Friday, May 15, 2020

Navy Nurses in Saigon

This apartment building, unremarkable except for the armed guards behind the concrete wall topped with wire grenade screens surrounding it, housed the second U.S. military hospital established in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the first one run by the U.S. Navy.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)    
By Alicia Pullen
HRNM Educator
As the American military presence grew in South Vietnam during the early 1960s, the need for medical support was crucial. In response to this, the Naval Station Hospital in Saigon (also called Station Hospital Saigon) was established on October 1, 1963. The facility treated patients of all nationalities and provided a safe place for people to seek medical support. Navy medical personnel and other staff delivered care to patients and handled the day-to-day tasks of the hospital. Nurses, in particular, served a vital role at the hospital by working long shifts and attending to the wounded. Their experiences were unparalleled, as they grappled with the harsh realities of their environment and the constant threat of terrorism.

The hospital was originally an abandoned “French-hotel apartment.”[1] This building was a five-story structure with plenty of rooms. Renovations required extensive work, such as constructing “wire grenade screens” along the entire perimeter of the property.[2] The first medical staff on-site were responsible for cleaning the interior and exterior. Bedding and equipment where brought in. By winter, the hospital was filled to capacity with “increasing numbers of Navy physicians, dentists, nurses, and hospital corpsmen.”[3] There were also administrative assistants, janitorial staff, and Vietnamese employees. Later, the courtyard was used for supplies, an “emergency room, and operating room,” and a helicopter pad was constructed nearby to facilitate the transport of patients to other treatment facilities.[4] To prevent terrorist attacks, the hospital received full-time security from U.S. military police as well as Vietnamese soldiers and police.

All nurses at the Naval Station Hospital were required to wear white uniforms and caps while on duty. Their daily routine included administering medication, helping to transfer outgoing patients, and providing medical support to doctors. Nurses also had to prevent and treat patients with infectious diseases. Among those diseases included malaria, hepatitis, and amoebiasis. Nurses offered moral support to patients by listening to their stories and sharing their experiences during evening events, such as movie nights at the hospital.[5] Grace Moore, an Army nurse during the Vietnam War, recalled, “we were their emotional support system. We were their mother, their wife, their girlfriend, their sister. You listened a lot, did a lot of hand-holding, comforting.”[6]

Although the hospital was necessary for those living in and around Saigon, violence was prevalent. On one account, Lieutenant Darby Reynolds, a Navy nurse at the hospital recalled a tragic event that put the lives of nurses, including her own, at risk. On Christmas Eve, 1964, a bomb-laden car drove into an underground parking garage near the hospital. After the bomb detonated, many victims were injured and were brought to the hospital for medical treatment. Reynolds, along with four other Navy nurses, were injured. She then recalled going to work after the attack to help a wounded patient with an injured leg. Reynolds’ immediate actions that day demonstrated her commitment to helping patients in any situation and to the best of her ability.  All five of the Navy nurses received the Purple Heart and were the only Navy nurses to be awarded the medal during the Vietnam War.[7]

Capt. Archie Kuntze, Commander, U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA), Saigon, presents Purple Heart medals to (left to right) Lt. Barbara Wooster, Lt. Ruth Mason, and Lt. j.g. Darby Reynolds for wounds sustained during the Christmas Eve 1964 bombing of the Brink Barracks.  A fourth nurse, Lt. Francis Crumpton, was flown earlier to Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, for treatment.  Cmdr. Miles Turley (far right), Kuntze's executive officer, was wounded during a separate attack on New Year's Day 1965, two weeks before this photograph was taken.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The work of Navy nurses in Vietnam and the overwhelming number of patients they helped, speaks to both their skillfulness and compassion. At the Station Hospital, nurses were both efficient and effective in providing emergency care to patients. Their duties and responsibilities during those uncertain times showed the vital role they played in providing medical care and emotional support to the patients they served.

[1] Morin, Aline E. "Navy Hospital in Saigon." The American Journal of Nursing 66, no. 9 (1966): 1977-979. Accessed April 11, 2020. doi:10.2307/3420172.
[2] Herman, Jan K. Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon. The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2010), 1–50.
[3] Ibid., pg. 5
[4] Ibid., pg. 5
[5] Morin, pg.1977, See also, "Factoids—US Naval Station Hospital Saigon." (n.d.)., last modified August 2014,
[6] DiFilippo, Dana. “'Blood Smells the Same,' but for Vietnam Nurses, the War Never Ends.” WHYY News, September 8, 2017.
[7] Herman, pg. 7

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