Four men cary two litters accross a muddy field to a helicopter marked with a red cross.

Remembering Vietnam—Donald Hall

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) Donald 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. In our final installment of this series, we hear from Colonel Donald Hall, PhD, a military medical historian who is conducting research for a book about medical support during the Vietnam War.

Circulating Now: Please tell us about your experiences as a Medical Service Corps officer and military medical historian.

A young man in fatigues stands on a dirt road.
Donald Hall, 1987

Donald Hall: I had a rather eclectic career, starting as a Health Physicist, or in Army terms, a Nuclear Medical Science Officer, in 1982, then working in operations and intelligence, with a Military Medical History Fellowship and a teaching assignment along the way. Spent time in the Gulf during Desert Storm as a medical historian, a couple of years in the Army Special Operations Command, and 15 months in Iraq as the Deputy Commander for Administration for the 31st Combat Support Hospital. I retired in 2011 after an Army career spanning almost 30 years.

CN: How did you become a medical historian?

A workstation at an archive, with an open folder and box on a scanning table.
Working at National Archives II at College Park, Maryland, 2017

DH: I was assigned as an operations officer in the 1st Medical Group. I learned there were records about our unit’s history in the National Archives and my commander sent me to copy them. Richard Boylan, then Chief of Modern Military Records Branch, took me back into the stacks, and I was hooked. Later, I attended a medical history fellowship at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, where I studied under Colonel (retired) Bob Joy and Dr. Dale Smith.

CN: What inspired you to research the medical aspects of the Vietnam War?

DH: Four years ago, I was presenting at the Conference of Army Medical Department Historians. They announced that the theme of the 2016 conference would be “Army Medicine in Vietnam.” I signed up to present a paper. As I started to do my research, I found that there were no comprehensive histories of the medical support of the war. So I decided that I needed to fill that gap.

CN: What do you see as the most significant events that occurred in the medical mission during the Vietnam War?

DH: The most significant event, to my mind, was the death of Major Charles Kelly on July 1, 1964. Kelly, an Army Medical Service Corps officer, was the commanding officer of the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) and was flying a medical evacuation mission. On his final approach to the landing zone to pick up a wounded American soldier, he came under heavy fire. The team on the ground told him repeatedly to get out, that the LZ was too hot for him to land. Kelly’s reply was “when I have your wounded.” He then took a single round to the chest and died. Kelly was the first medical evacuation pilot to be killed in action in the war.

But more importantly, he was a champion for the cause of medical evacuation, and he pushed his unit hard. His only standard was excellence. His one directive was “No Excuse, no hesitation. Fly the mission, fly it now.” And he took his mission to heart. He flew so much that the unit’s call-sign became associated with Kelly. So much so that ever since—for over 50 years—medical evacuation units have continued to use Kelly’s call-sign—DUSTOFF.

A man in uniform leans against a helicopter marked with a red cross.
Major Charles Kelly, ca, 1964
U.S. National Archives, Record Group 319, Entry UD 1134, Box 2, Folder 13

DUSTOFF was what made the rest of the medical care system work. DUSTOFF was what allowed us to set up hospitals in permanent facilities instead of tents. DUSTOFF was what allowed us to keep ambulances off of the roads. DUSTOFF was what allowed the golden hour to perform its miracles.

In short, the five most important words uttered by anyone in the war were “when I have your wounded.” Because those words of Kelly, and the ethos behind them, arguably saved many of the 850,000 people medically evacuated by air during the war. What other change could compare to that? Kelly’s quote inspired the working title for my book: “Five Words: A Narrative History of the Army Medical Department during the Vietnam War.”

Four men cary two litters accross a muddy field to a helicopter marked with a red cross.
Medics Carry Wounded Soldiers to Helicopter, 1966
Photo by Lawrence J. Sullivan, US Army
National Library of Medicine #101545888

CN: As you have studied the historical record of the Vietnam War, are there any stories that stand out?

DH: One little-known fact is that the first five Hueys (UH-1 helicopters) to arrive in Vietnam, and the first to be flown in combat, belonged to the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) out of Fort Meade, Maryland. And I don’t mean the first five medical helicopters, I mean the first five Hueys, period. The 57th arrived in April 1962 and was also the longest serving medical unit in Vietnam, departing on March 21, 1973, just before the final US troops departed the country.

It has also been fascinating to see that the senior officers I knew when I was growing up in the Army were all junior officers in Vietnam. I don’t know how many times I’ve come across names of lieutenants or captains who I later worked for when they were colonels. The commander of the 44th Medical Brigade in Desert Storm, I learned, had been the co-pilot of one of the aircraft Major Pat Brady was flying when he earned his Medal of Honor—while assigned to the 44th Medical Brigade… and Brady served under Charles Kelly during his first tour in Vietnam. It’s the circle of life in the Army.

CN: You served combat tours in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. How did the medical mission differ between Vietnam and those wars?

A group of 5 rows of people in camo fatigues pose with a flag and an ambulance.
Task Force 31 Medical Bravo Company “Red Wolves” Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2007–2008
Courtesy US Army

DH: The technology improved, but the focus on the mission was the same. In Iraq I ran the day-to-day operations of a hospital that provided care to the theater detention facility. At peak, we had 23,000 detainees and 4,000 allied personnel to support. We were rocketed 15 times. We had a mass casualty event where we treated 78 casualties from a rocket strike about 100 meters from our headquarters. We had all the fancy equipment we needed, but when you got right down to it, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between our staff and the staff of a hospital in Vietnam, Korea, or Liberated France except for the uniforms.

CN: This panel discussion is ancillary to the Remembering Vietnam exhibition. Is there a particular image or document in the exhibition that stands out for you personally or professionally? 

A telegram on vietnamese letterhead signed by Ho Chi Minh.
Telegram from Ho Chi Minh to President Harry S. Truman, 1946
National Archives #305263

DH: The letters from Ho Chi Minh. Where would we be if we had answered his letters in 1918, or 1945, or even 1952? How many lives could have been spared if we had just listened and engaged?

CN: Please share any closing thoughts about the National Archives event and the importance of remembering Vietnam as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in that war.

DH: What struck me as I’ve been doing my research is that the Vietnam War is now as far behind us as World War I was to the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Vietnam generation. And World War I is as far behind us as the Civil War was to them. My wars—Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom—are as far behind us as D-Day and the Korean War would have been to those soldiers in Vietnam. I find myself having to remember that when I read some of the documents I come across in the Archives—because the technology and the tactics, techniques, and procedures we use—both medically and operationally—have changed as much since the Vietnam War as the ones used in Vietnam had changed from those used in World War I.

All images are used with permission from the personal collection of Donald Hall unless otherwise attributed.

Watch the panel discussion “Remembering Vietnam: Medics, Corpsmen, and Nurses” on April 26, 2018 on YouTube.

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