Navy Surgeon: Vietnam by William J. Walsh

Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.

Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam. 

His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.

In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.

Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade. 

When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.

Navy nurses aboard the USS Repose in Subic Bay

The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.

After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.

–Marshall Snyder