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Dr. Halpin: 1960's Dr. Halpin: 2006
Dr. Halpin describes an officer whose naivete caused him a great deal of harm. Dr. Halpin recounts performing heart surgery on a dog.

Doctor Thomas Halpin was born in Reading, Massachusetts where he spent his childhood. His father was a physician, and his mother took care of the family. Dr. Halpin attended Reading public schools, and graduated high school in 1955. He then began his undergraduate education at Boston College and went on to Harvard Medical School. He began his career with an internship at Columbia University in New York. This was interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1964. He spent a year at Fort Benning practicing obstetrics and gynecology and was then notified in September of 1965 that he would be entering Vietnam with a whole crew of other surgeons. In Saigon, he worked in the Third Field Hospital (similar to a MASH unit) where he cared for wounded soldiers.

Important conclusions can be drawn from Dr. Halpin’s experiences in Vietnam. When he was drafted, Dr. Halpin was not even aware of Vietnam’s location or the importance of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. However, only three days after arriving in Vietnam he was convinced that America “was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The war was neither good for the economy nor the politics of our country. Early on in the war the majority of the doctors as well as civilians at home did not share Dr. Halpin’s negative view towards the war. Although it only took Dr. Halpin three days to deviate from the positive outlook on the war, it still held strong among the masses for several years.

Halpin Gallery

Q: Please state your name.

Dr. Halpin: My name is Doctor Thomas Halpin.

Q: Where were you born?

Dr. Halpin: I was born in Reading Massachusetts

Q: Can you describe where you grew up and what your childhood was like?

Dr. Halpin: I grew up in Reading; my parents still lived there after I went off to Vietnam. I went to Reading public schools, and then went to Boston College, and then Harvard Medical School, and then went to Columbia of New York for my training.

Q: What did you parents do for work?

Dr. Halpin: My father was a physician and his office was in our house. He was a general practitioner and my mother was a housewife.

Q: When were you in high school?

Dr. Halpin: I graduated high school in 1955.

Q: Was your father in World War II?

Dr. Halpin: My father was a physician so there was a separate physician draft, there was in World War II, there was in Vietnam. So, you get exempted from the regular draft so you can get through college and medical school, but then you get put into a special draft where you are eligible until you are 36 years old. So what happened with my dad was that so many doctors had been drafted from Reading that there were really not enough left at home to take care of the people at home, and so they stopped drafting doctors from Reading, because they were so under served.

Q: So when you were in high school, were you aware of the World events?

Dr. Halpin: Yeah, I was I think like an average high school student.

Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War?

Dr. Halpin: Well the Cold War I heard about in high school. I think I was aware of that. The overriding thought in high school was that the Russians were going to drop an atomic bomb on us. So, some people actually constructed bomb shelters or in their cellars had provisions for that they could live in the cellar long enough until all the radioactive fall out happened, so we really thought that the Russians were going to attack us.

Q: So did you fear the Communists?

Dr. Halpin: Yes, Communism was about the dirtiest word you could think of when I was in high school.

Q: So, what did you recall about the general state of the country as a teenager, besides the communism scare?

Dr. Halpin: Well of course I went to Vietnam at the very beginning of the war. I got drafted into the army at the end of my internship, so I spent one year at Colombia. And they asked me when they drafted me what were you going to do before we drafted you, and I said was going to do an Obstetrics and Gynecology residency. So they drafted me and I spent a year in Colombus Georgia at Fort Benning, which is where the airborne school is if you want to learn to be a Para trooper you have to go to Fort Benning. And they had two divisions there, with 15,000 troops each, so there were 30,000 troops and there were about 50,000 retired military people living in Colombus so we were very busy in the hospital and they had me doing Obstetrics and Gynecology. So I did that for a year. So that was 1965 and I can still remember driving to San Antonio Texas to learn how to salute and how to wear the uniform and so forth. And in Fort San Houston, stopping at a newspaper rack and the news was that we had been attacked in the Golf of Tonkin. Well at that point I barely knew where Vietnam was and didn’t think it affected me at all. My main preoccupation was that I didn’t want to get sent to Korea, because the Korean War was long since over. The Korean War ended when I graduated from high school. But you couldn’t take your wife if you went to Korea; you went alone. So you were separated for a year from your wife. So I didn’t want to do that. So all I was worried about was Korea, and really didn’t understand the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin incident until I was well into my army career and then it became obvious that things were escalating in Vietnam. So after a year at Fort Benning in September of 1965 I got notified that I was being sent with a whole hospital to Vietnam. And so we staged in Fort Louis in the state of Washington near Seattle. So spent a month there getting things organized and then got flown to Oakland California where we went to the Oakland army terminal where we got a troop ship and spent 18 days, I guess, on a troop ship crossing the pacific. We got to Vietnam and we were assigned to outside of Saigon. Saigon is up the Saigon River, and the Vietcong controlled the Saigon River, so the troop ship couldn’t just sail up the Saigon river it had to unload out on the coast and then they flew us to Saigon because they didn’t control the territory between the mouth of the river and Saigon. So then I spent a year working in the third field hospital. But, it functioned like a MASH hospital. So it was whatever you have seen on television from MASH that’s what I was doing. We had a crazy head nurse, just like the one in MASH, and a crazy executive officer just like the one in MASH. And we were about half a mile from the biggest airport in South Vietnam, which was called Tan Segnu. So all the international flights came in there plus it was military air base. So in the Second World War if you got injured in combat you would go to battalion aide station on a stretcher, and then from the battalion aide station to several more places along the route of evacuation and finally you would get to a place like our place. In Vietnam War what would happen is if there was military action they would send a helicopter out from Tan Segnu to pick you up right after you got hit and bring you directly to our hospital. So, we were seeing people 15-20 minutes after they got hit. They just flew over and brought them right to us. So it was very different.

Q: What was it like having to say goodbye to your friends and family?

Dr. Halpin: It was very hard because by this time I had been married for 15 months and had a baby that was about 4-6 months old and so I didn’t see her for the next year, so she was a year and a half old when I got back

Q: Did you know you were going to be gone for a year?

Dr. Halpin: Yeah. The deal was unlike Second World War where you went to the European theater or you went to the Pacific theater and stayed there until the war was over in Vietnam they thought that they could prevent what was then called battle fatigue, which is now called posttraumatic stress syndrome. If you knew you were gonna get out in a year, it turns out when you analyze the data it didn’t help at all, but it was good for all of us who kept counting how many days we had left.

Q: What was it like when you arrived in Vietnam?

Dr. Halpin: Well it was, as I said, 1965, so the very beginning of the war. So when I arrived there were about 50,000 American troops spread all over South Vietnam. At the height of the Vietnam War there were ten times that, there were 550,000 troops in Vietnam. So we were there early and things were just getting organized and just beginning. And when we went it was long before there was any anti-Vietnam war feeling. In 1965 everyone believed in the domino theory and everyone, including me, thought we were going to save the rest of the world from Communism and that if we didn’t win Vietnam then all the other Asian countries would become Communist and we really would have had a huge problem, so we were trying to save the world from Communism.

Q: So you went into the war thinking you, well America, was going to win?

Dr. Halpin: Yeah, I guess I thought we were going to win. But we all felt going over there it was a morally correct war and that we were doing the right thing.

Q: What moment changed your mind?

Dr. Halpin: I changed my mind; it took 3 days. I was sitting with another doctor in the Officer’s Club, and we were sitting next to 2 guys in civies and so we started talking to them and it turned out they worked for the agency for international development, which is AID. Which usually helps in third world countries bringing American aide to third world countries. And I guess that’s what these guys were doing there. But at any rate we spent hours talking to these guys and it became obvious listening to them that what the real story was that in the war in China against the Japanese, the Vietnamese and Ho Chi Min had been allies with American troops and had helped to defeat the Japanese. And so at the end of the war then Ho chi min said to his American allies I need your help in Washington to prevent Washington from giving Indochina, Vietnam’s part of Indochina, back to the French like they had before the war. We are a nation; we want to be unified as a nation and we really, really don’t want the French back in. So it turned out at that moment in the state department, the French desk in the state department was much more influential than was the Asian desk. And so when the decision was made by Harry Truman should we let the French back in, give them back their colonies in Indochina, at that time Harry Truman and John Foster Dulles thought it was more important to keep France happy than it was to keep Ho Chi Min happy. So when that decision was made Ho Chi Min said ok, so who am I gonna get to help me unify my country, and the only other options were the Russians. So he went to the Russians and Ho Chi Min became labeled as a Communist because he was collaborating with the Russians we didn’t force him into it. So the AID guys said you are really here in the middle of civil war. It’s a country that is trying to unify itself, and virtually everyone looks to Ho Chi Min as their leader and we are trying prevent that, its not an issue of Communism, it’s an issue of unification of a nation. So I had 362 days left when I figured out that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Q: Did all the other personal feel the same way as you?

Dr. Halpin: No. I mean, I don’t think any of us spoke out against the war while we were there because your life was on the line and you sort of had to convince yourself that it was worthwhile being there. I think when we got home was when we really became anti-war. The only guy that really spoke out was the psychiatrist in the hospital. His name, strangely enough, was Blank, Dr. Blank. And he would come up with all these funny things about how inappropriate it was for all of us to be here, and about a year after I got back I saw his picture in the middle of a demonstration in Central Park in New York, so he was very into the anti-war movement. I was too busy going through my residency to do much about it.

Q: So were you aware of anti-war protests back home? Like Kent State?

Dr. Halpin: Well no, that all happened after I came home. It was so early that very, very few people were anti-war, and the anti-war movement, well this is a guess, I came home in 1966, and the anti-war movement didn’t really get organized until 1968 or 1969. So you know when I spoke out against the war in social situations I had to be somewhat diplomatic about it because very few people shared my opinion. They were interested in listening to the history of how Ho Chi Min became a Communist, but they weren’t really ready to buy that we were in the wrong place.

Q: So were people really shocked by the Psychiatrist’s views?

Dr. Halpin: Oh yeah, he was really over the edge by protesting that early. And then by the time of Kent State everyone was against the war. The question was simply how do we get out.

Q: How did you pass the time while you were there?

Dr. Halpin: Well the 18 days on the troop ship I played bridge. So I was a bridge expert by the time I got off the boat. Unfortunately the guys I played with also got better so in the end it was no night game. The time there, one of the things I learned very quickly was that war was tremendously wasteful. Human life, human time, and material sources. One of the examples of this is that we would have nothing to do if there were no battles going on. And so we would all sit around and read novels to kill the time. And then if there was military action and you heard the choppers coming in with the wounded then you knew that you were not going to get to bed for 36 hours you would be operating nonstop until all patients were taken care of. And then you would make rounds every day taking care of these people after you operated on them. And the policy then was if you thought you could get someone back to duty within 30 days, they stayed in your hospital and if you thought they were not going back to duty within 30 days they were air evacuated to Japan and then from Japan to the United States, which I understand is very different from Iraq where you get hit you get stabilized and them immediately flown to Germany. So we had large numbers of patients we were taking care of, but they all would all get better, and then we would read another novel and then there would be another military action and then we would be up another 36 hours.

Q: Did you have any specific responsibilities?

Dr. Halpin: See, I’d only had an internship, so I had no residency, so I was kind of the lowest rung on the medical latter. So for three months they only had one orthopedic surgeon, so I would operate with the orthopedic surgeon. For the rest of the time, there was a surgeon who had trained with Michael Debake in Houston. Michael Debake was probably one of the best-known vascular surgeons in the ministry of medicine. And this guy had just finished training with him so he’d spent; I think his training was something like 9 years long. So he could do anything with blood vessels and so I was his gopher after that. It was fascinating you know because in Korea they would amputate your leg if you got a bad injury to your leg but in Vietnam by that time they had learned how to sew nerves back together and sew arteries back together and how to stabilize fractures so there were very few amputations but there were lots and lots of mine injuries and one of the two most common injuries was stepping on a mine and you know getting your ankle and foot injured. The other was the Vietcong would dig holes in the ground, put wooden stakes with sharpened ends at the bottom of the hole and put human feces on the stakes and then cover it over with branches and so what you’d do is you’d step on this hole and impale your foot on this horrible, messy stake and you’d get an infection on your foot. And then the other nice thing about being there early in the war was the Vietcong had very low velocity rifles so they’d shoot you and they’d make a hole through you but it wouldn’t blast you a big hole, it would be a nice little hole but as the war wore on they got nice automatic weapons that were high velocity weapons which make bigger holes when you get hit by them so they weren’t you know easier to repair.

Q: Were you in contact with people after you left Vietnam, were you in contact with doctors who were still there so you could compare your experiences?

Dr. Halpin: No it was funny I bumped into somebody who said the same thing. Once we left Vietnam none of us interacted, it wasn’t something any of us wanted to do.

Q: During those 36 hours, when there was a ton of victims, did you ever have more victims than you could handle?

Dr. Halpin: The military has something called triage, it’s like a tricycle, there are three things. When the casualties come through the door, you decide which of the three categories this particular casualty belongs to. The three categories are: the guy’s gonna die no matter what, there’s no sense in wasting time on him. The other extreme was somebody with a wound that needs attention but its not life-or-death, it doesn’t need immediate attention. The other category was somebody who needs to be operated on immediately or they’re gonna die. So by triaging people we were always able to handle whatever came through the door. We actually had very, very few deaths; I can only remember one or two deaths. Either when they were found on the battlefield they were dead or they were evacuated so rapidly by helicopter to a hospital that we could fix whatever they would have otherwise died of. I can remember one Lieutenant Colonel who was out in the jungle having dinner in a tent and he fell over, he was eating dinner with a bunch of guys and he fell over. What had happened was VC out in the jungle that aimed through the window, this was a very fancy tent, and shot the guy with a sniper rifle through the window and he was outside the barbed wire. And that guy, he came in we opened up his abdomen, he had gotten shot right through the aorta and when we opened his abdomen he just bled to death quite rapidly. The fact that I can remember him means that we virtually lost nobody and it was because of the rapid evacuation.

Q: We remember you had talked about a story having to do open heart surgery on a dog, can you repeat that for us?

Dr. Halpin: What we were talking about was, in addition to taking care of casualties to our own soldiers, the US Army, US Navy sailors and soldiers we also were engaged in a community outreach program. One of these community outreach programs was run by a fellow who had just finished his neurosurgery training at Albert Einstein in New York and he had an arrangement with a man who was in chairmen of neurosurgery at the University of Saigon medical school where the chair would pick a case every week and our guy would go operate with him. The chair’s total training in neurosurgery had been six months in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in the United States so he was eager to learn from our guys so that was a very effective program. The other program that you referred to which was not effective was that somebody decided that open heart surgery should be introduced to the University of Saigon Medical School so we had a fellow who had just finished his training with a fellow named [Debake] who at that time was the most preeminent cardiac surgeon in the world; Michael [Debake] at Baylor in Houston. So he and the chair of thoracic surgery from the University of Saigon Medical School had been practicing putting a dog on cardio-pulmonary bypass and taking the dog off after opening the chest and opening the heart, so that they could demonstrate to the chairmen of cardiology at the USMS that they could do open heart surgery on a dog and therefore it was time to move into doing open heart surgery on his patients, he controlled all the patients so they couldn’t get the program going until they convinced the chairmen of cardiology that they could do this. So my friend invited me to come for this debut so the two of us went to the medical school and we walked in and they already had the dog asleep and the chairmen of [thorastic] surgery was there but the chairmen of cardiology hadn’t shown up yet but they decided to start and so they had the dog [mesmatized] and they made the incision in the chest and opened the chest and as the chairmen of cardiology walked in they put the dog in pulmonary bypass and everything was going wonderfully and the electric power went off and of course the pump stopped and the dog died and the chairmen of chairmen turned his heel and walked out and that was the end of the open heart surgery program because they hadn’t even thought to get a backup diesel generator for the power, so that program probably wasn’t appropriate for a third world country anyway. That was the end of that.

Q: And also we remember you talking about someone whose hands got blasted off cause they wanted a souvenir of a Vietcong flag?

Dr. Halpin: There was a fellow being interviewed who’d been the skipper of a riverboat, so I said, “Oh we had a skipper of a river boat come into our hospital.” What had happened was that they were on the [Mecon] river they had spotted near the shore a North Vietnamese flag that was on a pole and so all the enlisted guys on the boat said that “That’s a booby trap, we don’t wanna go near it,” but the officer wanted that flag so desperately for a souvenir that he commanded that they bring the boat over and he went out to the bow of the boat and sure enough when he grabbed the flag the booby trap went off and he had multiple broken bones and came into our hospital with lots of injuries so operated on him, patched him all up put him in traction so both of legs were in traction, he could barely move his hands. An official from the Navy came in shortly after he woke up from anesthesia and announced that he was being Court [Marshalled] for his behavior. So not only did he get all these injuries, but he got Court [Marshalled].

Q: So just to go back to the story about the dog surgery, did you find it hard performing all these surgeries in a third world country where they didn’t have the best conditions and tools and stuff?

Dr. Halpin: Yes, actually in our hospital, which was called a third field hospital, I think I mentioned it.We were in the set of buildings that had been the American school for Diplomatic children and all the diplomats children and wives had been evacuated shortly before we arrived because the war was escalating so they had this great campus of buildings so we just converted it into a hospital. So it was kind of rudimentary but we had good support and unlimited supplies of drugs and anesthetics and blood and so forth, so our medical operation was first class, unlike the USMS we had big diesel generators which would kick in when the power went off which happened about every day and it never happened in the [panktonic]. But the lights would blink once and they would come right back on again so the contrast between our hospital and what I found in Saigon was amazing and I assumed the medical facilities in Saigon were probably better than the rest of South Vietnam. But for example in the recovery room after we did the neurosurgical operation they took the patient we had operated on to the recovery room, and as I recall there were four beds in the recovery room and in each bed there were three patients lying crosswise on the bed so they somehow managed to get 12 patients into a four bed ICU. And they had no nurses, they had one nurse who went around the hospital once a day and handed out medications and that was it so if you were a patient you were dependant upon your family to come in with food and to come in with bed clothing and to actually do the nursing duties that we have nurses for in the United States. So it was very impressive that you don’t want to get sick in a third world country.

Q: So did you find yourself mostly treating Americans or did you treat Vietnamese people as well?

Dr. Halpin: No. The hospital’s mission was to take care of wounded soldiers and sailors, but the only exception to that was if there was a Vietnamese who was injured because of something we did, we would take care of them. For example, I remember a boy who came in who had been run over by one of our trucks who I operated on. So there were very few Vietnamese but there were mostly Americans.

Q: When you returned home did you still stay involved with the war or did you just try to forget you had gone there?

Dr. Halpin: Well when I came home I started a four-year residency at Columbia-Presbyterian; I was working 80 hours a week, so my attention was completely absorbed with my training program, I would read an occasional newspaper or read an occasional report, unlike some other people who were there with me I did not actively participate in anti-war activities, although I certainly became an anti-war person because of my experience there.

Q: Did you stay in contact with the surgeons you worked with?

Dr. Halpin: For a brief time, but then I lost contact with them. I think most of us did not make any serious attempt to stay in contact with each other; it was a difficult time.

Q: So did you find your experience in Vietnam gave you an advantage when you got home?

Dr. Halpin: Yes it was an enormous advantage because when I was drafted I had graduated from medical school and I had done a year of internship so when I was released from the army, after spending a year in Fort Benin in Georgia doing obstetrics and gynecology and in Vietnam doing combat surgery I came back and started my residency. It was a competitive residency where eight people started each year and got three years of training and then two people were selected for an additional two years of chief residency, so as a result of my medical experience in the army I came back with a huge advantage over the other 7 people and so I finished the five years of training in four because there was a vacancy and I skipped the third year. So actually when you add it all up by being drafted I really only lost one year out of my life.

Q: Can you make any comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the War in Iraq?

Dr. Halpin: Yeah I think there are frightening similarities between the two and I think we talked earlier about how I went to Vietnam early in 1965 which was early in the war and everybody in the United States was clear on the reason we were in the war was to save South Vietnam from Communism but also because of the domino theory, by preventing the spread of Communism into South Vietnam therefore we would stop it in its track and prevent it from spreading throughout the rest of South East Asia and we pretty quickly discovered when we got there that that was not the issue, the issue was that Vietnam wanted to become unified as a single country, because we refused to help Ho Chi Minh he then turned to the Russians and therefore was labeled as a Communist and the Russians supported him in his mission to unify the country. I think that what we decided as a result of Vietnam was first of all we needed to be less naïve as Americans who were gonna quickly help anyone in distress and really analyze the diplomatic situation before we send military troops there and we’ve forgotten that lesson in Iraq where clearly we did not analyze the situation before we went in. And Iraq, similarly, there are indigenous people who clearly do not want us there its more complicated in Iraq there are three different ethnic groups who hate each other and also hate us. But getting involved in a country where, as it turns out anyway, we clearly don’t belong and probably aren’t going to do any good maybe do a lot of harm. The similarities there are striking and lack of for thought in getting involved in a situation which in retrospect we shouldn’t have been at all.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add? I think we’re at the end of our questions here?

Dr. Halpin: I think that in spite of all my negative comments when you look around the world and try to think of another country you’d like to live in, for me, it’s impossible. I think in the United States of America we’re extraordinarily lucky to have been born and raised here and have the privilege of living here and if called upon by my government to serve them again I would not hesitate.