A Flight Surgeon's Odyssey in Vietnam, by Guy S. Clark, M.D.


"Airmen are as superstitious as sailors. A flight surgeon onboard is considered 'Good Luck.'  "

Guy Clark & aviators

Cam Ranh Bay Hospital

Despite the size of its domain, the 12th Air Force Hospital at Cam Ranh receives relatively few casualties, except malaria, diarrhea and gonorrhea. Of course, there is the occasional incident in which a trigger-happy air policeman mistakenly shoots a G.I. who has wandered out of his barracks during the night.

Welcome Back

[After Clark's first Phantom flight and time piloting the plane back to base], we report for our post-mission debriefing. As Major Solis and I open the door to enter the hallway...I can't believe my eyes! The entire hallway is filled with a huge crowd of pilots from our squadron who have congregated and are now standing expectantly outside the debriefing room, shoulder to shoulder. I can't believe it! They are all waiting for me. I am nearly overwhelmed...Their facial expressions border on incredulity that I have survived the test of this, my first strike mission...a novice on his first ride was not expected to return intact and remain capable of standing upright...I take greater pride in not sullying the cockpit with vomitus.

A Moment of Quiet

After walking back to base, I return once more to the flight surgeon’s office to read and to catch up on chart notes. By this time it is evening and the office is quiet and cool, a perfect retreat from the constant cacophony of jet engines, either revving up for takeoff or with turbines winding down as they enter final approach to land. Far in the distance is the deep booming of artillery fire. But, here, in the quiet of my office, I can find a measure of silence. Churchill stated that, “wars are eternities of boredom, interspersed with moments of stark terror.” By bringing a footlocker of classical literature and medical textbooks, I have successfully eliminated the “boredom” element. The “moments of stark terror” are yet to come.

The Flight of the Phantom

Major Solis calls the tower for permission to take off on Runway 02...Beneath me, the dull murmur of the twin engines increases to a guttural growl that progresses to a high-pitched whine before erupting into a deafening roar that launches us down the runway. The impact of this sudden acceleration catches me totally by surprise. While my body is fixed in position by the torso harness, I cannot say the same for my head and neck. This volcanic eruption of acceleration, with its attendant G-forces, slams my head forward and down, jamming my chin onto my chest...my only view is of the cockpit floor.

On Napalm 

In Vietnam, the most frequently used container of napalm held about 130 gallons of gasoline with a solution of six percent napalm added. When dropped from "hedge-hopping" - meaning to fly at an altitude of about 100 feet - a single napalm canister is able to cover a surface area with flames 270 feet long and 75-100 feet wide. The ojbect is not simply to drop the napalm canister on the enemy, but to "smear" or "splatter" the liquid petroleum jelly across as broad a swath of enemy troops as possible. The burning jelly sticks to anything that it contacts, namely human skin. The conflagration that erupts from the drop also kills by consuming all of the oxygen in the immediate air. It is a particularly nasty weapon that not only kills but also tortures the victim with horrible burns...In Vietnam, napalm was as much a psychological weapon as a killing weapon.

the loneliness of war

Arising at 0600, I have breakfast at the Officers Club and walk over to the office. There are no patients to see, but the usual paperwork is waiting to try my patience. Finally after 1 p.m., boredom overwhelms me and I walk two miles to the beach in search of solitude. ... I find a small deserted cove with pristine white sand, washed by the sparkling blue water of the South China Sea. In this delightful alcove, I sit with my back against a large black boulder and dig my toes into the sand. For these few precious moments, removed from the war and surrounded by my beloved Mother Nature, I am intensely happy, feeling a part of the grandeur that envelops me. I feel blessed beyond measure to simply bear witness to it all. This happiness is short-lived, for just as suddenly, I am overwhelmed by a sense of terrible loneliness, such as I have rarely experienced in life.


Bombs Away

Ten-thousand feet below and off our left wing tip is a large, beautiful green valley, wedged between the coastal mountain range and the larger inland mountains. And then, directly, before my eyes, the beauty and grandeur of this valley are suddenly interrupted by a chain of silent explosions. They seem to extend throughout the entire length of the valley, a distance of several miles. From our altitude, there is no sound, but the visual effects are striking. Great clouds of flame and dust erupt, billowing into the air like a chain reaction...immune to opposition, the bombs destroy the magnificent valley below.

On the 'Big Picture'

[The colonel] was well lit with Auld Lang Syne alcohol as he sailed into the conversation. He abruptly turned toward me. With somewhat of a challenge in his voice he says, 'And what have you learned since you've been at Cam Ranh, Doc?'

I looked him squarely in the eyes and replied, 'Patience.' [He] pressed me more aggressively for a response. I thought, hell, if he wants a response, I'll damn sure give it to him...'As far as the 'Big Picture' is concerned, I am convinced that no one in Vietnam, regardless of rank, has any concept of the direction that this war is heading—not to mention this base and this hospital. I don't believe that anyone except McNamara and LBJ has any inkling of forthcoming events—and I have grave doubts about them.

Unexpected honor

Earlier in the evening, there had been an awards ceremony. To my astonishment and chagrin, I was honored as “Most Outstanding Airman of the 391st TFS” and presented an engraved plaque with squadron insignia. I was truly honored. This was not the product of some bureaucratic ribbon committee whose job is to customize decorations for future promotion boards. The award is from the men who fly the missions, pilots with whom I have flown, while they put their ass on the line every day in countless ways. These are fighter pilots who day in and day out fly supersonic jets against MIGs and SAMs over Hanoi and then return to dive-bomb and napalm Viet Cong in South Vietnam, while flying only a few feet above the ground at over 600 mph. Why me? I don’t deserve this. These men are the cream of American manhood. No one is finer. I’m not even an official Air Force pilot.