After The Medevac

My objective in this blog is to highlight some memories of the time after I left combat at Khe Sanh on a medical evacuation until I arrived back in the states, (about two and one half months). The reader will notice I did not account for specific time intervals but jumped from event to event. Sorry but today’s memory and the lack of attention to such details at the time are to blame. This account is event oriented. As you read of my experiences you will no doubt be sure I was not a heroic figure or a worthy role model. Just a 19 year old boy who God blessed mightily.

Well I have the grocery lists from 7 of our guys in H&S Company 3rd Battalion 26th Marines and I’m being taken to the medivac chopper today on what we call a mule. It is a flatbed small motorized cart. Kind of like being carted off the football field hoping they don’t hit too many bumps. My couple of weeks here may be the last I see of Khe Sanh. If scuttlebutt is right, I’ll catch up with my guys somewhere else after this knee gets better. I don’t know what to expect again, unknowns are commonplace in Vietnam in March 1968. I was the last guy on the chopper today and the corpsman on board just handed me 3 bags of blood and told me to get on my good knee and mash the blood out of the bags he just hooked up to a Marine lying next to me. This man has 5 holes in his chest that I can see, and maybe more. Shrapnel has eaten him up. The holes are oozing blood faster than the IVs can put it into him. They don’t seem to be into his lungs because they aren’t sucking air as far as I can tell. I’m squeezing the bags to force it into him faster and helping hold a bandage on the biggest hole. I can’t tell if the blood is actually going into him any faster. The corpsman is using this teaching moment about wearing my flak jacket all the time when I get back here. Heck I’ve got it on now but open down the front like this guy with the holes in his chest. I won’t forget this lesson. The field hospital at Dong HA is where we are heading but not this guy, he’s destined for a hospital ship out in the bay the corpsman says. I hope he makes it. He’s not conscience but I’m telling him we are lifting off and he’s going to be at the hospital soon. I don’t know if that is true but it’s what I would want to hear. I can’t help thinking we are a sitting duck hanging low in the sky as we take off. Wow the whole plateau of the fire base looks like a snapshot of a piece of the moon except red. Craters and bare red clay cover the whole area. It doesn’t look like anyone could be alive down there, but they are.

It was a fairly short ride to Dong Ha The first triage doctor that saw me said Marine we can’t do anything with this leg here you’ll be going to Danang when we have a flight and gave me a shot of morphine. They have me on a stretcher they sat on something and told me not to put my foot on the ground again. The Marine next to me on a cot is hurting bad. He has been shot in the ass by a 45 he says here in Dong Ha. Someone had an accidental discharge and it pinned him through both cheeks and out the side nearest me. They are giving him morphine and irrigating the wound. They put a hose into the entry hole and it looks like they are pumping water through the wound. The exit hole is quite a bit larger than the entry. He is bleeding bad and vocal about the pain. I’ve seen a lot of wounds recently and this one seems pretty straight forward. It’s just a big hole. I’ve always heard a 45 is a knock down round and does exactly what I’m seeing.

We just landed in Danang and they took us off the plane on our stretchers. I slept most of the way to Danang after they shot me up with morphine last night and again this morning in Dong Ha before the flight. Reporters are here in Danang and they just interviewed me about Khe Sanh laying on this stretcher. They wanted to know if the NVA would overrun the combat base. I told them no, we are very well dug in and we own the sky. The reporter said it would be on Cronkite. Wow, that will either quiet mom’s fears or scare the crap out of her. Probably the later as she can be pretty dramatic.

I’m in a bed now on a ward at NSA and getting more morphine. That seems to be the only thing that knocks the pain in my back and knee. I feel the relief and start to break out in a sweat and then I’m floating on a white cloud and I’m out like a light for three hours after each shot.

They woke me up a few minutes ago and made sure I was awake for the general to give me a purple heart and a guy with him took a polaroid of it. They left the poloroid with me. I put it with my little bit of gear. Most everything I had with me from Khe Sanh was cut off of me and trashed when I got to Dang Ha. I have a billfold with my drivers license, my Geneva Convention card and some military money that looks like monopoly money and a couple of pictures torn out of a Playboy Magazine.

I just woke up with a Republic of Korea Marine (ROK Marine) sitting on my bed. He was rubbing the hair on my chest saying “number one, number one”. Ha, Ha, I’ve learned they don’t have much body hair and there are 3 of these guys near me in the ward. The corpsman attending to me asked if I’m ok with them moving their beds near mine because they idolize US Marines. I said sure , I’ve heard these guys are fierce fighters and we are communicating crudely though broken English and now we are buddies.

They have me sleeping with a bed board under my back and I can’t tell if that’s helping or hurting the situation. The 3rd or fourth night after the ROK Marines were moved next to me they told me the Vietnamese guy in a bed across from me was Viet Cong. They just keep repeating he is VC and when they try to pronounce C it sounds like she. So it’s VeeShee. The guy took two M16 rounds in the chest and has tubes coming out of him in various areas. I am amazed he is alive at all.

My ROK Marine friends just woke me up and all 3 are on my bed. It’s early about 2am. They keep pointing at the VC with the 2 bullet holes in his chest. They are telling me he is the enemy.  The one that has a few English words wants me to watch them.  They walked over to him and started pulling hoses and things out of him. I am glad these guys love me but the morphine cloud I’m on just took me back to lala land.

The next morning, I awoke wondering about the VC. The gook is gone and the ROK Marines have been moved off my ward. My Corpsman tells me the VC died in the night. Not suprised.  

I would soon be moved as well.

They are making room for more wounded. Since the Tet Offensive started in February the casualties have increased and new patients who have much more serious injuries than mine are being admitted into NSA.  I was told I am being moved to another facility until they can do surgery on my left knee.

 

I woke up on a stretcher in a bus.  My streatcher was hanging at window height and I am looking out at a beach and it’s pretty great.  When I first woke up I thought for a moment I was in California but the beach is not that great.  I have been shipped down to Cam Ranh Bay an US Army Convalescence Center.     

I got some crutches today and I can move around now.  I’m getting pretty good at the crutches thing and went outside for a couple hours and they have some cots set up for us to lay on and get some sun and fresh air.  I also met some ROK Marines and they said they man the perimeter of this area.  Most of the guys here are US Army.  I haven’t seen any other Marines here yet. 

I’ve been working on a heck of a tan on the cot this week. I overdid the sun on the cot today when I went to sleep and believe it or not I have been diagnosed with sun poisoning now.  It is nerve racking and the only relief is to get a fan pointing straight at you and that helps a little.  My nurse got me a fan stationed at the foot of my bed pointing straight at me. I don’t have underware so I’m lying on a bed with a towel over my pelvick area and nothing else but red skin.

There is an army officer’s club nearby and the nurse set me up with a cot near the back of it to watch a movie outdoors tonight.  The movie was “To Sir, With Love” with Sidney Poitier.  That was the first time I’ve felt homesick.  I was watching the movie and the officer’s club was grilling steaks on a charcoal grill outside the club tent.  I had a dickens of a time on crutches in sand but the rare T Bone was delicious.  I don’t think they really missed it.  I found a half of a fifth of Jack Daniels sitting on a table near the grill.  Wow, a movie, a steak and a heck of a buzz, my best night in a while.

I heard today that I will be going to Yokosuka Japan for knee surgery at some Army Hospital. The doctor who told me said he thought that would happen this week or surely next week. Wow, it is different in these predominantly army bases. They don’t know anything about Marines. I get fussed at by officers for not saluting and I inform them Marines don’t salute when we are indoors, unarmed, and not wearing a cover. They don’t like to be wrong and tell me about it. The captain I had to talk to this morning for being difficult knew I wasn’t being belligerent and the Lieutenants were just new and unknowledgeable of Marine discipline. We had a laugh and he sent me on my way.

It’s well into May and I’m going to Japan today. My nurse told me they might send me back to the states after the surgery. He said after a combat wound you can’t be kept hospitalized more than 60 days outside of CONUS. I never heard of that before. I’m in a C130 I think, and hanging on a stretcher again. Looking out the back gate that is still down. I see a jeep from 200 yards away making it’s way toward us. We are delayed waiting for someone. A Marine Gunny just got out of the jeep and stepped up on the gate and asked if there are any Marines aboard, Three of us raised our hands. He said you are getting off and will be on a different flight to Guam. OK, Guam is a US territory island in the South Pacific with a large Naval Hospital and an airbase where the B52s fly out on bombing missions over Vietnam. I’ve seen that up close and personal from the ground at Khe Sanh! I love these guys.

Well, my mail caught up with me here in Guam. I learned Dwight one of my friends from back home and part of our group of 4 who joined the Corps together on the buddy plan was killed in action in Vietnam a few days ago.  Damn, Dwight was a fearless Marine and, I now know what I suspected then, He died a true Hero. He died in an attempt to rescue a group of other Marines pinned down under enemy fire.  Dwight was blown up by an antipersonnel mine trying to reach the Marines that were pinned down.  Dwight arrived in Vietnam 2 days ahead of me.

I caught up with several of the guys wounded about the same time as me. Larry C from my platoon at Parris Island. He got shot in the abdomen and it blew out his kidney when the bullet exited his back. Larry was on Hill 881 South near Khe Sanh. He was an 0311 on a patrol when it happened.

Me in the middle

That’s me in the middle and a 1st Force Recon Marine on my left I will call Mike and a great Marine brother on my right I’ll call Hank. We have become immediate friends. The Navy wasted no time operating on me after I got to Guam. It was a crazy experience in surgery. I woke up during the surgery and they had me strung up with my knee cut open and it looked like bent sideways. Needless to say the anesthesiologist at my head put something over my face and bam I was out. I talked to the surgeon afterward and he asked me if I had any memory of it. I told him yes but just like a second or two. So, now I have seen the inside of my own knee. Once is enough.

They bring a cart by every afternoon loaded with cigarettes, candy and liquor. It’s a good thing I haven’t got a lot of money. Those dirty feet are just from my first trip to the head after surgery. They have been requiring me to use a bed urinal and bed pan. I convinced the Wave I hated that and needed to go to the bathroom. Crutches and a full leg cast is a difficult way to get around, but I made it. The doctor visited me today and got pissed because I had been up on crutches so now I have a wheel chair.

We had a typhoon come up and I watched out the window as it hit us. I have always loved to watch storms. Back home I have watched tornados and thunderstorms sitting on the back porch as they rolled in and out of view. They shipped Larry Cain home. He seemed pretty ready to be done with all this. He changed after getting shot. He didn’t want to play cards with us , talk about anything, he just stayed to himself and was goning home and out of the military. I get it he has done his part and thats it.

Well, a lot of long days of playing cards with the guys, wheel chair races in the hall, chain smoking and bed baths. Dang I want a shower. The Wave who is a big help, got me some plastic wrap and we waterproofed my cast so I got a shower today. I guess I weakened the cast because I dropped my leg on the foot of the bed and it caved in the cast just above my ankle. Wow, that surgeon is really pissed now. He took me to the cast room and cut two pieces of 2X4 and put them down my cast from knee to ankle and made a cast around and over the other cast. It is huge, ugly, and heavy. He told me, “let’s see you bust this one Savley”. He doesn’t like me.  I’m not too crazy about him either.

After getting the cast off and some uncomfortable rehab the recon guy and I are going on some Cinderella Liberty tonight.  I’m still on crutches and he’s pretty healthy.  We went to the club on base and it is busy with a hundred or so sailors and a lot of Guamanian women.  My recon buddy Mike is getting our 4th round of Singapore Slings and bringing them to the table.   This guy has a short fuse and some sailor said something to him on the way back with our drinks.  He didn’t bother setting the drinks down, he just punched the guy with a fist around a tall glass that broke in a million pieces.   Wow, his hand was sliced open and the sailor’s cheek too.

I had to go to a meeting in a Naval officer’s office and testify to what happened.   I hated making things look bad for the recon guy but he didn’t seem mad.  Mike told them the truth too.  It wasn’t a week later he was in a bar in Aganya, near the base and took a broken beer bottle and tore the throat out of a gay guy who came on to him dressed as a woman.  I never saw Mike again. We heard he was eventually sent back to the states to prison for murder. 

Good news, I was told today I am being transferred to the Naval Hospital at the Millington Naval Air Station in Memphis, Tennessee.  That is just 3 hours from home.   

     I arrived in Memphis this morning July 4, 1968.  The slow multi stop flights home gave me plenty of time to think as I remembered Psalms 91 and how God assured me of His promise to me while I was at Khe Sanh “It shall not come near you”. I read Psalms 91 many times during the trip home from that little New Testament stained with the red clay of my bunker in Khe Sanh. I have promised Him I will serve Him the rest of my life. (The reality of my fulfilling that promise would not truly start until February 17, 1976 when I received Christ as my savior).

As soon as I got to the hospital at Millington I called my parents . They are great and went by the 4th of July picnic at Greenbrier and brought me some BBQ and I am drinking a coke leaning against my dad’s car looking at my family in the parking lot of the hospital in the picture below happy to be in the USA with people who love me thanking God on July 4, 1968.

Contact Jim at jim@savley.com