Angels of the Battlefield: Nurses in Vietnam

The nurses in Vietnam were among the most heroic Americans there. They made great sacrifices yet have not received the recognition and respect they deserve.

Many nurses, usually women in their early 20s, volunteered to serve in Vietnam because they wanted to go where they believed they could accomplish the most good, even though they were heading into a war that was unpopular with much of the country.

Jimmy Morrison, who fought in one of the most dangerous areas of Vietnam

Many others, however, were like Susan O’Neill, who was misled by military recruiters. While in nursing school she was told that if she enlisted the military would provide money that she could use to pay for her last year of school. When O’Neill, who opposed the war, asked about Vietnam, the recruiter told her not to worry about Vietnam because there was long line of nurses waiting to go there. That was not the case. One minute O’Neill was protesting the war, the next minute she was in the middle of it. O’Neill used her experiences as the basis for a collection of short fiction stories, Don’t Mean Nothing, published in 2001.

I was drafted at age 19 and served in Vietnam from September 1969 to September 1970 with Company C, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 196th-198th Light Infantry Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). For most of my tour, I was an assistant M60 machine gunner or the gunner. During my final 30 days, I was promoted to sergeant, which made me a squad leader. I regularly walked point for the squad. My unit was in one of the tougher areas of the war—the Central Highlands, near Laos.

The Americal Division was based at Chu Lai on the northern coast of South Vietnam. There was a large hospital at the base, and many of our men ended up in it, although I was fortunate not to be one of them.

Nurses there worked 12-hour shifts for six days a week. On their days off, they returned to the hospital to hold the hands of dying men and comfort them as best they could. One nurse said a seriously wounded soldier asked her to call his mother. She did and heard a scream on the other end of the line. The Army apparently already misinformed the woman that her son had died from his wounds.

Sometimes 60 wounded or dead would arrive simultaneously, and about 15 nurses and doctors on duty had to make quick decisions about which of the wounded they could save and which they could not. O’Neill said she once saw about 30 men severely burned from a helicopter crash and realized with horror that all were going to die from fatal injuries. A helicopter was shot down on our side of firebase Landing Zone Judy the morning I left for home, and 30 men died that day too. Another nurse said that during her first days at the hospital she had to open about 20 body bags and write the cause of death on the tags.

Nurses generally saw many more dead bodies than infantry troops did. After a battle, we would move wounded and dead from the field and onto a helicopter. Sometimes when the medevac copter took off carrying a soldier with a minor wound you wished it was you. Yet even though most days were miserable for the infantry, we did not experience casualties every day. The nurses had to face pain and death day after day.

A nurse at a Saigon hospital listens to a patient stricken with malaria in 1967. / Getty Images
A nurse at a Saigon hospital listens to a patient stricken with malaria in 1967. / Getty Images

Although most infantry guys greatly appreciated and respected the nurses, not everyone showed those good angels the same respect. Some nurses were harassed by doctors and other members of the military.

Alongside professional nurses in the hospitals was a group of young Red Cross volunteers who had inherited the name “Donut Dollies” from World War II women who passed out coffee and doughnuts to the troops. In Vietnam, they visited with the wounded at hospitals and tried to comfort them.

Donut Dollies also traveled to outlying bases and landing zones to talk with the GIs there, distribute doughnuts and play games they had brought along. Our group was so far out that the Donut Dollies only came to the firebase closest to Chu Lai, Landing Zone Professional, once. It was a blessing to see them.

Nurses in Vietnam performed duties that only doctors would do elsewhere. When those nurses returned to the United States, many often found that their vast medical experience gained in Vietnam was of no value. When they went to work in civilian hospitals, they were confined to more limited roles. Worse, some colleagues who opposed the war looked down on them.

One nurse told me that although she wanted to leave Vietnam and return to the States, she felt guilty about leaving behind the wounded men and other nurses and doctors. I felt the same way as I left my fellow infantrymen when my tour in Vietnam was over. That same nurse said that when she got to the States she stayed in the airport for many days, dreading to go home. She said her friends in America were worried about minor things like something their boyfriend said or what pocketbook to buy or what to wear. After all she had seen in Vietnam, those concerns seemed so trivial to her.

These nurses had gone through much more in Vietnam than anyone who had not been there could understand. It seemed that few people cared. Returning nurses were treated at times as poorly as the troops who came back from Vietnam. Yet the nurses had made an enormous difference in the lives of so many young GIs. This is a story I needed to tell, and I am only 50 years too late. V

Jimmy Morrison and his brother founded Morrison Motor Co., a seller of collector vehicles, in 1970 in Concord, North Carolina.

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