John N. Baldwin, MD, Major, U.S. Army
Address to the Mobile Riverine Reunion 9th Division and US Navy/Coast Guard
Indianapolis, September 2011
John N. Baldwin, MD FACS Major USA, MC
Former Chief of Surgery, 24th Evac RVN 68-69
Admiral Lopez, President Moore, distinguished veteran brothers, families and friends. It is an unbounded joy to be here with you today, and it is my distinct pleasure and honor as I stand here, in humility before your Riverine accomplishments and service to our country. What a pleasure it has been over the last four days to meet you: Larry, Richard, six Johns, Gunner, Albert, Andy, Barry, Blackie, Paul and all the others. If I had not met you and become friends, I would stand here frozen in the moment.
Your force sustained 2,558 navy men killed in action, 7 Coast-guardsmen, and 2,624 brave soldiers of the famous 9th Division. “Old Reliable” You gave us Tom Kelly, Navy Medal of Honor, and the Army produced Davis, DeVore, Tous, Jenkins, Keller, Kinsman, Lang, Nash, Sasser and Wright as Medal of Honor recipients, and so many Navy Crosses, Distinguished Service Crosses and Purple hearts that it would take me the afternoon to read all of your names. You have produced the Mobile Riverine Museum to let folks today know what your service is all about and you have the most fabulous web site of almost any other military organization. Your Navy Memorial at Coronado, California is beautiful and moving beyond description. “River Currents” is a remarkable publication binding us together. You have so much to be proud of, and thankful for. I salute you on behalf of all Americans for your service and your continuing loyalty. Welcome home!
This August, the last of the great Doolittle Raiders, 93 year old Bill Bower passed away in Colorado. He was an eighteen year old crewman on one of the sixteen Mitchell B25s which followed 42 year old Doolittle off the pitching deck of the Hornet on April 18, 1942. Those were the dark days for America after Pearl Harbor. And this year, the last World War One veteran…the last of the 70 million worldwide who served…died at age 110 in West Virginia. Frank Buckles. When asked how he had lived so long he said, “Somebody had to do it and it turned out to be me.” I mention this to you to emphasize the humility and grace that most all veterans have about their service. “I was not a hero” is what we all say.
First, a few facts: 2,709,000 Americans served in Vietnam. Vietnam veterans represented 10% of their generation. Richard Fitzgibbon was the first American to die in Nam..in 1956. The following presidents presided over this situation: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Gerald Ford. 58,272 were killed in this war, which Congress never had the courage, under their Constitutional duty to Declare. Over 150,000 GIs were severely wounded, and over 5,000 lost arms or legs. Eleven thousand of those killed were under age 20. 91 percent of us are proud we served. Our income exceeds the non-veteran group by 20%. The war took 17 years….and ended in a giant question mark.
Every one of you deserves the highest praise for what you have done and how you have persevered since. It has not been easy for any of us. Memories, wounds, illnesses, PTSD, Agent Orange and divorce ….. among other after effects.
I have met men here with one eye, brain shots, one leg, a double amputee, and others who bear the physical and mental scars that only warriors can comprehend.
This meeting brings back names and memories from the past which echo in our minds: “Bear Cat, Dong Tam, 3rd Surg, Cu Chi, 24th Evac, Chu Lai, 29th Evac, Can Tho, Ab Bac and on and on.” Strange names from a time long ago which only we remember.
And names like your own: 2nd Lt David Williams, 9th Division platoon leader, killed in action on Sept 21, 1967 with Alpha Company after having survived the earlier June ambush at Ap Bac, which resulted in 32 KIAs and a flood of casualties to the 24th Evac surgeons.
It was my honor and privilege to be chief of chest and heart surgery at the great 24th from May 68-69 and my wife Jeannie, 1st Lt Army nurse corps, was one of the operating room nurses that served the kids who came in wounded. I was drafted at age 34 and she, as were all the nurses, had volunteered. The 24th was the finest trauma hospital in the world at the time, even better than my training ground in knives and guns and bridge jumpers, The San Francisco General Hospital! The 24th had 7 neurosurgeons, 5 general surgeons, 5 orthopedic surgeons, a world-class plastic and maxillo-facial team, 6 anesthesiologists, a chest/heart surgeon and many more, supported by the finest corpsmen and nurses with equipment and technology, which was not duplicated in even the greatest hospitals back stateside.
We had 200 beds, and were just ONE of SEVEN big EVAC hospitals, stretching from the 95th Evac in Da Nang to the 29th Evac at Can Tho. In between, located just 30 minutes by chopper and radio from each other, were about 25 smaller Surgical Hospitals…MASH like…such as the great 3rd Surg down at Dong Tam. Staffed by experts, they were our first line. They gave the wounded soldier a HUGE opportunity to be seen early in the Golden Hour…those first 60 minute ticks from wounding, in which expert care can save almost anyone if given the chance. That resulted in an overall amputation rate of 1% or less, and with unlimited blood supplies, a full staff of dedicated doctors, nurses and corpsmen…living the life every day without families, kids, lawns to mow, relatives in the waiting room, permit slips or lawyers…well, it was real easy to perform at our best.
We had 6 tables…and believe it or not, we always kept one open “for Emergencies”! The soldier coming in with five minutes to live, and who, to survive, had to be “crashed” by the best surgeon we had. And they made it, just as our sign over the ER door said, “If you get to the 24th, we will get you home”. Our busy times were early morning when the Medevac choppers could get in, and dusk when they had a last chance to get out. Just for example: In August 1968 we took 5,022 x-rays, gave 2,100 bottles of blood and operated on 1,100 soldiers….those were the times in which 500 Americans died every week.
And, there were miracles! There was the kid whose cigarette-pack sized Bible in his left front fatigue pocket stopped a coasting-in AK-47 round, and another whose big St. Christopher medal held a giant RPG frag cradled in its bent middle portion, imbedded in the boy’s sternum…but never broke through to the heart, and the 9th Division’s own Clayton Peterson, zipped up for dead in a body bag, who wiggled in the pile and was lucky enough to wind up on Dr. George Lavenson’s 24th Evac OR table for big time surgery and now lives with his large family in Oregon. And there is door gunner Sam Langhofer in Kansas with one leg after his gunship crashed, and Dennis Haines 199th
Infantry, put behind the “curtain” where kids were put not expected to live…but we made rounds in there hourly… and heard him talk, and despite two AK hits to his right brain, he lived and went on to become director of Building and Planning at Univ. Pennsylvania Medical Center, Hershey PA…and win the prestigious VVA award, “Images of Bravery” in
2007. He will be visiting us in California two weeks from now, as will your brother 9th infantryman, our patient and dear friends, Andy and Maureen Brigante.
I would like now, to ask all of you who were Medics or Chopper pilots to stand, because without you out there, we were nothing.
Thank you so much brothers….from all the surgeons, nurses, corpsmen and staff at those hospitals…who would, were they still living or able, cry their eyes out to see you 45 years later, the result of their dedication, talent and love. You are living testimony to their efforts and your own courage. Thank you. Please sit down, and thank you again.
I returned home to a hostile medical staff in Monterey CA, none of whom had served….ever….and none of whom cared about “the war” or what I did or what you were still doing. So, like you, returning to your homes, I went into a shell, nearly insane, “Dinky Dau” and repressed the memories (but NOT the lessons….) but went forward. And made it out as have all of you.
It was not until twenty years later that I got out my Bronze Star and started wearing the little ribbon on my suit jacket, always amazed how few people inquired “What is That?” Jeannie never ever told people she had served in combat, was a decorated ACM recipient, but she, like I, and like most of you, had finally surfaced and we were all healing.
Things had changed in America. Jean and I went to the Wall in Washington. Completed in 1982, designed by a Yale artist, a Chinese-born lady named Maya Lin, and picked by a group of distinguished people from 10 competing designs…the Jan Scruggs-inspired Memorial held 58,000 names with room for additions as POWS and MIAs were discovered.
It was there that we found Bruce Clark. Bruce came into the 24th on Thanksgiving Eve 1968…a handsome eighteen year old athlete from Cumberland, Rhode Island…having been blown up by a hand grenade…and when morning came, I had a patient in Recovery with no eyes, one leg and one arm. He challenged every surgical talent we had, but four weeks later, my commander allowed me to accompany him to the 249th General in Japan, as Bruce and I had become father and son. I bade him farewell, both crying, he blind, half the man he was, with a future completely out of his control. Bruce Clark, just a kid, destroyed by this war.
Jeannie and I, have struggled, as have you, with issues like these…lost buddies, kids cradled in your arms in the mud or paddies, bleeding, having been shot…we search for answers, but they do not come. We all have our Bruce Clarks and stand for them today.
It was June of 1984 that Jeannie and I first saw the WALL in Washington, and standing in front of the 68-69 year’s panels…the name BRUCE CLARK came at me from the black granite. He had died!….somewhere. And so the search and the digging and finally, the answer: a giant blood clot killed him instantly in February 1969 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I held Jeannie and we both thought….blind, severely damaged.
So….. Where are we now? Our daughter, Nancy went to Vietnam for her company. Landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon (HoChiMinh City), she told the articulate English speaking Viet taxi driver, “My dad was stationed at Long Binh”. In perfect English he said, “That, little lady, is exactly where we are going. It is where the REEBOK factory is located.” And home to Columbia sportswear and Fruit of the Loom, among others. Our war is over, the page has been turned forever.
Regardless of your political position, we all must understand that our great nation is engaged in a new and deadly war, which will last well into and beyond, our final years. We cannot even guess as to the outcome. It is no longer a “given” that once again, America will prevail. Our oceans and even our skies and borders are no longer protective. Your grandkids may be asked to serve, or, you and your families may become victims of attacks of great violence in our own country.
I believe that this time is no different from 1941. There are those who understand reality and those who are lost in La-la land. None of us can see the future, but we face a determined enemy, the name of which is radical Islam, which translated means “to submit” or “to bring into submission”. It is YOU that must be brought into submission. The goal of those who wish to kill us is not so much to take away “our stuff”, but to take away our religious faith and our way of life. Someday, they may use suicide bombers here at home in a mall or airport or football stadium. This possibility is more likely, more deadly, more terrifying and infinitely cheaper than an atomic bomb, and they have no hesitation to do this.
I bring these thoughts to you, during this address on Vietnam, because we can no longer remain in denial…from our top elected officials on down. We are at a critical point in history. It could be May of 1939 when the Paris nightclubs hummed with laughter and the clink of glasses, but six weeks later, Hitler stood under the Arc de Triumph, shaking his swagger stick. Or it could be 1974, when we abandoned Vietnam after years of fruitless struggle for a cause we still do not understand.
Or it could be something entirely different, and unimaginably worse.
No matter what the historic parallels, as we approach the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, I believe WE, and particularly people like you, the Riverines, should speak up and LEAD. I believe in the valor and goodness of the American spirit, which surfaced in phone calls from doomed 9/11 planes on their way into buildings and fields: “I don’t know if we’ll make it out. I love you and I love the kids,” and, after saying the Lord’s Prayer with a Verizon operator, Todd Beamer on United Flight 93, headed for the White House, uttered the valiant, “OK, Let’s Roll!”
At the tomb of England’s Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, are these words by the poet W.H. Auden: “To save your world, you asked this man to die, Would this man, could he see you now…ask ‘Why?’ “.
We all need to rededicate our lives to the best there is, to our country and to our fellow man, and to the honor of those who have died. This is our obligation to our fallen brothers.
No matter what the price, not one of us, man or woman, soldier or family, can say today that Vietnam did not make us better people, stronger people and more patriotic people. We survived it all, the survivor guilt, the pain and the aftermath. We are stronger and better for it, and for that we can only say…”Amen brother!!”
It is your time, once again, to stand up!
God bless you all. Thank you for the special honor of speaking to our remarkable Band of Brothers! Thank you for allowing me to share my beliefs and my thoughts in the spirit of Freedom.
John Baldwin MD
Major, US Army
MRFA Home Page