Travel to the site of the field hospital

SR 2025/5
Tran Thi Truyen
205. Interview with Tran Thi Truyen. Clapstick.
Could you tell us what it was like going down the Ho Chi Minh trail at the end of 1971?
Tran Thi Truyen:
We began at the beginning of Route 20 of the Ho Chi Minh trail. We had a full battalion composed of four companies, 1 through 4 in designation. Our route of operation was from the beginning of Route 20 to station no. 10, which was our final destination. It was the beginning of the rainy season in Quang Binh and the end of the dry season in Laos. So the road was quite arduous. There were flash floods, and we had to cling to the trees along the road in order to get along.
The mountain slopes of Truong Son were also very steep and so we had to take off our sandals and just went barefooted. On top of all these difficulties, we were continually confronted by flares, bombs and shells. At the beginning of Route 20, the Americans had dropped so many bombs there that the whole area was completely denuded. Hence, when they dropped down the flares, they detected our entire battalion of women fighters and then just poured bombs down on us.
Our battalion commander ordered us to disperse and hide in foxholes and under big trees. There were so many bombs then that a number of the girls later complained of splitting headaches. After that, we marched through the forest from 9 p.m. until 3 a.m. the next morning before we could rest for one hour before we had to march on again. We had to cross many deep rivers and streams and were attacked by jungle leeches.
When we reached the Ta Le river, which was a wide river where the American bombs had denuded most of the trees on both sides of the river, we had to cross it in four small canoes. Each canoe could hold a maximum load of only ten persons. We were so high up in the mountains that the clouds were all below us. You can say that we were walking about the clouds.
We also had to use ladders to scale the mountains. The young male tribesmen, in spite of all our hardship, tried to scare us by saying that there were a lot of native robbers in the area! It took us a month to get to our destination. Along the way we had to cross many areas which were being heavily bombed. But we surmounted all our difficulties as I’ve said earlier.
Clapstick. 206 Take 1.
What were you carrying with you? All the items...
Tran Thi Truyen:
We carried clothes, personal items which we girls needed, and 10 kilograms of rice each in our knapsacks. In our knapsacks we also carried 5 kilograms each of viands such as canned meat, dried meat and powdered fish. All in all, we carried about 25 kilograms each or more in our knapsacks. Then each of us girls also carried a hoe and a shovel on our shoulders. Those who were not carrying hoes had to carry a pickfork and a rifle each. We were carrying either the Aks or the CKCs.
I personally was shouldering a CKC, a hoe and a shovel. When the enemy bombed us, I was really afraid. I was very young at that time, a student of only 16 years of age. Even after our battalion commander ordered us to disperse and hide in the shelters, my heart was still throbbing like mad. All kinds of fleeting thoughts came to my mind. And the bombs were dropped so close to us that our bodies underwent a lot of changes on the inside. We could not focus our eyes and had splitting headaches even for a couple of hours afterwards.

Travail and the horrors of war at the hospital

SR 2026/1. Beep tone. Roll 26, Vietnam Project
Clapstick. 207 Take 1. Interview with Tran Thi Truyen continued.
Could you tell us where you built the field hospital and how you built the hospital?
Tran Thi Truyen:
When we arrived at station no. 10 we rested for three days. Then we walked for ten days before we reach Medical Treatment Unit no. 53. This was s flat area of very thick jungle. The Treatment Unit told us to build bungalows in order to receive our patients. We had a lot of patients and they needed us very much. During the first few days we cleared some of the jungle area by chopping down the small trees and then hung up our hammocks on the bigger trees so that we could sleep during the nights.
Later on, we dug shelters and built up bunkers. This was a very rocky area, so the digging was quite difficult. But we were all quite determined in our effort because there were many patients whose health depended on us. We dug a surgical bunker first. It was 2.5 meters deep. On top of this bunker we placed huge logs and on top of the logs a layer of dirt. Then on top of this whole thing we built a thatched hut.
All our surgical equipment was in the bunker and we operated there in the dry season and on days when there were bombings in the rainy season. Otherwise, during rainy days we stayed in the hut above the bunker. In a month’s time, we were able to build three surgical bunkers, a bunker for patients undergoing internal treatment, a bunker for patients recovering from surgery and a bunker where medicines were manufactured. We were treating the patients at the same time we were building all these facilities.
The surgical team composed of doctors, physicians, nurses, etc., would go to perform operations on the wounded when the latter were brought in. But all those who were not on duty would continue with the building. I did not have a specialty at first, so I served as a hospital attendant. When the wounded were brought to us, there was a lot of blood and pus. Some people had brain injury, others were burnt by napalm bombs and still others had bomb fragments in their ears.
In this later case, sometimes it took a long time for the patients to be brought to the hospitals. When they got there, their ears and their wounds had become so infected that maggots were crawling out of their ears. I was very shocked and frightened as a result. Some of the brothers and sisters lost all of their limbs. I was very frightened at first and felt very nauseated. I said that I would not continue with that kind of work anymore.
But later on, because of my love for my comrades, I did not feel repulsed by all the blood and the pus anymore and I myself used either to clean up the wounds of the wounded soldiers. We tried our best to save the patients. Some brothers and sisters were brought to us with their bellies split by fragments, their intestines were spilling out.
Yet the doctors connected the intestines and sewed up their stomachs and, after a period of hospitalization, some of these people recovered. Then there were patients with severe malaria attacks... When I first came to the area, it was on the eve of Tet, I had to carry ten wounded on a stretcher, all in one day. It was a hilly area, and I had to place the handles of the stretcher on my shoulders instead of holding them in my hands. We did not have any light, and it was pitch dark.
So I stumbled many times. And every time I fell, my wounded comrade on the stretcher fell too. But even though it was New Year’s Eve and even though I had to trek through 5 to 6 kilometers of treacherous terrain each time, I tried my best to bring the wounded back to the hospital. Those who died on the way, we washed their faces personally and buried them decently on the same night so that the dead may feel happy on that night before Tet. After a month at the hospital I was sent back to the edge of the forest, to the beginning of Route 20, because the Americans were bombing that area very heavily and there were many wounded patients as a result. We had to help because there was no hospital there. The conditions here were much worse than at that other place.
208 Take 1.
Can you describe again the wounded which you saw? What they looked like at first sight? How you carried them about? And what your feelings were?
Tran Thi Truyen:
When the wounded came, many lost both arms. Others lost both legs, still others lost all their limbs. At that time they were just lying still as corpses, blood all over their bodies. And the smell of blood was really nauseating. Some of these wounded soldiers had to be brought in from ten or twelve kilometers away. It took several hours to carry them there. So they lost a lot of blood, and the smell of blood was really terrible.
At first I felt frightened and repulsed. But because of my love for the comrades, I helped clean them with ether before they were operated on. Some people were burnt by napalm bombs on the sides of their faces, but they remained in the battlefront for several days before were brought to the hospital. The wounds got infected and there was a lot of pus and maggots in their ears.
I was the first nurse to attend to this case, and I was really frightened. I never saw maggots crawling out of ears like that before! But although I was really repulsed by the sight at first, the life of a patient and the love for a comrade caused me to pour ether into the ears of the patient to make the maggots crawl out. I usually had to carry the wounded to the hospitals at night.
I placed the handles of the stretcher on my shoulders because the terrain was hilly and it was impractical to carry the stretcher with your hands. Along the way, I usually stumbled many ties. When I fell, my patient fell too. For a healthy person like me to fall down, it was nothing. You just get up again. But for a wounded patient to fall, that would hurt him more.
So later on, instead of carrying the patients in on bamboo stretchers, we carried them in in hammocks. That would be less rough on them. At first, when I had to take care of the patients I must admit that I was really frightened. There were patients who had severe malaria attacks and who, as a result, became very violent and began to destroy things around them like mad men. But I did my best to help them.