Blood on China Beach by Paul J. Pitlyk

Paul Pitlyk served as a brain surgeon for one year in Vietnam. Because the hospital he had been assigned to was destroyed before he arrived, Pitlyk was temporarily attached to C Medical Company, Third Force Service Support Group, Third Marine Division, also known as Charlie Med.

The back cover blurb of Blood on China Beach: My Story as a Brain Surgeon in Vietnam (iUniverse, 254 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper), succinctly encapsulates what’s inside: “This memoir picks up where most Vietnam battlefield memoirs leave off—when the chopper delvers the dead and gravely wounded to the field hospital and the dedicated doctors and medical staff struggle under primitive and unsterile conditions to preserve life.”

The book begins with a Prologue in which Pitlyk, a newly trained brain surgeon, volunteers to go to Vietnam. It is November 1965 and he starts his tour of duty at a primitive forward aid station in the rain-swept jungle outside Da Nang.

There is more blood, gore, and damaged brains in this memoir than in a hundred other Marine Corps memoirs I’ve read. This book is not for the squeamish, as Dr. Pitlyk has a gift for graphic description which he exercises to the fullest when describing the effects of a bullet shot into the brain.

Pitlyk fully explores, as he puts it, “the horror of young vibrant Marines turned into raw meat.” He does this at the temporary facility in the jungle, and then during his longer assignment at China Beach at MAG 16, Marine Air Group 16 in the G-4 Hospital. 

The author had told his elderly parents that he was serving the Navy as a brain surgeon in Hawaii. We are not told how he pulled off this elaborate ruse, or if he got away with it for the whole year.  My parents were not the most alert members of the Greatest Generation, but I could not have fooled them for a year. Of course, I was no brain surgeon.

Paul Pitlyk is a very smart guy, but lots of smart guys shouldn’t write books. Pitlyk is one who should have, and his book is a powerful one, especially when he sticks to what he knows best, brain surgery.

I shed more than one tear reading about his attempts to save lives when Marines have taken bullets to the head, what Pitlyk sometimes calls “penetrating missiles.” He provides minute descriptions of the brain operations as he tried to fix what was wrong without turning the patients into cripples or vegetables. Those are the tough terms the doctor uses, and he is right to use them to make us confront the cost of that war.

Pitlyk learned to be a better brain surgeon in Vietnam, and he saved a lot of Marines’ lives—men who would have died if he had not chosen to volunteer for Vietnam at the age of 32.

At one point Dr. Pitlyk is forced into a combat leadership position for a short time with nothing to draw on other than what he remembers of John Wayne in his Marine Corps movies. Nobody died as a result, so that was sort of amusing.

We also hear about piss tubes, black market corruption run by a Dragon Lady, the antiwar movement back home offering encouragement to our enemy, and sweeping and destroying, as well as the methods of disposing of human waste and an amusing story about a man falling into a deep pit filled with such stuff.

My favorite chapter and the hardest-hitting one is “Mission of Mercy,” about the U. S. Mission of Mercy Hospital, a civilian hospital in Da Nang where Dr. Pitlyk and his assistant did volunteer work. Just the description of the flies and the filth alone turned my stomach. The black and white photos help bring home how awful things were in that hospital for the mostly doomed civilians who were there.

Children missing limbs lie unattended on hospital beds with no mattresses, no clean sheets, and flies crawling on them. Some patients were VC who had been dropped off for medical treatment. Pitlyk’s interaction with one of those special patients is one of the most interesting episodes in the book.

Pitlyk calls his time in Vietnam both a “haunting experience and a bitter memory.”  He also says that after he’d been home for a couple of years he came to view the war as a mistake.

The image the doctor wrote that sticks in my mind now is how the war can turn a young man into “a rigid piece of grotesque bloody matter plastered with human waste, mud, and quite possibly the blood of his pals, as well as his own.”

Never has a book brought home to me more viscerally the high cost of our war in Vietnam and the high cost of war in general. If you are a war-lover, read this book. It might help you reconsider your position. 

—David Willson