Service to humanity is the best work of life
Title: October 1967
Moto: "Service to humanity is the best work of life."
As an adult, I have supported many community-service groups like the Jaycees and Kiwanis International. Credit for more than 30 years of community-service must be given to an experience that I had as an engineman aboard the radar picket USS Wilhoite DER-397, in October 1967. The Wilhoite was part of Operation Market Time off the coast of South Vietnam in the vicinity of Qui Nhon. Market Time patrols were designed to prevent the infiltration of ammunition and supplies to the Viet Cong by sea. Our days went slowly on patrol, as we kept busy working in our assigned spaces, standing watches, working on replenishment-at-sea evolutions, and rendezvous with other Market Time units. We also acted as "mother ship" for two navy swift boats, berthing extra crews on board and supplying them with food, water, and fuel.
After 30 days of this my shipmates and I were miserable from the monotony and the constant rain. When a chance to break the routine came, I was eager to respond. Fleet headquarters issued a call for volunteers to all Market Time units to provide manpower to clean up a civilian South Vietnamese surgical hospital. I thought, "Hey, here is a chance to get off this tub and really see what this war is all about." I had previously viewed the war vicariously from the safety of our ship off the coast. Here was a chance, I wanted to go ashore and get a sense of reality. I volunteered to be one of a handful of sailors from the Wilhoite.
I awoke about three in the morning anticipating the day's events. It was a damp dark night as we gathered near the stern of the ship to wait for a swift boat to take us ashore. Finally, the swift arrived to change crews and pick up the six volunteers. The swift boat sped off into the cold dark night toward the harbor at Qui Nhon. It was still dark when we arrived at the base and were directed to the mess hall to eat breakfast. As we walked along, everyone was getting his land legs after 30 days at sea and scanning the guard towers on the perimeter fence. We felt an eerie silence around the base, but could hear cannons -- thump, thump, thumping in the distance. This was my first dose of reality after living in the safety of a ship off shore. After finishing breakfast, we embarked on a landing craft to cross a river to the other side of the base. Then we climbed aboard an Army Duce-and-a-Half and proceeded out the main gate into the Vietnamese country side.
The sun was starting to come up and my senses were assaulted by many new reactions to the lush tropics. The air was heavy with many new aromas and numerous new sounds seemed to surround me. I remember the unique growl of the Army truck as it bumped its way toward our destination. After traveling a few miles, we approached the sprawling, single-story hospital.
The once-grand hospital was built during French colonial times, but had fallen into disrepair. The wards were arranged in a large rectangle with windows on the outside and doors facing an interior courtyard. We were awe-struck by the poor condition of the facilities. All of the materials for utilities had been stripped from the buildings and sold for scrap. There was no running water or electricity available. The restrooms were primitive. Nothing could have prepared us for the filth. The grime and grit everywhere was detrimental to proper health care. All of the bloody bandages were disposed of in an open pit. The stench from this area is etched in our memories forever. Everything needed for the clean-up including the water had to be trucked-in. Whenever I enter a hospital today, I am extremely thankful for our modern hospital system.
All of the Vietnamese patients in the hospital were victims of napalm burns. In many cases, if one of the parents was burned, the whole family unit moved to the hospital. Young children seemed to be everywhere. The activity of a beehive surrounded the whole place. The anguish on the victims' faces seemed to permeate the atmosphere. Their exposed skin looked like an eruption of puffy red burns. The image of one man's burns will never leave me. Both of his legs had third-degree burns, and pain was evident on his face. I didn't know what to expect, because this reality was far removed from my experience.
Today's wartime terror may feel common and remote, but seeing the civilian results of military action first-hand placed it in a new context. I vowed to do whatever possible to prevent my loved ones from experiencing this type of trauma.
This was a horrific sight for almost every one of the volunteers. At first we were standoffish, but then our compassionate feelings overcame the horror. As we began our work we could sense the patients' warming attitude toward the American volunteers. We were unable to communicate verbally, but each group's body language bridged the cultural divide. The volunteers set about digging a new disposal pit, rearranging the wards, mopping floors, and washing walls.
I was in one of groups working in the wards. Try to imagine housekeeping duties without the use of today's cleaning miracles and you'll get some idea of the task we faced. We had to fill our buckets from the tank trailer and carry them all-the-way to the ward. I can still remember working with an Army issue scrub brush and soap to clean the gritty textured walls. It's amazing to me, what a little soap, water, and scrubbing did in cleaning the years of grime off the walls.
A whole new cosmic energy seemed to come over the entire hospital. What had once felt like a scene from Dante's Inferno began to feel like a healing environment.
Our morning vanished quickly in an effort to create a better environment for those not as fortunate as ourselves. A lunch of bologna sandwiches and Kool-Aid seemed like a feast in these surroundings. We spend lunch time discussing what we were doing in our jobs at the hospital. Everyone commented on how this operation made them feel good about service to humanity and how the patients appeared to appreciate our efforts. The New Zealand surgical team who operated the hospital validated our observations.
My energy was renewed, and I went back to work mopping floors in the wards with a new sense of meaning and accomplishment. Instead of swabbing the deck like many other sailors do everyday, I felt I was making a difference in these peoples' existence. Carrying many buckets of water over long distances gave me a new respect for the conveniences we all enjoy in our everyday lives.
The oppressive tropical heat built up in the afternoon, but we labored on at the task at hand. As the afternoon drew to a close, everyone finished up their work. The hospital was a better environment as result of our attempting to create an oasis in the horror of these patients' lives. The surgical team and the patients extended many happy greetings with us upon our departure.
When our group returned to the Wilhoite, we all commented about how our volunteer operation was successful. I had volunteered to get a perspective on our involvement in Vietnam, but I had received a gift. I had gained a new outlook about service to humanity. The outlook planted on this operation has germinated over the years and I am actively involved with community service. I never hesitate to volunteer to provide service to others because it is the best work of life. A volunteer activity 46 years ago has provided a touchstone for my life. As the last line of the Jaycee Creed says, "Service to humanity is the best work of life."
Dennis E. Horvath
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USS Wilhoite DER 397, M Division, June 1967 – May1969