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The “Human Bomb”: How Air Force surgeons made medical history in Vietnam

  • Published
  • By Dr. Joseph Frechette, Ph.D.
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
On November 5, 1965, Air Force surgeons were confronted with a bomb, literally. But instead of coming face-to-face with a device, they were confronted with a patient who had a live grenade embedded in his back, essentially making the patient a walking human bomb.

While working as the assistant director for public health with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Maj. Gen. James Humphreys, an Air Force surgeon, was on a mission in Vietnam. It was here where he faced one of his biggest challenges. A 52-year-old farmer, Nguyen Van Chinh, suffered a unique wound when he was hit in the side with a round from an M-79 grenade launcher. Although the grenade failed to detonate, the three-inch long projectile traveled under the skin before coming to rest above the patient’s right kidney.

Contemporary newspapers referred to him dramatically as a “human bomb” and a “walking booby trap.” Civilian doctors at Cho Ray Hospital in Saigon noted the entry wound and the lump on his back, but it was x-ray that revealed the live grenade.

Humphreys, along with two assistants, an Air Force surgeon, Col. Daniel C. Campbell, and an anesthetist attached to the USAID mission, Anthony G. Brown, volunteered to perform the hazardous surgery.

The medics worked out of a makeshift bunker, surrounded by a wall of sandbags, and the bulletproof windshield from a vehicle that had just enough space for them to reach into the patient with their tools. To add to the unusual nature of the surgery, an Air Force machinist fabricated a set of specialized operating tools from scrap metal.

The medics worked knowing that every second could lead to the grenade exploding. Faced with an unfamiliar task, the team worked carefully to remove the bomb. After the patient received anesthesia, Humphreys and Campbell then used a scalpel at the end of a five-foot pole and six-foot forceps to remove the grenade. They then dropped it into an ammunition box filled with sand and stitched up the wound. The entire surgery, up until the last stitch was in place, only took 13 minutes to finish.

Humphreys himself was nonchalant, noting, “It looked like a pretty good challenge.”

Like something out of a scene from a medical drama, this real-life surgery had everything: A never-before-seen diagnosis, the creation of innovative tools necessary to do the job, and everyone on pins and needles not knowing what to expect. While this story was unusual and memorable, it also highlights the ingenuity and responsiveness of Air Force medics no matter the situation in order to save lives, a reputation that continues today.

The Air Force Medical Service is a 44,000-person integrated health care delivery and readiness system serving 2.6 million beneficiaries at 76 military treatment facilities worldwide. AFMS leaders are committed to the health and well-being of every Airman and Guardian.