It’s a Doc’s life, but somebody’s gotta’ do it
After completing boot camp and Corps School in San Diego, I spent less than a year at my first duty station — U.S. Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Mass. — which no longer exists. After three months or so of duty on a medicine ward, I somehow ended up working in Labor & Delivery which was a great help (!) when I found myself transferred to the Marines for FMF (Fleet Marine Force) duty.
I think someone had it in for me since I originally had orders to report to the 3rd Mar Div in August of 1969. Then word came down that the 3rd Division was being pulled out of Vietnam and my orders got changed to the 1st Mar Div.While attending Field Med School at Camp Pendleton, we heard that the 1st was being pulled out as well. That was great news until my orders were changed once again to something called the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, of which I had no knowledge. I do remember my DI shaking his head after reading the orders changes at afternoon formation. He looked at me and said, “You poor bastard, you’re going to the CAPs.” I later found out what he meant.
Flying to the ‘Nam
Three days after graduating from Field Med School, I reported to Norton AFB and boarded a flight for Okinawa and ultimately “the Nam.” On arrival at Camp Carroll, Okinawa, the NCO in charge informed us that we would be on Oki for three to five days for outfitting, shots, etc. Then he stopped and said, “… unless you’re a Corpsman, in which case you need to come with me because you’re leaving now.”
The three- to five-day layover was cut to just under four hours as we drew our jungle fatigues, boots, undies, shots and papers. Then it was back to the airbase and onto a flight to Da Nang. On arrival at 3rd MAF Transit in Da Nang, those of us with 3rd MAF orders were loaded aboard a jeep (there were only three of us) and taken to Camp Horn for inprocessing. That was followed the next day by a quick trip to 2nd CAG at Hoi An, and a couple of days later to CAP School back in Da Nang.
I learned more at CAP School than I ever did at Camp Pendleton, and the instructors actually seemed to think I needed to know what they were teaching me about life as a CAP Marine. So I paid attention and on the final exam practical got 100 percent on the weapons, radio, maps and everything else. Except I lost one point because I forgot to tape the time fuse to the side of the TNT after I inserted the blasting cap — like we ever actually used TNT. But the gunny said, “Not bad Doc, we may make a Marine out of you yet.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Marine, but I appreciated the comment.
Arriving at CAP 2-7-2
Right after graduation came a series of truck rides and I arrived late one afternoon at the day haven site of CAP 2-7-2. I received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome from the old-timers in the CAP, who seemed about 30 years older than I felt. It wouldn’t take me long to catch up in age, but that’s another story.
The few guys who would actually talk to me said the previous Corpsman — “Doc” Davis — had been medevaced some time before, and they had been without medical aid for awhile. During that time they had been hit hard and lost some guys, and they somehow seemed to blame me for not arriving sooner.
After being introduced around the group, I got to perform my first medical miracle on one of the RFs. He came up and showed me a large lump on the side of his head that he wanted me to “fix.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do about this strange phenomenon until one of the “old” guys told me that it was a “gook sore” and that I should drain it. So I did, and received my introduction to medicine in the field by draining a couple ounces of pus from this guy’s head. It was pretty gross for a Corpsman who had worked Labor & Delivery, but I got through it without puking.
By the end of my tour I would drain somewhere in the vicinity of 3 million of these abscesses, incorrectly classified as a gook sore by my unlearned comrade. A gook sore was the ulcerative crater that resulted when a mosquito bite, or cut became infected from exposure to the feces-infested rice paddies and was usually found below the knees of any and all persons working in the rice industry.
An unscheduled swim
That night I endeared myself to the CAP by demonstrating that I was the clumsiest, most ignorant, ill-prepared Corpsman in Marine Corps history. When we moved out for the night, I still had the huge rucksack issued to me at 2nd CAG, filled with all sorts of unnecessary items and weighing about 500 pounds. I would soon trade it for the smaller ARVN pack that most of us carried, but that came later. Overburdened and scared shitless at being out in the real bush after dark, I fell into line with the others as we moved out.
I soon found myself walking along the very narrow river trail as we moved toward our night site at the Alamo. After a few minutes the line ahead of me stopped moving, so I stood very still trying to hear or see the thousands of VC I knew must be moving through the darkness with killing me as their only goal. Looking across the river I saw a flickering light, which of course had to be some kind of signal. I had to let someone know that “they” were over there flashing lights. I stepped to my right in order to move up the line and stepped off into nothingness. I felt myself flip upside down and land in the water with a huge splash.
Fortunately the water was not deep at the edge of the river or I would have drowned. As I lay there, unable to move because of the huge pack on my back, I remember Ledford and Paul Jungel standing on the trail above. They were debating whether it was worth fishing me out, since I had to be the poorest excuse for a Corpsman they had ever seen. In their opinion I was nowhere near the caliber of Doc Davis, whose exploits began to take on legendary proportions. After a minute or two Angel Washington stepped down off the bank and helped me get up saying, “Stay on the fucking trail, Doc.”
First night in the bush
Once at the Alamo, I was placed between Sgt. Alvin Burd and Angel for the night. After peering into the darkness for what seemed like hours, Sgt. Burd gave me the radio handset and told me I had the watch for the next two hours. With no further instructions, I held the handset next to my ear and continued peering into the darkness.
A short time later, I heard the CACO radioman calling all the CAPs in order and saying something about a “sit rep,” whatever that was. I heard each unit responding “Alpha Sierra” to this cryptic command, so when they got to CAP 2, I said the same thing. A couple of hours later, Angel rolled over and took the radio handset and said it was his watch. The rest of the night crawled past more slowly than any night in my life. I was never so glad to see a sunrise.
The next three nights went about the same, except that I managed to stay out of the river and somehow figured out that a “sit rep” was a situation report and “alpha sierra” meant all secure. I also found out why CAP Corpsmen always looked so damned tired. After being up all night I needed some rest and each day at the day haven, sought out a shady place to grab some sleep. I never got more than 15 or 20 minutes rest, though, before a few of the villagers would come looking for the “bac si” (doctor).
I was continually being awakened whenever I tried to nap, and fatigue ruled my life during those first few days. Later in the tour I managed to get my naps by being rude and surly to anyone who awakened me before noon, so the villagers learned to come in the afternoon for clinic hours.
But by my fourth night in the bush I had only managed one or two hours of sleep in four days and was getting a little dingy. That fourth night we were set up in the pines out by An Tu when I started hallucinating from sleep deprivation. The trees in front of our position started turning into giant enemy soldiers and marching towards me. I was terrified and although I knew there were no giants, I could not shake the vision from my eyes. I finally got them to go away, and told the Actual what was going on.
He looked at me in total disbelief, and said, “Well shit, Doc, why haven’t you been sleeping?”
I gave him a blank look and he asked me another question, “You do know that when you’re not on watch, you can sleep don’t you? Unless we’re on full alert, right?”
I shook my head negative and he started to smile, “Didn’t they teach you guys anything?”
I said they taught us all kinds of great things at Camp Pendleton, like how to walk in echelon formation, dig latrines and field sanitation pits, fire an M-14, and all sorts of stuff that was right out of the WWII field medicine manual.
After that he said only, “You poor dumb bastard, get some sleep, I’ll stand your watch.”
So I found out that it was actually okay to sleep out there in the bush. That was a great relief since I didn’t think I would be able to go a whole year without sleep.
Fitting into the team
Apparently the word got around that I wasn’t hopeless, just untrained. A few of the guys taught me what I needed to know, organized my gear, got rid of the excess crap, obtained the extra medical gear I needed and showed me how to relax in the bush. Shortly after that I went through my first firefight, treated my first combat wounds and showed that I could do the job. I gradually became accepted, and then the pressure was relieved when Thornton and Erpelding showed up and I was no longer the newest guy. I did notice that they seemed to know just what to do right from the beginning. I was a little jealous.
So the days dragged on, treating gook sores, draining abscesses, medevacing civilians hit by trucks on the road, and all-too-often taking care of my buddies when they got hit. Most of my naps and meals and card games were disturbed by villagers wanting medical treatment.
I treated everything pretty much the same way. Abscesses were drained, wounds were cleaned and packed, gook sores were treated with a paste made of aspirin and bacitracin antibiotic ointment. The paste worked really well as the dissolved aspirin helped suck out the infection and made the environment too acidic for bacteria. To top it all off, everyone got a shot of penicillin.
Even though CAF Headquarters told us we were supposed to keep a record of the villagers we treated, I didn’t bother after the first couple of weeks, and no one ever asked for the information. Go figure.
So, as time went on, I did become a pretty good Marine after all.
Posted on Feb. 12, 1999