After graduating high school in Laramie in 1963, John Harrison joined the Navy. He had always wanted to go into the military, and his plan was to go into the dental field. After discovering the school was full, however, he was offered training as a hospital corpsman instead.
When he asked what was involved, he was told, “sitting around smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and giving people aspirin.” And while he later did end up partaking in plenty of smokes and java, it was not in a hospital setting but in the jungles of South Vietnam.
After completing basic training, Hospital Corps School and Field Medical School, Harrison shipped to Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan, in the fall of 1964. A few months later, in January 1965, his unit, D Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines received orders to go to Da Nang.
“We went in on C-130s, and on the way in the pilot came on the speaker system. And he says, ‘This is going to be kind of a tricky landing … they shoot at you as you go in,’” remembered Harrison. “We are flying along and everybody is strapped in, and they just kind of dove down to the airstrip. That was pretty exciting. Upon landing, they open up the bay door, which is on the back of the C-130, and the hot air came in, and it just took your breath away it was so hot. They didn’t let the ramp down all the way – they kept it maybe a foot off the ground – and so you had to kind of jump out. And we jumped into this red dust that was about 10 inches thick. The next thing that hit you was the smell.”
In the field
Harrison and his unit remained at the Marine compound in Da Nang for two and a half months, serving guard duty for the airbase. While there, he assisted in the sick bay, providing general health care for Marines and first aid for injured troops. It wasn’t until the remainder of his division arrived in Vietnam in March that his unit moved out from the airbase and began regular foot patrols.
Their first assignment was to relieve the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines on Hill 268 and Hill 327, also known as Freedom Hill.
“We did have a couple of casualties from 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines come to us that were in really bad shape,” said Harrison. “In fact they both died. And that was really my first experience where I had hands-on experience trying to save a Marine’s life. One I’ll never forget.”
On the fly
Much of the area was under the control of the Viet Cong at that time, and Harrison’s unit continued foot patrols with regular skirmishes. Harrison was often the only hospital corpsman in the group, so he gave informal training classes on First Aid to his fellow Marines so they could assist him if needed.
“Mainly you are by yourself,” he said. “We mainly gave First Aid and things like that, but there were times we were just learning on the fly. We improvised, adapted and overcame the situation we were in at the time. We basically knew what to do, but with no medical officer you had to be pretty fast on your feet and think your way through it. I was not prepared for what I encountered, but because of the corpsmen in Vietnam, I think today’s corpsmen are more prepared and better educated for what they do.”
With the Unit 1, or field medical service kit, he carried, Harrison was able to stabilize wounded men until they could be evacuated.
“A medevac would come in, if they could get in, and we’d load wounded on to the chopper and get them out,” he said. “When a medevac came in, or a resupply helicopter came in, those were the worst times because they really hit us then. Sometimes you end up having more wounded. One time we even had a medevac corpsman come in on a helicopter and he got hit with a .50-caliber coming in, and he died instantly. The choppers usually took a lot of heat; they always wanted to bring down a chopper.”
After the unit left the base at Da Nang, they spent close to a month on Hill 327 and then continued expanding their tactical area out. They eventually came across an old French fort and remained there for a couple months before continuing out further. It was on these advances that they began engaging for the first time with the North Vietnamese Army rather than Viet Cong.
“Everything kept picking up; things kept getting hotter and hotter,” said Harrison. “The firefights lasted longer, and finally about the middle of July ‘65 we ran into some NVA troops. They were better fighters (than Viet Cong). They knew how to do more than hit and run, and used sophisticated ambushes.”
Harrison’s tour of duty came to an end in November 1965. He was then sent to Alameda Naval Air Station and assigned as a flight deck corpsman on the USS Midway aircraft carrier, which was preparing pilots for Vietnam, sometimes with deadly results.
“They did have one plane come in and crash during night operations,” remembered Harrison. “They don’t turn the lights on when anything happens; you just are out there crawling around on the deck, in the dark … I tried to get out to him, and I finally did get out to him, but I was afraid I was going to fall off the flight deck. I did manage to find the guy, but he was killed on impact.”
In February 1966, he was reassigned to the USS Constellation and found himself again heading to Vietnam.
The ship supplied offshore air support for the next six months from what was known as the Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Harrison said he received a lot of good training on the ship, including surgery experience, but had a hard time adjusting after coming from the Marine Corps.
“I really didn’t know how to deal with the Navy,” he said. “I remember when I reported aboard the division officer asked me how come I had not yet made Hospital Corpsman Third Class and I said, ‘Well, every time they gave the test I was in the jungle, so that’s why.’”
The Constellation returned to San Diego in December 1966, and Harrison was reassigned to a Staging Battalion at MCB Camp Pendleton, where he worked in the dispensary and also did health evaluations for Congressional investigations. As the war had progressed, some troops or their family members wrote to Congressional representatives asking for medical waivers to avoid going to Vietnam. Harrison’s job was to help evaluate them. While some were indeed unfit, others were deemed healthy and cleared for service.
“If they were deemed fit, I shipped them off to Vietnam,” he said. “If they weren’t, I arranged for their discharge. There were a lot of guys that were just malingering I thought. They didn’t want to go, and I can’t blame them for that. But I went, so I figured you’d better go. I didn’t think it was right they were just trying to bag out because they were scared. Everybody’s scared.”
Harrison left the service in August 1967 and returned to Laramie, where to his mother’s dismay she saw that his weight had plummeted to 110 pounds.
He hooked up with some fellow Vietnam veterans and was “drunk for about a year.”
“I think all of us had PTSD, and we just didn’t know,” he said. “You have nightmares and dream about things. We just thought that’s the way it was.”
It all changed one Saturday when he received an invitation from a friend who was at a party.
“He called me and said, ‘There are all these girls, why don’t you come over?’” Harrison remembered. “I met a girl, and I ended up marrying her.”
His wife, Lorraine, encouraged him to go to college, and he earned a degree in Medical Technology. After graduation, he worked at Ivinson Memorial Hospital for 16 years and then transferred to the Public Health Lab in Cheyenne. He worked there another 23 years before retiring two years ago.
He remains in close contact with men from his unit and attends annual reunions as well.
“Probably the big impact on my life was the Marine Corps and its values,” said Harrison, about the lasting impressions of his time in Vietnam. “It instilled in me a lot better values than I had at the time. I think the Marine Corps had more impact on me than the war. I mean, I know what war is like. It is not nice, they can’t make it nice, and they are never gonna make it nice, even though everyone in the world thinks you can.
“But it is never going to be nice. It is nasty."