(1945-1975) The RNZN in Vietnam – the work of the NZ Services Medical Team

The Vietnam War ran from the early 1960s until 1975. From 1964-1973, New Zealanders were deployed in to South Vietnam, with a combat force in action from 1965 – 1971. In addition to the Army units, a joint service New Zealand Services’ Medical Team was deployed to provide civilian aid as a Military Public Health Programme to the town of Bong Son in Binh Dinh province from May 1967 – December 1971.

 

The Vietnam War (or the ‘American War’ as the Vietnamese now refer to it) ran from the early 1960s until 1975. From 1964-1973, New Zealanders were deployed in to South Vietnam, with a combat force in action from 1965 – 1971. In addition to the Army units, a joint service New Zealand Services’ Medical Team was deployed to provide civilian aid as a Military Public Health Programme to the town of Bong Son in Binh Dinh province from May 1967 – December 1971.

The first medical team to deploy consisted of three medical officers, eight medics, a laboratory technician and two administrative staff – it was commanded by SURG LTCDR A Green RNZN. Under the provisions of the Geneva Convention the Team were armed, for self defence and the protection of their patients.

At first they were based in the Bong Son dispensary, but they soon increased their working area by erecting marquee tents in the dispensary grounds. Their working conditions were described as ‘primitive’, with a ‘shocking lack of hygiene.’ The Team’s living quarters were in a crowded barracks building with the US Army Advisory Team, about two miles away.

There was considerable enemy activity in Binh Dinh province, which was a rich rice growing area and so the regional Viet Cong, bolstered by North Vietnamese regulars, made intensive efforts to take harvested rice. The province was in the II Corps tactical area and the VC sought to intimidate the local population with frequent attacks, blowing up buses and setting ambushes. Thus gunshot wounds and fragment wounds were common amongst the civilians brought to the Kiwi team.

But as well as war wounds – many from American fire – diseases were endemic, including bubonic plague and typhoid. Traffic accidents also caused many orthopaedic injuries – a large part of the Team’s work overall.

The team rotated approximately annually – overall there were 98 personnel involved over the 4½ years of the Team’s deployment: 47 from the NZ Army, 27 from the RNZAF and 24 from the Navy. Tom Neve, then a Medical Petty Officer, points out that “the bulk of the junior servicemen were naval medics, the other Services sending mainly Sergeants and above. But before I left the balance had been somewhat redressed by having a few MPOs on board. However our junior ratings acquitted themselves well, especially with surgical procedures.”

In June 1969 the Team took charge of the Bong Son Impact Hospital, a new 100 bed hospital in the grounds of the old dispensary. The team also moved to a house in the hospital grounds, which they named the Gordon Watt House to remember SGT G S Watt RNZAF of the team who was killed in March 1970 by a mine when visiting the (now demolished) Bong Son cathedral. During the Team’s period in Vietnam there was no direct attack on the hospital, but once a ‘stray’ mortar bomb fell in the grounds. One of the Kiwi Medics was wounded during an attack on a convoy.

MPO Barry Nash recalls: ‘After volunteering for duty with the NZ Services Medical Team, it was decided that I would train as an X-Ray technician which was one of the areas Navy medics had been working in at the Bong Son Hospital. Slim Shannon and I travelled to Vietnam together – given Acting (later, Temporary) MPO rank. On arrival we were advised that the hospital required a storeman/driver and the other to do anaesthetics. Fortunately, a Navy mate (MPO Tom Maguire) suggested that I should do anaesthetics, and from there I started a steep learning curve from a GP Anaesthetist, SQN LDR Max Pearl (an RNZAF Territorial) who was due to return to NZ. For the remainder of my tour I worked in the operating theatre, initially with Tom Maguire and from November 1970 with MCPO Alby Robertson. Both of these highly experienced medics assisted during surgery and at times performed surgery (often major) if a surgeon was unavailable.’

Overall the Team is estimated to have treated 46,000 outpatients each year – some 200,000 overall – while throughout the 2½ years that they ran the hospital the average ‘bed state’ was 92. While running the hospital the team also trained Vietnamese orderlies and nurses, with a Vietnamese doctor working alongside the team full time. This training role enabled the hospital to be handed over the Vietnamese when the team was withdrawn in December 1971.

In February 1972 a Second NZ Army Training Team was set up at Doing Ba Thin, near Cam Ranh Bay, to assist with training Cambodian troops. The 18-strong team included at least two medics; there was one rotation (i.e. 33 personnel deployed in total) and three Navy medics, MCPO C Cameron, MPO JN Luce and LMA WG Clark, were part of this contribution.

All former Navy Vietnam veterans are encouraged to register with VANZ in order to be eligible for appropriate health care and pensions. The War Pensions Act and the Vietnam veterans MOU applies to all Vietnam veterans.

Tom Neve’s Experience                                                                              

Volunteers for Vietnam were posted to Burnham Military Camp to undergo training in weapons handling and maintaining the same, as well as a brief overview of the situation we would be facing. I suddenly realised that for all my time in the RN and RNZN I had not had any training in weapon firing or handling, except for basic drill! The weapons we had were the SLR and a Browning 9mm pistol as our side arm.

We were posted to Wellington for three weeks of language training, but Vietnamese was not easy to master. It turned out that the Vietnam interpreters on the whole were quite good, and we managed all right.

On arriving in Vietnam I was transferred to the Bong Son Hospital and was given one of the wards to manage – mainly medical and with TB and Malaria sufferers. Surgical patients were placed in another ward. The naval personnel who were with me worked well in the theatre and outpatients department. Many were the night when the surgeons plus the naval personnel worked through the night operating on civilians who had been caught up in a fire fight. At times the lads carried out anaesthetics under the guidance of the surgeon, who would be operating on the patient at the time!

Peter Stitt, our RNZEME Corporal at the time [now a Major and still serving] maintained our vehicles and electricity generators, but was also called in to help at times, thus becoming an honorary medic.

I visited the dispensary at Tam Quan daily; this village was a known stronghold of the VC but during the day was fairly safe to work in. The work consisted of treating minor ailments plus extracting bad teeth, which our dental naval medic was quite adapt at!!

During the weekends if we could, we relaxed in the team house only attending to emergencies, of which there were plenty. Not far from the hospital was the US 173 Airborne Brigade; the officer in charge occasionally allowed some of his men to spend the weekend at our house, and for the American servicemen lucky enough to be with us it was a seen as a great honour! The Americans were not allowed out on the Bon Song streets at any time whereas we roamed the streets freely by day. Often on a Saturday afternoon could be seen personnel wearing Kiwi uniforms but with strong US accents! I was unfortunate to be with SGT Gordon Watt RNZAF when he was fatally injured, an incident that has had a profound affect on me.

I was eventually posted to Qui Nhon a seaside town which is a major centre of population. I teamed up with an RNZAF Sergeant who had been trained in public health and together we spent many days out in the countryside undertaking vaccinations of children and treating minor injuries where we could. One day the Americans had dropped ‘Snow’ and I at a village on the coast, then completely forgot us. Luckily an American outpost had seen our plight and radioed for a chopper. Night was closing in and like all villages that one was pro-VC. When the chopper eventually arrived we received a laconic reply to the affect we had ‘just been overlooked’.

I appear to have avoided being affected by “Agent Orange” but my colleague was not so fortunate, having been caught whilst out doing his public health assignments. I have no regrets about having been in Vietnam, maybe it is because we were there wholly to treat the Vietnamese population. I have no hesitation in saying that all the medics from whatever Service acquitted themselves well and did the Armed Forces and NZ proud. I must not forget the Reservist doctors from the three Services who sacrificed their civilian practices and specialist disciplines to provide the professional cover needed.

NZ Services Medical Team (RNZN personnel) – from the Flinkenberg Rolls

17940              MPO               Bell                  DR                   1968    RNZN

18701              MPO               Brown              AM                  1971    RNZN

461883            CPO                Brunton           CC                   1967    RNZN

18052              PO                   Cameron         C                     1967    RNZN

716746            MPO               Christisson      IF                     1968    RNZN

17673              PO                   Davis               KAW                1968    RNZN

109116            CPO                Fitzgerald        EJ                    1967    RNZN

15854              S/Comdr         Frew                JSW                1967    RNZN

18056              MPO               Gibbs               EJ                    1971    RNZN

102188            Lt. Cdr.            Goodson         GM                  1968    RNZN

30693              Lt. Cdr.            Green              A                      1967    RNZN

18371              LMA                Grenfell           LH                   1968    RNZN

18137              MPO               Maguire           TF                    1969    RNZN

18223              LDA                 Manson           DS                   1969    RNZN

18665              MPO               Nash                BN                   1970    RNZN

18555              MPO               Neve               TWC                1969    RNZN

818539            Surg. Lt           Newson           AJ                    1968    RNZN

596208            A/MPO           Orlowski          JA                    1967    RNZN

553684            DPO                Prendergast    AF                   1967    RNZN

16951              MPO               Robertson       AW                  1970    RNZN

18843              MPO               Shannon          JL                    1970    RNZN

18537              LMA                Stuart              WT                  1969    RNZN

16995              MPO               Turnbull           RD                   1968    RNZN

102193            Lt. Cdr.            Watson            MH                  1969    RNZN

Army Training Team 2

18052              CPO    Cameron                     C                     RNZN/Med Team

19532              LMA    Clark                           WG                  RNZN

18235              PO       Luce                            JN                   RNZN