Time was ticking in the magic hour when life and death were minutes apart.
Dr. Robert Hall knew where to go when the alert came over the PA system.
“Everybody ran back to the triage unit,” said Hall, 75, a retired radiologist living in North Middleton Township. “Casualties could arrive within 10 to 15 minutes of the wound.”
The alert meant a helicopter from mainland Vietnam was inbound to the hospital ship USS Repose cruising off the coast between Da Nang and the DMZ. Torn-up bodies of Marines and sailors were about to land on the helipad as the medical staff mobilized in a battle to save lives.
Of all the war memories Hall carries forward, the story he wants to share is the admiration he felt for his colleagues who struggled most everyday with small victories and defeats.
The New Cumberland native wants readers to understand how devotion to duty and a desire to heal came together to make a difference to the men who cycled through the 800-bed floating hospital.
Nurses and corpsmen in particular stand out in his mind as the heroes who made it all happen. All too often, they were the last person seen by a mortally wounded man too far gone to recover from the trauma.
“They were the ones who changed the dressings,” Hall said. “They were the ones who held the hands. They did the dirty jobs…the record-keeping…the double-checking and there were times when they would call you on something.”
Hall was a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve when he served on the Repose from May to June 1969. He was filling in for a fellow officer who went on leave from the hospital ship. Prior to that, Hall was the medical officer for a squadron of patrol ships tasked with intercepting fishing boats suspected of smuggling in weapons and contraband.
Wounded flown to Repose landed on the helipad where they were off-loaded and moved down a ramp to the triage station. There medical staff sorted through and prioritized the cases based on the severity of the trauma.
Minor cases were classified as “walking wounded” while the critically hurt were sometimes set aside to make way for men more likely to survive with immediate surgery.
had to be made quickly on how best to allocate limited resources.
Though equipped with x-ray equipment, the Repose had none of the diagnostic devices modern hospitals take for granted such as MRIs, CT scanners, ultrasound, angiography and nuclear medicine. Instead, the doctors on board had to resort to more invasive techniques.
“If you had a hole in you, somebody is going to have to look inside to see what was damaged,” Hall said. That meant cutting the body open to perform exploratory surgery before going in to make repairs.
When not in triage, Hall worked as a first assistant in the department of general surgery holding retractors, tying knots or lending an extra pair of hands to the surgeon.
The goal was to stem the bleeding and stabilize the patient for transfer off the hospital ship and on through the military system of medical evacuation, treatment and recovery. The Repose came into port once every two weeks or so to offload wounded bound for a stopover facility in Japan, Guam or the Philippines before heading stateside.
Some surgery involved removing a core of dead tissue from around a wound before packing the opening with gauze. The goal was to allow the wound to heal from the inside out to prevent an abscess from forming inside the body.
Wounds were called “dings” after the sound bullet and shrapnel fragments make when hitting the side of a metal surgical tray, Hall said. His last night onboard the Repose included surgery on a young Marine whose back was riddled with about 40 shrapnel wounds.
A Bit Renegade
Dark humor worked its way into the deadly serious business of saving lives. Hall recalled a case where a bullet had gone through the head of a buzzard tattoo. A colleague joked about treating the wound as if it were a facial injury.
Hall remembered another case where a soldier from the 101st Airborne Division was treated for gonorrhea. A pattern soon emerged leading to questions and the shocking discovery that the enemy was using a biological agent on U.S. troops. It turns out an enemy collaborator was taking his infected sister around to different military camps.
The intensity level made downtime precious leading some among the medical staff to resort to creative stress relief. Hall was once invited to the corpsmen quarters where the men had rigged a multi-colored lamp shade to rotate on a turntable.
“They would just sit back, relax and watch the colors,” Hall said. It was their way to space out without the use or abuse of drugs. “We were bit renegade and marched to a different drum.”
International law bars combatants from attacking hospital ships. To minimize the risk, the Repose was painted white and clearly marked with the Red Cross. Floodlights were used to illuminate the ship at night.
One doctor used this to his advantage and lowered nets into the water along the ship. The man was fishing the South China Sea for highly poisonous sea snakes that were drawn to the light. “He was trying to develop anti-venom,” Hall recalled. “He would milk the snake of its venom.”
Acts of Charity
Hall remembered an act of charity by the ship cardiologist. The Repose had a ward set aside to treat civilians. One day the staff noticed how a Vietnamese girl had blue lips and fingernails. The cardiologist diagnosed her with a congenital heart defect and operated on the girl whose color improved after the procedure.
“He did it simply because it was a young girl who needed it,” Hall said. He also remembered the case of a boy so disfigured by serious burns that scar tissue had fused the right side of his face to his shoulder, arm and chest. Lucky for the boy, the Repose had a plastic surgeon on staff.
His most tragic memory involved Marine PFC Dean F. Smith Jr. who died at age 20 on June 8, 1969. Smith was wounded through the pelvis and had developed kidney failure. The medical emergency made it necessary for Hall to escort Smith to Da Nang where the young man was airlifted to the Philippines for dialysis.
“I told him to call his mom and tell her he is coming home…His war is over,” Hall said. “When I flew home, I stopped at Clark Air Force base and went to the ward. I talked to the hospital corpsman.”
There he learned the awful truth. PFC Smith died when an abscess had eroded into an artery causing the young Marine to bleed to death alone and in the dark. “I never found out if he called his home or not,” Hall said.
There was reason to believe in miracles of faith. He recalled the story of one man who was spared from a significant injury by the copy of the New Testament he kept in his left chest pocket.
Hall remembered how another man predicted his own death. The young Marine had a tattoo on his arm pledging his life to God and country. The tattoo depicted a Marine dead from a bullet hole to the head.
Hall served in the Navy until 1971. He later returned to Cumberland County where worked as a radiologist for the old Carlisle Hospital and the Carlisle Regional Medical Center before retiring in 2013.
Married, he has two grown children and two grandchildren.