Jim Van Straten is a retired Army guy, almost 85 years old, and the most memorable year of his life was spent in I Corps where he served as the Senior Medical Advisor to the ARVN. He was there early in the war, July 1966 through June 1967, when I Corps was known as “Marine Country.” General Lewis Walt, USMC, became one of his heroes. As you probably know, in addition to serving as the Commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Force, General Walt also served as the Senior Advisor to the ARVN I Corps Commander, LTG Hoang Xuan Lam. It was in his advisory capacity that he got to know and admire General Walt.
After his service in Vietnam, Van Straten went on to serve a full thirty year career in the Army, retiring with the rank of colonel in 1986. Among his significant assignments were Director of Health Manpower Programs in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; Deputy Commandant of the Medical Field Service School; Chief of Staff of Seventh Medical Command in Heidelberg, Germany, and Director of a Department of the Army study aimed at improving the command and control of the Army Medical Department.
After retirement from the military, he was selected to serve initially as the dean of the Division of Professional Studies at Incarnate Word College and later as dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. A recognition that Van Straten cherishes is the Four Chaplains Award for service to peoples of all races and creeds.
Jim has written a book about his experiences in Vietnam titled, A Different Face of War. The book has been acclaimed by a number of historians for two reasons:
- It focuses considerable attention on the ancient Vietnamese culture, their religions and traditions than do most books written on the war, and
- It is very comprehensive. Three historians have written telling him that it is perhaps the most comprehensive look at one man’s tour of duty in Vietnam ever published.
Presented here is a slightly revised extract from his book. It describes an event that remains vividly in his mind after all these years, more than a half century. As you read this piece, please stop to consider how many brave men and women who served in Vietnam were touched in one way or another by those who served as medics. I think you’ll find it to be a very poignant story.
“…On the morning of Wednesday 5 October 1966, I arrived at my office at about 0515 hours. Lying on the middle of my desk was a handwritten note that read, “See the staff duty officer immediately.” I hurried up to the command suite and the staff duty officer said, “Major Van Straten, an ARVN Airborne Task Force, operating above Dong Ha in Quang Tri Province, got caught in the open last night during heavy monsoon rains and was cut to ribbons by NVA or VC mortars. The mortars rained down on them for several hours and after that there was a ground attack. The ARVN task force apparently has been decimated. Casualties are expected to be very high. As of now, none have been evacuated from the battlefield because of the weather.”
I hurried back to my office and tried to call Captain Bob Helton in Hue, the medical adviser to the ARVN 1st Infantry Division that was headquartered in Hue. His advisory responsibilities extended throughout Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces. Captain Helton was unavailable. I was told that he was on his way to the airport to catch a ride to Dong Ha.
I then went over to my counterpart’s office. Major Tu had not yet arrived. While waiting for him I made several calls to try and get more definitive information about the number of casualties. Casualty estimates were still not available. All that was known for certain was that the Airborne Task Force was not dug in for the night, as they should have been. The enemy had been relentless in dropping mortars on the ARVN paratroopers as they writhed around in the mud trying to escape the shrapnel from the repeated mortar explosions. When the mortars ceased the VC or NVA followed up with an immediate ground attack, essentially destroying the Airborne Task Force. The torrential rains continued, making the battlefield a quagmire.
I then started making calls to inquire about the availability of air transport, should the number of casualties overwhelm the system in Quang Tri province. It didn’t look good. All the C-130s seemed to be committed to hauling ammunition, other supplies and shuttling troops into the embattled area.
When Major Tu arrived at his office I passed on the fragmentary information that I had. He and I then went up to the operations center and received an update from the G-3. It was known that casualties were very high, but there were still no firm estimates regarding numbers. It was decided that I would go to Dong Ha and Major Tu would remain in Da Nang to assist in the coordination of the flow of casualties.
At about 1030 hours I departed Da Nang on a C-130 re-supply aircraft headed for Dong Ha. Upon arrival I was greeted by a scene that could have been taken from “Apocalypse Now.” The airstrip was absolute bedlam. I found Captain Helton at the landing zone (LZ) marked by a huge, fabric red cross staked to the ground. The red cross enabled the pilots of approaching helicopters, carrying the dead and wounded, to pick out the casualty reception LZ as they prepared to land.
Captain Helton gave me a quick rundown on the situation, telling me that he still did not have a good casualty estimate. The process of clearing the battlefield, delayed because of torrential rains, had begun but was going very slowly. U.S. Marine H-37 helicopters were the primary aircraft being used to evacuate casualties.
USMC H-46 — taken through the Plexiglas window of a following helicopter. Credit: COL Dave McSorley, USMC Retired.
Occasionally a larger H-46 cargo helicopter was made available to fly a mission. The ARVN 1st Infantry Division, to which the ill-fated Airborne Task Force was attached, had only six or eight H-34 helicopters in its total inventory and all were being used for troop shuttle and re-supply missions. It was decided that none could be made available for the evacuation of casualties. This decision caused Captain Helton great consternation. He expressed his dissatisfaction openly and repeatedly to ARVN officers who had made the decision.
As Captain Helton and I were talking a U.S. Marine H-37 helicopter landed on the LZ, the doors opened and the ARVN medics on the ground started off-loading the dead and the wounded. The dead were wrapped in their ponchos and the wounded were either lying on a poncho or on the floor of the helicopter. There were no stretchers. As I recall there were nine or ten dead and ten or eleven seriously wounded ARVN soldiers in the helicopter.
USMC H-37–This is a photo of the model helicopter used for medical evacuation on that day at Dong Ha. Credit: The Sikorsky Archives.
The U.S. Marine pilot must have identified me by the MACV patch and medical caduceus I was wearing and signaled for me to come over to the window of the cockpit. To save precious time the helicopter was not totally powered down, the rotor was still spinning and there was considerable noise. The pilot was fuming mad. He screamed at me, “I’ll not go back onto that battlefield one more time unless you can get those stupid bastards to give priority to the wounded. I’ve been out there three times and each time I end up transporting as many corpses as wounded soldiers. I’ll be damned if I’ll put my ass on the line to transport the dead off a hot LZ and let the wounded lie in the rain on the battlefield. The wounded yes, I’ll go back for them. The dead–no way. Nobody can help them. They can wait. Goddammit, do something about it. You advise the ARVN, don’t you? Do something about it.” I could appreciate his comments for the H-37 was terribly slow and difficult to maneuver, especially when operating on a hot LZ. By this time the process of off-loading the dead and the wounded was over and the pilot was given a signal to take off.
I turned my attention back to Captain Helton and it was his turn to be fuming mad. The number of reporters, camera crews, civilians from the nearby village of Dong Ha and ARVN and U.S. military officers and non-commissioned officers surrounding the LZ was so great that the helicopters were having difficulty landing. Because of the crush of humanity, ground ambulances couldn’t get to the LZ to transport the casualties from the helicopters to the triage and stabilization area. Captain Helton was screaming at the people to get out of the way. He and I actually joined hands and pushed our way through the crowd to clear a path for departing ground ambulances. At one point it became so bad that Captain Helton recommended to the ARVN medical company commander that he place an armed guard at the entrance point to the LZ and not let anyone in who was not authorized. The ARVN officer accepted this recommendation and an armed guard, with a round chambered, was posted at the entrance to the LZ. Despite the armed guard, Captain Helton and I continued to fight a losing battle of crowd control for much of the afternoon. The number of people attempting to observe the offloading and movement of the dead and wounded was so great that lives were being jeopardized.
Captain Helton angrily referred to the large numbers of military officers and non-commissioned officers crowding the LZ as “Saigon Cowboys.” He expressed his feelings that many were “desk jockeys” who flew to Dong Ha from Saigon and Da Nang when reports of the battle started reaching those cities. He said they wanted to “feel as if they were a part of the action.”
RVN soldier discovers the body of a close friend lost in the battle
It then became apparent that many lives were going to be lost unless we could transport large numbers of casualties requiring surgery from Dong Ha to the ARVN hospitals in Hue and Da Nang by a means other than ground ambulance. The distances were too great, the road too dangerous and the injuries too severe to consider using ground ambulances. We needed air transport support to move the casualties. My counterpart back in Da Nang, Major Tu, and I spent at least an hour on the phone trying to convince South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) and/or USAF officials of the criticality of C-130 support. We eventually got a commitment that three C-130s would be made available. Bob Helton and I then shifted our attention to coordinating projected flight arrival times with getting the casualties to the loading point on the tarmac. Major Tu was coordinating projected arrival times at the Hue and Da Nang landing points to ensure that the planes could be rapidly off loaded and the casualties placed in ground ambulances for transport to Tri Phoung Station Hospital in Hue or Duy Tan General Hospital in Da Nang.
I was most thankful that an officer of Captain Helton’s ability was on the scene at Dong Ha. Without him I am convinced the loss of life would have been much greater than it was. He was superb in advising and assisting the ARVN medical authorities and in helping to coordinate the movement of casualties resulting from that tragic event.
At about 2145 hours that night I boarded a C-130 carrying the last group of casualties to Da Nang. When we landed I disembarked the aircraft, assured myself that there were adequate personnel and ambulances to transport the casualties to Duy Tan Hospital’s operating rooms and wards and then drove to my quarters. Though bone weary, sleep would not come. At about 0200 in the morning I got out of bed and ate a candy bar, suddenly realizing that it was the first food I had eaten in about 18 hours.
I subsequently discussed with several ARVN officers the tendency of the Vietnamese to evacuate the dead before the wounded. Respect for the dead and ancestry worship, they explained, were deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese culture and especially in those adhering to the Buddhist faith. While the pleas for help from the wounded were heard, the culturally imposed mandate regarding the dead trumped the requirement to remove the wounded from the battlefield.
ARVN Casualty taken in the triage area. Credit Jim Van Straten
Early the next morning I drove to Duy Tan Hospital to assess the situation with Doctors Tu and Phat. There was still a backlog of wounded soldiers awaiting surgery. Several had died while being transported from Dong Ha to Da Nang and several more were in critical condition in the hospital’s intensive care unit following surgery. Fortunately, it appeared as if the tactical situation would not generate additional casualties over the weekend. We could all breathe a little easier.
During the I Corps staff meeting the following Saturday morning, an after-action briefing was presented to LTG Lewis Walt, USMC, the senior American officer in I Corps and to his ARVN counterpart the I Corps Commander, LTG Hoang Xuan Lam. It was revealed that three NVA regular battalions had rained mortars on the ARVN Airborne Task Force for three or four consecutive hours. The monsoon rains rapidly turned the battlefield into a quagmire. All the exposed soldiers could do to try and escape the deadly shrapnel from the mortar rounds was wallow in the mud. In the first hour of the battle it was estimated that there were 200-250 ARVN casualties. Help could not be gotten to the unit because of the intensity of the rains and winds.
On Sunday morning, 9 October, it was still raining. I had never in my lifetime seen it rain so hard for such a prolonged period. It had rained for at least seven to ten hours during each of the past ten days.
Thank you sir for allowing me to share part of your story. Thank you, too, for your sacrifice and Welcome Home!
If interested in purchasing a copy of his book, please click on this Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Different-Face-War-Memories-Biography-ebook/dp/B01944VY3E/
Note: the publisher of this book, the University of North Texas Press, has given me permission to publish the extract on this website.
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