Dr. McIntyre, retired from the Foreign Service after more than twenty-three years abroad, lives with his wife Jessie in Chapel Hill, NC. During the Second World War, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his service as an infantry battalion surgeon.
Saigon Medical Care, 1959-1961:
Present at the Creation
By Donald K. McIntyre, M. D.
Ask most Americans about Vietnam today and you will get a variety of answers and expressions of opinion about the country. This was not the case when I was sent there in 1959 to supply medical care to official Americans, personnel whose numbers were growing rapidly to reinforce our global policy of Containment. There were no books about the area in libraries available to me before I left and no general knowledge of the country. The lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington who was preparing us for our assignment told us he had found in the libraries which he checked only one book about Vietnam — one he himself had written — in the libraries he had explored.
I soon became familiar with the country. My impressions of conditions and the people that I found in Vietnam in 1959 may occasion surprise or disagreement by many, but one should remember that war changes things, sometimes drastically. When I arrived, it was a delightful, beautiful country inhabited by an uncomplicated, lovely people. They were physically small, making the features and figures of the women extremely feminine. Women wore the ao-dai, the traditional dress consisting of loose-fitting, flowing trousers over which a long, high-necked, close-fitting tunic in pastel colors hung to the ankle, with a slit on each side to mid-thigh. Going to work and returning home each day, I enjoyed such striking beauty while driving in the streets of Saigon. The men were generally lean, as pleasant appearing as the women, and looked physically fit.
With its broad, tree-lined boulevards and solid, handsome buildings, Saigon deserved its name, the Paris of the Orient. The restaurants were among the best in the world, offering the excellence of both Chinese and French cuisine — a choice of the best of the East and the West. Good medical care was available, but from a decreasing number of French and French-trained Vietnamese physicians.
Today it may be difficult to conceive of the U. S. Foreign Service without medical care abroad, but for 165 years, until the enactment of the Foreign Service Act of 1946, the nation had no legislative authorization for medical care for diplomatic and consular personnel, not Even then, three years passed before a Health Branch was formed in the Department of State. Dr. George Mishtowt, the first Foreign Service doctor hired to serve at an embassy abroad, entered the Service in 1955; when I was assigned to Saigon in 1959, I was one of only eleven Foreign Service physicians. Today there are thirty-seven regional medical officers, with a commensurate increase in medical support services.
When I was in Saigon, medical care for the growing U. S. presence was provided through an American dispensary established by the U. S. army, situated close to the famed Cercle Sportif and the Saigon central market. The dispensary was headed by a U. S. army doctor, a major in the Medical Corps, who was supported by a navy doctor, a navy dentist, a junior army medical officer, and me. A number of Army noncommissioned officers handled the laboratory, x-rays, and pharmacy, along with six excellent Thai nurses who had received their training at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Bangkok. We had eight beds for short-term inpatient care, but when necessary evacuated seriously ill and surgical patients to the military hospital at Clark Field in the Philippines.
During my two years in Saigon, 1959-1961, the Vietnam War had not yet really begun for the United States. Though still small, the U. S. military assistance staff, with its mission of advising the Vietnamese army without actively participating in combat, far outnumbered that of the Embassy. As a consequence of the mission’s limited role as advisers, war injuries were not a significant problem, although I do recall occasional incidents such as a grenade being thrown over a wall into the garden of an American residence. Our daily patient load then was much like that of a general practice at home with the addition of amebiasis and an occasional exotic ailment.
One personal experience that previewed events to come may be of interest. I remember all too clearly an unsuccessful coup mounted about half-way through my tour by one faction of the Vietnamese army against President Ngo Dinh Diem. In November 1960, I had just obtained permission to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia over the weekend and had arranged for another doctor to take my duty. In the early morning before leaving I went out to mail some letters; while on that errand I heard sporadic rifle fire and saw Vietnamese running in various directions, some of them jumping over garden walls and fences in the neighborhood. I hurried home to warn my wife that something was happening and that we should hurry to catch our flight before the airport was shut down. We started out, but were turned back on the way; the airport was already closed. Since there was no chance of leaving town, I arranged to take over my scheduled weekend work and reported to the dispensary.
I recall no casualties during that first day. This was a Vietnamese affair, with South Vietnamese regiments fighting other South Vietnamese units. Americans were staying indoors. I, however, ventured downtown and from the shelter of doorways and arcades observed fighting around the Intercontinental and Caravelle hotels and the National Assembly building. There was more to be heard than seen. I saw no vehicles and very few soldiers, but I was surrounded by the rattle of rifle and machine gun fire.
With nightfall action picked up. Trucks and tanks moved about outside the dispensary and the sound of firing grew from our area towards the Cercle Sportif and the Presidential Palace. Soldiers took up positions in our dispensary doorways and joined the firing. Inside we kept in touch with the Embassy by military radio.
During the early morning hours the next day, we received a call from the Embassy that a Foreign Service officer had been struck in the shoulder by a bullet while standing on an Embassy balcony observing troops moving across the river into the city. I explained that I was pinned down and unable to respond because of the action all around us and suggested that they call the young Navy medical officer whose home was located nearer the Embassy, who might be able to provide care.
An hour or two later, when conditions were calmer, I checked with the Embassy on the wounded officer. The doctor had seen the patient, but needed instruments and an ambulance. I agreed to try to reach the scene and left with the dispensary ambulance driver in the direction of the Palace. In the first fifty yards, a man lay dead in the center of the street, and a hundred yards father along we found ourselves staring into the mouth of a heavy tank’s cannon. Soldiers ordered us back.
We thereupon took another route to the Embassy, picked up our wounded officer, and headed back to the dispensary en route to Saigon’s French Hospital, pausing a few moments at the dispensary to check out the situation. All appeared to be fairly calm, so I told the drive to proceed. We got as far as the next street corner, where a line of soldiers ran out into the street virtually surrounding us. Of course we stopped. The soldiers began firing at unseen targets, leaning across the hood of our ambulance. My Foreign Service patient rolled himself from the stretcher onto the floor, and I immediately followed. The driver bailed out and fled. Rather than stay there in the middle of a fire fight, I decided up to take over the controls of the ambulance, although I had not driven one since World War II. Fortunately, the rattled driver returned as quickly as he had left, and we sped off, unhurt, to deliver our wounded man to the French Hospital.
From there I went home, but felt that I should report the weekend’s events to the major in charge of the dispensary, who lived a few blocks away. As all seemed quiet, I took my nine-year-old daughter with me in my jeep — perhaps not the wisest move I made that day. Given the disturbed situation overall, we astounded the major just by showing up at his home. We stayed only a few minutes, for we could see troops moving toward the radio station across from the major’s residence. By the time my daughter and I reached the next street, firing had started; troops were moving past us toward the radio station. We lay low in a gutter until matters calmed down a bit and we could reach safety in a nearby house. Soon thereafter the uprising came to a close and we returned to our more usual routines.
During World War II, I was a battalion surgeon with 159th Infantry Regiment in the European Theater of Operations, where I witnessed considerable combat. When I signed on as a Department of State medical officer in the late 1950s, I had expected a business day filled with immunizations and treatments of the ills and surgical procedures, routine and otherwise, that Americans exposed to unaccustomed bacteria abroad are prone to suffer. I had not counted on grenades, gunfire, and tanks as part of my new job. Saigon taught me quickly that modern diplomatic life is not for the fainthearted, an appreciation that has grown stronger each year since, as the list of U. S. Foreign Service personnel who have lost their lives serving their countries abroad becomes ever longer.