The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is pleased to collaborate with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to present the panel discussion “Remembering Vietnam: Medics, Corpsmen, and Nurses” on April 26, 2018 at the McGowan Theater in Washington, DC, livestreamed and archived on YouTube, in association with the National Archives exhibition Remembering Vietnam. Panel members include Major General (Retired) Donna Barbisch, Colonel (Retired) Merle Snyder, Colonel (Retired) Don Hall, and Tom Berger, PhD. The discussion will be moderated by Dale Smith, PhD, Professor of History at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and a member of NLM Board of Regents. Today we hear from Colonel Merle Snyder, a medical evacuation helicopter pilot who flew into harm’s way to rescue the most critically wounded in Vietnam. Among other awards for valor, COL Snyder received the Silver Star for displaying conspicuous gallantry in action on May 11, 1969, when he and his crew braved enemy fire to rescue the survivor of an observation aircraft shot down near Long Binh.
Circulating Now: Colonel Snyder, thank you for talking with us for our blog, and for your participation in the National Archives/NLM event. Please tell us a little about yourself and your experiences in Vietnam.
Merle Snyder: I’m 74 years old and grew up on an Iowa grain and livestock farm. I attended a one room country school with one classmate in my grade. Our family was poor but didn’t know it. I arrived in Vietnam in July 1968 and returned one year later, although my return was overshadowed a bit because it was the same day Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. While flying with medical evacuation (“DUSTOFF”) crews I was a part of flying more than 1300 missions, evacuating more than 3200 patients in all. My experiences there ranks as the single most significant achievement in my life. A day doesn’t pass where I don’t think of those we lost there. If I had any part in saving a life, then all we did was worth it. Tom Brokaw defines our WWII veterans as our greatest generation, and he is likely right. But I got to be a part of what I consider my greatest generation. I got to live with soldiers who knew no fear—soldiers who put saving lives ahead of their own safety. It inspired me to spend the next 30 years as a soldier.
CN: How did you become a medical evacuation helicopter pilot?
MS: My road to becoming a DUSTOFF pilot started in 1966 when I realized I would soon be drafted. I had just experienced a family tragedy, losing my wife and son in an automobile accident, and my local draft board reclassified me 1A (available for military service). Knowing I would soon be drafted, I began looking at alternatives to serving as a light weapons infantryman and determined the Army’s Warrant Officer flight program was a good fit for me, so I signed up. I seemed to excel both in the classroom and in the cockpit. As graduation from the flight program drew near, I was destined to be one of the honor graduates and was offered the opportunity to volunteer for additional training before going to Vietnam. I could choose becoming a gunship pilot, transitioning to the Army’s new AH-1 Cobra aircraft, qualifying in heavy lift helicopters or becoming a DUSTOFF pilot. I knew DUSTOFF was where I belonged. I was accepted and attended some medical training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, on my way to Vietnam.
CN: What kind of training did you receive in preparation for deployment to Vietnam? Did you feel adequately prepared when you arrived in country?
MS: Our training for Vietnam was minimal—especially by today’s standards. There was no collective training with the unit we were going to go to war with. Upon arrival in Vietnam we filled a vacancy that someone had just departed from. We as a nation were slightly more than 20 years past WWII and only a decade past the Korean conflict. We followed the format of the past wars: keep the units in place, and replace the losses with new soldiers. Participating in combat with a unit you have never trained with results in a steep learning curve. I felt comfortable with the flying skill I had learned in training, although I felt poorly trained in instrument flying. As DUSTOFF crews we launched in all types of weather, and flying in Vietnam often gave us weather challenges. In perspective, we were producing 300–400 new pilots every month and we all had a cockpit seat waiting for us in Vietnam. Thus, we were not trained to the level we would like to have been. I had basic combat training, flight school, and a few weeks of medical training before deployment.
CN: What unique challenges did you face as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and how did you deal with them?
MS: My biggest challenge was to learn quickly. Integrating into an organization engaged in combat rescues was like drinking from a fire hose. We were not only learning how to complete our missions, but also how to survive. We typically began as co-pilots for a couple of months until we were promoted to aircraft commanders. Sometimes we became aircraft commanders earlier because of need. As co-pilots we learned from some of the very best. We learned how to read and navigate tactical maps, how to minimize exposure to enemy fire, how to make low-altitude high-speed approaches, and how to lead your crew.
CN: The DUSTOFF mission in Vietnam was inherently dangerous, but also critically important. Were there any specific missions that stand out in your memory?
MS: I’m not sure we were aware of the danger. If we were aware, it was pretty much ignored. We were so incredibly focused on getting the patients out of the predicament they were in that little else mattered. Everyone wanted to be the best. We had a reputation and a legacy to uphold. No one wanted to do anything less than our very best. The majority of our evacuation missions were routine, with no enemy contact. The missions where we received fire or hits to the aircraft are the ones that we vividly remember. There are a few that I will always remember.
CN: What inspired you to stay in the Army after Vietnam? How did your experiences flying medical evacuation missions in Vietnam translate into post-war medical evacuation service?
MS: Serving as a DUSTOFF pilot certainly influenced my decision to stay in the Army, but that did not happen right away. Shortly after returning from Vietnam I was offered a direct commission to First Lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps. I was still serving the three-year commitment for flight training. Before completing the obligation, I was encouraged to apply for long-term civilian schooling to obtain my college degree. After a year in college, I had a new commitment to pay back two more years. Then came a command assignment, followed by attendance at the officer’s advanced course. As you can see, one thing led to another and somehow I now had finished 10 years of service. After 20 more years I had commanded a battalion and an Installation, attended Staff College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and held some key staff positions. When I departed every job, I felt I had made a contribution. That all started as a DUSTOFF pilot. We have been able to pass on our legacy to future generations. Nothing could have been more rewarding.
All images are used with permission from the personal collection of Merle Snyder unless otherwise attributed.
Watch the panel discussion “Remembering Vietnam: Medics, Corpsmen, and Nurses” on April 26, 2018 live on YouTube.