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"The most convincing, most moving account I have yet read about what it was like to be an American soldier in Vietnam"...Newsweek
Why write anything?" Peterson said. "Who wants tobe reminded?"
There are no veterans' clubs for this war, no unit reunions,no pictures on the walls. For those who haven'tbeen there, or are too old to go, it's as if it doesn't count.For those who've been there, and managed to get out, it'slike it never happened. Only the eighteen-, nineteen-, andtwenty-year-olds have to worry, and since no one listensto them, it doesn't matter.
But there were 6000 patients evac'ed to Japan lastmonth. You'd think that so many wounded would be hardto ignore, but somehow, as Peterson says, they are. They'rewritten off each month—a wastage rate—a series of contrapuntalnumbers, which seems to make it all not onlyacceptable, but strangely palatable as well.
Perhaps Peterson's right. And if he is, then everythingis a bit closer to what Herbert said when he woke up inthe recovery room and found they'd taken off his leg:"Fuck you—fuck you one and all."
Herbert lost his leg in Vietnam, but it was cut off herein Japan in the middle of the Kanto Plains. We remove alot of limbs during all the seasons. This makes living heredifficult, even without the factories. At one time theseplains must have been a good place to be. There are woodblocksfrom the Mejii era that show it tranquil and lovely,nestled comfortably at the foot of the mountains. There isno beauty here now. Like the wounds, the rivers run, pollutedand ugly, from a dirty green to a metallic gray; therice and barley fields that used to be here have been replacedby square,filthy factories. Even the air stinks;every day is like living behind a Mexican bus. Still, noone is shooting at you here. There are no ambushes orhunter-killer teams.
No one sends out the LRRP's, and at night you can'thear them pounding in mortar tubes across the paddies.That's something. You can see it on the faces of thetroopers they carry in off the choppers. It doesn't matterto them that the place smells or that the smoke fromYokahama and Yokuska blots out the stars. All that countsis that their war is over for a while and this time they gotout alive.
We have four Army hospitals scattered about theplains—Drake, Ojiie, Kishine, and Zama. It's hard to knowwhat they've told you about Tet, but over here, theoperating rooms never stopped. The internists and obstetriciansdid minor surgery, and the surgeons lived in theOR. But even when there are no offensives we're busy.We don't just get the Herberts—we get them all: theburns, the head wounds, the cords, the tumors. Medicineis always busy, too. The medical wards are full of patientswith hepatitis, malaria, pneumonia, and kidney failure.It is something of an achievement that we're able to doso much. In 1966 there was only one 90-bed Army dispensaryin Japan; in fact, there was little else in the restof Asia. When President Johnson chose to listen to hismilitary advisers and send in ground troops, the Armyhad the choice of expanding the existing medical facilitieshere in Japan, building up those in the Philippines, orstarting from scratch in Okinawa. Okinawa was too expensive—somethingabout cost plus and American-typelabor unions. The Philippines looked a bit too unstable,and so, despite Okinawa being four hours closer to Nam,and the Philippines having more available land, the Armychose Japan.
Everything was put here into the Kanto Plains andclustered around the Air Force bases at Tachikawa andYokota. The Air Force brings our patients in over themountains in their C-141's. They stay at Yokota overnightat the 20th casualty staging area, where they're stabilized.A lot of them have already been operated on—some massively—andit's a long trip here. So they rest a while;they are checked again, and, if necessary, rehydrated.Nam's hot, 110 degrees in the shade, and these kids werecarrying sixty and seventy pounds of equipment andammunition when they got hit. Some of them, too, havebeen humping it like that for days, if not weeks. They'redehydrated, everyone of them. The fluids they get at the20th give them a bit of an edge. If they're very critical,though, very seriously ill, and can't wait, they're medevac'ed by chopper as soon as they get off the C-141's toone of our four hospitals.
There are nights when everyone is working and thedispatcher calls about another VSI coming in—type ofwound unknown. All of us—the general surgeons, theorthopods, the opthalmologists, and the ear, nose, andthroat specialists—go down to the landing pad and waitto see who'll get it. It's a strange sight to see them at twoand three in the morning, standing out in the darkenedfield, some still in their operating clothes, talking quietly,waiting for the sound of the chopper.
If the cases are not critical, the patients go out the nextmorning on one of the routine chopper runs. The burns goto Kishine; the head and spinal-cord wounds go to theneurosurgical unit at Drake. Ojiie for the most part onlytakes orthopedic cases. Zama takes them all. The 406thmedical laboratory is attached to Zama, and it can doanything from blood gases and fluorescent antibodies toelectron micrographs and brain scans. The medical holdingcompany is there too.
The Army likes to pride itself that no one hit in Nam ismore than ten minutes away from the nearest hospital.Technically, they're right. Once the chopper picks you up,it's a ten-minute ride to the nearest surg or evac facility,maybe a bit longer if you're really lit up and the med evachas to overfly the nearest small hospital and go on to theclosest evac. But the choppers still have to get in and getthe troopers out. By the time you'll be reading this, over4000 choppers will have been shot down. More than onetrooper has died in the mud or dust waiting for a medevac that couldn't get in, and there is more than one caseof medics having to watch their wounded die on thembecause they'd run out of plasma and couldn't be resupplied.
If the wounded get to Japan, though, they'll probablylive; the survival rate is an astonishing 98 percent. Partof it is the medical care and the facilities in Nam—theincredibly fine care and dedication that go into it. Butmostly it's the kind of war we're fighting.
An RPD round travels at 3000 feet per second; a 200-poundchicon mine can turn over a 20-ton personnelcarrier; a buried 105-mm shell can blow an engine blockthrough the cab of a truck; a claymore sends out between200 and 400 ball bearings at the speed of 1000 feet persecond. For the VC and NVA it's a close-up war. There isnothing very indiscriminate about their killings; it's close-up—boobytraps and small arms, ten meters—and they'relooking at you all the time.
We had a patient shot through the chest. He was in hishutch when he thought he heard something moving outside.He sat up; the moonlight came in through the door,cutting a path of light across the floor. Sitting up put himin it. The gook was waiting, lying on the ground, no morethan two meters from the door. He let off a single roundthat ripped through the trooper's chest. As he fell back theVC put his weapon on automatic and shot the shit out ofthe rest of the hutch.
If you're going to die in Nam, you'll die straight out,right where it happens.
If you don't die right out you've got a pretty goodchance; the evac and surgical hospitals do anything andeverything. They are linearly set up: triage, X ray, preoperativeroom, OR, recovery. They are marvelouslyequipped—twenty seconds from triage to OR—andstaffed with competent doctors, who, no matter what theythink of the war, do everything they can do for its victims.Indeed, there is nothing else to do; it's not France. Evenif you have time off there's no place to go. The 12th evachas six operating rooms and three teams of surgeons. InNam, if they take you off the choppers alive, or just a littledead, it may hurt a lot, but you'll live.
During Tet, the 12th did seventy major cases a day—everything:wound debridgement, vessel repairs, tendonrepairs, abdominal explorations, ventricular shunts, liverresections, nephrectomies, burr holes, chest tubes, amputations,craniotomies, retinal repairs, enucleations. Sometimes,even now, they'll have to do four or five majorprocedures on the same patient. Age helps; the patientsare all kids who up until the time they were hit were inthe very prime of life. There isn't one who is overweight.None of them, if they smoke, has smoked long enough toeat up his lungs. There are no old coronaries to worryabout, no diabetics with bad vessels, no alcoholic livers,no hypertensives. Just get them off the choppers, intubatethem, and cut them open. Then they are sent to us herein Japan.
There was a tennis court here once, near the labbuilding. During the Tet offensive, the fence was torndown and the asphalt used for another helipad. Tet hasbeen over now for some time, but nobody's even thoughtabout putting back the fence. No one mentions it; it is justunderstood that the court stays a landing pad. It is theway the Army handles its concerns; each individual, ofcourse, handles it his own way. Grieg's developed anulcer, Dodding is letting his hair grow, Lenhardt sendsevery patient he can back to Nam; he does it even if hehas to extend their profiles 120 days. He's sent troopersback to the paddies with thirteen-inch thoracotomy scarsand bits of claymores still in their chests. But he believesin the war and the sacrifice, in the need for making astand and dying for it if you have to.
Peterson sends everyone he can home, or used to, untilhe began finding them showing up again in his ward fiveor six months later. "One laparotomy per country," he'dsay. But the Army feels differently, and so there is a prettygood chance that by feeling sorry for these kids and sendingthem back to the States he's killed a few. A tour inNam for an enlisted man is not considered complete unlesshe has been there ten months, five days. It's consideredgood time if you are in a medical facility even ifyou spend your whole tour there—the Army simply countsit as Vietnam time. But if you are in a medical facility,discharged and declared fit for duty, and have served acombined time, either in Nam or in a hospital, of less thanten months, five days, you go back into the computer andif the Army still needs you, you get spit back to Nam. Notfor the rest of your tour, but for a complete new twelvemonths. There are fellows who have been there for a yearand a half. It's the Army regulations, and at the beginningPeterson, who thought being an Army doctor was differentfrom being an Army officer, simply didn't spend thetime to learn the rules. And so for months he'd profile guysback to the States, where they'd be discharged from thehospitals and returned to Nam.
He tries to hold them now; if they're getting close tothe ten-month, five-day deadline, he'll try to extend theirprofiles thirty days to keep them in the hospital over thedeadline. It doesn't go over very big with headquarters,but he's the Doc and you don't need a panel for a thirty-dayextension of a temporary profile. You can fool aroundwith the Army if you want and do it very effectively withouthaving to go outside the system; it's all there andready to use in that formal structure written down in theAR's, which, if definitely applied, would be impossible foranyone to work under. But you have to care, really care,because the Army doesn't like to be fiddled with. You canhold onto patients and refuse to discharge them, cloggingup beds in the evac chain. You can put any cold or runnynose you see, no matter what his job, on quarters untilevery unit commander is screaming. You can demand thatthe most rigorous rules of hygiene be enforced and drivethe senior NCO's crazy. You can ask for a consult onevery case, or simply be slow in your dictation until thepersonnel office is frantic.
The Commander is ultimately responsible for all, andwhen the patients start piling up at Yokota and the AirForce generals begin to complain, it is he who mustanswer. At Kishine there was a commander who insisted,despite formal complaints, in interfering with the doctorsto the point of demanding that only certain medicationsbe used. He ordered that the "foolishness" be stopped, andeveryone obeyed. They discharged their patients, but witha note on the chart that the discharge was under protest,against their medical judgment, and only done underdirect orders of the hospital Commander. Everything wasput on him, and if indeed anything went wrong anywhere—if a patient died on a plane or even spiked a fever afterhe'd been discharged, if a cold became pneumonia, if awound became infected—it would be he who was heldresponsible. Faced with the possibility of disaster, of beingmade responsible in fields he really knew nothing about,the Commander backed down and finally left everyone,except his own adjutant, alone.
As a military physician, how you feel about the situationdepends on how you look at the war—and, of course,the casualties. Lenhardt, for instance, sees nothing wrongwith the war; he says it's better to fight the communistsin Vietnam than in Utah. If you see the patients, brokenand shattered at eighteen and nineteen as something necessaryin the greater scheme of things, then there are nocomplaints. But if you see these kids as victims, their sufferingfaces, burned and scarred, their truncated stumpsas personal affronts and lifelong handicaps, then you maytake a chance on doing what you think is right.
Peterson and Grieg were two of our general surgeons.Hubart and Lenhardt were the other two. They took callevery fourth night, and the nights they were on they tookall the admissions that day. If they got really bombed,the others just stepped in with them. During Tet and thetime the 101st went back into the Ashau, they all came in.
Peterson was on night call in the hospital when theAOD received an emergency call from the Kanto-based aircommand at Yokota. Because of an accident on the runway,an air evac from Nam scheduled early that morningwould have to be diverted to the Naval air station atAtugi, about two miles from Zama. Atugi's runway isshorter than Yokota's, but the pilot had radioed that oneof their VSI on board was going sour, and there was someconcern whether he would get in country alive. The AirForce and the pilot were willing to take the chance onAtugi, and Atugi agreed. For those flying in Nam, thewar doesn't end with the coasts.
The plane landed a little after midnight. It came inunder the eerie light of the airstrip with power on, flapsdown, its wings almost forty-five degrees to the winds.Touching down on the very edge of the runway, the pilotdumped the flaps, and with the aircraft settling heavilyon the concrete, slammed on his brakes, screeching theplane down the runway. Halfway down the strip thebrakes began to smolder. With the plane streaming smokehe pulled it into a tight half-turn, and by applying power,skidded it along the edge of the runway until it came toa stop fifty meters from the end of the strip.
The patient was carried to a waiting Navy chopper,which ten minutes later was coming in over the administrationbuilding. The usual approach was out over theopen fields to the rear of the hospital and then back inagain to the landing pad. This pilot took it right in, barelyclearing the roof of the building, rattling the windows thewhole way in.
Peterson was waiting with the medic near the edge ofthe pad. The chopper had barely touched down when thecrew chief jerked open the door. The inside of the chopperwas covered with blood. In the dim half-light of the landingpad it looked like drying enamel.
Peterson and the medic started running onto the pad atthe same time. Hunching over to clear the swirling blades,the crew chief helped them into the chopper. Thewounded man, his head hanging limply over the edge ofthe stretcher, was still lashed to the sides of the chopper.Blood welled up from under his half-body cast. Grabbingthe top of the plaster cast, Peterson tore it off. A great gushof blood shot up, hit the roof, and then dying, fell away.He put his hand quickly over the wound and presseddown to stop the bleeding; he could feel the flesh slippingaway from under his hand. Taking a clamp out of hispocket, he took his hand off the wound and, with theblood swelling up again, stuck the clamp blindly into thejagged hole, worked it up into the groin, and snapped itshut. The bleeding stopped. The chopper, still running,was vibrating around him.
Covered with blood, Peterson yelled to the corpsmanto get some O-negative and to call the operating room.Then, with the crew chief, he carried the soldier off thechopper and gave him the first four O-negative units rightthere on the helipad under the landing lights. By the timethey got the patient up to the OR he had some color back.
Peterson operated for two hours. He had to expand thewound, ending up with an incision that ran twelve inchesfrom the front of the patient's thigh, right under hisgroin, and back around the sides of the leg. When he hadcut out the infection and cleaned what he couldn't cut,he had a decent view of the area and carefully went afterthe artery. Dissecting down through the leg's great vesselsand nerves, he found a medium-sized branch of the femoralartery, right above the bone, with a small hole inits anterior surface, and tied it off.
The pathologist from the 406th came in; they had usedup all the O-negative blood they had, but it wasn'tenough. Half an hour later, a chopper carrying all theO-negative blood at Kishine came in, and two hourslater one came in from Drake. It took ten units of blood,but the leg stayed on.
Ten units of blood, though, can do strange things toyou. It dilutes normal clotting factors, so that even whileyou're getting blood, you bleed. Before Peterson had tiedoff the vessel, the trooper began to ooze from the edgesof the wound, then from his nose and mouth. While Petersonworked, Cooper, the head of medicine, opened theblood bank and gave the patient units of fibrinogen andfresh frozen plasma. The bleeding was held in checkenough for Peterson to finish up and close the wound. Heleft the patient to Cooper, and since it was too late in themorning to go to sleep, he went to the snack bar and hadsome coffee. An hour later he began his morning cases.
Five days later they moved Robert Kurt from the ICUdown to the medical ward, where he became Cooper'spatient. Peterson had checked him every day while he wasin Intensive Care and continued to check on his woundeven after he had left the unit. Kurt was quite a bit olderthan the average soldier, much more alert, and certainlymore interesting than the usual adolescent corporal whocame through the evacuation chain. He told Peterson he'dbeen drafted when he had dropped out of his first year ofgraduate school. It wasn't that he hadn't wanted to go on,he said, it was just that he was getting tired of going toschool and wanted to be free for a while. He had taken achance, and the Army got him.
Two weeks after the operation, Peterson came by andfound that someone had put an 101st Airborne patch onKurt's bed frame.
"You're kidding," he said, staring at the patch.
"No," Kurt said, shrugging. "I figured since I was in it,I might as well really be in it. Besides, I wanted to bewith guys who knew what they were doing. I didn'tknow," he said, smiling good-naturedly, "they would begoddamn crazy."
Peterson nodded, a bit too soberly.
"No," Kurt said, "don't get the wrong idea. They savedmy life. Any other unit, and I'd be dead now. I mean it.I'm glad I was in the 101st."
Peterson didn't look convinced.
"It's the truth. We get hard-core lifers, E-8's and E-9's,captains with direct battlefield commissions, who knowfighting. It's their life. When things get hot, they just stepin and take over, tell you to get down and wait, this iswhat's happened and that, and this is what to do. They'recalm, and so nobody panics. It's not some storybookthing." He looked down at his leg. "I know I'd be deadnow, we'd all be."
Peterson just stood there and let him talk. ApparentlyKurt needed to talk, and he let him.
"We got caught—three companies. It must have beenan 800-man ambush. They just waited on both sides of usand closed the door on each company—just cut us off fromone another. The fire was coming into each company,from all sides, front and back. They really had us. It happens...."He paused, seeing the look on Peterson's face."And it's going to keep happening. The thing is what happensafter you get caught—that's what counts. I was in BCompany. If we broke through the gooks in front or inback of us, we'd be running into fire from our own companies,and they were too strong for us to move out to theflanks. We had three artillery batteries of our own workingwith us, and some of the 1st Air Cav's. No one panicked.We just dug in, found out where we were, and startedcalling in blocking fire. We were calling it in fifteen metersfrom our positions. We'd call in a salvo to keep 'emfrom coming through and one or two rounds farther outto keep 'em from coming around. All the FO's and RTO'sfrom A, B, and C Company were in touch with one another;there wasn't any time to clear the grids. We werecalling in shells on each other, but when an RTO heardanother company calling rounds into the grids they werein, he had enough sense to pull in his own unit and callback their location.
"At one time, we were calling rounds ten meters fromeach other's positions. That's tough shooting. No one blew.If we'd panicked ... I'd be dead. They had us cold forfour hours, but we beat 'em.
"When I got hit, the med evacs couldn't get in. Thecolonel just got on the horn and told one of the gunshipsto come in and get the wounded. I was bleeding like apig. They came in, firing the whole time, picked us up,took us right in to the TOC CP; they were getting hit too,but the 101st always carries a surgeon along with them atthe TOC. The gunship must have blasted half the CPapart to get us in. The Doc clamped my leg and gave meblood and sent me off again.
"That's the difference, see," Kurt said. "I mean support,not panic, knowing what you're doing, good officers andNCO's. The 4th and 25th Divisions would have beenshooting at each other, breaking out into each other's linesof fire, calling in artillery and gunships all over the place,and there wouldn't have been a colonel around to give ashit."
Peterson shook his head.
"I know what you're thinking," Kurt said. "But onceyou've hit a village where Charlie's gotten no cooperation,you sort of get a different view of things. They really kill'em, the kids and the old people. No, I'm not kidding.We hit three like that. They hang the bodies from themain gate. It makes you think after a while."
Excerpted from 365 DAYS by Ronald J. Glasser. Copyright © 1980 by Ronald J. Glasser. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1995 The University of North Carolina Press.All rights reserved.
|Preface to the Second Edition||VII|
|Preface to the First Edition||IX|
|1.||Go Home, Kurt||5|
|4.||Final Pathological Diagnosis||57|
|5.||The Shaping-Up of McCabe||63|
|6.||Search and Destroy||93|
|7.||Come On! Let's Go!||107|
|8.||No Fucken Cornflakes||113|
|10.||Gentlemen, It Works||149|
|15.||$90,000,000 a Day||227|
|17.||I Don't Want to Go Home Alone||257|
|Glossary of Military and Medical Terms||289|
Posted April 18, 2006
It's the most powerful Vietnam book I've ever read, and probably one of the best books about the realities of war. This book, unlike any I've ever read, takes to into the lives and trajedy of a soldier's life at that time. I was finishing the book while I was waiting for a flight at the airport, and had to fight to keep from crying at the end. It should be required reading for every politician who wants to send our boys into harm's way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 17, 2003
I read this book soon after returning from Viet Nam. I was in college at the time using the G.I. Bill and I remember how real the accounts were and how accurately the emotions were expressed in each little scenario. I just read the book again and all of the feelings came flooding back, even after over thirty years have passed, it feels as real as if it were yesterday. If you want an accurate picure of what it was like without having been there yourself then this is the book to read. It gives snippets of how it actually was over there and how most of us dealt with the reality of the day to day job of not getting killed. We tried not to think of what we had just done so we could do it again as ordered and survive and make it out of there alive and go home. The term FTA in the states meant F... The Army. In Viet Nam it meant Fly To America.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 22, 2000
365 Days is the best collection of short stories compiled about the Vietnam conflict. It takes you into the GI's mind. It also shows the heroism as well as fear that went along with the war.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2010
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Posted May 11, 2014
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Posted October 24, 2008
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