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


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Vietnam War Memories for PBS

#VietnamStoriesPBS ~ PBS is looking for Americans to share their Vietnam Stories on social media and the web in the run-up to the Sept. 17 premiere of Ken Burns' 10-part series, "The Vietnam War." Here, submitted respectfully, is one from "Sharkbait" author Guy S. Clarke, M.D.:

"I was 28 years old and recently married, a licensed pilot and a brand new doctor when I shipped over to Vietnam for a year of service as a Flight Surgeon with the U.S. Air Force 1966-67. I was assigned to the 12th Air Force Hospital at Cam Ranh Bay.

My job was to serve as physician and co-pilot to the pilots of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing. The flight surgeon’s office has the singular purpose of providing medical support for the pilots who fly or personnel who support their squadrons.

My wing commander held the position that physicians flying combat missions bolstered rapport between the flight surgeon and the pilots under his care. I heartily agreed.

I wound up flying more than 90 missions as “The Guy in Back” (GIB) for the 12th A.F. squadron pilots, who I quickly realized were America’s best. They were superstitious, fearless, and absolutely committed to flying. We flew missions over enemy territory in Vietnam, and “Tiger Hound Country” – Laos.

I’ll never forget my first flight in an F-4C Phantom. By the time I strapped myself in to the aircraft in my G-suit, the only parts of my body capable of movement were my head, arms and hands. When the pilot turned the “power-on” switch in the cockpit, the Phantom came to life with a hum. After we went through our checklists, the twin jet engines began to throb beneath us like the jet was a giant, living creature.

The temperature reached 140 degrees as we sat on the runway at Cam Ranh Bay. I believe the plexiglass of the cockpit canopy added another 50 or 60 degrees. It became untolerable. When the Number 2 Aircraft pulled around us and turned to the active runway for takeoff, its exhaust crated a huge blast of scorching air, sand and jet turbulence that slapped me in the face.

And then it was our turn. The dull murmur of the twin engines increased to a guttural growl. Then progressed to a high-pitched whine before erupting into a deafening roar as we launched down the runway.

The sudden acceleration hit my body with an impact that caught me totally by surprise. My body was fixed in upright position by the torso harness, but not my head and neck. The volcanic eruption of acceleration and its G-forces slammed my head forward and down, jamming my chin onto my chest. Under the pressure and weight of increasing G-forces, my arms are also pinned down, and I was completely immobilized.

My only view was the cockpit floor. My head weighed a ton, and I was unable to lift my arms or wrist. I could see the Mach meter from the corner of my eye. I watched the needle spin up to 1.25 Mach (1.25 times the speed of sound). At last we reached our altitude and began to level off. And I could raise my head to speak.

“Gee Major, this thing really moves out, doesn’t it?” I said to the pilot.

“Yeah it does, Doc, but remember this: it comes down just as damn fast as it goes up!”

At last, with my head lifted off my chest, I asked myself: the pilot is subject to the same forces of gravity as I am. How does he get through lift-off?

Looking to the front cockpit, I noticed that the major had anchored his helmet (and head) to the left, partially wedging it between the back of his seat and the plexiglass aircraft canopy. By forcefully jamming his head into this crevice between seat and canopy, he prevented the sudden application of G-forces from catapulting his head down toward the floor during liftoff.

My next obvious question – to myself-- was: “Why the hell didn’t one of the other guys tell me about this?”

It was the price a rookie aviator had to pay on his first flight."

Read more excerpts here on the Sharkbait website.