Written by Bill Hughes – with introduction by Doug Moore
BILL HUGHES: An Original Flight Medic – by Doug Moore
In the pre-historic era of 1964, the 57th had an 18-year-old medic by the name of Sp4 Bill Hughes. Bill was a tough kid from Jersey who learned to love the Army for its order and discipline, but more importantly, because he was recognized for his talents. He was a natural artist and became the unit sign painter, patch designer, and gopher. He had a good gift of gab and could scrounge anything on the planet. In addition, Bill had brass gonads and was a highly skilled medic. He simply did not acknowledge danger and quickly jumped from the helicopter in the middle of a firefight to get the wounded organized and loaded. He could stop blood flowing from a major wound or start an IV at 2 o’clock in the morning during a driving rainstorm using only the red light in the back of the helicopter.
One day, he was taking some paperwork to MACV headquarters in downtown Saigon and was nearing the American Embassy when a massive car bomb blew the front off the building. Bill rushed to the site and began triaging patients who were lying all over the street and coming out of the building. He was later given a medal and recognized by the State Department for his efforts. When Bill’s year in Vietnam ended, he asked to extend for a couple of months to finish up his enlistment. Then he asked to reenlist for another year, but our commander, Howard Huntsman, said, “No way! You’re going home.” Bill and I left about the same time in 1965, but he went home to New Jersey and reenlisted, so he was back in the same unit in less than 45 days.
About four months later, he was flying with my replacement when they took several hits. An exploding RPG blew his M-16 from his hands, as they were taking off with a load of wounded. Shortly thereafter, a round came up through the floor of the helicopter and ruptured his femoral artery. After initial surgery in Saigon, he was loaded aboard an Air Force flight going to Japan, where he was supposed to undergo additional surgery. While the plane was being loaded, the comedienne, Martha Raye, boarded, and as she walked past Bill’s litter, she stopped to talk. Bill reminded her that she had flown on his helicopter on two different occasions during her earlier trips to Vietnam. As they talked, Martha asked if she could do anything for him. Bill responded by saying, “Well, they are shipping me to Japan, but I would rather go to the States because I know my wounds are such that I’ll never get back to Vietnam.” Somehow, Martha Raye made that happen. Bill landed at Yokota, but only long enough to be put onto another flight for the States.
Because of the severity of his wounds, he was medically discharged and used his G.I. Bill to earn a B.S. and a Master’s in art before becoming a high school and, later, a junior college teacher in Florida. Bill is in tough shape now. He is wheelchair-bound now, but still presses on. One of my fondest memories of Bill is a humorous story he wrote and gave me permission to release for others to read. I am sure many of you have stories about how young troops try to get over on their officers and NCOs, but this has to be one of the best.
When I arrived in Vietnam, I was as wet behind the ears as anyone could be. I did not know much about this man’s Army, but I noticed something was wrong when I reported to the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), better known by its call sign, “Dustoff.” I did not know much about insignia and all of that, but after going through basic and then medical training at Fort Sam Houston, I did know what the MSC officer’s insignia looked like, and after reporting, I noticed that all the officers wore the caduceus of the Medical Service Corps—that is, except for one. His name was 1LT Garfield Shexnader. The officers called him Chuck. Of course, I referred to him as “Sir.”
Chuck was the type of individual who seemed to enjoy life. He was always joking and had an air of confidence that would be hard to match, let alone exceed. I will give him this much—he was one hell of a good pilot. On his collar were the crossed rifles of an Infantry Officer. I recall him telling all the other officers “this is how we do this and that in the Infantry.” His assignment at the 57th was as aircraft maintenance officer. I don’t know how he got misplaced, but all in all, I think he enjoyed his assignment.
Now, those of you who thought you knew me really didn’t. At our recent reunion, I got into my philosophy of the Army with Si Simmons, Doug Moore, and Bob Mock. They are aware of the fact that I looked at my duty in Vietnam with pride. I was sent to Nam to perform a duty. That duty was as a medic. In short, I was to patch up the sick and wounded and, on occasion, to actually save a life. I took that part of my duty very seriously. As for the rest of it, well, let’s just say it took 1SG Allen the better part of a year to figure out why I was never in the area when he wanted to assign someone one of his shit details. Whenever one of them came up, Hughes was always downtown on an errand for one or more of the officers. When 1SG Allen left country, he told Sp4 Eaton, “You know, everyone thinks Hughes is dumb! Hell, he’s one of the smartest people I’ve met. I’ve never seen anyone who can get out of work the way he does.”
Okay, this brings us back to 1LT Shexnader and his monkey. It seems as though Chuck went into Saigon one night and really tied one on. The next morning, he arrived at the Operations Shack looking like warmed over death. I believe he made a statement to the effect that he would never drink again for the remainder of his life. Anyway, he seemed anxious to talk with Sp5 Clarence Wall. Those of you who remember Clarence Wall know he could find anything and was pretty handy with a hammer and saw. Out of curiosity, I watched 1LT Shexnader draw a diagram of something for Clarence. Within two days, Clarence Wall had constructed a beautiful cage. Those of you who didn’t serve in the old brown boot Army (that’s the 57th in early to mid-’64) will not know this fact, but the area between the maintenance and supply shacks was vacant back then. There wasn’t anything there (no building as was the case later on). That is where Clarence constructed that beautiful cage. It was approximately 5 feet wide and about 8 feet in length and about 6 feet tall. It was a work of art. I still don’t know where Clarence got the materials, but like I said, he could come up with just about anything you wanted.
Before the construction was done, everyone knew what the cage was for. It seems on that infamous night of drinking, 1LT Shexnader bought himself a monkey. I thought the little thing was real cute! But that was about to change. . . . Just before Clarence finished the cage, 1LT Shexnader called me over to his desk. His exact words were, “Hughes, it’s going to be your responsibility to take care of my monkey. That duty will include feeding him and cleaning his cage!” I thought about it for a moment and then told him I didn’t recall anything in my job description saying anything about taking care of primates. At that point, he grabbed my sleeve and at the same time, he grabbed his collar, showing me his 1LT bar. As a PVT E-2, I had nothing on my sleeve, so his point was well understood.
For the next few days, I performed my duties as “Monkey Keeper” as instructed, and each day I hated that monkey more than the day before. It kept me up nights trying to figure out how I could get out of that F’ing assignment. Then, it came to me. . . . From that day on, when the enlisted men arrived at the flight line for the First Sergeant’s morning formation, I would walk through the Operations Shack. Back then, there was an open space in the rear, just across from the Commander’s office. In that space was a table with a coffee pot, and right by the back door there was a water cooler. It was simple! Just before opening the back door, I would get a cup of water, and when I passed the monkey’s cage, I’d let him have it right in the face. At most, it took the monkey only a day or two to realize that when he saw me coming, he was going to get a bath.
After a few days of this, the monkey wouldn’t let me get anywhere within eyesight of him. Then I went to 1LT Shexnader and told him I really loved his monkey, but he wouldn’t let me get anywhere near him. I still recall Lieutenant Shexnader’s exact words, “Hughes, you’re not getting out it that easily!” I suggested we go out back so he could see for himself that I was telling the truth. When we went out of the building, I let 1LT Shexnader go first. That way, I would be coming through the door all by myself. When I opened the door and the monkey saw me coming, he went “ape” (excuse the pun). 1LT Shexnader simply couldn’t figure it out. He said something to the effect that the monkey was normally so friendly, calm, etc. I suggested to him that it might be my shaving lotion or something. . . .
I don’t remember who Lieutenant Shexnader strapped with the “Monkey Keeper” duties from then on. I think it might have been Clarence Wall, but I’m not sure.
About three or four days after I was relieved of my monkey duties, CPT Bloomquist told me to grab my gear. He said there was a maintenance flight going up and you may recall that MAJ Kelley demanded that all flights go up with a full crew in the event a mission came in, even maintenance test flights. I went out to the flight line to help prepare the helicopter, and in a short while, 1LT Shexnader and the other pilot pulled up in a jeep. I was surprised to see we had an additional passenger. On Shexnader’s shoulder was the monke,y wearing a collar and short leash. 1LT Shexnader cranked the ship and we took off. He took the ship through the normal paces for a maintenance test flight, and everything checked out all right. Afterwards, he took the ship from about 500 feet to nearly 6,000 feet and leveled off. We flew that course for a few minutes and everything seemed fine. Then, all of a sudden, we hit an air pocket! We dropped down to about 1000 feet in a matter of a few microseconds. (In 20 months of flying, I never got used to air pockets. Every time it happened, I thought my stomach was going to come out of my mouth.)
When I finally regained my composure, I turned around to look up front at the pilots. Actually, I turned around because I heard a lot of commotion going on up there and it sounded like cussing to me. When I saw what had happened, I damned near died! The monkey was hanging from the overhead of the ship, and not only was he screaming, he was emptying his bowels and throwing up at the same time and all over 1LT Shexnader. I swear they must have heard me laughing all the way back to Tan Son Nhut Airbase. Needless to say, the flight was cut short. When we landed back at the pad, 1LT Shexnader bolted out of the ship and immediately got in my face. He said, “Hughes, you think that was funny?” I couldn’t resist. My reply was, “Well, no sir, but I do think it was poetic justice!”
1LT Shexnader didn’t see the humor of it all, so as he went storming back to the jeep, he shouted out, “Hughes, clean the f’ing ship!” To be truthful, I didn’t mind cleaning it at all. As a matter of fact, I laughed the entire time I was removing monkey feces, vomit, etc., from all over the inside of the cockpit. Next day, when the enlisted men reported to the flight line for formation, I walked through the back door of the Operations Shack and noticed the monkey was gone. I never had the nerve to ask 1LT Shexnader what happened to him. I’d like to think he set him free.
I loved that monkey!