Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2016

Our Vietnam Nurses, by Annabelle Brayley #BookReview

Our Vietnam NursesOne thing’s for sure about the people working in creative industries, they like to be involved in new, original and different projects.  So my guess is that journalists in the media approach certain commemorative events with an inward groan… how do you do something different with the annual Christmas and Easter programming, and – even more challenging – how do you make something new and interesting about more controversial commemorations such as Australia Day and yes, Anzac Day?

Teachers face the same dilemma.  Every year they are required to acknowledge Anzac and Remembrance Day to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the age of the students they teach.  As Director of Curriculum before I retired, it was my job to coordinate the whole school program, so that the kids didn’t get the same old lesson every year, and if you read my post at LisaHillSchoolStuff you can see that I implore publishers to think outside the box, especially when it comes to acknowledging the participation of those often overlooked in the national narrative.  Always on the lookout for background reading to improve my own knowledge about the service of indigenous Australians, peacekeepers and women, I would have been pleased to discover Our Vietnam Nurses had it been available while I was developing resources for my students to use.

The author of Our Vietnam Nurses says herself that she had never thought about nurses being in Vietnam, and my random chats about this book with others reveals the same blank.  ‘Never thought about it,’ they all said, ‘but of course they must have been there.’  Indeed they were, though the evidence of this book is that they were a bit of an afterthought.  The timeline at the back of the book shows the sequence of events.  The first contingent of nurses arrived with the first civilian surgical team in October 1964 (two years after Australian involvement in Vietnam began in 1962 and more than a year after the first Australian casualty) and the first RAAF nurse accompanying the first medivac team from Butterworth in Malaysia to Bien Hoa in Vietnam was in June 1965.  It was July 1966 before the first RAAF nurse was attached to the US Air Force at Clark Air Base for a sixty-day deployment, and it was May 1967 before the first four nurses from the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps were deployed to the 8th Field Ambulance (later the 1st Australian Field Hospital) at Vung Tau. (That was eight months after the Battle of Long Tan when eighteen Australians were killed and twenty-four were wounded, and the small field ambulance hospital didn’t transition into a larger field hospital until three months after the Tet Offensive in which Australian casualties included seven men killed in action, three dying of wounds, and 75 wounded.)

There is surely a back story to what looks like an ad hoc and belated deployment of nursing services for the war that turned out to be the longest twentieth century conflict in which Australians participated.  From 1962 to the cessation of Australian combat operations in 1972, 60,000 personnel were involved.  There were 521 deaths and more than 3000 were wounded.  Presumably there would also have been predictable occurrences of malaria and other tropical diseases, dysentery and other infections, venereal disease and accidents of one sort or another.  Yet at the DVA ‘Australia and the Vietnam War‘ website with an exhaustive coverage of events, I had to hunt for any acknowledgement of the service of nurses at all, only an acknowledgement that a hospital was set up at Vung Tau, with a painting that includes Red Cross nursing sister Winsome Ayliffe, and a single paragraph on the page about the RAAF.  The contribution of nurses to the WHAM program (Winning Hearts and Minds) rates only a caption on one of the photos on the Civilian Aid page.

I find this a bit mystifying, but I didn’t find the answers to my questions in Our Vietnam Nurses.  The author Annabelle Brayley,  is not an historian, she is a storyteller.  As my Sensational Snippet from this book shows, the book reveals some of the shortcomings of Australia’s Department of Defence, but it is not a critique of Australia’s involvement in the war or of military planning and decision-making.  Although there is some attention to post-service trauma and inadequate support, overall it reproduces the familiar tropes of ‘being proud to serve’.  This book is about the experiences and reflections of individual nurses.

The men and women who served were there in under the auspices of different organisations:

  • 43 members of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) in South Vietnam, initially in 1967 in the 8th Australian Field Ambulance (8 FD Amb) a medical unit located within the Australian Logistic Support Group compound at Vung Tau which transitioned into the 1st Australian Field Hospital (1 Fd Hosp), operational until December 1971 when most of Australia’s ground forces returned home. 
  • More than 100 Royal Australian Air Force nurses were deployed in medivac flights, flying from Butterworth RAAF Base in Malaysia into Saigon, Vung Tau or Bien Hoa evacuating wounded Australian soldiers back to Butterworth and then to Australia.  32 of these nurses were then posted on 60-day attachments to the US Air Force Base at Clark Air Field in the Philippines, flying missions all over South Vietnam evacuating American and Korean soldiers to Clark, Japan, Korea and in the case of at least one nurse, to the US.
  • 200 nurses went with civilian surgical teams under the auspices of SEATO (South-East Asian Treaty Organisation).  These nurses were deployed for between three and twelve months, some of serving multiple times, operating in provincial hospitals alongside local (often untrained) hospital staff (in primitive conditions).
  • Muddying the waters a little in terms of the definition of nursing, is the inclusion in the book of the services of Red Cross hospital visitors.  These women performed valuable roles in supporting and counselling the wounded and in monitoring the observance of the Geneva Convention in jails where Viet Cong POWs were kept, but the example given in Chapter 9 ‘Holding the Hands of Soldiers’, while very moving, shows that these were not professional nurses.  It’s not clear how many of these women there were, but three are mentioned in the book.
  • Also not professional nurses were the male medics, who received a cursory training in Australia and then learned on the job.  Two of those interviewed were national servicemen, conscripted and deployed in combat zones.  Understandably, their attitudes are less positive than the volunteers.

A common theme is the pragmatism of the women.  They were all volunteers with some idea of what to expect going into a war zone, but because briefings focussed on danger warnings and protocols, the reality turned out to be different.  They were shocked by the primitive conditions in grossly overcrowded hospitals that lacked basic facilities for hygiene and had inadequate supplies of drugs and equipment.  By contrast, there is more than one reference to well-equipped Americans who were very generous with donations, but mostly nurses had to rely on their own ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work.  Social life seems to have been limited and romances very few, but I am mindful of Janet Butler’s observations in Kitty’s War (see my review) that nurses have a hard-won reputation for respectability to protect.  Elderly women who were interviewed for this book may not choose to share memories of high-jinks with handsome young soldiers!

All those interviewed had confronting experiences.  There were deaths on the operating table, and there were cases so grave that, sadly, some still wonder whether the men survived after evacuation.  Nurses in civilian theatre operations had to deal with a ubiquitous worm that colonised the gut, while a Red Cross visitor found herself giving a toiletries pack to a man so badly wounded he certainly couldn’t use it.  One man witnessed a wounded soldier being winched into a helicopter when he was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade and blown to bits.

They dealt with amputations, gun shot wounds, grenade and shrapnel wounds, bomb blast wounds and occasionally burns, but some of the most horrifying damage was caused by Viet Cong booby traps.  The VC would drive strong, thin shafts of wood into the ground beside jungle pathways, leaving their sharp pointed ends angled back towards the track.  They drenched the points with every dirty, filthy contaminant they could lay their hands on, including their own faeces.  Then they’d wait for the allied soldiers to come along and ambush them, causing them to dive spontaneously off the track.  Invariably, some of the soldiers fell on the spikes. (p.192)

(I have seen these gruesome booby traps in Vietnam, see my travel blog.)

Unlike the male medics, while the nurses were never officially deployed in combat zones, they were often in danger.  The planes used in evacuations weren’t always reliable, there were near-miss mid-air collisions, and they were fired at from below.  They could not use the roads but had to be flown from one place to another, and because they were so conspicuous as ’round-eyes’, they were warned to be on the alert at all times when they went out to shops or cafes in case of VC bombs and grenades in what was a guerrilla war.  A threatened tidal wave that forced a hospital evacuation (achieved in 18 minutes) turned out to be only a 30cm high tide, and none of them had to use the firearms they were belatedly trained to use, but the story of a grenade that was triggered when an injured soldier was moved off his stretcher was a very close call for an entire theatre staff and the patients waiting in triage. One nurse spent her first night at the US base at Cam Ranh Bay under a barrage from rockets and explosives which killed two men and injured 98 patients and staff  – and slept through it because no one had thought to take her down to the bunker and she had put the noise down to being in a war zone, after all.

Medics, however, were constantly in life-threatening situations, sometimes from the ‘gung-ho’ American helicopter pilots but more often from being under direct fire alongside the soldiers. One was awarded the Military Medal because he’d run forward from a position of relative safety to one of danger, under fire.  The memories of these men are very confronting but they say they have no regrets.   Indeed, in her concluding commentary, Brayley says:

It was tough, often dangerous, scary, lonely, crowded, noisy, challenging, rewarding, gut-wrenching, weird, hard, heartbreaking and sometimes fun, and all admit that Vietnam was the most significant event of their lives; for some of them, it still is.

They know that no one else can truly understand what it was really like, just as none of them really understand the war that took them to Vietnam in the first place.

And yet, if they had their time over, all of them would go again… (p.282)

Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past has written a thoughtful piece on her blog, about how Anzac Day observance is not really inclusive of Australians’ diverse experiences of war.  You may have noticed that I have not named any of the nurses whose stories are told in this book, and that is in deference to the one who kept her service secret from her loved ones because of the controversies over Vietnam.  I know that there will be students who will stumble on this review and use it for study purposes, and by not naming anyone, I hope that they will have to pay these brave men and women the respect of actually reading the book and understanding something about it.

Author: Annabelle Brayley
Title: Our Vietnam Nurses
Scheduled for publication 2/5/16 by Michael Joseph, an Imprint of Penguin Books, ISBN: 9780143797029
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Pre-order from Fishpond: Our Vietnam Nurses or any good bookstore.


Responses

  1. I have seen stories which suggest the government does not always regard nursing as ‘real’ war service, but I guess that applies mostly to volunteers, outside of the armed forces.

    • That would make sense. But I think it may have something to do with the generous benefits that accrue from active service, e.g. war service loans at very low rates of interest, eligibility for study expenses etc. It’s not just penny-pinching, though that may be part of it, it’s also making sure that the incentive to go on active service remains attractive which would be compromised if everyone in the services were eligible.

  2. Another excellent book on this topic is Minefields and Miniskirts: Australian Women and the Vietnam War by Siobhan McHugh. First published 1993, republished (I think) around 2005-6 by Lothian Books. It contains interview material from women who had all kinds of roles during the Vietnam War, not just nurses. If I remember correctly it was later adapted for television.

    • How interesting… what other roles did women play? It’s my recollection that women weren’t allowed to have combat roles in the army then, but did they have support roles?

      • From memory (I seem to have lost my copy, unfortunately) the women interviewed included entertainers, consular staff, typists, nurses, and – interestingly – wives and girlfriends of Australian soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

        • Of course, yes, Little Pattie and …um… others I’ve forgotten….
          I’m surprised the wives and girlfriends were allowed to go!

          • No, the wives and girlfriends were back at home. There are some very painful accounts about their husbands coming home with PTSD and how unsupported and bewildered they felt living with these traumatised men. Nobody seems to have written much about the experiences of the wives.

            • There are always hidden victims of war…

  3. I wasn’t aware of this book so appreciate your review Lisa. That comment about the lack of hygiene and medical supplies reminded me of the conditions that nurses complained of in WWI. Was the lack of hygiene and medical supplies in Australian army medical facilities in Vietnam understandable due to war conditions or were the nurses complaining about poor organisation and resourcing on the part of the Australian military authorities?

    (Thanks for the mention of my post.)

    • Yvonne, this topic is crying out for an historian to research the reasons for it. The book doesn’t attribute blame anywhere, and the nurses, it says, didn’t complain, they just got on with it. There must have been some arrangement with the Americans for them to provide medical treatment for Australian personnel, but it’s not made clear at all.

      • I’ll ask my colleague who specialises in the history of nursing.


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