter.
Of the many soldiers who died in the hospitals during my surgical duties in Vietnam, one, a nineteen-year-old GI, won’t leave my memory. We were in the midst of a typically busy night, handling what we called a mass cal (for mass casualty). Nearly forty seriously injured young GIs were brought in during the space of fifteen to twenty minutes. Because the Medivac helicopters (unarmed Red Cross dustoff helicopters) that usually brought in the wounded had either been shot down or were en route to or from the firefight area, gunship Huey helicopters began to arrive with desperately injured and wounded soldiers. The gunship pilots were not familiar with the landing pad opposite our triage unit, so their landings involved a little bump, a little liftoff, and, with tremendous skill and courage, a safe settling down of their crafts. They left the rotors running as fast as they could, so they could be instantly ready for takeoff as soon as the corpsmen, doctors, and nurses hurried off the wounded and returned with the empty stretchers. A thumbs-up sign was given to the door gunner, and the Huey roared away to the fight zone. The deafening helicopter noise, the fast-moving personnel, and the whirring blades and swirling dust—the presence of war—all combined to create a rush of excitement and a heightened awareness of life and death that I have felt neither before nor since.
The wounded and dying were hurried into the triage area and placed on the usual stretcher and two supports. My team was assigned to a young GI, no more than nineteen years old. We looked in horror as we saw that he had no upper or lower limbs, and that most of his genitalia had been blown off. He obviously had encountered a land mine, and the frail and yet magnificent young body lay there covered with a mixture of stale, dried blood and the reddish dust so particular to the area. The odor of the dust mixed with dried blood is something peculiar to that region, to that war, to those casualties. It’s an odor I associate with death and despair.
The main problem was, of course, that with such extensive injuries, the GI had lost massive amounts of blood, possibly nearly all of his blood. The second problem was that even though there were two IV containers and needles ready above his body, there were no veins in which to place the needles. The young man shouted over and over in a pleading scream, “Mother! Mother, help me!” (Many dying and wounded GIs called out for their mothers.) A nurse and I pressed on his neck while two other nurses struggled to keep his bare chest and torso from springing up into the air. He had such energy based on so little body mass. I don’t know where he found the strength to push our restraining people well off the table, and then he collapsed back, still shouting for his mother. The nurse and I repeatedly pushed on his neck, trying to get his internal jugular vein or any vein to appear, but to no avail. He had no blood, no pressure, and he quickly went from a screaming, struggling, desperately injured young man to a quiet young man who was lying still. And then he died.
Up to this moment, I had not displayed emotion or wept over a casualty, but this time I was moved, and tears welled up in my eyes. It was late at night, and as I looked at this lifeless corpse who seconds ago had been screaming for his mother, it hit me that this GI’s parents had gone to bed that evening thinking that their son was alive; they had no reason to believe otherwise. I could picture them sleeping in some warm, safe farmhouse in some faraway state. Now I stood by their son’s side, knowing the terrible news they would soon receive.
It’s a bit ironic, and perhaps embarrassing, to recall that because of my childhood upbringing in Ireland, in which great emphasis was placed on spirituality and religion, I felt a need to ask God’s forgiveness when someone’s death was imminent or after someone died to express some sort of sorrow for their past sins. Students were encouraged in the Irish junior schools and later on in the boarding secondary schools that it is perfectly appropriate to silently or quietly say a word of sorrow, otherwise known as an abbreviated act of contrition, into the ear of a just-deceased person, regardless of whether or not they were Christian and regardless of their religious denomination.
I had done this whispering repeatedly when U.S. soldiers succumbed to wounds, civilians had been caught in horrible crossfire, or enemy soldiers, be they Viet Cong or North Vietnamese, died. When no one was watching, I would put my lips down to the ear and whisper a quick, “Oh, God please forgive their sins, Amen.” This instance was no different, so I offered this final, quick blessing to the dead GI, and then my team and I moved on to the next wounded soldier. Though we left him, his image has never left me.
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