Leaving Vietnam in a Plane Full of Damaged Goods (Guest Blog)
Posted with the permission of Jerry S. Horton, author of “The Shake ‘N Bake Sergeant”
Wednesday, 19 March 69 Cam Ranh Bay to Japan
It was another hot day in Vietnam, I lay on a stretcher in Cam Ranh Bay. My body was cut open and I felt weak and vulnerable. But there was not a moment’s peace. Powerful jet engines roared overhead, one after the other. Trucks and jeeps whizzed back and forth. Men walked or ran in all directions, shouting to be heard over the noise. Helicopters took off or landed in a non-stop pattern of activity. It was a busy day at the base. In the midst of this organized bedlam known as war, I waited with my wounded comrades to be flown to a hospital in Japan.
The 249th Army Hospital had been operating at Osaka, since the beginning of the Korean War. To get there, we would have a two-hour plane ride from Vietnam.
I struggled to lift my head from the cot. I could see a cargo plane nearby; one with a ramp that opened downward from the tail. Normally, it would be loaded with jeeps or trucks, but, today, it would take on human cargo. Eventually, my stretcher was wheeled toward the plane. Once inside, it was dark and cool. A welcome relief. When my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw that the plane looked like a huge tunnel filled with straps hanging from the ceiling.
The medics rolled me deep inside the plane. There were stretchers all around me, and slots on both sides for stacking the stretchers, one on top of the other. Each slot contained a wounded man. The medics lifted me up, and then I was one of them . . . just another guy on a shelf. From my stretcher, I could see a few of the wounded with IV bottles hanging above their arms. Each man had a different set of wounds to cope with and a different story to tell. It was noisy and smelly in the plane with nauseating odors of fuel oil and medications. While the plane was being loaded, all I could do was lay there and bear it.
Finally, the ramp closed, the air conditioning came on in the darkness, and we took off. Our flight seemed like a very long two hours. The soldier in the bunk above me kept yelling to the medic that he was getting wet. From what I could gather, condensation from the plane was dripping onto his face. The medic gave him a towel and told him that it wouldn’t be long until we landed.
A soldier in a nearby stretcher said the plane was loaded entirely with broken soldiers. Hundreds. The thought was too powerful to contemplate. Some of the time, I drifted into a dazed half-sleep. Some of the time, I thought I was floating instead of flying. I tried to figure out whether or not I was happy. I was glad I wasn’t dead yet. I knew that some of my comrades in A-1-8 hadn’t made it, but I tried not to dwell on it. This wasn’t the time.
Eventually, we arrived at the hospital. It was small, but very clean. Everything was white. There were about twenty men in my ward. Our beds were arranged in two rows with heads against the wall and feet toward the middle of the room, just like in the movies. Across the aisle from me, a soldier had a stump for a leg. The medics helped him into bed. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Raw meat. Why didn’t it bleed? I hated the war.
I had been trying to sleep all afternoon, but was disturbed by the commotion accompanying a new arrival. He was given the bed to my right. He had giant blisters all over his face, hands, and arms. Someone told me, later, that he had operated a flame thrower and, when he was using it, something had gone wrong.
Frank occupied the bed to my left. He was from Kentucky. Since I was facing him, we struck up a conversation. Frank had lost the use of his right arm. He said he was shot a total of seven times in a recent battle, and each time he had been wounded, it had felt different. Finally, the enemy had overrun his company’s position. They blew his arm away and left him for dead. He had four other bullet wounds in his body.
The next day they brought in a guy who looked like he had been burned all over his body. He was also missing a leg. Why wasn’t he in a burn ward? His limbs and stump looked completely charred. I couldn’t believe he was still alive.
This ward was hell. I wanted to go home. I had had enough. I asked the nurse for some sleeping pills. She obliged me and for the next couple days, I drifted in and out of a drugged sleep. It was better than facing the reality of the ward and the war.
A few days later, the doctor told me that I would be going home right after they sewed me up, which would be the next day. I asked him why my hand was numb. He said I had median nerve damage. The nerve was almost severed. He said he didn’t know whether it would ever get better, but maybe the doctors could do something when I got back to the States.
Upon learning the true condition of my hand, I felt surprisingly resigned. I was surrounded by men with severe injuries of all types—amputees, terrible stomach wounds requiring colostomy bags, the list went on and on and got worse. I could look forward to a better life in the future and whatever happened, things would never be as bad for me as the agonies experienced by my wounded comrades. I felt lucky and I was thankful.
Written between the lines of my doctor’s words was the clear message that the Nam was over for me. At last, I could turn my thoughts towards home and towards building a new future. A thousand questions flooded my mind. Will I be accepted? Am I damaged goods? How can I explain what has happened to me? These thoughts must have run through the mind of every soldier who has ever been wounded. How will I be accepted back in the World?
The next day, the doctors sewed me back together. After that, my body was about as sore as sore can be. I hated being operated on so many times. Each time I had to put my life in some other person’s hands. I didn’t care if they were doctors, it was unnerving. While I was in the recovery room, other soldiers were wheeled in and out. Their wounds were too terrible to describe.
Wednesday, 26 March 69 249th Army Hospital, Osaka, Japan
Later, back in my bed, a medic came by and told me that I would be leaving in the next day or two. I was to be transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. I asked him the date. I had been in Japan a full week. That was long enough!
As I lay there feeling more hopeful, I tried to dream of home and my future, but it was hard to focus. I tried to work out a plan in my mind for going to college, but it was too difficult. A few times I was caught off guard. The 12 March battle reappeared and replayed itself in my mind, leaving me feeling anxious and depressed. I knew that these episodes couldn’t be good for healing, so I tried to stop them, but they crept in anyway. Over and over I experienced the firing, the yelling, charging the bunker, the explosion, the noise, the confusion, the helicopter under fire—and more yelling when Revis got hit.
I realized I would have to start over. Nam was the price I had paid to get to go to college. My life would never be the same. I had used my skills to become a Shake ‘n Bake sergeant in the Vietnam War. I had done my best. The little boy who had loved to play with his plastic toy soldiers and to draw pictures of warriors had become one. Now this boy couldn’t stand war. The thought of it made him sick to his stomach. Silently, I cried in my hospital bed. I didn’t want anyone to hear me. Soldiers weren’t supposed to cry.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the Vietnam War – subscribe to this blog and get each new post delivered to your email or feed reader. Click on the title at the top of this page to be redirected to my main page – a directory on the right side lists similar articles and points of interest.