A woman at war: Vancouver nurse answered call to serve at Da Nang civilian hospital

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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Vietnam War +50

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As a nurse at Stanford University Medical Center, Marion Mullin could have taken part in America’s first heart transplant.

Instead, she went on leave to spend 18 months at a hospital where cases included leprosy and the plague.

Mullin went to Vietnam.

The Vancouver woman was one of the American civilians who worked in South Vietnam through State Department assistance programs. She worked in Da Nang from November 1967 through May 19, 1969. Mullin was chief nurse of the U.S. medical and nursing team in the second-largest hospital in South Vietnam.

While it was a civilian hospital, the war was never far away. Her deployment coincided with a combat milestone, the Tet offensive. Mullin’s notes show that her hospital treated 1,704 civilian war casualties from Jan. 30 through March 3, 1968.

Mullin hears echoes of the Communist offensive each summer when fireworks start going off in her neighborhood near Vancouver Mall. The blasts take her back to artillery shells that exploded when an ammunition dump was destroyed.

“It’s bothersome to me,” Mullin said of the fireworks. “They sound like the ammo dump blowing up.”

The exploding artillery shells created additional concern because Mullin and her Da Nang team members didn’t know what was happening.

“We sat on the floor, thinking a tank battle was going on.”

That never was part of her working world at Stanford. Neither were patients with bubonic plague or leprosy, although Mullin explained that those two diseases weren’t as horrifying as they sound.

“Bubonic plague is very common; some of the staff got it. It’s easy to treat,” she said. And leprosy? “It takes a long exposure to get it.”

But in that setting, even some common occurrences could be pretty horrifying. She was showering a week or so into her stay and noticed something on the side of the shower stall.

“It was a spider this big,” Mullin said, shaping her hands into something the size of a cantaloupe.

“I hate spiders! I really hate spiders! I sat on my bed and cried. Then I made them move me to another room.”

At the hospital, flies were everywhere. On one occasion, Mullin wondered why a patient seemed to be covered by a black wool blanket when it was so hot.

“It was not a blanket. It was a big mass of flies.”

Mullin’s route to Vietnam started with a soldier who had become a pop-culture hero. Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler co-wrote and sang “Ballad of the Green Berets,” the top-selling single in 1966. When Mullin went to a national nurses association convention, Sadler was manning a booth for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was recruiting professional nurses to serve as civilian advisors in hospitals in South Vietnam.

Mullin took a few brochures, then forgot about them. A few months later, she saw a newspaper photograph of a horror-struck Vietnamese woman holding her dead baby. She found the brochures and sent in her application.

The job included four months of language school, as well as some unexpected personal development: weapons training. At one point, the civilian American women were escorted to a firing range and taught to fire pistols and rifles and use hand grenades.

Shortly after Tet started, a Marine officer was sent to the building where they lived — nicknamed the Alamo — and set up an escape plan. He placed an explosive on the inside of their perimeter wall and showed them how to detonate it so they could blow open an escape route.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, they worked with some members of the Communist force. The Viet Cong lived among the general civilian population, and that included enemy personnel who worked on the hospital’s nursing staff.

The American team was hampered by lack of supplies — they’d find pilfered medical material stamped “USAID” for sale in street markets. And, the Vietnamese who worked in the hospital tended to resent the Americans who were advising them.

It was a challenging 18 months, Mullin said.

“What kept me there were the children.”

Some of her most memorable moments involved those kids, she said. One was a 9-year-old boy whose little brother had been wounded. The boys were flown from their remote village to the hospital by helicopter. When the younger boy died, the 9-year-old was responsible for getting his brother’s body back home.

Mullin arranged the return trip on an Army aircraft, she said. She drove the boy to the airport and helped him load his brother’s tiny casket on the plane.

Another boy accompanied his wounded 5-year-old sister to the hospital after everybody else in the family was killed. Her left leg was amputated above the knee, and the boy stayed with the girl as she recovered. When he couldn’t find other nurses to help, “he would find me, take my hand and pull me to his sister,” Mullin said.

A few weeks later, Mullin saw the boy again. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a stick of chewing gum — well worn, but still foil-wrapped.

“He gave it to me!”