In His Words: Harley Kelley ’55 Recalls Vietnam

It was the summer of 1967. My family and I were living in Portland, Oregon. One summer day, I took them out for Chinese food and after we got home, I went to the mail box to find a letter that said “GREETINGS.” There was no box that I could check that said,  “No Thanks” so I knew that I was headed to the Army.

I arrived in San Antonio, Texas, for Officers’ Basic, on Sept. 11. Physicians were inducted with a rank of Captain. My specialty was general surgery. At the time, I had finished 5 years of surgery and had been out in practice for 3 years. I had never been in the military so I was ‘prime meat!’

During 6 weeks at the fort in San Antonio, I received orders to being my adventure by going to Vietnam. Therefore those of us with those tags, were exposed to machine gun fire, night map reading courses, go to fire the M-1 rifle, debride gunshot wounds that had been inflicted don goats, and eat C-rations. We took some classes having to do with jungle medicine, especially malaria.

They let us go home for a week. My wife was very pregnant and we had 3 other young children. They sent us to Vietnam on commercial planes. Mine was seaboard World. I landed in Vietnam on Oct. 25 1967, the same day my new son was born. By the time I got my new assignment, sent my address home, and received a letter in return, two weeks had passed.

I was sent to the 36th Evacuation Hospital, which was located near the mouth of the Siagon River, about 80 kilometers from Saigon. It was an older Quonset hut hospital. The sign in front of headquarters stated that it had been active in The S. Pacific during WWII. Our living quarters were better than expected. It was a villa that had been used by the French, when they were there. I was still at the 36th, during the Tet offensive, at the end of Jan. ’68. Like other hospitals, we worked day and night, for a few days. At that time the war was still escalating, and I believe our military, in Nam, numbered about 500,000 soldiers.

About mid-April of ’68 I was called into the C.O.’s office and he told me that I was being transferred to an Evac Hospital in DaNang. He stated that they wanted some doctors and nurses who had been in-country for awhile so that everybody would not Deros at the same time. Then the X-O piped up and said “we need to get your ass up there so go get your things together.” I retorted, “Now wait a damn minute, Tiger. At the present time I have 50 casualties, in various state of repair under my care and I cant just walk out the door without seeing hat they are turned over to other surgeons who know what each individuals problems are.” So, they gave me until the next morning before putting me on a chopper to Long Bihm.

From there, I got on a big engine driven cargo plane headed for DaNang. It was a rough ride, I had to sit on the floor and I came very close to barfing into my helmet.

At the airfield in DaNang, I ran into a couple of burses who were also headed to the hospital, which I soon found out was the 95th Evac. A guy happened along who said he was a Seabee and that he would be glad to give us a ride the few miles our to the hospital. He turned one road too soon and got stuck in the sand. The 2 nurses were pissed and they had a cigarette while 2 Duece-and-a-half trucks pulled us out.

I didn’t really know what to expect but the hospital turned out to be a group of of very large tents near the South China Sea beach and I thought, “Thank God, I’m not going to be out in some jungle boonies!”

I might insert here that an evacuation hospital has 400 beds and 8 operating tables. A MASH means mobile army surgical hospital, and it can hold wounded soldiers as long as 7 days. If the solider isn’t ready to return to his unit within that length of time, he has to be evacuated to a larger hospital. An evacuation hospital can hold a soldier for 30 days. As it turned out, we had 2 mash hospitals north of us , near the DMZ.  So, when the Mashes wanted to dump patients, they were sent to us at the 95th. We called that dumping exercise: Regurge. An Evac Hospital is not mobile, at least not in Nam where the fighting was done all up and down the peninsula. So even though we were receiving almost daily flights of Regurge, we were also receiving acute casualties from a very large area around our hospital. When we had casualties that were probably never going back to their units, we put them on 4-engine jets who evacuated them to 2 US Army general hospitals located in Tokyo, Japan. The wounded could be held over and made stable before returning to CONUS.

I was told that I would be sleeping in a tent with about 7 other Captains so I selected a corner for my cot. The hospital personnel had only be there a few days and had the MUST operating rooms put together, the ICU, and the tents which served as wards, erected. I soon discovered that we were bare-ass naked out on that beach, so the doctors had to get busy filling sand bags so we would have protection from mortars, grenades, rockets, and other fragmenting devices. We felt a little bit safer when we had a 4 foot wall of bags all around our tents. Vietnamese girls, who served as employees, build walls as high as 8 or 9 feet tall all around our ICU, which was a large inflatable ‘bubble,’ and same for the O.R.S.

My arrival at the 95th was on, or about, April 25th of ’68. The next day, I met with the C.O. who was a youngish looking full bird. He told us that his plan was to take on new patients slowly over a period of several days. Just then, the Second Offensive started. It was equal to the Tet Offensive in the there was full scale fighting all up and down the peninsula. In other words, the shit hit the fan! Our hospital was full to capacity in 4 days.

We found 3 surgical teams and made a schedule. The first team would be on call for 24 hours, and then become the second team for 24 hours. Then it would be the 3rd team for the next 24 hours. If there were a moderate, or reasonable number of casualties, this first call team would take care of them. But if they couldn’t handle the load, the ream on second call would pitch in and help. We tried not to call out the third call team, so they could get some rest. Everybody went to work when there was an offensive. The team work was what made the system. It was a thing to behold and a wonderful way to work. However, we were a captive audience and only a few tents away from the helicopter landing pad and the receiving area. One doctor, who was usually a surgeon, would triage. You hear stories about how those with mortal wounds were shoved off in some corner where they would die but, in my experience, that seldom happened. We were told hat the mortality rate was only 2-3%, for those who reached the hospital alive.

We had 3 general surgeons and 3 orthopedic surgeons so each surgical team was composed of one general surgeon and one orthopedist. Every evac hospital had a smattering of other surgical specialty doctors. Sometimes, we were lucky enough to have one check surgeon, and we usually had a neurosurgeon. We had a gynecologist, an ENT doctor, and an ophthalmologist. We assigned these men to assist the general surgeons, if needed, when they weren’t busy taking care of ear, nose, throat, and eye injuries. Then there was a full staff of internists who were kept busy taking care of non-battle illness. There were hundreds with malaria, various kinds of dysentery, and other jungle fever maladies. Many of those died. Terry Terraciano headed up one surgical team. He was from Albany, New York. The second team was headed up by general surgeon Phil Rasor from Ohio and I headed up a third team. My good buddy Carl Palecheck, orthopedic surgeon, from Hamilton, Ohio, was on the same team, with me. Our ENT guy was Lou Cucinotta from New Orleans and he helped me on some tough cases. He told me later that he though his name was Pull Dammit, because I would put him on the end of a retractor and when more exposure was needed I would say, “Pull, Dammit!”

I had the pleasure of working with a young doctor who had just finished his internship. His initial assignment, in Nam, was with an infantry unit. Apparently, when things got hot, he had to fight right along with the rest of the troops. He won 2 silver stars.  He was told that he could choose a more benign settling for his final 3 months and he came to the 95th. He told me that he had an interest in surgery so I told him that he could work with me. He got to do some appendectomies, debridement’s etc. much to my surprise he came to my hospital in the States, after his tour of duty was over and took a general surgery residency, topped off by 2 years of open heart surgical training with internationally known Albert Starr. That was at St. Vincent Hospital and the university of Oregon Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Working with other doctors, and nurses, in a war setting, lead to a special bonding, and now many of those medical people are now lifelong friends and buddies, and we look forward to seeing each other at reunions which, in our case occur every 2 weeks.

Our tent hospital was located within walking distance of a mountain called Marble Mountain. Sometimes the enemy was on the other side. We found out that we were fighting the VietCong, who were dressed in black jammies or the North Vietnamese Regulars who came down the Ho Cho Minh trail from North Vietnam.

I told you that we fired M-1 rifles at Officers’ Basic. When we got to Nam they issued the doctors Army .45 pistols, with no instruction. When the enemy got close enough that we could hear small arms fire, we could hear a siren and it was called a red alert. A the beginning, when we were filling sand bags, we also built a bunker next to our tent. When we heard a red alert, we would dive into the bunker. The walls might have stopped a wet tomato but that’s about all. Some of the doctors didn’t know the business end of a gun from a human orifice. When they began shoving loaded clips into their pistols, I was more worried about getting shot inside the bunker than I would have on the outside.

Just about everybody has heard of the movie, and the TV series M*A*S*H. most of us doctors had been drafted so we weren’t big on Army protocol. We did one helluva good job of taking care of injured soldiers, but at other times we were known to have a little fun. This was not appreciated by the regular Army people who were making careers in the military. One example of our mischievousness was when a few unarmed doctors wore the letters FTA on their t-shirts. Our regular army chief of nurses wondered what that was all about. We told her Fun, Travel, Adventure but to us it meant, Fuck the Army. We painted, in big letters, on top of our hootch, FTA, so that the helicopter crews could appreciated it. Another example of what my buddy, Carl, thought was innocent fun was when he found an unattended giant earth-moving machine quire a distance away, and he drove it to the hospital. He learned that that was not in his MOS!

I mentioned that one of our doctors was a gynecologist. He had learned to do construction work, and build houses, prior to going to med school. So, we talked him into building us an officers’ cub. Using the ‘midnight requisition,’ we obtained lumber and eventually built a rather large facility. He was a tough task master. Those of us who were his slave labor were not appreciated when we bent nails double, and made the walls point to true north. One day a chopper landed and the crew stated that they had brought in a Vietnamese lady with severe abdominal pain. It turns out that the woman was in labor. I stood and took a picture of the delivery, and Dr. Rutkowski had a big grin on his face.

We took care of battle wounds by using a method of delayed primary closure, known as the DPC. The fresh wounds were washed out and debrided. To ‘debride’ means to cut away any dead tissue or muscle and any tissue that is terribly soiled. First we would cut an ellipse around the wound of entry so that its edges were clean and sharp. If muscle wouldn’t bleed it had to be removed because it wouldn’t live. Bullets that traveled at very high speed did the most damage. This was true of the AK-47. When the missile hits solid tissue, such as the thigh, it imparts a tremendous amount of energy, and tumbles. It makes a small hole upon entry and a much larger wound upon exit. Our M16 was one of the same category.

Some soldiers had multiple wounds when hit by fragmenting devices such as grenades and mortars. Their wounds took a lot more time to clean up than a gunshot wound. Some of the frag wounds also contained pieces of clothing and pieces of sticks and dirt. Every wound had to be explored. So at the initial surgery we debrided the wounds and applied bandages. We took them back, on about the 5th day to do the delayed primary closure. Using this method, the wound infection rate was low. But, it meant that every soldier had to make 2 trips to the operating room. Some of the soldiers went to the operating room within an hour or two of being wounded, and others might have to wait several hours, or  a day, because the dustoffs could not get them out sooner. Some of the casualties had blood transfusions on the way to the hospital and just about everybody got antibiotics. Some of the soldiers who were treated at the Mash hospitals had too much skin removed. They looked like they had been debrided with a lawn mower, I’m sorry to say. This meant that they had to have extensive skin grafting after they got back to general hospitals in the United States.

A lot of our casualties came in at night because enemy attacks occurred at night when the VC felt that they were less likely to be spotted. During a quiet night, our helicopters could be felt before they were heard. That flap-flap-flap of the rotors seemed to move the air waves. We knew that we were about to be called out to take care of incoming causalities. It was eerie, it was spooky.

A new hospital was being built, down by Monkey Mountain and when it was finished, we folded the tents and moved to the new location which was on the beach. There was a long row of gleaming Quonset huts, made out of metal, which would house headquarters, admitting, the operating rooms and wards for 400 beds.

One thing that I must mention is that the Germans sent a hospital ship to Danang. It was named the Helgoland and its sole purpose was to take care of wounded Vietnamese children. Some of our doctors were invited aboard for an afternoon and it was a treat.

The Navy had a hospital, at Marine headquarters, in Danang. It preceded the arrival of our Army hospital by many months. They though that their shit didn’t stink! They had respirators and invented the treatment of the Danang Lung and wanted to be rewarded for their medical science and research. Of course the thought we Army doctors were inferior. It goes with the old saying that, “The navy the gravy and the Army gets the beans.”

A place called China Beach got a lot of press during and after the war. I went there one day to take a swim and left my boots unattended. When I returned, they had been stolen.  I was really miffed because they were the light weight variety with canvas sidewalls that could breathe. The rest of the tour saw me in the heavier leather boots.

While we were still in the tent hospital, we had a tent officers’ club, prior to the move where we built or own club. One night I was in the tent having a beer. In walked 2 Green Baret dudes from some nearby infantry unit. They found 2 of our nurses and wanted to make an impression. I never forgot a quote that I heard one of them say: “ This is a lousy goddamn war but it is the only one we’ve got!” The current press likes to say that the Afghanistan war is the longest one we’ve been in. I wrote one news anchor and told him that if he would go down to the Vietnam wall and look at the 58,000 names etched in the black marble, he would see that the first soldier was killed in 1959, and the last in 1975.

Well, I could go on with more tales and flash-backs but it is probably time to close. I do not  want to mention that every enlisted man, and every officer, was given a 5 day R and R, and one week of leave, during his, or her, one year tour of duty in Nam. I respectively went to Hawaii and Japan, both times meeting my wife if course, that was a saving morale booster.

Since I had spent 6 months at the 36th Evac. I only had to spend 6 months at the 95th Evac. My deros date Oct. 25th 1968. On the one hand I hated to leave my buddies, but not that much! My second year of duty was spent at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. Then I said “good-bye” to the Army and returned to my private practice of surgery in Portland, Oregon. I had learned many things about penetrating wound care and used that knowledge the rest of my career. After 25 years of civilian practice, I decided that I would like to travel and still due surgery. I joined the Army in 1989 because they promised me that I could go anywhere in the world. They kept their promise and I chose to go to The 2nd general Hosp. in Landstuhl, Germany. What I didn’t know was that Iraq would invade Kuwait. So, 23 years after leaving Nam I was selected to be sent to the Persian Gulf and Desert storm because very few doctors had had prior experience with treating war wounds. But, that is another story.

By Harley D. Kelley, M.D.
My Experiences as a General Surgeon during the Vietnam War, ’67-68

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