By: Sam Zeff & Kaite Stover
It's been more than a half century since the start of the Vietnam War. Vietnam changed American politics, changed the US military and most importantly changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
In this special Archiver series, we meet four Kansans who fall into that category. Four people who fought the war, not with claymore mines and grit, but with bandages, medicine, and pure compassion.
Dr. H.C. Palmer was born in Pittsburg, Kansas. He was in his first year of residency at the University of Kansas Medical Center when he was drafted in April 1964.
“Lyndon Johnson drafted 1,500 doctors at once in that month. Interestingly enough, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was five months later in August of 1964. So it appears in retrospect, Johnson was plugging some holes in some of the divisions with battalion surgeons for field hospitals. He wanted to be ready to start the war.”
Ask Palmer about his experiences in Vietnam and he talks about the people--the wounded he tried to save and the ill local villagers he tried to treat, the friends he lost and his comrades who came home.
Palmer spent one year in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division as a battalion surgeon. He was a captain. The rank of most doctors drafted into the military. From the very first Palmer was wary of the people with the power to make decisions about his life.
“I had no idea we were going to go to war. Little did I know that a year after I went into the Army, I'd be going to Vietnam. You'd think with several hundred doctors at Fort Sam Houston, they'd be teaching us to take care of injured soldiers in the battlefield. We never had one class about that. We learned to march. We learned coordinates on maps. We learned to find our way back in the middle of the night when they dumped us off somewhere. We learned to crawl under live fire that appeared to be about two feet off the ground, but it was probably actually 10 or 12 feet. Of course, we could all start IVs, but we did not learn anything about what replacement fluids they had that we could use in the field.”
During a training exercise, Palmer recalls seeing a civilian observing his battalion. “I asked my CO who that was and he asked the general who said, ‘That's Mr. Robert McNamara. So that was a little clue that something was up. “
The seriousness of where Palmer was going started the day he landed in Vietnam. “I remember that morning we were there. We were just waiting to find out where they were going to send us, when a helicopter crashed. We saw the fire and the smoke and it had jet fuel on board in 55 gallon drums. So it was a big fire and there were bodies around, burning. You know, this was self-inflicted. That helicopter wasn't shot down. It just crashed for some reason. That was my first sobering moment.”
This sobering moment wouldn't be the last and it is this memory that leads to other memories. All featuring faces from the war whom Palmer has never forgotten.
“I suppose the worst thing I saw was one of our medics had been shot in the head by a sniper. He was a medic from San Diego and he was a surfer. He loved the Beach Boys. He was always singing Beach Boys songs. He was singing a Beach Boys song when he was killed.”
For Palmer, his personal turning point came on a hotel rooftop with a friend while the two of them sipped wine and watched the war in the distance.
“I remember one night we were sitting in the rooftop garden restaurant at one of the nicest hotels. We were eating seventy-five cent lobster tails and drinking Pouilly-Fuisse wine. We’re on the seventh floor of the hotel. At the time it was the tallest building in Saigon. We could see out over the Saigon River and see the sampans. They're bobbing around. It was night and we could see the war going on out in the delta. We saw flares and tracer bullets.”
“This is the absolute stupidity, the dichotomy of the war. Watching it from a rooftop garden at the hotel, drinking wine and eating some of the best food in the world. We start thinking what the heck is going on here? At that moment we knew for sure we should never have been there [in Vietnam] and that we'd been lied to. That was a turning point for both of us.”
Palmer remembers the faces, but he remembers the sounds, too. There are two songs from the Vietnam War era that can take him back to that time and place and bring back the faces of friends. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Palmer hears the opening strains of “Sound of Silence” and it immediately takes him back to his time in Vietnam. But he doesn’t harbor any ill will towards the song. “I still love the song. It's not a song I don't want to hear. The other one I liked was “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Nobody had pot yet in 1965 in Vietnam. So I might have liked it better if they had pot,” he grins.
H.C. Palmer returned to Kansas City to complete his medical education. He practiced internal and sports medicine for over 45 years. Nearly 20 of those in Kansas City. When he retired, H.C. turned his attention to writing poetry to help him work through the memories and experience he still carried with him from Vietnam. In 2014, H.C. co-founded and organized Kansas City's Veterans Writing Workshop. His debut poetry collection, Feet of the Messenger, was published in fall of 2017 and was a finalist for the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award.
Kaite Stover is the Director of Readers’ Services for the Kansas City Public Library. She is a regular guest on KCUR 89.3’s Central Standard “Bibliofiles” segment and hosts the Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club. Follow her on Twitter @MarianLiberryan and Instagram @KaiteStover.