Week of April 21

Week of April 21

On April 18, 1962, the U.S. Army 8th Field Hospital became operational. Attached to the hospital was the 57th Medical Detachment, the first helicopter ambulance unit in Vietnam. The 8th Field Hospital and the 57th Medical Detachment were based at Nha Trang, on South Vietnam’s south-central coast. The Nha Trang hospital remained the primary treatment facility for all U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam until 1963, when the Navy established its own facility in Sài Gòn.

The 57th Medical Detachment and its commander, Major Charles Kelly, chose the call sign “Dust Off” for their helicopter ambulance and rescue missions. Their first rescue mission occurred on May 12, 1962. Major Kelly was killed in action in 1964, but the nickname for medevacs stuck, and the “Dust Off” along with images of UH-1 “Huey” helicopters painted with the large red and white cross became iconic features of the Vietnam War.

Advances in helicopter technology transformed the way the United States waged war in Vietnam. Newer helicopters developed after the early 1950s and the Korean War ushered in a new era, featuring airmobile warfare, helicopter gunships, rapid artillery emplacement, combat search and rescue, and aircraft and vehicle recovery, to name but a few innovations. But arguably, the most important advance was the use of helicopters to quickly evacuate wounded men from the battlefield. As a result of Dust Offs, many casualties were able to reach a medical facility within minutes of being wounded, saving many lives that might have been lost in previous wars. Between 1962 and 1973, the crews of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force helicopters transported over 900,000 casualties to medical facilities, often at great peril and in the face of enemy fire.

Helicopters also changed other aspects of medical treatment in a war zone. The 8th Field Hospital was stationary at Nha Trang, as were the vast majority of major medical facilities in Vietnam. Unlike in the Korean War and World War II, medical aid stations did not often need to be mobile. Instead, after patients were stabilized on the battlefield by medics and corpsmen, helicopters could transport wounded men and women to nurses and doctors more efficiently than if hospitals themselves had needed to be moved. In a war with no front lines and very few set-piece battles, this development proved crucial. Wounded personnel had a statistically higher chance of survival during the war in Vietnam than in any previous U.S. war thanks to Dust Offs and to advancements in care such as better access to blood, plasma, antibiotics, oxygen, and the emergence of surgical vascular repair. At the height of the war, in 1968, the Department of Defense had 19 hospital units with over 5,200 beds in South Vietnam, with additional hospitals in Okinawa, Japan, and Thailand where some patients were taken via aeromedical evacuation aircraft.1

1Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), see especially 332–34; Peter Dorland and James Nanney, Dust Off: Army Aeromedical Evacuation in Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2008). See also O’Neill Barrett, U.S. Medicine in Vietnam: The Early Years (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General and Center of Military History, 1982), 22, http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/vietnam/genmedvn/default.html (accessed 3/25/14); Spencer C. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 320.