Beloved by their fellow grunts, corpsmen and medics are the first responders for Marines and soldiers wounded on the battlefield. Here are the first-hand accounts of three decorated “Docs” who provided life-saving aid in Vietnam.
The scene could have come from the movies. May 21, 1969: 19-year-old Navy Hospital Corpsman Michael Kuklenski was three weeks deep into his Vietnam tour — on patrol with Alpha Co., 1st Bn., 7th Marines, 1st Marine Div., when he heard a land mine go off. Almost simultaneously, he saw something tumble over his head. It was a boot, and in it part of a lower leg.
“Corpsman up,” came the yell. Three men were down, one of them dead. They lay across an open field. Kuklenski started out across it to render aid. Already there was the company’s senior corpsman, Jim Goss.
One of the surviving Marines, a former athlete, had lost both legs below the knees. Goss and Kuklenski tied off what was left to stop the bleeding, then administered morphine.
Suddenly the critically-wounded Marine broke into song. It was his birthday. “He’s singing ‘Happy Birthday,” remembers Kuklenski, a VFW Department of Texas member and retired businessman in suburban Dallas. “I’m trying to save his life … and keep some composure.”
A week later the conscientious objector corpsman’s composure would be put to the ultimate test.
May 29, 1969: Alpha Company set an ambush for North Vietnamese Army regulars, 30 of whom had been using a trail on a regular basis. Unbeknownst to the Marines, the NVA saw this and countered with an ambush of their own. Instead of the usual 30 NVA, more than three times that many showed up.
“They pretty much wiped out our unit,” Kuklenski said. Seventy percent of those in his unit were killed or wounded. Kuklenski was one of them. Three separate times he was hit, incurring wounds to both arms and both legs.
Unable to walk, the powerful fireplug of a man (he was a former star guard on the Dallas Jesuit High School football team) pulled himself along with his elbows treating the wounded as he went, remembering all along the mantra of corpsmen and medics alike: ‘clear the airway, stop the bleeding, prevent or treat for shock.’
His deeds earned him the Silver Star.
According to U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Historian Andre Sobocinski, more than 10,000 Navy hospital corpsmen served with Marines during Vietnam. Of those, 645 were killed in action and more than 3,300 wounded.
Sanders Marble, Ph.D., is senior historian, History Branch, of the U.S. Army’s Medical Department (AMEDD) Center of History and Heritage at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He said, “There are no clear statistics on how many [Army] medics deployed to Vietnam.”
There are, however, crystal clear stats as to how many medical personnel in Vietnam were awarded the nation’s highest commendation for bravery. According to the Medal of Honor Society, 259 medals were conferred for actions during the Vietnam War. Twenty of them went to medics, corpsmen and the like — one out of every 13 conferred.
Courage, composure and guardian angels
Like Kuklenski, courage was part and parcel of Jess Johnson’s kit.
Now 66, Johnson was 18 when he deployed as a medic with A Co., 1st Bn., 501st Inf. Regt., 101st Airborne Div. Courage was instilled in him by his father, a soldier with the 78th Lightning Division who lost a leg during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. One day, Johnson’s father took him aside and said, “You have to be in combat to be a man.” As a result, the son volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“Because of my naivete,” Johnson said, “I didn’t believe that I could ever get hurt.”
Time would put the Bronze Star and two-time Purple Heart recipient’s belief to the test — illustrating the importance of courage, composure and faith.
Johnson’s experience in combat taught him that a wounded patient’s perception can tip the person into shock, a state of affairs that can lead to death. He believes a medic must give his or her patients hope. Johnson’s technique was to make a wounded soldier laugh by saying something like, “I can’t believe that you’re going home and I have to stay here.”
“If I could make my patient laugh a little bit and give him hope that he’s going to see his wife and brand new baby,” he said, “That would usually increase survivability by 50 percent. You never, ever want to say, ‘My God man, I don’t know if I can save you.’”
There’s a strange relationship between battlefield patient and combat medic or hospital corpsman, one of intimate detachment. Life and limb, you hold another human being’s fate in your hands.
“I never talked to them again after I medevac’d them,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know if they lived or died. I did the best I could.”
It’s this kind of composure that helped Johnson survive 11 months in Vietnam, many of them around the murderous A Shau Valley.
Sept. 11, 1971: Four members of 2nd Platoon were hit early in the day in an NVA ambush. Johnson and the M60 gunner set off to find them and render aid. At the time, he didn’t realize he would exhaust his day’s medical supplies treating them.
Later that day, the platoon leader dispatched Johnson and another man down a sloping hill to a grassy area. The day was typical for the A Shau: no wind, dead calm and hot as hell. And yet patches of the grass were moving.
“I look up and there’s this air vent, in the middle of no place,” Johnson said. He’d stumbled across an NVA command bunker.
Johnson called his platoon leader. The lieutenant said a fire mission was about to be called in from the USS New Jersey. Thirty minutes later, its massive rounds began to fall. As he ran back up the hill for shelter, Johnson stepped into a fire ant mound. He bent over, yanking to free his foot.
“As I’m bending over, I hear a whoosh!,” he remembered.
It was a large, lethal piece of one of the New Jersey’s rounds. Had he been standing he’d have been decapitated.
It was not the last piece of providence Johnson encountered that day.
As the sun set over the valley, 2nd Platoon set out on yet another patrol. It was then he heard the voice, loud and clear and unmistakable: “Don’t take any unnecessary chances.”
“I looked around,” he said. “There was nobody there.”
Then he remembered the voice saying, “Get ready.” Moments later there’s a massive explosion. Johnson grabbed his depleted medical kit and ran toward the site.
One final time, the voice commanded, “Follow the steps.” He followed in the footsteps of his buddies to cut the chances of triggering another landmine.
Eight men lay wounded. Johnson triaged them, sorting them into three categories: those who could wait; those who needed immediate care; and those who were likely to die. One man had lost both legs above the knee, another had a broken nose and a third groped to find his eyes, one dangling from each socket. Johnson retrieved them, washed them with canteen water and re-inserted both.
“Doc” Johnson believes the voice was that of his guardian angel, shepherding him through the carnage in one piece so he could help others.
What makes medics and corpsmen tick
Ask medics or corpsmen their motivation for pursuing combat medicine and they’re likely to answer, “I wanted to help.” That’s what prompted Kuklenski, Johnson and this author. It also sparked 68-year-old Steve Vineyard to become a combat medical corpsman. The Clifton, Texas, resident and rancher went through Navy boot camp before attending 16 weeks of Hospital Corps School. Another three weeks in Field Medical School learning how to operate with the Marines came next.
Comparatively, the Army spent only eight weeks molding Vietnam medics — half the time the Navy devoted.
When he landed in Vietnam, Vineyard volunteered for the Marine 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. He saw his share of combat, earning a Purple Heart. “Doc” Vineyard performed minor surgery regularly.
“We’d come off patrol and take care of the guys’ problems so they didn’t have to go to the battalion aid station,” he recalled.
Medics and corpsmen didn’t spend all their time crawling about under fire. Mundane day-to-day matters consumed most of their time: ensuring men took their dreaded Dapsone anti-malaria pills, making sure they drank copious amounts of water and took enough salt pills, clearing out boils that erupted when web gear etched red, salty wounds into sweaty flesh.
It was these daily tasks, as much perhaps as combat, that earned one the title “Doc.”
In the field, medics’ and corpsmens’ medical kits contained — among other items — bandages, abdominal dressings, flexible plastic coverings for treating sucking chest wounds, Ivs clamps and morphine.
Oh, and a shrouded flashlight doesn’t hurt either as this author discovered July 12, 1970. Treating a man from the light of a fistful of burning matches doesn’t work very well. Lesson learned: check your medical kit once, and then check it again. Your buddies are dependent on you.
Such is the stuff that binds men’s wounds. In Vietnam there was — far more often than not — total faith in one another. The total commitment so many of these men made demanded nothing less.
Reprinted with permission. August 2017, VFW magazine
VFW member Jerome Greer Chandler was an Army medic, a 91A. In 1970 he served with D Co., 2nd Bn., 501st Inf. Regt., 101st Airborne Div. A regular contributor to VFW magazine, Chandler is a former assistant professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.