The ‘60s were an exciting time for women’s liberation. The second wave of feminism was well under way, and women were freer than ever. Unfortunately, though, this swinging era was also blighted by the Vietnam War, which had a huge impact on the collective psyche of the generation.
Vietnam nurses, the majority of them female, faced enemy bombs, bullets, shells, overwork, and horrible conditions. And the brutal warfare devastated both sides, physically and mentally.
Nursing was as noble a calling then as it is now, and the photographs of nurses during this period reflect an extraordinary combination of liberal cultural trends, harsh working environments, and making the most of a bad situation. Read on for ten poignant snapshots of nurses stationed in Vietnam.
10. 7th Surgical Hospital – 1967
First Sergeant Tower (left) and this young, unnamed nurse were photographed standing outside the 7th Surgical Hospital in Cu Chi. The hospital unit operated in support of the 25th Infantry Division from August 1966 to January 1967. In total, the hard-working medical staff at this station saw more than 3,000 patients and admitted more than 1,000.
The nurse’s retro looking, horn-rimmed sunglasses add some ‘60s flavor to the shot, instilling the seriousness of the situation with a touch of fun and fashion. The kitschy sunglasses also hint at the colorful “hippie look” that became popular towards the end of the decade.
9. 7th Surgical Hospital – 1966
This snapshot shows four U.S. Army nurses taking a well-earned break at the 7th Surgical Hospital in Cu Chi. In the shot, Captain Chris Butler, Captain Driver, First Lieutenant Pat Wojdag, and Second Lieutenant Mary Lemieux take some time out to rest and recuperate.
In five months, doctors and nurses at the 7th Surgical Hospital performed more than 2,000 procedures and only lost 12 patients. Medical staff at the hospital would work, in the words of one individual present, for “as many hours as it took to get the job done.”
Despite the differences in rank, the four women in the photo appear to have an easy camaraderie. One Vietnam nurse remarked, “Humor played a vital role in maintaining morale during these trying times and was encouraged at every level. Getting together in little groups and recounting the funny things that happened relieved tension on several very specific occasions.”
8. Chu Lai – 1970s
This photograph shows 22-year-old nurse Maureen Adduci, who only enlisted to pay off her nursing school tuition fees. However, in 1970, the war escalated, and Adduci was posted to Chu Lai, where she faced the horrors and dangers of the Vietnam War head-on.
Conditions were extremely tough in Chu Lai, and when Adduci arrived, a more experienced officer “advised” her, “Shoot yourself in the foot or get pregnant.” On her first day, Adduci worked for 24 hours in a cramped, bloody and noisy operating theater. Once she had finished, she scrubbed and hosed away the blood.
Ironically, Adduci had originally worked at a Texas Army hospital, and her recruiter had assured her that she would not be stationed in Vietnam.
7. Nurses in Da Nang – 1969
These cheerful looking nurses were stationed in Da Nang in 1969. During the war, the base became one of the busiest airports worldwide, with an incredible daily average of 2,595 air traffic operations.
Americans serving in the city suffered frequent supply shortages, which they attributed to medical gear being sold on the black market by the Vietnamese.
According to Patricia Walsh’s memoir, River City, nurses ran so low on supplies that they were forced to use disinfected enema pipes as tracheal tubes to keep patients’ airways open during operations.
The last US ground combat operation in Vietnam took place in Da Nang in August 1972.
6. Australian Nurse in Hoa Long – 1967
It’s a lesser-known fact that the land “Down Under” was also heavily invested in the Vietnam conflict. Between 1966 and 1972, 50,000 Australian soldiers served in Vietnam, including 43 army nurses (like the woman pictured above) and just over 200 female civilian medical volunteers.
Conditions were often dreadful in the Australian wards, with lack of space frequently forcing patients to share beds. Nevertheless, Australian soldiers had a very high survival rate, and only around 2.6 percent of those admitted died – a mortality rate half what it was during WWII.
Even so, Australian nurses were usually worse off than their American counterparts. They were paid less than male officers of the same rank, and those who returned home often suffered from serious health problems and disease.
5. 8th Field Hospital Nurses – 1960s
Here, four Army nurses from the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang pose for a group shot. As you can see, most of the medical staff in Vietnam were relatively young. The average age for nurses was 23, and most had less than two years experience.
Founded in 1962, the 8th Field Hospital was the only U.S. Army hospital in Vietnam until 1964. Before 1965, the Army only had 113 hospital beds and 15 nurses in the warzone.
However, with the escalation of the war, the number of hospitals and nurses increased rapidly. By December 1968, there were 23 hospitals in operation, with around 900 nurses. In the end, a total of 5,000 U.S. Army nurses served in the conflict.
4. 7th Surgical Hospital Nurses – 1966
Above, Second Lieutenant Mary Lemieux (left) and Second Lieutenant Mary Miller are pictured piling sandbags outside their hospital in Cu Chi. The sandbagged wall needed to be eight feet high to protect the buildings from an attack. Clearly, the nurses still had a long way to go.
Less than a month before staff arrived, the hospital was struck by a rocket and mortar attack. Several buildings suffered direct hits – including what was to become the nurses’ tent – and many others were showered with shrapnel.
Had the bombing occurred a few weeks later, there would have been more than 200 soldiers inside the base. Fortunately, the hospital did not have a full complement of staff at the time, and only a few minor injuries occurred.
3. 7th Surgical Hospital Nurses – 1966
This shot shows more nurses from the 7th Surgical Hospital; this time, in a convoy on the way to Cu Chi. From left to right, the figures are Mary Lemieux, Claudia Zimmerman, Marilyn Brooks, Maggie Lotz, Mary Miller, and Chris Butler. The puppy’s name was Koko.
The nurses are wearing the standard issue military baseball cap, which was very unpopular with women serving in Vietnam but was not replaced until the mid ‘70s.
One of the nurses, Claudia Zimmerman, got married in the “mess hall” during her tour of duty. The U.S. Army made great efforts to assign married couples together, or at least within traveling distance of each other, in Vietnam. Still, sometimes it was not possible, and married couples were often forced to accept it.
2. Nurse Treating Patient’s Injured Leg – 1971
Lieutenant Elaine Niggemann can be seen here treating civilian employee James Torgelson’s injured leg, at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, in 1971. During the war, operations were frequently performed to preserve patients’ limbs. For example, the 7th Surgical Hospital carried out 58 arterial anastomoses to prevent limbs from having to be amputated.
Landmines were a major cause of leg wounds and would often lead to deadly infections. Staggeringly, it is estimated that landmines and grenades caused 16 percent of US deaths on the ground in Vietnam.
Still, some soldiers didn’t allow their leg injuries to stop them from leading active lives. Bob Wieland, a double amputee, competed in several marathons and “ran” across the United States to raise money for Vietnam veterans. It took him almost four years.
1. USS Repose – 1967
In this shot, a U.S. Army nurse is seen caring for a patient aboard the hospital ship USS Repose, off the coast of Vietnam. In total, 29 nurses, 22 doctors and 256 medics manned the ship. Together, they treated 9,000 battlefield casualties and 24,000 inpatients between 1966 and 1970.
USS Repose was a popular hospital ship and earned several battle honors during its deployment. The vessel came equipped with ten wards and over 500 beds, and in extreme cases, 250 more beds could be set up on the deck. During its three-year stint in Vietnam, the ship was nicknamed the “Angel of the Orient.”
Nurse Pat Hildebrand recalled her days on board the vessel: “Most of our patients were Marines, and they wanted to get back [to the war] as soon as they could. I have never had such compliant patients. There was no such thing as malingerers.”