What Memorial Day Means to a Physician Who Took Care of Dead Soldiers in a Combat Zone

It’s Memorial day and we honor that faceless avatar  “our war dead.”  Contrarily, I have my war dead and their faces haunt me. My experiences rather expose war and our military as farce.

I was drafted out of a residency and sent to Vietnam where I served my year as an army flight surgeon. I’ll not mention the year or place of my postings hoping that victims’ identities will not be apparent to their survivors in this article. For those interested, I revealed these details in my book “A Brewery Workers Boy in Vietnam.”

There were three incidents.

We refurbished helicopters at my army posting. Specially trained pilots had to test fly them stressing them to the extremes before general use. One evening (against rules, test flights were to be done during working hours) the two pilots started to take the “new” Huey up, but the crew chief (not trained to fly an aircraft ) sat in the place of the co-pilot. The actual co-pilot and some casual intruder sat in the back taking a night ride on a risky flight just for the pure hell of it. It crashed at the end of the runway; I remember seeing the fuel flaring off in the night. The aircraft itself was buried in 10 feet of mud. Every bone in the 4 bodies was broken.  Analysis showed that during a maneuver to stress the hydraulics, the “co-pilot” had turned the fuel valve off instead of the hydraulic valve which was adjacent and looked similar.  Bad mistake.

The 4 got posthumous purple hearts for being stupid. The post commander should have been faulted but he must have had connections. We recommended that the valves be more easily distinguished.

The second incident involved three black deserters who were confronted by 2 MPs. The three got the draw and wounded one MP while the other ran away. He watched one of the renegades shoot the wounded cop in the head.

They caught one guy right away. At court martial he was sent to prison for 3 years and got a bad conduct discharge. The MPs were infuriated.

They found the second guy some weeks later hiding in a “beach house,” a kind of grass hut on the shore. The deserter was asked nicely to come out with his hands up. When he didn’t comply, the cops brought up an APC and used its 50 cal on the shed. I remember the burst of 4 rounds with 10 seconds intervals continuing for maybe twenty minutes. These law officers seriously delivered street justice (I mean, 50 cal!) I don’t know what happened to the 3rd renegade. He might still be over there.

The last incident occurred during the coastal typhoon. Flights were cancelled because of a dense fog. Two Bored air traffic controllers in the tower watched a large blob moving south over the South China Sea.  It suddenly disappeared. This troubled them enough to record. Two days later an Army outfit up north sent out an alert-”who hell has our Chinook?”

My aviation outfit had to go out to the island where bloated bodies started to float up, and I had to do the picking up and the paperwork. Turns out that the pilot had been flying “by the seat of his pants,” became disoriented, turned the aircraft upside down and flew it into the South China Sea. The rotor blades cut into the cockpit and fuselage. The transmission exploded.  The aircraft and bodies of soldiers disintegrated. I did manage to identify two remains but there were a lot of extra  pieces that I sent to the morgue in Saigon. (I think that I found this incident described on line and feel that their judgement that all of the bodies were lost is mistaken. I had the wallet of one soldier and another leg still wore a leather boot, worn by us on flight status because it wouldn’t burn, with the owner’s name written on the inside as per regs.)

This was simple pilot error but the real problem was that the aircraft had taken off and landed in 3-4 places and in each people had gotten on and off. Incredibly no one knew who or how many. It was a minor glitch in the vaunted Army Regs (the Air Force compulsively recorded who/how many….) A chinook could carry 58 soldiers. A screwup like that could account for an awful lot of MIAs. If you were a disaffected soldier in our military region you could disappear and everyone would ascribe it to being lost with this accident.

I did not see any combat deaths, but the war had pretty much crapped out by my time.

These were my “honored dead,” 4 fools, 3 guys who rejected the war, the MP  and the unrecorded number of men who got lost in the South China Sea. Each incident illustrated the stupidity and lawlessness that inspired military organizations. It was US made machines that killed these men and American politicians who made the arrangements.

The annual bromides today about “our noble dead” and “their sacrifices” may bring tears to some eyes. The squaws, especially the ones with a Y chromosome will believe and  up get puffed with patriotism at this blather. But it’s just propaganda. Many soldiers’ lives were just squeezed out at the waste end.