In December 1967, Diane Mattern enlisted as a Nurse in the U.S. Navy. She wanted to see more of the world and experience some adventure. Her family had a tradition of military service, and she wanted to serve her country. Mattern contemplated the Peace Corps, but her father quickly put the kibosh on that in terms that were not subject to argument. So the Navy it was.
Mattern had grown up an “FBI brat” – her father was an FBI Special Agent. Born in Iowa as one of seven siblings, she grew up in Buffalo, New York, then moved with her family to Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of fourteen. She attended nursing school in Atlanta at Grady Memorial Hospital, the largest hospital in Georgia and one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation.
A new adventure
After enlisting, her first duty station was at the historic Chelsea Navy Hospital in Boston. Then in April 1969, she reported onboard the USS Sanctuary, one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships cruising offshore Vietnam, affectionately known as “The Great White Whale” because of its large size and white hull paint.
The Sanctuary rotated with its sister ship, the USS Repose. One would cruise off the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, while the other would cruise off the large U.S. Naval and Air Force base at Da Nang. About once a week, they would pass by each other and rotate their stations. The two ships remained nearly continuously on station, being resupplied under way (known as “UNREPS”), only rotating to Subic Bay in the Philippines when periodic major maintenance was required.
Mattern was assigned to the Intensive Care Unit onboard. Her previous training and experiences at Grady Hospital in particular served her well in this assignment. The Sanctuary had a separate ship’s crew, which operated the ship itself, and a hospital crew, to which Mattern was assigned, that staffed the Navy Hospital.
The more seriously wounded men were transported from Vietnam to the Sanctuary by helicopter, and its landing pad on the stern of the ship was busy indeed. Every 1,000th helicopter landing was commemorated. In its first year alone after arriving off Vietnam in March 1967, the ship had seen 2,500 helicopter landings.
The wounded, ill and injured only spent the minimum amount of time onboard the Sanctuary – the hospital’s primary role was to stabilize the wounded so that they could be evacuated as swiftly as possible to the next, higher level of care in the Philippine Islands.
The Sanctuary was an incredibly busy place and operated in all types of weather. During periods of rough seas, Mattern remembered having to secure items, such as glass IV bottles, and to rig the gurneys and hospital beds so that they wouldn’t roll around. At times of intensive combat operations, lines of stretchers would await treatment and transportation. The Sanctuary also intermittently treated Vietnamese civilians. Mattern was aghast at the poor level of health care and hygiene that most of these Vietnamese civilians endured. Lice outbreaks were not unknown.
Among Mattern’s memorable experiences, she had the opportunity to visit the 101st Airborne Division to meet with the U.S. Army medical teams and personnel that transferred so many wounded and injured to their ship. She also experienced a landing and takeoff on an airplane on the deck of the USS Oriskany and spent a couple of days as a guest onboard that aircraft carrier.
Her brother was a Staff Sergeant with the U.S. Army, on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, assigned to the MAC-V Headquarters in Saigon. When she visited with him, he was unofficially promoted to lieutenant so that they could spend time together without being harassed by humorless Military Police.
Mattern still maintains a spectacular patch collection, as trading unit patches was an extremely popular activity. Mattern also had the chance to see one of the famous Bob Hope USO Shows at Da Nang Airbase, although she remarked that she was so far away that the entertainers “looked like ants.”
At one point, because of severe weather conditions on the Vietnam mainland, a number of Marine combat units experienced numerous grave cases of immersion foot (the infamous “trench foot” of World War I). A separate ward had to be established to treat their feet, and Mattern was one of the nurses detailed to staff it for the duration. The otherwise healthy Marines, relatively bored and having been in the field for an extended length of time, were absolutely thrilled to have an opportunity to flirt with American girls, even if they were officers.
Between 1969 and 1971 – the time period within which Mattern served a year as a nurse onboard the USS Sanctuary – the hospital ship’s crew recorded an astounding 10,701 helicopter landings on its flight deck, performed over 4,629 major surgical operations, admitted 13,500 patients and treated a total of 35,005 service members.
Mattern related that she “had no negative experiences.” She completed her tour of duty onboard the good ship Sanctuary in spring 1970 and took extended leave, touring the world, including Thailand and Japan, during her way home from Vietnam.
After returning home, Mattern switched uniforms from combat to standard and served at a U.S. Navy Hospital in San Diego and several naval medical clinics in California. She then married Allan Mattern and moved to Casper. Remaining in the U.S. Navy Reserves, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks she subsequently volunteered for her second war and served as a Navy Nurse Practitioner in Kuwait supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom from January to September 2005. Afterwards, she remained at Camp Pendleton, California, until fall 2006. She returned to Casper and retired with the rank of captain in February 2007.
Mattern’s husband, Allan, is also a retired Navy Captain and a semi-retired Casper cardiologist. They have two sons; Dane is currently serving in the Colorado National Guard, and Daniel is an EMT.
Naval doctors, nurses and corpsmen like Diane Mattern provided a skilled and caring level of health care to both men and women in uniform and Vietnamese civilians, which saved and improved many lives. They are the nearly forgotten, but deeply appreciated and beloved, angels of the battlefield.