Letters From Nam


These were found among my mother's effects after she died. She had saved them from 1970–1971. I was known at home by my first name. This is presented exactly as my hand penned it out back then, as close as digital transcription allows. I did allow the lines to wrap herein because the originals were on small paper.

2 Sep 70 –

Dear Mom & Dad –

Time does fly by and I have no real excuse for my delinquency in writing – We are busy on the job, and my extra chores as Chairman of the Dept. of Surgery are a constant little thorn catching me just as I try to tie up loose ends on the ward or elsewhere. But the big deter[r]ent to letter writing is the constant need for company – it's damn near impossible to sit alone in the trailer for any activity – studying, reading or letter writing –

The workload is smoothing out since we added a third orthopedist and a 4th man who has had one year of general surg. training. Even so it seems there's very little spare time.

This type of surgery is not very challenging and not very gratifying. When the kids are "dusted off" from some aid station, to us, we just check them over, stabilize them with blood transfusions and fluids then run them into the OR where we scrub them up & debride (cut away the debris) the wounds to get out all the dirt and dead tissue. The wounds are usually multiple fragments (MFW's) from rockets, mortars or mines, occas. rifle fire. My corpsmen came to me after changing dressings on one fellow and said they had counted 37 wounds. The damage comes when the fragments, or the transmitted force of the frags or the explosion, fracture bones, lacerate arteries or, especially, cut nerves. We leave the wounds open so they can drain and then close them at 7-10 days, unless we have shipped the pt. up to Japan or back to the CONUS via air evac. It's reassuring to know we have learned the surgical principles and can apply them to these miserable problems, but it is not very gratifying when the cause of it all is just a bunch of cavemen out throwing sophisticated rocks at each other – I'm not talking of the politics of this war because that just confuses me; I'm referring to Mankind's stupid habit, over the eons, of warring.

We operate a lot on Vietnamese – civilians, ARVN and the mercenaries – The first two categories we ship out rapidly to provincial and ARVN hospitals but the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) we can follow-up because nobody else will – they are U.S employees, I guess, and make pretty good money by local standards.

I'll bet the countertops at the Lake look great!

The sailboat ramp sounds like a great idea. Glad it's working out – also glad J – is enjoying the sailboat.

There are 3 sunfish-type sailboats on the [Cam Ranh] Bay side of the AB [airbase] here for rent, and there are a Lightening, a Star and 3 small catamarans down at Market Time naval station – I haven't been out on any yet – just can't seem to get to it.

I am enrolled in the Scuba course – have only made it to about of the classes and just the 1st of the 2 Sunday all-day swim-ins we've had. Terribly anxious to get on with it. I'm juggling like mad to switch my call from this Sunday.

Mom mentioned I might be bored with her ramblings in her letters. Altho' it may seem otherwise from my poor response, I really appreciate the letters and relish every detail of your activities – so please keep them coming. I'll try to do better now that we have some relief in the work-force.

I'm riding a thin edge on my quarters – I'm in a nice Port-A-Camper trailer type, rooms 9 x 11 at each end with a jon in between… but I'm not authorized by grade, etc., to be here. When I arrived the fellow who was here TDY filling my slot just moved me in and he moved out. I never checked at billeting… LtCol's and Majors on flying status are authorized these quarters – the next step down is a big one – Billeting has caught up with me but we are sitting tight until some anticipated crowding develops – I am sweating out my flying status orders, which is another story – I should make L/C sometime between 1 Jan & 9 Jan – and my boss is going to make a pitch for me as a "Key Personnel" in the Hospital. So my chances of keeping this room are pretty good… but I'm worried & skeptical.

The flying status is another story… the big factor right now is policy rumblings from way up that all clinicians will be taken off flying status. This seems quite certain, but no dates are set for implementation. But I don't figure it will be any help to me in my application to get on flying status.

The application is another story…we sent it forward from here 31 Jul, 7th AF in Saigon sent it forward to PACAF (Hickam) 10 Aug, PACAF bounced it 18 Aug and 7th returned it to us dated 25 Aug – we got it the 28th, and had it en route back up the line the 29th. Very frustrating… and the med. exam has to be sent all the way to Hq USAF (Personnel) at Randolph AFB, Tx – so I doubt I'll even get on status. Even if I do it'll only be for a short time until this other thing is implemented. So I'm a bit bitter – $230.00/mo. bitter ! and probably my nice quarters. Sorry I've gotten into this nice little harangue –

Weather here is quite consistently damn warm – day and night – variably humid to very humid – but sometimes the evenings are quite pleasant – probably down to 75o – and there is a constant breeze. There is usually a pleasant breeze – we are on a narrow peninsula between the ocean and a bay. Our clinic, wards and OR are all air-conditioned. The outdoor corridors are covered and I've never been really uncomfortable.

We wear rubber/leather/nylon-topped boots and OD fatigues, cut something like a bush jacket. All insignia & name tags are embroidered in black. They look heavy and hot but really aren't. And they are comfortable with lots of pockets – 10 I believe – all very loose fitting.

My walk to work is concrete – but these boots are quite adequate for it – the boots also have some kind of a flexible metal inner sole to protect against spikes (none here). The alternative to paving here is a deep soft sand.

The way I figure the time difference is this – It takes the sun 11 hrs to get from overhead there to overhead here – so when it does get here, and it is noon here, eleven hrs have gone by there, so it is 11 p.m. (standard time) there ! Somewhere they had to have an [sic] sharp cut-off for the day difference and it happens to be out in the mid-Pac which is just way around the world from Greenwich, England, where all this business started. So, the Date Line is just an arbitrary place where the day changes – so, true time is 11 hrs later in Rochester than here,

but, date time is the day before – when it is 12 noon here it is 11 pm the day before in Rochester. The other way to figure it is to figure westward from here – the sun hasn't gotten there yet so it is earlier in the day eastward [sic – westward] from here, one hour for each time zone – and it is 13 time zones to Rochester – in 13 hrs the sun will reach Rochester (overhead) and it will be noon there – going back to 13 hrs earlier, when the sun was overhead here, it was 11 pm the previous evening in Rochester ! No date line, just a midnight.

I don't mind a letter full of questions – Sometimes provides some good ideas for letter writing.

12 of the 14 boxes I shipped arrived 2-3 weeks ago. There hasn't been another boat mail since, so I expect the remainder to arrive then. If you send anything send it PAL or SAM – it's 2 mos since I mailed those 14 boxes.

This hospital is staffed for 400 beds & has 400 beds, but runs about 280 pt's – it is, I believe, the AF's 3rd largest in capacity – If we ran 400 pt's we'd be totally swamped – Our type requires fair amount of attention and lots of paperwork getting them admitted then manifested for air evac… and the paperwork takes time – our load runs to surgical patients – altho' Medicine keeps busy with malaria and dysentery –

I will have a tape recorder in a couple months – I'm going to go the whole route in amplifier, tape deck & FM tuner and big speakers, etc. My little recorder S—- has.

before then it would be a little awkward using someone else's. But will get on with it later.

Now 8 Sep –

Food is o.k. – strictly institutional but adequate. There are a few clubs, with very limited menus. Of course, it's not uncommon for a case of steak to fall off a truck and find its way into our refrigerators – always keeps frozen thru its journey. We eat here at the trailer. Once had chick-a-bab [sic] which was outstanding.

Trailer is very adequate; patio is nice; roommate is great – LtCol dentist.

There are several native town [sic] nearby – I've never been to any of them. I haven't been off this peninsula – but I've been over most of it. On 24 & 25 Sept I'm going up to Nha Trang to operate for 2 days in a civilian Provincial Hospital.

Must close and see if I can get this into an evening pick-up.

Much love –

I'll write sooner next


2 Nov 70

Dear Mom & Dad –

Things seem to be slowing down here a bit – This is the first afternoon that I've really had free in weeks –

I'm at the hospital because I have some studying and filing and personal paperwork I want to do – will write a couple pages then finish this in my room where I'll review some of your recent letters.

I wrote you a long letter that should have arrived in Rochester while you were at San F. – can't recall you mentioned it – will check back letters tonight.

I had the crud last week – bad diarrhea and cramping Wed. night – heaved my lunch & most of my innards it seemed – Worst damn cramps I've had since I was a kid – Just today feel I'm really clear of it. Roommate in same condition.

I'm finally on flying status ! – Got the orders just a couple weeks ago and they were back-dated to 14 Sep – still feel I was cheated out of 6 weeks, and may yet write it up for the Inspector General –

I'm out of my job as Chairman of Surg. Dept. ! Thank God ! The guy who was 7 days senior to me came in and took the job. I've never been so happy to shed a burden !

No word yet on the promotion deal – I interpret the rule as written reported in the AF Times that I am long overdue (Aug '69) for L/C; and I recall that Randolph AFB people told me I wouldn't make it until the next board meets after the rules become effective – Dec '70 board considers promotions for Cal. Yr. 1971 – so I may make it 1 Jan 71 – there is so much of that 3rd hand I'm prepared for any disappointment – but I will be disappointed.

I'll probably then take R & R in March – the big birthday month – maybe April – Everybody advises leave & R & R be taken late in the tour because the time afterward is the hardest to take. Also, often is tough to get R & R travel slots – and the closer to DEROS (Date of Return from Over Sea) the higher your priority.

The weather right here right now is surprisingly cool & breezy. about 70o which is cooler than it has been any time since I've been here except an occasional 0600 hours. Really is quite refreshing.

Last Wed. when I was so sick we had our typhoon – it had been down graded to a tropical storm but did blow off a few f roofs and cut off water & electricity. Fortunately my roommate & I managed to contain ourselves during the worst water cut-off periods. Could have been bad!

Will mail this now & try to write again soon regarding review of your letters to answer questions.

Love Harold

27 Mar 71 !!

Dear Mom & Dad

So far I know only that I'm going either to Vandenberg AFB in southern Calif. or to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. I called Washington a couple days ago and that's all the guy could tell me – I'm not sure whether he couldn't remember which or whether the decision just hadn't been made.

I'm en route to the annual War Surgery meeting, this year in Tokyo. Will be there a week.

My "other" orthopaedist left for the States 2 Feb and it took them until 10 Ap Mar to get me temporary duty help from the Philippines – he's covering me until I get my man in permanently about 5 Apr. That's one reason I've been so busy

We did have a mass casualty with 31 Cambodian trainees hit in a rocket attack. I had had 11 admissions on the day before (a Saturday) then ate blintzes & crêpes & wine until 1am and they arrived at 3am I was in the O.R. until noon – tho't I'd poop out – but there is a lot of adrenalin flowing at a time like that.

Biggest work load is with the backaches & knee pains which seem more numerous now that the war is winding down. They requires so much more time-consuming evaluation and paper work.

One thing I'd really appreciate is a couple big cans of Bond Street [pipe] tobacco. I've gotten to the point where I really don't like any other brands, and the selection is so very poor in Viet Nam. Send it Parcel Post & label it "SAM".

Surely glad Aunty Vi made it out to Hawaii – I'll bet she really enjoyed it.

Hope all is well with you-all back there in the thaw –

I'll close and shoot off a note to C——.



October 16, 2007