Vietnam Memories of a Nurse in Kontum 1969
Welcome to Vietnam -
My first week at Kontum turned out to be rather unpleasantly eventful, thanks to an invitation to a show being held at one of the Special Forces bases in the area.
Apparently, the content alone of most of these shows, involving strippers and general wild behaviour, was not for the faint hearted and generally off-limits for us. In addition, the security situation after nightfall not only made travelling to these bases very risky, but it was dangerous to be in a military compound at night when it was more likely to be targeted by the Vietcong.
Consequently, permission from Pat Smith to enjoy an evening out was rare and, since the hospital couldn’t be stripped of its entire nursing staff at once, not everyone could go.
On this occasion, the show was apparently being put on by a group of travelling South Korean entertainers – it’s amazing what can seem like reasonable entertainment out in the boondocks of a war zone! - and I was chosen to go along with Marie Clare.
The military base was just over the river, but after dark it was considered unsafe to do anything other than fly and so a helicopter arrived at the back of our quarters at seven o’clock. We were whisked away over the river and set down close to a cluster of bamboo and thatch huts. Nearby, a sinuous bend of murky water slid by. This was my first glimpse of the Dac Bla river.
When civilians were invited to a military base, a young officer would always be assigned to each guest.
As Marie Clare and I ran crouching from the chopper, two junior officers moved forward to meet and greet us, and escorted us to the hall where the show was about to begin. The hall held about a hundred men, already seated, who stared at us all the way to our seats in the centre of the front row. On stage, alongside a four-piece band, a Korean version of Connie Francis and an Elvis lookalike were limbering up.
The music struck up and I immediately forgot about the jungle pressing in on all sides. Now my world was reverberating to a bizarre Southeast Asian imitation of Tony Bennett leaving his heart in San Francisco and, face it, anything by Elvis made the madness fade a bit. But about ten minutes into the show there was a sudden commotion at the back of the hall and the music came to an untidy halt.
At that moment my nice, attentive lieutenant clapped his left hand very firmly over my nose and mouth, gripped the back of my neck and forced my head down with his right, and shouted, ‘Run!’ Marie Clare was getting the same treatment from her escort. It was pandemonium as we ran, semi-crouched, for the exit. When we reached what passed for fresh air, my eyes were streaming and stinging. Then the commanding officer appeared and started yelling that this was exactly what the enemy would have wanted us to do - run out where we could be picked off one by one. Only he didn’t put it that politely.
However, it turned out that it wasn’t the enemy who’d caused this disruption. The South Vietnamese troops on base, resentful that they’d not been allowed to attend the show, had shown their feelings by lobbing some CS-gas grenades through an opening at the rear of the flimsily constructed hall.
A huge fan was set up; Marie Clare and I were instructed to stand in front of it and let the blast of air rid us of as much of the gas as possible, before we washed our faces. It was all very unpleasant but we were unharmed, and our lieutenants took us to their officers’ mess for a much-needed drink. They were attentive and pleasant, behaving as though everything was normal, while Marie Clare and I pretended that being gassed was perfectly routine and looking like the irrepressible comedienne Phyllis Diller was something to which we had aspired.
During drinks, a shaven-headed but very handsome major came and joined us. He was clearly out to impress the ladies, but we listened to his tales of derring-do without moving a muscle, barely taking in what he said but trying to appear polite. We were reacting to the fact that there was something sinister about his cold grey-blue eyes, which drilled into us and seemed to see things that we didn’t. We both picked up that this was a damaged man, trying to socialise normally but long since severed from anything close to normal. We were drinking Martinis, but it was we who were shaken and stirred, and I thought again of the thousand-yard stare, of which this seemed to be a variation.
In the middle of the major’s monologue, in sauntered a tall, lanky black sergeant smoking a huge cigar. Without taking his eyes off us, he walked nonchalantly up behind the major, drawing deeply on the cigar until the end glowed bright red then, very deliberately, he ground it out on the major’s bald head. We held our breath, fearful of what might happen next, but the major simply continued his tale without a flicker. The flesh on his scalp began to bubble and blister, and the smell was nauseating. The black sergeant continued staring at us. This place was not a normal place to be, and these war-damaged men were like ticking time-bombs, waiting for the tiniest signal to set them off.
When his tale finally came to an end, the major said, ‘Excuse me one moment, ladies, please,’ stood up, slowly turned, and with one swift punch to the chin, knocked the sergeant clear across the room with such force that, cartoon-like, he went straight through the flimsy rear wall.
You don’t see that every day.
In one smooth-as-silk movement our lieutenants, ever the perfect hosts, picked up our drinks and guided us firmly by the elbow into another mess hut next door. There, they refreshed our drinks and once again carried on as though nothing untoward had happened, despite the unmistakable sounds of fist fights coming from next door. At one point a body came crashing through the thatch wall and landed a few feet from us. Eventually, and incredibly, we were told that the hall was cleared of gas and we could go back in. The show went on, just like nothing had happened.
After more Connie Francis and Elvis, we were with our hosts in the bar, waiting for the chopper that would take us back, when my lieutenant started talking about dogs and how he knew the British were great dog lovers. I told him about Bronwen, the beautiful collie who was our family dog, and how I missed her. He told me that he was a dog handler and loved his German Shepherd. Would I like to see him?
He took me to his hooch, another bamboo-and-thatch construction near by and opened the door with a ‘you first, ma’am.’ But as he reached over my shoulder to flick on the light switch, a huge, black Alsatian dog, fangs bared, ears flattened, streaked through the air and came straight at me. I stepped backwards, terrified, but the dog’s fangs ripped the front of my dress, and the force of its charge knocked me to the ground, winding me completely.
The lieutenant drew his gun and shot the dog in the head. I was left kneeling, clutching the front of my dress where blood seeped through my fingertips, and staring at the dead dog, its brains sprayed all over the room.
Men came running.
The CO yelled.
I was carried to the first-aid area where I was given oxygen, and 4 sutures took care of the thankfully small laceration in my abdomen. Then we were taken home by helicopter.
I learned later that these animals were used to sniff out enemy soldiers, but that night the attack was meant for its' handler; someone who wished him ill had slipped the chain off the dog.
Pat Smith gave everyone in sight a tirade of words for allowing the dog to be shot.
In order to establish whether there was a risk of rabies, it would have been useful to keep the animal alive and under observation.
I had to have the course of 14 rabies shots.
I have had better nights out.
The tiger story is complete.
Anne Watts <firstname.lastname@example.org>
London, England - Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 11:41:17 (EDT)