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VIDEO: MASH surgeon, patient, connect after 49 years

Cigarette wrapper kept wounded solider alive
November 11, 2017

Sometimes a soldier at war gets lucky once. But for Cpl. Alvin Burt Grantham, luck was with him twice in a matter of hours.

In February 1968, Grantham was an 18-year-old Marine fighting in Hue, Vietnam. Grantham, who prefers to be called A.B., had been in Vietnam about two-and-a-half months, attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, known as C 1/5. 

A.B. was shot in the chest as he perched in the second-story window of a home while shooting at the enemy with a heavy machine gun.

The bullet entered just to the right of his right nipple, tore through the lower lobe of his right lung and exited his back near his shoulder blade.

This was Hue, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles that took place during the Tet Offensive, a three-week-long surge launched by the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong in January and February 1968.

Timed to coincide with the first day of the Vietnamese New Year, it was a surprise attack on South Vietnamese cities, notably Saigon. Although repulsed after initial successes, the attack shook American confidence and in the end hastened the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam.

A fellow Marine serving with A.B. had the presence of mind to take the cellophane off his pack of cigarettes and stuff it into A.B.’s wound. His first piece of luck.

The Marine put a 2-square-inch piece of gauze over the cellophane and wrapped an elastic bandage around A.B.’s chest, anchoring it around his neck.

Another Marine kicked down a door to be used as a stretcher, and A.B. was carried to an M-48 tank that would transport him and other wounded soldiers to a helicopter landing zone.

There, Grantham looked dead, and he was put into a body bag. But a medic noticed signs of life and, A.B. says, he heard him say, “This one’s not dead yet.”

Lucky strike No. 2.

“I was just laying there with my eyes closed, and my first thought was that he said “yet.” I thought, that guy must be hit bad. I didn’t know he was talking about me,” A.B. recalled in a recent telephone interview from his home in Mobile, Ala.

He was taken out of the body bag, reconnected to a blood transfusion line, put into a helicopter and flown a couple miles to the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital or MASH unit in Phu Bai where Capt. Mayer Katz worked as a surgeon.

Katz, in a recent interview at his Beebe Vascular office, said the cellophane kept A.B. from bleeding to death, saving his life.

Katz said he had been reading the book “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of The American War in Vietnam” by Mark Bowden, in which Grantham is listed as a casualty.

“I kept a record of all the young men that I operated on,” Katz said. He said he remembered Grantham, and he checked his notes to confirm A.B. had not been killed.

Katz said his recordkeeping was not an Army requirement. “I did my residency in surgery at Boston City Hospital, and I kept a record of everybody I operated on my chief residency year. I just had a habit of doing it,” he said.

“I remembered the name Alvin Burt Grantham because it’s just not a regular name,” Katz said.

He said A.B. had a “sucking chest wound.” “It makes a sucking sound every time you take a breath. The key to it is to seal it off,” Katz said.

He said Grantham was bleeding heavily, and he had already inserted one chest tube to drain blood, but had to insert a second tube to drain additional blood. Katz said A.B. was given general anesthesia, and he opened his chest to remove the damaged lung lobe to stop the bleeding.

“We gave him about 10 units of blood, and he perked up,” Katz said. He said MASH units didn’t keep patients – they couldn’t. “We had a continuous stream of wounded patients coming in, anywhere from 10 to 50 a day. There were six operating rooms,” Katz said.

He said after A.B. remained stable about three days, he was flown to the Repose, a hospital ship about 18 miles offshore.

After about three days aboard the Repose, he was flown to Da Nang, and from there to the 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan.

“He continued to run high fevers, and it turned out he had malaria, typhoid fever and amebiasis,” Katz said – three diseases caused by parasites. 

A.B. said he doesn’t know who stuffed the cellophane into his wound. “I was in a lot of pain, and there were two or three of them working on me. I didn’t know any of them,” he said.

“We were pretty jumbled up that morning. I was with some guys who weren’t in my platoon. The way things unfolded, my entire machine gun team got wounded by a rocket round that came through a hole in the wall. I was the only one in that room that didn’t get hit with shrapnel,”  he said.

The wounded soldiers got out the back of the house, and A.B. went back inside to get the machine gun. “They were calling for the machine gun a few doors down, and when I got down there, I didn’t recognize anyone.

“There was enemy everywhere, what we call a target-rich environment. There wasn’t time to see who was who, and you just get busy and start doing your job,” he said.   

Remembering

A couple months ago, A.B. and Katz spoke for more than an hour on the phone. “He told me some things I didn’t know, and I told him some things he didn’t know,” A.B. said.

He said he remembers the helicopter landing at the MASH unit and being wheeled on a gurney into a big metal building.

“I just saw rows and rows of those big, round, operating room lights hanging from the ceiling. There were a lot of people in there, and there was a lot of noise and chaos,” he said.

He was transferred from the gurney to a table, and all of his clothing was stripped off. Katz said that was done so they wouldn’t miss any holes in the patient.

“A nurse gave me a shot in my buttock. My right arm was over my head, and the doctor started cutting my chest open. I remember that because it hurt like hell. It was very painful.

“Dr. Katz, when I talked to him, said ‘You wouldn’t remember that because you were already sedated.’ I said, Oh no, Doc, I remember because it hurt like hell.”

He said the next thing he remembers was being in a small room where men were on beds lined up foot-to-foot with a narrow aisle separating them.

“I remember a guy who was in a bed at my feet, screaming and hollering and raising hell. I guess that woke me up, and I looked at him, and he was screaming because he didn’t have any legs,” A.B. said. 

He said it wasn’t until years after his discharge from the Marine Corps that he learned he had been on the hospital ship Repose. 

In Yokohama, A.B. wanted to get back to Alabama. He knew as long as he was running a high fever they wouldn’t fly him out.

“When the nurses handed out thermometers I’d put it in my mouth, take it out when it got to normal and put it on the bed. When they came back and collected them, everything was fine, and I was able to get on a flight to Pensacola, Florida,” he said.

Results of a blood test he had just before leaving Vietnam caught up with him, revealing he had typhoid fever, and arriving in Florida, he was placed in quarantine for two weeks – no visitors allowed.

After quarantine he was allowed to travel 60 miles to Mobile on weekends.

Since he had been shot, he lost 47 pounds, and the smallest pants sold on base were size 28 – too big.

After release from the hospital in Pensacola, he was stationed in Quantico, Va., where he worked in the base adjutant’s office. While home in Mobile for Christmas, he suffered a liver abscess which sent him back to the hospital in Pensacola for four months.

Working at a MASH unit

Katz said he had just turned 30 when he arrived in Vietnam. “I’m five-nine, and I weighed 229 pounds. I was roly-poly. When I came back I weighed 150 pounds,” he said.

He said he lost weight because much of the time it was 120 degrees and he was working nonstop.

“You don’t eat breakfast because you’ve just finished working. You don’t eat lunch because it’s too hot, and you don’t eat dinner because you’re operating. So, what does that lead to? Weight loss,” he said, laughing.  

“For the first month or so I realized that I didn’t know everything about surgery and some other stuff, like the first time you get rocketed,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Katz said of the 375 men he worked on, there were only eight deaths. “You’ve gotta remember these kids are 18 years old and in the best shape possible. Although they had malaria, typhoid fever and amebiasis, they were as tough as nails,” he said.

Katz said Vietnam is 13,000 miles from the United States.

“The amazing thing, to me, was that the military was able to put hospitals there that were as good as anything in the states. That’s why we were able to get results like that. The teams were incredible,” he said. About the process of determining patient priority, triage, Katz called it absolutely essential. 

“It occurs at the MASH level. A surgeon does it, because they’re the only one who knows whether something needs to be done right away.” 

Katz said some of the surgical procedures before A.B.’s were complicated and lengthy. He points to his notes about a patient with “an abdominal gunshot wound with injury to the left lobe of liver, through-and-through stomach, took out the left kidney, colostomy and splenectomy with good results.” 

“He lived and was flown out to the hospital ship,” he said. 

Asked if his Vietnam experience made him a better surgeon, Katz said, “Definitely. When I came out of there I felt like I could do anything. Now the nurses in the operating room call me if somebody gets into trouble because they know I’m not going to get upset or panic, because I’ve seen it all.”

Finding A.B.

Katz said he tried to find Grantham several times using Google but hadn’t been successful. He said he told his daughter, Pamela Jensen, who he was looking for, and she found him on Facebook in 30 minutes. She works for Princeton University. 

Katz said for three or four years, A.B. had been looking for him. A.B. said he plans to come to Delaware this spring to visit Katz, 80, who said he’ll retire in the spring. A.B. has been married 33 years to Dianna, and the couple have six children and 11 grandchildren.  

A.B.’s oldest son, Joshua Grantham, 36, became a Marine, served two tours in Iraq, and is now an attorney in Phoenix, Ariz.

Semper fi.