American Ending to a French Tragedy
by Walter “Bud” Stuhldreher
In the September, 2008 issue of the VFW magazine Richard K. Kolb told an interesting tale of the aftermath of France’s failed eight-year war in In dochina, how badly the survivors were treated by the French populace. But the article failed to mention it ended with its wounded being returned in an American hospital ship. Here is the story as excerpted from a longer story in Sour M.A.S.H. At Sea – Second Wave published in 2004.
In August, 1954 the USS Haven (AH-12) was sitting off Inchon, Korea, as required by the Geneva Convention in a war zone. After serving four tours in Korea, away from the States 49 of the past 57 months, the 700 bed hospital ship was preparing to return to San Francisco. The ship was worn out; its officers, doctors and enlisted men were also more than ready to return home. Not to be. Its Captain, Captain John P. Clark, USNR, was surprised to receive a radiogram directing it to proceed to Yokosuka, Japan, to off-load any wounded and load supplies in preparation for a long trip which would start in Saigon, French Indochina.
The ship had handled over 18,000 inpatients and over 35,000 outpatients during its four tours in Korea, both enemy and Allied Forces, mostly American. 54% of the wounded were patched up and returned to the front lines. (The nurses always said this was their toughest duty.) It was justifiably proud of its low death rate, ˝ of 1%. The news was a blow to the crew who had left Long Beach, California, on January 4, 1954, eight long months earlier, so not going home now was bad news.
Recently the Communist Vietnamese had decisively defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, in western Tonkin. The 55 day siege of this fortress cost the French 16,000 casualties, the Vietnamese lost about 20,000. This defeat ended the rule of France, and the entire French army was withdrawn. The US State Department, after many argumentative discussions, was sending the Haven to pick up over 700 French Legionnaires who had been wounded in this last battle.
On September 1, 1954, the Haven left Pier 2, Yokosuka Naval Station, and started a week-long passage to Saigon, Viet Nam’s “Paris of the East,” where it would begin its 35,000 nautical miles long trip home, sailing through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean, returning to Long Beach. An immensely grueling trip in those long ago days, before GPS, Loran or any other navigation aid. With outdated charts – some missing – the navigator, my friend Lt(jg) Richard Ruehlin, USNR, faced an almost impossible task.
The reservist doctors and regular officers, like me, due to be transferred to other ships, had been released from the ship. Thus the Haven was left with a reduced medical complement. The 56 doctors had been reduced to nine. Not a single dispatch had been received from the French regarding the medical condition of the Legionnaires, just that over 700 needed transport back home. Based on the assumption that the wounded would have been operated on, most of the surgeons had been released. On board were 24 ship’s company officers, 9 doctors, 28 nurses, three dentists, one female pharmacist officer and 424 enlisted men, including a couple hundred corpsmen.
Arriving on September 8, the ship had a five-hour trip up the Riviere de Saigon prior to docking. The Haven was greeted by a military band and several hundred soldiers standing at attention. But no wounded! It turned out to be the first of many French screw-ups and tomorrow was the best they could do regarding loading the wounded. So, at 0200 the crew was awakened, had breakfast and was ready to accept what turned out to be 721 patients at 0600. As far as the eye could see, French ambulances of varying sizes stretched out in an orderly row along the broad, tree-lined boulevard.
The ambulatory patients were assisted aboard and the first words spoken were “Ou est la head?” The rest were either carried up the ship’s ladders or were winched up in litters. Red tape reared its ugly head, requiring many documents to be signed, slowing up the process. Four French officers also came aboard for the trip: a paymaster, chaplain and two doctors to assist the crew, interpreting when necessary, otherwise handling administrative duties.
The wounded were a disparate bunch: 420 enlisted Foreign Legionnaires plus 300 regular French Army, French Navy and Legionnaire officers. Among the enlisted Legionnaires were two Americans. As the ship left the dock the next day the French military band played the French National Anthem. As the soldiers on the pier held their salutes, they were probably wishing they were going home in the air-conditioned comfort of the Haven, so generously loaned by the US Government. You would think this sentiment would be shared by the grateful 721 French wounded, so recently mired in heat , isolation, harsh conditions and defeat . But, as you shall see, they didn’t, indeed, made the difficult trip a bitter one for the crew with their incessant bitching. French to the core, I guess.
The plan was to transport the wounded enlisted Legionnaires to Oran, Algeria, then proceed to Marseilles, France, to off-load the wounded Legionnaires officers. (Enlisted Legionnaires weren’t allowed in France then.)The regular French Army and Navy wounded would also be off-loaded in Marseilles.