Getting in and out of Cu Chi town could be difficult.
We never knew who was friend or enemy.
Banner photos above: A Visit from Santa, 12th Evacuation Hospital, Cu Chi, Vietnam, Christmas 1966 (left); Pat Wojdag (Coté), 7th Surgical Hospital (MASH), Cu Chi, Vietnam, 1966; Rocket's Red Glare, portion of the Vietnam Women's Memorial, Washington, DC, USA). All photographs © 2013 by Beth Parks, Ed.D. (All rights reserved.)
... and drive such vehicles as armored personnel carriers.
Only five nurses were part of the 12th Evac advance party, and each were assigned responsibilities for specific areas.
My tasks were to oversee construction and setup of the two operating room Quonsets, the central materiel supply Quonset that would supply linen and sterile supplies to the OR and the rest of the hospital, and one of three nurses' hooches. We would be able to operate on seven wounded men at one time instead of the three we could accommodate at the 7th Surg.
I was given a team of enlisted men and less than a month to prepare for the arrival of the trained medical unit from Ft. Ord, California. Fortunately, the EMs did everything I asked of them and more. A couple of experienced sergeants took me under their wings and made certain everything ran smoothly.
Mono Queen Bar in Cu Chi town.
Guys asked for the girls by number.
Vietnamese nationals were hired to help with some of the tasks, including sandbagging the Quonsets as a defense against mortar attacks. It became painfully obvious that some of the people who worked for the US Army during the day helped the Viet Cong attack us at night. Booby traps were sometimes loaded with objects stolen from the hospital.
12th Evac, SMBL (semi-mobile).
Chopper ride to Saigon for supplies.
The new 12th Evac often lacked equipment and supplies.
Coca Cola was readily available, but we were advised that bottles could be laced with formaldehyde or ground glass. A family "adopted" me and entertained my workers. Unfortunately, I contracted a horrendous case of dysentery from their homemade soup. It wasn't until I got sick that I realized the water had come from the ditch at the side of the road.
175mm Howitzer across the road from nurses' hooches.
A big treat for the young EMs was an occasional trip into Cu Chi town for an afternoon off. It gave them an opportunity to blow off steam and come back to work refreshed. Both they and I were shocked to see how young the bar girls were.
Tunnel entrance beneath the duckboards. Who knew?
Typical scene in downtown Cu Chi.
Newly constructed nurses' hooches.
Towed Howitzer at artillery battalion on base camp.
The 12th Evac opened on schedule on December 1, 1966. We even had an officer's club called the Cu Chi Cu Inn, although it was only big enough for three people. The incoming staff quickly replaced it with a larger club called "The Crash and Burn."
Unlike the 7th Surg, where a nurses' hooch was a big open room with bunks, we used bamboo matting to separate our hooches into cubicles. Each nurse had her privacy and could fix her space as she wanted.
Soldiers brought the nurses trees to plant.
Nurses could personalize their cubicles.
Many of the supplies and pieces of equipment needed to complete hospital disappeared before reaching us. Much of it was confiscated through "midnight requisition" by GIs who horse-traded articles for something else. Items often wound up on the black market.
Our chief nurse, Molly, urged us to go to parties and bring back whatever equipment and supplies we could procure. We became known as "Madame Molly and her girls."
Cu Chi town was lined with tiny shops that were rustic, at best. The main street was packed with everything from tanks to horse drawn carts and from Vespa scooters to exotic automobiles. Getting in and out of town was often a challenge because of the traffic and bad roads.
A fenced-in area in back of the nurses' hooches provided both relative safety and privacy. Bamboo matting on the ground offered some protection from dust and mud. With little greenery in an area so recently defoliated by Agent Orange, nurses had soldiers bring them trees to plant.
Nurses bought cheap tables and chairs in Cu Chi town. Flashlights hung from the ceiling provided light when the generator was off or broken.
Vietnamese nationals assisted with selected tasks.
Market where you literally could buy just about anything.
Well or tunnel entrance?
Living just across the road from the big 175 mm Howitzers had its drawbacks. Artillerymen fired the cannons randomly and intermittently as "H&I," or harassment & interdiction, intended for the enemy. Because the guns were often directed over the hospital, they interrupted our sleep and tended to damage our hearing. But they also made bugs bounce on the mosquito netting over our bunks, which was rather good entertainment.
As time passed, we began experiencing Viet Cong attacks from within our own perimeter. We heard rumors that tunnels laced the laterite clay beneath our base camp. We had no clear idea of their nature or extent.
It was many years before we learned that the multi-layer tunnel system spanned from Saigon to the Cambodian border and provided a supply line for the Viet Cong. The vast network contained conference rooms, dining and sleeping areas, and even small hospitals.
1/Lt Beth Parks in front of one of the OR Quonsets.
Guys were always willing to help us out.
Coca Cola, ever-popular in Cu Chi and all Vietnam.
Guys let the nurses fire artillery...
Flashlights worked when the generator didn't.
My Vietnamese "brother" and "sisters."
I needed two autoclaves to sterilize operating room instruments with steam under pressure. Only one was delivered. Headquarters assured me that a second was on its way, but it never arrived.
An autoclave sat near the docks on the west bank of the Saigon River when I was trying to buy a small refrigerator in Cholon. It was labeled "12th Evac," and it had a $200 price tag attached. I would have bought the darned thing if I'd had the cash.
The only American women on the Cu Chi base camp were nurses and the few Red Cross Donut Dollies who were housed in another area. Being just a few women among thousands of men not only made for great social lives, but also gave us chances to do some pretty cool things.
Guys let us drive armored personnel carriers, ride in Bird Dog spotter planes on jet and B-52 bomber air strikes, shoot machine guns and big artillery, chase water buffalo in "bubble" helicopters, and much more. The fun came to a screeching halt when a nurse from another hospital was killed in a non-duty-related accident.