Category Archives: Vietnam Stories

18th Surgical Hospital, Lai Khe 1967–Prelude to TET

It had not been thirty days since we moved the hospital down out of the highlands near Pleiku.  Ah, Pleiku. We did not want to leave the land of the cool night air and the Mountainyards whose cherry wood pipes yielded intoxicating aromas. We landed in the pressure cooker called Long Bien–Lai Khe, to be exact. That is where we set up the 18th Surgical Hospital–mobile now–right in the middle of a rubber tree plantation.

It is the home of the Big Red One, and knowing that there are thousands of infantry and armor close by gives us this fuzzy feeling that they are definitely going to protect us medical guys. We are here a month setting up this inflatable, expandable, jet fuel guzzling medical marvel called MUST, when Alan Trinkle comes up with this wacked out story.

A few of us are standing in line at the mess tent at shift change at 7:00, and he says, “Guys, I’ve got to talk to you.” He looks as pale as the oatmeal the cooks are dishing up, and he is fumbling with his fatigues and looking around in all directions. His upper lip is a mushy platform for lazy drops of sweat to roll off of. And then he drops it on us. “I saw two gooks in our tent last night.”

MacDonald and I look at each other, our incredulity concurring. Mack says, “What are you talking about, man? Don’t joke about things like that.”

“I’m not joking.” He grabs our arms and leads us out of the line and around the corner of the tent. “Two gooks were in our tent last night. I saw them with my own two eyes.”

“But, Tinkle, that’s crazy talk,” I say. Tinkle was what everyone called him.

“Groovy, listen to me, please. I couldn’t sleep, and I was laying there, and I, and I heard one of them step on some leaves. So I froze, and I just laid there and eased my eyes open a little to catch them in my peripheral vision. I was facing straight up, but I could see them to my left side near the opening of our tent.”

I looked past Tinkle over toward where our GP Mediums are pitched in between rows of forty foot tall rubber trees. Their leaves are a rumpled carpet of crunchy brown patches that would sometimes move and come alive at night after our evening toke break. “Gooks in our tent, huh?” I say.

“Yeah, and they were armed. They had rifles and held them with both hands in front of their chests, and they moved slowly into the tent. But it was like they weren’t taking normal steps. They were gliding sideways. And then they’d look around, and when they looked at me, I’d  close my eyes. And then I’d take a peak again after a few seconds.”

“Stop it, Tinkle. You are as full of crap as a Christmas duck. Pull yourself together. There was no gooks in our tent last night.” I look at MacDonald, and he is shaking his head, smiling.

“Yes, there was!” Tinkle yells, dropping his head a bit when he sees the two captains walking by.

“No, you listen up. If there’d been gooks in there, they would have killed us. Plain and simple. That’s what they do. They kill dumbasses like us.”

“No, I saw them.”

“So why didn’t you try to kill them?” MacDonald asks. “Your rifle’s right by your bed, loaded and ready to go. Hell, you owe it to us to kill them if you have the chance.”

“I was afraid to,” he says. “Groove, you’ve got to believe me. They were there.”

He’s gone off the deep end; it is getting to him, I am thinking. And I’m suppose to train him to cross match blood so he can take the other twelve hour shift. “Hey, we are all wigging out with all the blood and guts, but you got to hang in there. Tinkle, I know that we are on a steady diet of insanity for breakfast, fear for lunch, and loneliness for supper, but we got to stay in there.”

“You been hitting the bottle too hard, Tinkle,” says MacDonald. “How much you drink last night?”

“I drank some last night, but I  wasn’t that drunk!” Tinkle’s face is glowing red, and he turns and goes back toward our tent.

And I’m thinking there’s no way they could have been in our tent. How did they get there? There are guards posted everywhere. And the perimeter, though only a click away has got hundreds of troops on the alert there. Did they float in from above the trees in parachutes? Did they just materialize out of another dimension? Yeah, the dimension of Tinkle’s alcohol soaked brain.

Later I see him in the tent and he says to me, “We gotta do something. They could have killed us all last night.”

So I start playing along and say, “Why didn’t you wait till they left the tent, then open fire on them?”

“There could have been others around, and all they would have had to do is throw grenades into all the tents, and we’d all have been wiped out.”

“So where did they go after they left our tent?” I ask.

“I don’t know exactly. I was afraid to move my head to the side. They just slipped out and vanished.”

“I don’t know, Tinkle. I think you’re just imagining things. You’re tripping out.”

“No, I saw them. We are in danger. All of us. What if they come back tonight?”

“Listen,” I tell him. “Come on. Let’s walk behind the latrine.” We slide out of the tent, and I am already feeling like a joint, so I make sure I got one so I can blow it when we get behind the bunker near the latrine and shower. I look and nobody’s around. Either they’re sleeping or eating, but the coast is clear. So I lean on the sandbags facing the endless rows of rubber trees and light up.

Tinkle don’t smoke weed. He’s a dyed in the wool alkie. Jack Daniels. That’s the way it is around here. There’s about 100 guys in our unit and it seems like 80% are grassheads, and 20% are alcoholics.

So I’m taking a hit, savoring those fun-giving fumes, and I’m looking at Tinkle. His round face looks at me intensely, his eyes all watery and red and bulging out like they are about to pop out of their sockets. His mouth is just a slit, his lips closed up tight like a kid’s mouth when you’re trying to shovel some cough syrup down him. I say to him, “So what are you saying?”

“I’ve got to tell the C.O.”

“Wait. Wait now. You don’t want to do that.”

“Why not? I’ve got to.”

“Think it through, Tinkle.” I’m trying to reason with him. He’s got this one imagination that he’s holding on to. “You don’t think that if the gooks were walking around inside our compound last night that the grunts and tank dudes out there wouldn’t know about it?” I point out to where the rubber trees end. “You can see our tanks firing at night eight or ten football fields from where the trees stop.”

“Maybe the grunts haven’t seen the gooks yet.”

“You mean that you are the very first G.I.–a medic at that–who has been privileged enough to see Charlie in our midst–when no one else has?” I take another hit. I need more smoke because Tinkle’s such a hard head.

“I know what I saw.” He looks me in the eye. “Groove, if I don’t tell the old man about it, they may come back and kill us all tonight.”

“You go tell the Colonel and your ass will be out of here on the next chopper. They’ll send you to some psych ward in Saigon. The Colonel’s no dummy. We talk when I cut his hair. He may look like a dummy, but he’s not stupid. He’s a doctor, and he’s gonna know your brains are boiled in bourbon. Hell, he may put some heat on all of us.”

Tinkle doesn’t say another word. He turns around and stumbles on down toward headquarters.

I take another hit, and I’m feeling no pain now and laugh a little at what the colonel’s going to say to Tinkle. Son, everything’s going to be all right. We’ll get you fixed up in no time. First Sergeant, see that his straight jacket doesn’t fit too tight because he’s a damn good soldier and he needs to be treated right.

So I go on to the lab to relieve my night man, and I don’t see Tinkle the rest of the day. After my shift, I go back to our tent, and he is sitting on his cot, head in hands, and he’s moaning, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

“You just get off?” I ask. He just rocks a little, back and forth.

“They didn’t believe me. They said it was delirium tremens. Gave me two days off to dry out and take it easy.” He reaches under his cot and grabs the fifth of Jack Daniels. He’s past pouring it into a glass and turns it up and takes a couple of swallows. “To hell with it,” he says, screwing the cap back on and tossing it onto his cot. “If they don’t give a damn, then why should I?”

I’m perfectly fine with his resignation and say, “Just get some rest. I’ll train you in a couple of days.”

Two days later we were overrun by the Vietcong. The TET Offensive had started all over Vietnam, as we found out later. The officer quarters were blown up with many dead at the 1st Infantry Division headquarters right near where we saw Bob Hope and Raquel Welch joking and dancing not two weeks prior. We immediately packed the hospital up and loaded it into C-130’s and, just like that, we roared off into the steaming black night to God knows where.

If the levels of hell are measured in the depth of the rivers of blood that oozes out of young men’s bodies, then we had arrived at one of the inferno’s lower pits. Our destination that dark night was Quang Tri, fifteen miles from the DMZ, where we set up shop on a sandbar.

I did train Tinkle to take the other shift, and we never talked about the gooks in the tent again.

Eight months later I’m a single-digit-midget with a week to go before I derosed to go back to the world. Tinkle was in Hawaii on R and R, no doubt sipping a drink with his wife on Waikiki. That’s when we got word that they had found tunnels honey-combed all through the rubber tree plantation.  I remember saying, “Ain’t that a bitch,” and then that was that because I was going home, and that was all that really mattered to me at the time.   Kenneth Wayne Hancock

[I tell my Vietnam stories, for the Vietnam experience helped prepare my heart to be touched later by God. Everything that happens to us–good and bad–is a prerequisite for that which is ahead. Some details of this story I remember; some I don’t. I lost a few brain cells there, I am sure.  I’ve used some poetic license to fill in the gaps. I have the upmost respect for all those I served with and for all the patients we helped patch up. If any of you read this, please share your recollections with me. For more stories go here:   https://immortalityroad.wordpress.com/?s=18th+surgical+hospital ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The LORD Has Called Me from the Womb”–On My Cancelled Appointment with Death*

I almost died in a car wreck the other day.  I was on the four lane topping a hill, when I looked for just a half-second at the radio.  And as I crested the rise, something had me look up, and there the pickup truck was, moving slowly in front of me.  I swerved to the left  just in time to miss it.

The end of the trailer was the heighth of my windshield.  A decapitation would have been the way I went out of this world.

I immediately knew that a higher power wanted me to live some more days on earth.  I thanked God right there for quickening in me the impulse to look up.  I could not see the truck and trailer, but He did.  I got this sensation that God really was watching over me.

A couple of days later, I opened the Good Book, and it literally fell open to Isaiah 46: 3.  I started reading: “ “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth.  Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

Wow!  I looked in the mirror at my gray hair, and thought, He has always had His hand on me.  I flashed on some of the close calls with death–the Viet Nam War days of hell, when the mortars stopped their ungodly loud footsteps just before they fell on me–the times in my youth when I drove drunk all over the road and somehow did not kill myself or anyone else. 

And then I realized that He has held on to me since I was conceived!  He not only knew me, but has protected me and lifted me up since my conception in my mother’s womb!  He has carried me since my birth into this cruel old world.  And, yes, even to my old age, gray hair and all, He is still sustaining me.  For He created me and He promised in this passage of scripture that He would carry me.  “I will sustain you, and I will rescue you.”  He really has all my life.

Then I looked again and saw that this passage is written to many other people, not just to me.  He is saying this  to the whole House of Jacob and all who remain of the House of Israel.  I know through my studies that the House of Jacob/Israel consisted of all twelve tribes.  And that ten of those tribes were lost after they were carried away captive around 700 B. C.    And I know that the Savior Himself  700 years later said that He was sent to these “lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  The apostle James writes his letter “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad.”  I also know that the other two tribes were Judah and Benjamin, who were the Kingdom of Judah, and that they were not lost. 

The point is that God knows us from our beginnings.  He knows us personally, and He has sustained and helped us our entire lives–for a purpose–His eternal purpose.  Now we must fully believe this His love for us, and we must seek out just what purpose He has for us. 

His kingdom is literally coming to earth.  Christ is the King of kings.  He is “bringing many sons unto glory.”  Of course, He will look after them from their conception.  He has a plan for them.   KWH

*Isaiah 49: 1

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Memories of Pleiku, 18th Surgical Hospital, 1967

Pleiku.  The Highlands.  I was only there about a month or two.  Seemed longer at the time, like a short lifetime.  As it turned out, many lifetimes ended there.  I arrived in Pleiku the last week of October 1967.  I was in Saigon for med. lab training the month before, learning to test for malaria–something they didn’t teach us stateside.

I remember that it was so cool there.  It was up out of the steaming coastal areas where you could definitely breathe better.

The hospital physically looked like it had been there for many years.  The buildings were semi-permanent wooden structures that gave it an air of stability.  I can say that because the 18th Surg would go MASH in Nov.-Dec ’67.

I was just getting my bearings, green as heck, 20 years old, learning under a 30 year old Spec. 5 lifer who knew what he was doing.  I didn’t, of course, but I learned the ropes fast–obtaining blood samples from the wounded and then cross-matching units of blood for them.  That is what I did 95% of the time during my tour.  The hundred other lab tests that I was taught to do seemed insignificant, superfluous busy work discarded in the face of bloody ordeals.  That ought to tell you something about how many casualties we took in.  We worked a 12 hour shift, 7 days a week, always on call.

Many enlisted men (and a Major) turned to marijuana to ease the tension of the brutal toll taken on our nerves.  Yes, I was weak and succumbed to the temptation to forget everything chemically.  Just getting back home to the “world” was all that mattered at the time, in one piece, physically and mentally.  I am not proud of this fact, but God was good to me and allowed me to learn from my mistakes.  I am pleased now with the work we all did in saving lives.  That part makes me feel good.

I remember one night in Pleiku, I was walking back to our barracks at night, very stoned.  A big ruckus came blowing out the door and onto the front lawn.  I peaked in and saw a boot flying in slow motion through the air.  Excited yells echoed off the walls.  “I hit him!  There he is!  He’s still alive!  Let me have him!”  It turned out to be a rat that McDonald, the company clerk, had stunned.

He then picked it up, took it outside, and commenced to douse it with lighter fluid.  Soon the Zippo was out and a writhing animal bond-fire was ignited.  Everyone was laughing maniacally.  I guess the tension was being relieved like when some of us laugh during a horror movie.  It was pretty crazy.

Funny how you remember stupid things like that.  The mind has a way of forgetting the truly traumatic incidences in our lives.  God allows us to forget those times when we either did dark things or had them done to us.  I suppose it allows us to continue on, to walk on toward the sunshine.

I, of course, have forgotten the faces of suffering I saw everyday–the dying young men at the 18th Surgical Hospital during my year there in 1967-1968.  Hundreds, thousands were treated.  If I could remember them now, I would be so heartbroken all the time that I wouldn’t be much good for anything else.

I remember that I was welcomed by my brothers-in-arms because I was a professional barber before I was drafted.  Oakland, Calif. Barber College.  It was the family business; Dad was a barber, Uncle Dale and others…They told me that the Vietnamese barber that had been cutting their hair at the hospital had been captured and was a Vietcong.  He was holding scissors and razors against the heads of our men by day and raining down mortars on them by night.  So I was a big hit as I set up shop in our barracks during my free time.  The C. O., other officers, and many enlisted men were my clients.  I actually made more money cutting hair than I made in army salary.

Being in Pleiku was a pretty nice gig, except for the bloodshed.  We had a nice club and had bands come in–GI dudes who were very good rock musicians, working for the USO special services, making their rounds to the different NCO clubs.  I remember a trio–elec. guitar/lead vocals, bass, drums–that were dynamite. In fact they played “Mr. Dynamite” James Brown songs, cape and all, plus the wicked Pickett, Otis, Temptations, a big hit for us.

It was there in Pleiku that I got my nickname that stuck with me the whole year–“The Groove.”  It was a difficult name to live up to, but I tried very hard.  A short-timer named Tenant saw me on my cot playing the Martin guitar that I hauled all the way from home.  He comes over and says very loud and sarcastically, “Hey, everybody, look at this guy.  That’s just groovy, man.  He is so groovy.”  And it stuck.

My one to two months at Pleiku working at 18th Surg proved to be the best months during my tour.  We would move the hospital to Lai Khe/Long Bien in Nov. 1967, be over-run during the Tet Offensive and have to move again, finally winding up 15 miles from the DMZ in Quang Tri, where the salty red stuff flowed more abundantly, and a thousand personal insanities cried out for Mom, apple pie, and a good bed.    Kenneth Wayne Hancock

{If you were in 18th Surg during 1967-68, at Pleiku, Lai Khe, or Quang Tri, please make a comment.  I would love to hear from you.  I’m trying to get in touch with those who were there with me.  I would love to have some photos; I don’t have a one of my time there.  Thank you.  KWH}

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18th Surgical Hospital Quang Tri 1968–Remembering a Tragedy

I didn’t find his name at the Wall last Sunday.  Although I was with him his last seconds on earth, I never knew his name.

We ran him in on a litter into the receiving ward at 18th Surgical Hospital at Quang Tri that summer of 1968.  He was pale from heavy loss of blood.  He looked to be about twenty, thin with sandy hair.  They all seemed to be thin and about twenty.

We got him on a table.  The nurses started cutting his clothes off of him.  And there it was–a blue little mouth of a bullet entry hole in his abdomen.

“How did it happen?” someone shouted.

“They said he was packing to go home tomorrow.  He was putting the pistol in the bag when it went off.”

The surgeon appeared at the table.  He examined him for an instant, then he cursed and yelled, “Gimme some adrenalin in a big syringe.”  The nurse handed it to him and, he cursed again and stabbed the young man in the middle of his chest pushing the clear fluid into his heart.

He worked like a whirling, sweating madman for another minute or two.  He pushed on his chest and issued a dry crying curse under his breath with every movement.  I should have been drawing some blood in order to cross match some for him, but I just stood there staring into the doctor’s eyes the whole time.  All of us just stared at him and not the patient, for we all knew that we could do nothing until hope sprang forth from the face of the doctor.   And it didn’t.

The doctor said nothing.  He turned around and went to the next table where a young thin man was writhing in pain.  I looked down at the young man with sandy hair.  His face was a powdery greyish white color, his skin cold.  I turned around and went to the next table to draw some blood.  And that was the last time I ever saw him.

I thought upon this tragedy as I slowly and reverently walked by the Wall.  I read many names who died hoping to somehow get back to “the World.”  Maybe I read his name today.

Kenneth Wayne Hancock, Spec. 4/ Medical Lab Tech/ 18th Surgical Hospital / Pleiku, An Khe, Quang Tri, Vietnam, Sept. 1967-Sept. 1968

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