Friday, December 27, 2019

A Congressional Gold Medal for the Tragic Figure who Made America Care about Vietnam

Obverse of the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Medal. (NHHC 2014.001.006/ M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

Ten years ago, the Navy chose as its slogan, “A Global Force for Good.” The much-maligned mantra met an ignominious end five years later.  Love or hate the concept of the U.S. Navy being an asset to the international community today, the U.S. Navy has a long history in being a force for good for those caught in crises around the world.

Ships of the Great White Fleet took time from circumnavigating the globe 111 years ago in response to the devastating earthquake that struck Messina, Italy, on December 28, 1908, and the United States Asiatic Fleet helped provide humanitarian support to Japan after the Great Kanto Plain Earthquake of 1923, along with myriad other natural disasters that transpired in far-flung locations around the world during its long history.

The U.S. Navy has also come to the rescue of those imperiled by man-made catastrophes.  Less than five years after the intervention of the People's Republic of China during the Korean War forced the rushed evacuation of almost 100,000 North Korean refugees by sea (with more than 14,000 on just one ship alone) from the ports of Wonsan, Songjin, and Hungnam in December 1950, a similar effort (sanctioned by international agreement this time) was mounted by the Seventh Fleet to relocate noncommunist Vietnamese from the northern part of Vietnam to the southern part during the partitioning of the country.  All told, Between August 1954 and May 1955, the U.S. Navy and the Military Sea Transportation Service would bring nearly 300,000 refugees to the south during Operation Passage to Freedom.  

For Lieutenant Colonel Edward Landsdale, an Air Force officer who had been directed by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish the Saigon Military Mission in June 1954, such a heroic effort needed a hero. While setting up shop in Saigon fresh from directing a successful psychological operations campaign against Communist insurgents in the Philippines, Landsdale became aware of such a hero.  Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas A. Dooley's work among the refugees in Haiphong had caught the attention of Commander William Lederer.  The Pacific Fleet public affairs officer had read the passionate prose of Dr. Dooley's situation reports and recognized true talent.  Lederer reached out to Dooley and urged him to keep a journal of his exploits.  He also alerted Landsdale as to his find.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas A. Dooley explains the operation of  a water purification system to Vietnamese refugees near Haiphong, Vietnam, in September 1954.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image
Like T.E. Lawrence in the Transjordan during the First World War, Dr. Dooley seemingly appeared out of nowhere exactly where he was needed, capable of working with, writing and speaking eloquently about a people his countrymen knew next to nothing about.  Far from the senior officer present and something of a nonconformist, yet a man possessing just the right skills at just the right time with the ability to enthrall audiences with the tales of his exploits, Dooley quickly made an outsized impact upon his part of the Cold War.

At Haiphong Harbor, Indochina, a ladder is lowered to a French Landing Ship Medium (LSM) alongside USS Montague (APA 98) to take aboard thousands of refugees for the journey to Saigon during Operation Passage to Freedom. (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-644449 via Naval History and Heritage Command)
 Assigned to attack transport USS Montague (AKA 98) in July 1954, the former Navy Hospital Corpsman and recent medical school graduate found himself right in the middle of Operation Passage to Freedom after Rear Admiral Lorenzo S. Sabin, Commander Amphibious Force, Western Pacific, called the refugee camp he saw at Haiphong in August "one of the most awful sights I have ever seen," and ordered a medical team be sent there.  Fluent in French and the product of a Catholic education, Dooley quickly established rapport with the refugees, many of them Catholics as well, after he was directed to help establish medical facilities near Haiphong.  

Thanks to Lederer, Dooley's account of his effort to help the thousands awaiting transport there found its way to Reader's Digest in April 1956, followed by a best-seller, Deliver Us from Evil: The Story of Viet Nam's Flight to Freedom, which was written with Lederer's help. The book also received editorial treatment from Landsdale, which comes through in its more lurid details.  "I was treating diseases that most of my classmates would never encounter in a lifetime's practice, performing operations which the textbooks never mention," Dooley wrote.  "What do you do for children who have had chopsticks driven into their inner ears?  Or for old women whose collarbones have been shattered by rifle butts?  Or for kids whose ears have been torn off with pincers?"

Despite the protestations of some who also worked in the refugee camps that many of the atrocities Dooley described did not take place, Dooley was encouraged to repeat the accounts before thousands across the United States during a Navy-sponsored tour promoting what the service had done for the people of Vietnam during Operation Passage to Freedom. 

Dooley's promotional prowess reaped rapid rewards. He was personally awarded the National Order of Vietnam by President Ngo Dinh Diem and subsequently became the youngest naval officer up to that time ever awarded the Legion of Merit.  Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke had written the introduction to his best-selling book, and his future with the Navy seemed bright.  So much so, in fact, that Dooley dared dream of one day becoming the Navy's surgeon general. 

By garnering all that attention, however, Dooley lost any shred of privacy he might have been able to maintain as a gay member of the military, a segment of the American work force notably lacking in privacy to begin with.   

Reverse of the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Medal. (NHHC 2014.001.006./ M.C. Farrington)
It was the time of what some historians have called the Lavender Scare, during which the investigative agencies of government were as zealous about catching homosexuals in the ranks as they were about catching Communists.  In fact, there was a great deal of official conflation between the two.

During his tour promoting Operation Passage to Freedom, agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence compiled a dossier on Dooley's private activities and submitted it to naval leadership.  Dooley was quietly discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, yet through the machinations of the lobbying group American Friends of Vietnam and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a cover story was concocted in which he would return to Southeast Asia to independently continue his work as a civilian.  

Even though Dooley was no longer in the U.S. military, Edward Landsdale continued to work behind the scenes to influence the doctor's career, engineering an invitation through the IRC from the Laotian government to establish a clinic there.  Although he continued to receive laudatory coverage in the American mass media for his humanitarian work, Dooley's tasks included making sure shipments of arms made it to the CIA-sponsored militias fighting the Pathet Lao.  The Navy compensated Dooley for his taking the new notional government assignment by upgrading his discharge and publicly maintaining that the doctor resigned his commission of his own free will. 

Before long, Dooley was putting more effort into maintaining his public persona, coined by one journalist as "The [Albert] Schweitzer of Asia," than in the work he originally set out to do after leaving the Navy.  But as he had been in the Navy, Dooley excelled at creating great copy and giving the public (as well as his unseen benefactors) what they wanted to see and hear.  The grueling pace of interviews, public appearances, producing his own radio program, as well as writing two other books during this time helped Dooley burnish his national fame. In 1959, a Gallup poll ranked him the seventh man most admired by Americans, ahead of General Douglas MacArthur.

That same year, however, Dooley discovered that he had cancer.  He adroitly managed to parlay this devastating news into an opportunity to publicize an organization he had founded called Medical International Cooperation (MEDICO) by inviting CBS to make a documentary about his treatment, which was broadcast to the nation on April 21, 1960.  Although the prognosis for Dooley was grim, he put on a brave face throughout.

President John F. Kennedy cited Dooley as an inspiration in his November 2, 1960 speech proposing the launching the Peace Corps, and his standing on Gallup's list of men most admired by Americans rose to number three, behind only Dwight D. Eisenhower and Pope John XXIII.  He would not live to savor the new heights he had achieved, however.  He died on January 18, 1961, one day after turning 34. 

On May 27, 1961, a joint resolution of Congress "[t]o authorize the President of the United States to award posthumously a medal to Doctor Thomas Anthony Dooley III" was passed, authorizing the sum of $2,500 for its production.  Frank Gasparro, who had recently redesigned the Lincoln cent as assistant engraver of the United States Mint, produced the medal and on June 7, 1962, the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Congressional Gold Medal was presented to Dr. Dooley's mother, Agnes Wise Dooley, by President Kennedy.
President John F. Kennedy presents the posthumous Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Dooley’s mother, Agnes Wise Dooley (center left). Also pictured: Dr. Dooley's younger brother Malcolm W. Dooley, his wife Gabrielle Dooley and their children, Malcolm Jr., Thomas, and Michael.  (White House Photographs Collection/ John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
The Congressional resolution authorizing the production of the gold medal also stipulated that "[t]he Secretary of the Treasury shall cause duplicates in bronze of such medal to be coined and sold... at a price sufficient to cover the cost thereof... and the appropriations used for carrying out the provisions of this section shall be reimbursed out of the proceeds of such sale."

One of the bronze duplicates of Dr. Dooley's medal can now be found in the Beginnings section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit, The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea.    

Biographers and historians of the Vietnam War disagree on Dooley's legacy and his impact upon American involvement in Vietnam and Laos, but most seem to agree on one point: that because of the earnest young doctor from Missouri, in the words of reporter Diana Shaw, "the public now cared about a part of the world it had known nothing about before Dooley started pleading on its behalf."

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