Ernest Ayo, DP, CRNA

  • Apr 15, 2017

Rank during Vietnam War tour: 2LT, 1LT, Captain
Served: December 1966 to 1968, Camp Kue Army Hospital, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands

 

I completed ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) because everyone I knew was being drafted and it seemed prudent to do. All personnel slated for medical service received basic training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The assignments for our class were based alphabetically. Everybody whose last name started with B on down, went to Vietnam. The “Lucky A’s” went elsewhere in the world.

I completed training at Ft. Sam Houston at the end of November 1966. I was given 30 days leave to get things in order. I left home just before Christmas and drove to Ft. Ord, Calif. Spent the night in a barracks and was flown out on a contract airliner next day. They shipped this second lieutenant's car to Okinawa! What a war. We had a one-hour layover in Hawaii at night. I drank a pineapple-rum drink and had my shoes shined, then went on to Kadena AFB, Okinawa. I was met by my escort Officer, Capt. Mason from Brooklyn.

For every solider on the ground there are nine support troops. The U.S. military travels with a full load. So for the majority of us, it wasn't like the movies. It was more like marking time, trying to keep busy, dealing with boredom, until we could get on with our lives, while some were overworked under the daily stress of trying to stay alive to get home. They referred to us as REMFs, which we accepted. But they knew they were up the creek without our support, which they accepted.

Reporting for duty, I was told, “We have five slots open. Pick one.” I chose the one with the air-conditioned office, secretary and sergeant. Being chief of services involved maintenance of all medical equipment, buildings and grounds, and custodial service—including the 30 or so buildings under the hospital. There are lots of job descriptions, but it mostly comes down to working with others to get the job done.

Okinawa
My first impression of Okinawa? The colors were so vivid! Blues, bluer than blue, and greens, eye popping. Still, it was a third world country. We were relatively safe compared to Vietnam, although B-52s flew on bombing runs to Vietnam and SR-71s flew spy missions over China (who were backing the Viet Cong). We did have nuclear bombs and ground-to-air missiles, although officially denied, even now. I had to carry a Geiger counter when I inspected ammo dumps. We used to watch the SR-71s take off at Kadena AFB headed toward China. Nike-Hercules missiles were on the out islands to protect Kadena AFB. I saw them when I inspected our dispensary there.

I felt bad about being just another occupation Army in a long line of occupation Armies (mostly China and Japan) on Okinawa over the centuries. The locals catered to us for jobs and money, but we were never really welcomed.

We made surgery instruments out of stainless tableware for the neurosurgeon. Ordinarily, the neuro instruments were special order items from a Swiss firm and were on a year and a half back order, so we made them. We had a machinist who could fabricate anything faster than ordering it stateside, which was 3 weeks out. We repaired and maintained everything.

JCAHO was formed the second year I was there, so I was told by the commanding officer (CO) that his hospital would pass. “No sweat, Colonel,” as their standards filled only about 12 pages at that time.

We had many more incidental soldier and civilian dependent patients than combat patients. Combatants were treated and returned to duty in a couple of weeks. Severely wounded patients bypassed us and went straight to the states. You could tell who the combat patients were if someone dropped a chair in the cafeteria. The Vietnam patients were under the tables in a flash. One infantry lieutenant caught a ricochet in the nose that lodged in his upper neck. Said he remembered his sergeant yell, “Get your damn head down, lieutenant.” As he only lost 10 percent of the hearing in that ear, he was back on duty in 10 days. Bummer, but he did luck out by getting a guy in plastic surgery to fix his nose when he got to a MASH unit in Vietnam. By contrast, I was awarded a “plastic” purple heart by the nurses for getting chicken pox. A dubious honor, and a humorous break.

You must understand. The words “camp” or “fort” didn't really fit Okinawa then and were holdovers from WWII. It was the Japanese army's last stand in WWII. There was total devastation. Not a brick-on-brick standing. Rather than surrender, Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped off Suicide Cliff on the southern end of the island. Because of Okinawa’s strategic position (“Keystone of the Pacific”), it was totally rebuilt. The bottom third is densely populated and covered with military installations of all branches of the service. So towns and villages were all around us. It was a bit like neighborhoods in a large city. My 30 buildings included the hospital, living quarters, warehouses and dispensaries at the Marine bases and off islands. It took me a year to inspect them all. The hospital was six stories, so the staff numbered in the hundreds, including locals.

We rarely saw the Japanese, who looked down on the local Okinawans as inferior. Most of the locals spoke English and Japanese, although I had two local supervisors, Jody and Mike, who acted as go-betweens and translators to the local workers. They also passed workers’ concerns and requests up to me. We all picked up local phrases as a courtesy to the people there. Many of these phrases entered the English language when we returned, as well as many of their foods. Words such as skoshi (little), tomodachi (friend), dozo (please), domo (thank you), and foods like Kikkoman soy sauce, sushi, Ramen noodles, etc. We ate with chopsticks as easily as with tableware.

We were very far from Vietnam. Although soldiers were killed in auto accidents, suicides, bar fights, etc., we never received hostile fire. Some of our Air Force pilots were lost on combat runs. We never had any Viet Cong patients. A buddy I used to play racquetball with was shot in the back of the head by a psych patient when he refused to give him a pass. It obviously was the right call, but cost him his life. No telling how many others might have been killed, if Lt. Frank, the one who was shot, had let him go to town.

We kept wounded Republic of Korea (ROK) troops overnight on their way back to Taiwan. Glad they were fighting for us—toughest, most disciplined troops I ever saw. They came by bus from Kadena AFB late at night. Their wounded carried the non-ambulatory wounded in. We fed them the hottest chili and rice we could make, as they could not stomach our regular food. Think "Kim-Chi." Then we put them in a ward with some of our guys. I went by to get them at 0500. Their wounded, non-commissioned officer (NCO) stood watch at attention at the ward door all night. He snapped a salute, opened the door, and snapped his fingers twice. The ROK soldiers rose and carried their buddies out to the bus. Our guys didn't even know they were there!

We loved the children, all so cute and innocent. It also helped with local relations to treat them kindly. I purchased many local toys and tools as mementos. We enjoyed most of the local festivals.

Recreation and Food
Since I was from Louisiana and chief of services, one of the hats I wore was “typhoon officer,” which meant being on duty while everyone else was off, getting smashed at typhoon parties. Lord, doctors and nurses could party! They needed to more than the rest of us since they worked harder. We used to frequent Pachinko parlors. Pachinko was sort of an Asian slot machine, like a vertical pinball machine played with ball bearings. Cheap fun. There were softball and bowling leagues, judo, karate and pistol teams, camera clubs, gyms, sailing, flying and clubs with bands for dancing. The Army liked to keep us busy and away from local bars and strip joints. Fat chance!

Food-wise, I was in hog heaven! The locals had rice, which we eat with every meal in Louisiana. Not so great for the other guys, but the Army had plenty of potatoes. I loved eating new foods on the economy. Always had a huge breakfast, two trays/35 cents! Never ate lunch, played racquetball or sailed. Usually ate out or cooked for supper. There were four of us to a hooch, so we'd take turns. We had a local maid who came with the bachelor-officer quarters (BOQ). $40/month. She also repaired our uniforms.

Army food was plentiful, but incredibly colorless and bland. Eggs shipped frozen were all white, even the yokes; milk was tasteless, thin, white and cold. There were lots of bananas and local fruit, but no apples or oranges. We used to try and date the stewardesses from contract planes so we could get any leftover fruit and real milk from the flight. They thought we wined and dined them for their bodies. Ha! Well, that didn't hurt and was a bonus. After returning home two years later, it took me three months before I could eat comfortably with my family. Cajuns eat spicy!

Fresh blood was donated by local troops. Blood from the states was too old and had to be spun down for plasma. The American Legion Club gave a steak dinner and drink to all who donated. Many of us took advantage of R & R to visit Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and other Asian countries. I met John Wayne and Cardinal Spellman, who were visiting troops.

There was a three-day delay in getting news from the U.S. Letters from home were rare and shared, especially cookies. There are so many other people, places, and adventures; this could grow into a book as memories keep coming back.

Back in "The World"
Returned home via Fort Ord, Calif. People in Las Vegas and San Antonio were friendly, California not so much. My dad picked me up at the Lafayette airport for a terrifying drive home at 70 mph. Nothing moved over 35 mph on the island, and the trees at home were so beautiful. There was mostly scrub on Okinawa.

I was still on active duty for two days after I got back. I put on my Class A’s and walked to the cemetery to visit a classmate. On the way back, people asked why I was still wearing my uniform. How do you explain respect and how I couldn't imagine not wearing it that day at his grave? Next day I just stayed in bed.

I heard about abusive incidents, but I didn't encounter any. We didn't get many dates and people shied away from us, because short hair in that era of long hair, labeled us as soldiers. Guess it wasn't a very popular war. I didn't put my uniform back on until 1993 to march in our town’s Veterans Day parade. Every branch of the service was represented and we were actually cheered. It meant a lot and brought some closure. I didn’t have any problems adjusting really. I missed running with my tomodachies there, but we all understood it was not the real world. Those who forgot that were hurt by making bad decisions. I just picked up where I left off and that was that. There were many of us who had to adjust to being young men NOT in charge anymore, as we were in the Army. We had become used to having our orders followed with a “Yes Sir, right away, Sir.” Imagine being a nursing student after that!

I used the GI bill to attend nursing and anesthesia school. Capt. William Kirk, Vietnam vet, was program director at SW Missouri CRNA school. Bill helped a lot of us vets get in, especially the guys who served in the crouch, like he did. We were no trouble. We knew how to serve and what we needed to do to get the job done. If it wasn't for the Army, I’d probably have spent my life in my little town. I was a pharmacist before the Army. Never thought I'd be a nurse, but that's another story. I guess because both of my parents were pharmacists, I never thought of anything else. The experience of growing up in a drug store made nursing courses easy.

There were a lot of veterans in college, we kind of hung together because we were older and didn't have to answer any questions about our service. Younger students looked up to us for help. We didn't party much. Most of us were on the Dean's list academically. We were goal oriented and wanted to get on with our lives. We didn't need more time to grow up.

I estimate that in two years of active duty I accomplished a good two or three months of civilian type work. Really, we were over staffed. That's what I meant about being bored. Of course we were paid $222/month and spent it all. Liquor was 50 cents to a couple of bucks a fifth, and food about the same. This is why I wrote not of the heroics, of which there were many, but of what most of us experienced: the mundane, everyday life of being a small part of the big green machine. Yes, each little part makes the big green run, and believe me the Army has a reason for each part.

Best memory? That would be of the many lifelong friends I made there. We did pass some fun and hilarious encounters doing things the Army way, but those would be a small book of anecdotes. I went in with a sense of duty, honor and paying dues for living in America. Came out disillusioned about what the hell were we doing there, considering the wounded and killed. What do we have to show today for that effort? However, it definitely expanded my horizons, erased the racism I grew up with. Taught me a lot about how the world works and about bureaucracy. It showed me many options and lifestyles I had no idea about, living in a small town. I feel fortunate to have returned home while some of my friends and classmates didn't, but not guilty about it. A lot of it is just by chance or luck.

My career as a CRNA has been one of great satisfaction and service all over the world.

See Ernest Ayo's Photos of Okinawa

Voices of Vietnam Table of Contents