A Doctor Recalls the Vietnam War
Profilers: Aries Wang, Jake Browning, Vir Jain
William H. Browning Interview Part I
What was your initial reasoning for joining the military?
I was in the NROTC at Dartmouth and had a scholarship with a payback time of active duty.
As Navy ROTC at Dartmouth, were you pressured to enlist, or were you obligated to be commissioned into the military?
An obligation of the scholarship was that you took a commission as an ensign when you graduated.
What inspired you to become a doctor after serving in the military?
After my time of payback, I went back to medical school at Stanford. That was five years plus a year of internship, and after that I got back into the Navy and eventually ended up at Chelsea Naval Hospital taking care of wounded servicemen.
What inspired your career path change from being a naval aviator to eventually becoming a surgeon?
I had a duty assignment, which at that time was entirely random. There are no duty assignments based on merit or accomplishments but just where they needed the bodies. And they needed me with a squadron that was in Okinawa, which was a lot of fun, but it did not have any potential for career progression to leadership just because of the nature of that duty. So at the end of that tour, that obligation, I went back to medical school.
After completing your degree in medical school, what influenced you to stay stateside instead of going overseas with the rest of the military?
At that time, after I finished medical school, I was a civilian and not still in the military. I had to go back in the Navy to go through the aviation medicine program, and that led to flying for some time and then eventually going into orthopedic residency at the Boston Naval Hospital.
In your time treating injured veterans, what were some of the most impactful stories you heard?
Quite interesting that at that time, the war in Vietnam was starting to wind down, and as a result, the people who came in during ’70 to ’72 were enlisted men who had been badly wounded and therefore sent back to the States. Most of them had blast injuries, which required some orthopedic procedures but mostly skin grafts and rehabilitation. I had a ward of 35 enlisted men that I was responsible for at that time. They were an interesting group. None of them had any potential to go back to active duty or any desire to go back to active duty. So it was kind of a ragtag bunch, but they were interesting to work with.
In your experience with dealing and treating wounded veterans, did their experiences and their dealings with PTSD impact you as a person, or did it impact your community at all?
PTSD didn’t exist at that time. Most of the people dealt more directly with their problems by being resistant to orders, resistant to whatever they didn’t like since they knew they wouldn’t have to go back to active duty. I had a corpsman working with me at that time who had shot himself in the foot with a 45 nine days before he was supposed to be transferred back from Vietnam. He always insisted it was an accident, but it seemed a little strange that that accident would occur so close to his time to come back. He had many educational things for me about the war in Vietnam, his tour in Vietnam, and morale in Vietnam. I don’t know if you want to go into that.
If you have any time to then I would love to delve into it.
Sure. As I say, he came back. He was a very interesting guy. He basically had a master’s degree in pipe organs. His dad was a doc in Massachusetts. But he was a big help to me maintaining that ward of 35 badly injured patients. And when we were together between working on the ward, he told me a number of observations. The first was that almost every time the American troops went on patrol, they were all stoned on marijuana. And that was sort of a suicidal quality because the Vietnamese could smell the marijuana from half a mile away, and so they knew where the Americans were.
Some of the guys who weren’t stoned used aftershave, and that was also helpful to the Viet Cong in localizing their enemies. My corpsman also told me that the troops out there would know when they were about to get hit when they went on patrol because on the days where it was safe to go on patrol, the kids of the village all tagged along and wanted candy and so forth. On the days where they were going to get hit, everybody in the village except the Americans knew it, and so there were no kids along.
So in your area of expertise with the 35 bunks that you had to deal with that were constantly circulating, what was the most common procedures that you had to do?
Fortunately, because of the nature of the blast injuries from landmines and stuff like that, amputations were not our most common operation. Skin grafts were because these mines were set up to go off as the guy stepped off the mine, not when he stepped on it. So most of them had bad injuries of both legs and sometimes their backs. And some of them were extensive enough it was hard to find enough space on their bodies for donor sites for skin grafts. We actually used a procedure called a mesh graft where you took a piece of skin that might be that wide and that long and ran it through a machine which cut slots in it so you could stretch it out. You’ve seen mesh things where you can stretch it. And that allowed us to triple the amount of skin we could cover with a skin graft.
So exactly how long were you working in this hospital dealing with injured veterans?
Let’s see. I started at Chelsea right around Christmas of ’69, ’70, and probably did that for two years because the residency was broken into segments. And after two years at the Naval Hospital to get more civilian type of training, we were sent across the river to Boston Children’s and Mass General to get our training in other types of treatment and surgery.
You told me that you worked with US intelligence in the development of the seeker missile. Can you explain to me what your application was on that project?
I guess you’re referring to the time of VX-4 at Point Mugu. Well, after my original experiences as a naval aviator and not a doctor, I went back to medical school and then got reassigned to a squadron at Point Mugu which was heavily involved in experimental work and fine-tuning things that had been planned to try and protect the troops better. Among them, for instance, were constant changes of electric countermeasures trying to defeat the SAMs and the anti-aircraft fire that was taking a heavy toll in Vietnam.
We also worked on some interesting things about camouflage that made an airplane harder to see, remarkably. And that turned out to be painting in high gloss like your finest speedboat instead of that dull gray that Navy airplanes were at that time. We actually did a deployment to Rhode Island, and at that time they had a Vietnamese gun site and a Vietnamese SAM site set up in New Hampshire somewhere. And we worked with them to try and test the electronic countermeasure boxes as they put them in. They were modifying those boxes almost weekly and having our squadron evaluate them. And then we would have a rapid training course for the people at Mugu. And the results of that went to Miramar where most of the people going to Vietnam were going through training. And that training actually eventually evolved into the Top Gun. So we had a place in getting that set up too.
William H. Browning Interview Part II
It’s commonly known that America dropped more bombs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than in World War II. Do you feel any personal effect on your conscience knowing that you helped develop some of these weapons that are involved in mass murder?
No, because the projects that I was on were all defensive. The camouflage, the electric countermeasures so they couldn’t shoot you down, the strange paint jobs and that sort of thing. So we only were doing offensive practice over the Santa Barbara Channel as a way of tuning our ability to fly the airplane. And as you know, I had some high-altitude projects getting up to almost 70,000 feet. We were trying to work out a way to shoot down an ICBM from a Phantom, which was also another interesting project.
We had no business being in Vietnam after the French left, but we, at that time, were crazed about the fear of communism. And so the fight, the disagreement between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, morphed into the Korean War. We were not particularly welcome, although all the South Vietnamese who threw their lot with us were basically relatives or kin of the people in the north. They were in a different group.
The North Koreans, I mean, sorry, the North Vietnamese were much better disciplined, not better equipped, but they used ingenuity much better than we did with these horrible punji sticks, which are spears that stick out of a pit. And if you stepped on them, you ended up with a bad foot injury or leg injury. And so the North Vietnamese were much more innovative than we were in the fight. And since it was their country, in a sense, we, first, didn’t have any business being there, and second, didn’t have any chance of winning. I think perhaps their motivation was stronger because they were, in their eyes, saving their country, whereas we were defending a foreign type of philosophy and politics.
Was your perspective on the conflict ever different back when it was actually happening, when there was a lot of propaganda being thrown around between JFK, Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson about they’re pushing America’s idea of patriotism? Or do you think that we never should have belonged there outside of trying to stop the spread of communism?
Well, at that time, I think it was McNamara was the Secretary of Defense, and a lot of people called it McNamara’s War because he pushed hard for it. And they tried to run the war from Washington, which didn’t work because the troops on the ground had a much better grasp of what we needed to fight effectively and what we should have done and so forth. But again, this was a flaw that we seemed to fall into in that era of trying to manage things from Washington rather than from the guys who were closer to the fight and knew what was going on.
No, it wasn’t popular with the troops. At that time, a lot of kids went to college just to avoid going to Vietnam. Because if you went to college and spent four years there, you might be exempt, or you certainly would become an officer if you did have to go. So that was sort of a way of resisting the war. And of course, you knew all the Vietnam protestors were out en masse during that time, and they didn’t support the war. I think you probably remember the story about Jane Fonda, who had her picture taken on the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. It didn’t gain her too many friends in the military.
I just have one last question for you before we wrap up. Did the Vietnam War or anything that happened during the war impact you personally?
Well, certainly, my care of 35 men who rotated through the very ill-equipped naval hospital in Boston was an awakening to the clumsiness of the government in managing the military. Our ward for all these enlisted men who were bedbound by their injuries, 35 of them, there were broken screens, so we had maggots and mosquitoes. There was no air conditioning, and it was an old World War II barracks converted to a ward. So needless to say, it was uncomfortable both in the summer and in the winter. We tried to get that improved, and our chief of orthopedics got Senator Kennedy to come over to meet the men and to try to get him to understand our needs to improve the care of these guys because they only got one towel a week, for instance, and they were bedbound. They was no air conditioning, and that led to the maggots and all those problems we had.
But Kennedy’s visit turned into a debacle for him because he didn’t want his pictures taken with all these guys with scruffy beards and a careless attitude about the service. We had one guy from Nantucket who was on a super secret assignment over there and looked pretty squared away. He had managed to wrap himself around a brick wall coming home from a Saturday night poker game and had a broken leg and a broken arm. But he was well-dressed, well-shaved, and looked very professional. So, Senator Kennedy immediately vectored in on him and made the mistake of asking him something like, “Son, did you get hurt in the war?” to which this guy answered, “No, Senator. I was stationed out near Martha’s Vineyard and the roads are kind of curvy out there.” And that ended the interview with a quick shutoff of all the TV cameras, the disappearance of the CO in fury and the disappearance of Senator Kennedy. That was the closest we came to ever getting support for our troops in that ward or that hospital for that matter.
What was the most memorable evacuation story from Vietnam you remember?
A lot of brave stories of survival came out, more after the war ended than before. [The American Ambassador] by the way, refused to leave. They tried to take him out by helicopter in Saigon when Saigon fell on April 15th. And he refused to go at first and got all these Vietnamese and Americans on the helicopters out to the carriers. And there were so many people to load on these helicopters and get them out of there that they were pushing helicopters over the side of the carrier to make room for more of them to land. $10 million worth of helicopters were pushed over the side.
Well, if there’s anything else you’d like to cover, now would be the time.
One little thing, which was gave you an idea of the morale and attitude. There was a sergeant right at the nursing station which was midway between 17 guys on one side and 17 guys on the other side. They didn’t like the sergeant much. He was badly injured and was confined to bed. But the guys on both sides of him at night would mock shoot him with ba-ding, ba-ding, which probably wasn’t good for his morale. And he couldn’t do anything to escape it.