NSA Station Hospital, Da Nanag: A Personal History - Part 4
By Jim Chaffee
A great irony for me is that it was not until my trips back that I got to know anything about the area. I had been to the village of Binh Ky, birthplace of the author Le Ly Hayslip, in 1969, while on a road sweep with a squad from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. It was part of a sleepover, an invitation from their corpsman and the squad leader, and the closest I ever came to field duty. We spent the night at Tower Three, at the intersection of the Main Supply Road and Binh Ky Road, in hostile territory south of the Marble Mountains.Road Sweep to Binh Ky Photos
But visits to the city of Da Nang were only made on official business. I made many of these trips, usually at night in ambulances with wounded or sick civilians or Vietnamese military. Sometimes the trips took us to the civilian hospital downtown, a horrible place with shared beds and animals wandering the open wards. Sometimes the trips took us to the Vietnamese Army Hospital in Cam Le, where during the day you could see numbers of soldiers and children on crude crutches, amputees.
At night these trips were particularly eerie, the streets deserted. In fact, even in the day you saw no Americans in the crowds of Vietnamese on the streets. The city was off limits to all but a handful of Americans. Those few had to carry special passes allowing them to be in Da Nang. Nearly all of the Navy personnel in the Da Nang area lived at the large Tien Sha base, and those who worked in the Da Nang area were transported to and from work in what we termed cattle cars. There were no open apartments you could rent. Any quarters in the area were guarded. There were no bars to visit except those on your base, and at night you stayed on your base unless you were on official business.
This flies in the face of the stories in Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, which became the Oliver Stone potboiler Heaven and Earth. Hayslip tells of working at a Navy hospital in Da Nang city, guarded by Vietnamese military personnel, catering to Vietnamese civilians. There was no such hospital. NSA Station Hospital, which she refers to as My Thi Hospital, was the Navy Hospital in the area, and there were never Vietnamese military guarding it while I was there. She claims to have had an affair with a pot smoking Navy corpsman named Red who had an apartment across the street from the hospital where women came and went at will. Red supposedly tried to force her to work in a strip joint frequented by military personnel. Since Hayslip is writing about the period when I was there, from 1967 until 1969, I have to say that is pure fiction. It may be that something like that came to pass after the Navy gave the hospital to the Vietnamese military, as they were withdrawing, but I have yet to meet anyone who can verify it.
We treated numerous Vietnamese civilians and military at the hospital. However, Hayslip also claims she was treated at a military hospital as a civilian, in a dependent's clinic. That is far fetched, since military personnel did not have dependents with them unless those dependents also happened to be working in Vietnam in some capacity like press or Red Cross. We certainly had no dependent units, and treating women was a special problem since most of the wards were completely open with only a few private rooms and no segregated bathing or toilet facilities. There was no officer's ward, as I recall.
Marriage to Vietnamese nationals was simply not permitted except under very extreme circumstances. One interesting story is that of Duong Van Mai Elliot, author of The Sacred Willow. She married an American Army Sergeant she met while they attended college in the United States. They later married while he was working as a translator and she was working for the Rand Corporation in Saigon. As a result of the marriage, he lost his security clearance.
We could walk or hitchhike the Main Supply Road to China Beach, north of the hospital, during the day, but we were not permitted to enter any buildings along the way. The short road from the Main Supply Road to the China Beach USO went off limits about six months after I arrived, as it bordered a squatter's village we called Cabbage Patch harboring young thieves who would steal from those afoot.
For me, one memorable evening on my second return visit was sitting in a restaurant north of the Old American Bridge. Out over the water, eating a hot pot with eel and plenty of seafood, I watched the lights on the other side of the river, on the strip that was East Da Nang, knowing this was a formerly forbidden pleasure.
I broke another old taboo when I met a man a few years my junior on the flight to Da Nang from Saigon. He spoke good English and we hit it off when I tried my Vietnamese on him. He could barely control his laughter. He invited me to his home, near the Furama Hotel, in what had been Cabbage Patch. He had built it himself. Now he worked in a rubber factory as a manager. One night we went to dinner at a seafood restaurant at My Khe, the beach north of China Beach where the 95th Evac Hospital, the subject of the series China Beach, had shown up some time in early 1969.
Near the north east intersection of the Main Supply Road and the road to China Beach is a set of government buildings, where the Catholic orphanage had stood. The orphanage has been moved to Hoi An as a government facility, and the only reminder of our old MEDCAPs is the convent, where a handful of Vietnamese Catholic nuns are spending their last days.
At the end of the road to China Beach, near where the China Beach USO had stood, is the Furama Hotel. The Marble Mountains, which had once dominated the skyline, are now hidden behind buildings and billboards. The hospital has been gone for over thirty years, a place whose physical existence lasted only about four years, but which has lived for decades in memory.
My own memories have lingered, though details have dulled. I recall how one night we got a Marine, his neck blasted with shrapnel, with a perfect tracheotomy, the metal tube neatly tucked in between scores of hemostats cutting off the bleeders. His corpsman accompanied him on the chopper to make certain the airway stayed open. The corpsman had been an OR tech who had seen dozens of tracheotomies performed, and besides his Unit One, he also carried a surgical kit. He had performed the surgery by flare light, while under fire, and the doctor on duty was amazed enough that he spread the word and his colleagues came to see the marvel. We put the corpsman up for the night, gave him a bottle of scotch and some fresh surgical supplies, and he went back the following morning to his duty.
Amid deeper, sometimes painful memories, I also remember taking leaches we had removed from wounded Marines to the outdoor triage, injecting them with acetone and lighting them, watching them explode. Thirty years ago wasn't a time I wanted to remember, but now I cherish the memories. I was part of something acting in the world, making a difference at a time when no one wanted to hear about it. That makes it all the more special.
Some time after my second revisit to Vietnam, I found a message posted on the internet by a former Navy FMF corpsman. He described our triage and pre-op area from the casualty point of view. I wrote him an e-mail and he responded. We had a discussion by e-mail and he left me a phone number. I called him. He had come through our triage during my tour, though I probably did not work on him. The circumstances are special enough, however, that I believe I remember my good friend Bob Garrison talking about it.
The Corpsman had triggered a booby trap while treating a wounded Marine. He sustained the following wounds: traumatic amputation left leg below the knee; deep shrapnel wounds to the left thigh; massive shrapnel wounds to the right ankle; multiple shrapnel wounds to the groin, including both testicles, with half the left testicle removed; massive shrapnel wounds to the left arm including a severed radial artery; shrapnel to the right eye, still there. He says he regained consciousness after we got an IV going, yelling at someone to cut the damned leg off, not aware that it was gone until he sat bolt upright and looked down at the mangled remains. He probably would have died had there not been a Huey gunship in the area that picked him up and got him to us within minutes. He lived. In fact, he has lived a very productive, full life, with a family, a career, and a mission as counselor for a church.
Our conversation was not long, but it moved me. After thirty years I had found someone who lived because of us. It was always in the back of our minds, just how would those who were mutilated consider us, those who had saved them? This former patient and fellow Navy hospital corpsman remembers the NSA Station Hospital and was glad we were there.
Read Perfect Night for Leeches, a short story based on events from the same setting. Perfect Night for Leeches