Paul Thomae

Vietnam veteran Paul Thomae served as a corpsman.

LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff

Paul Thomae was born in Bozeman and grew up south of Livingston. He went to Park County High School.

Thomae: “I didn’t like school very much, and one nice spring day, I thought to myself, ‘I need to get out of here. I am going to go down and see the Marine recruiter.’ So I went down to the office and told them I had an appointment with the Marine recruiter. So I went to the post office, and the Marine recruiter wasn’t there. The Navy guy sticks his head out and says, ‘May I help you?’ and I said, ‘I need to speak the Marine recruiter.’ He said, ‘He won’t be here today. You don’t want to talk to him anyhow. Come and see me.’

“I went and talked to him, and he asked me some questions, and he asked me how old I was. I told him I was 17. He said, ‘You’re going to need your parents’ permission,’ and I said, ‘I can get it.’ But if you’re a Marine, all you’re going to do is carry a rifle and get shot at. In the Navy, we can get you schools and get you some training. He asked me what I liked, and I was a farm boy — something to do with the equipment or building or anything like that.

“So when I was in basic, there’s a day when you have to fill out six or seven choices of what you want to do in the service. I wrote down every Seabee thing I could think of, and I got to the last one, and I couldn’t think of any other Seabee thing, and during the week we had gone through some orientation on different things. There was this one thing about corpsmen and everyone laughed about it. That stuck in my head, and I wrote ‘corpsman’ down.

“A couple of days later, when we went back to find out what we were going to do in the service, the guy says, ‘How come you put corpsmen down?’ I said, ‘Because I didn’t know anymore Seabee choices.’ He explained to me what it was about working in a hospital or being in the field with Marines. He asked me if I thought I could do the job, and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘OK, you’re going to be a corpsman.’”

Thomae went to corps school, learning how to be a medic. After that, he was stationed at Bremerton Naval Hospital. He was in Ward D — the infectious ward. Ninety-five percent of the patients were Vietnam veterans.

Thomae: “So I could see what war was doing to the people’s bodies. Even today, one of the patients that I had, I am still in contact with, thanks to the Internet. ... It’s been a lifelong friendship, with a break in between. He was one of my patients where if he knew I was coming on duty and I had to have a shot, he wanted the corpsman to wait until I got there. Apparently, I gave a good shot.”

During field medical school, an important part of training was learning specifics about Vietnam.

Thomae: “One of the things that stuck in my mind was this corpsman that was training us: It’s very important that the Marines take their training pills. They’re not going to want to take them because if they get malaria, they get to get out of there. It’s your duty to make sure they take malaria pills. That stuck in my mind. He always gave them on Sunday, because you’ll always know what day Sunday is over there.

“So we get to Vietnam. We get assigned to our units, and this day I’m sitting on the pad, and we’re going to get moved from wherever we are to Hill 88. I am sitting next to the corpsman, and I said, ‘What day is it?’ He said, ‘Sunday.’ I said, ‘Oh gosh, we have to give them the malaria pills.’ He said, ‘I don’t give them because they don’t take them.’ I said, ‘We’re supposed to give them to them.’

“So, I started at the end of the line, handing out pills, and the Marines were saying, ‘What are these?’ I said, ‘They’re your malaria pill, and you’re supposed to be taking them every week.’ They said, ‘Doc doesn’t make us take them.’ And I said, ‘You will take them.’ I made them all take their pills. In training, they said: Stand there and physically make sure they take them because they’ll stick them under their tongue and spit them out after you leave. A lot of them took them good; some were hard-nosed about it.

“Shortly after we got to Hill 88, that night, we actually had a Marine come down with malaria. The next day, we had to med-evac them out.

“The first night on the hill — to me it was spooky. We just got there and new in country, and I had been in country 10 or 11 days, and I am sitting there half dozing, sitting with the guy who has malaria. I get chilled. I’m kind of dreaming, I think. I am going to go stand by the stove. I was dreaming that I was home. Where I grew up, we had wood stoves. September always got cool. That’s what it reminded me of, and then I woke up to reality. There I was sitting on a hill. There were fireflies. I remember seeing fireflies. That kind of spooked me because I thought they were cigarettes coming up the hill.

“We ended up having three or four more cases of malaria. Once that happened, the big guys came up, and we had a change. We had to take pills everyday until we got it stopped. I felt guilty even though I wasn’t the one who hadn’t been giving malaria pill.”

When Thomae was a medic, treating infectious diseases, he witnessed first-hand some of war’s effects. Many of the soldiers he treated had wounds that weren’t healing.

Thomae: “Over in Vietnam there’s so much dirt ... the wounds are so easy to get infected. The news media would always say, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. Your son will be med-evac’ed within a half-hour of a hospital,’ which wasn’t the case. There were times when someone would get wounded a day or plus before we could clear a (landing zone) to get them out of there. ... There were shrapnel wounds. There were bullet wounds.”

Gazette: You were stateside, and you’re treating some of the people and seeing the effects of war. Did that scare you?

Thomae: “Not really. I guess when you’re 18, 19 years old, you think it’s going to be the other guy. You don’t think that you’re going to get wounded or you’re going to die. I guess if you did, you’d probably never go.”

Gazette: At the time you enlisted, you knew there was a war going on. Did the prospect of going to a combat zone scare you?

Thomae: “No. Actually, I wanted to go. I felt we were right being there. I actually wanted to go. Most everybody wanted to go. ... Back in those days, they were drafting the Army and the Marines. When I was in Vietnam, I was 19 when I got there. I turned 20 a month later. I was one of the old guys of my platoon. There was a staff sergeant that was older than me. The lieutenant was older than me. I guess there was one corporal that was older than me. Other than that, the rest of them were kids — all of them 18 years old.

“There was this one kid. He came back from patrol, and out there, there were rice paddies everywhere. He came down to me one day, and he had this leech on his leg, and he said, ‘Doc! Doc! Get this off.’ All you do is squirt your mosquito repellent on it and it pops off. ... So when it came out, a little bit of blood ran down his leg, and said, ‘OK, it’s done.’ So he turned around and walked back. He was limping when he walked back. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I hope I am not around when he gets shot.’

“But I was. A month or so later, we were on this operation, and we were sweeping up this hill. He was just to the right of me and in front of me. Boom — he goes down, and he gets shot in the leg. I pulled him back down over the hill so that I could hopefully not get shot and take care of him. He laid there, calm as could be. It was probably shock. He didn’t do what I thought he would do if he ever got shot.

“He was one of the ones that we were able to get med-evac’ed out within a few hours. Mike 3 had one of their men get killed, and we had a gunny sergeant that had twisted his ankle coming up the ridge, so when the med-evacs came and when we finally got to the top of the ridge, and got the Vietnamese pushed back, then they call for a med-evac. Well, when the chopper came, it took fire. The AK-47 has a very distinct sound. ... It’s more of a crack-crack sound. My friends and I were sitting there. I told them, I sure hope I don’t hear that AK-47 again. What they had to do with the chopper is go over down the hill, in the valley. The chopper hovered there. They took up my wounded guy, and they took up the dead man, and they were going to hoist up the gunny. As they were hoisting up the gunny, the cable stuck, he waved at them, ‘Go, go, go.’ We sat on the hill, and we watched him. They were going to Da Nang. We watched him hanging off the bottom of the chopper.”

Gazette: He was literally hanging on for his life.

Thomae: “I guess he wanted out of there pretty bad. There was no way I would have done that.

“Then, the next day, we were going to go up another ridge where the enemy was. We took off early in the morning. As we’re going, I saw this trip wire, and so I told the guy behind me, nobody tripped it off. As we were going up the hill, this Marine in front of me goes down, so I get him, and he’s shot in the leg. When I am taking care of him, I notice the wound came from the back side through, so one of our own guys shot him. So I doctor him up and take care of him, and he was from a different platoon.

“The Viet Cong — I don’t know how many mortar tubes they had — but they just kept on throwing mortar. It was then in that time I got hit with a piece of shrapnel in my leg, but it wasn’t anything that needed anything. I never went to the doc about it. I just took care of myself, but while we were there, we had X amount of wounded. We put them in this crawlspace under this hooch that we had taken from the enemy. We had gotten through their camp and gotten their hooches.

“It was getting toward evening time, and we had our wounded laying all together. Right at dark, our lines got hit again and they called corpsmen out. I’m crawling out of the (area) and forgot my rifle. And this Marine said, ‘Here Doc, take mine.’ Because he had a piece of shrapnel in his head (and couldn’t fight). So I took his. I mean, it’s dark, and you’re running out there and you trying to find who they’re calling a corpsman for. I’m whispering. I don’t want to be yelling, and finally I find him, and I get him and I dragged him back. I drag him back to the hooch so that we can get some light on him and see exactly where he’s hit.

“We get him back in there and take care of him and he got shrapnel in the back. I looked at the rifle that the Marine had gave me, and unbeknownst to me, when he got hit, he fell forward. He drove his rifle barrel into the dirt so that the barrel was plugged with dirt. Luckily, I didn’t shoot it or didn’t have to shoot it.

“The captain was above us, and we could hear him, and he called for artillery that night. My friend and I were sitting there, talking. We figured we were probably going to get overrun in the morning. They called for artillery, and they shot a few rounds over, and then they told the captain that was all. We could hear him say, ‘What do you mean that’s all?’ He says, ‘You’re going to have a company of dead Marines up here if you don’t get us some firepower through the night.’”

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