I’d always thought the number seven was a lucky digit. I found out just how wrong I was—over two decades ago. The year was 1968, and the North Vietnamese had just opened Tet: an all-out assault on the American military. I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember the experience, and I also remember Lieutenant Deborah Baldwin. Debbie was an Air Force nurse from Riverside, Calif. And like myself, she had been in country about two months. Our initial assignments were the same: Nakon-Phonam Air Base, Thailand, her arriving a week later.
I was attached to the 336th Candlestick Squadron, and two days earlier had completed my sixth night mission along the Ho-Chi-Minh trail in the belly of a C-123 light cargo plane. Six missions and we hadn’t taken a single round of ground fire. I was starting to think, this job is a walk in the park. I was a flare-kicker; which meant that I ejected Mark 185 parachute suspended flares from the aircraft using a pneumatic dispenser. The flares would light up the night, making the area an easy target for the attack planes that rolled in behind us. This was done when we got reports that the VC was bringing supplies down the HCM trail, which was actually a series of trails.
Debbie was attached to the small hospital that was really more like a dispensary or MASH unit. We’d met shortly after she had arrived, due to my having cut my hand on consantina wire, then to the dispensary for a tetanus shot.
I went to the reception counter where a Med-tech pulled my records, then on back to the examination room. Debbie met me with a warm smile and a pleasant voice. “Come on in and hop up on the exam table, Sergeant Heyworth. I don’t have to ask about your problem, I can see the blood. How’d it happen?”
I told her about the wire, and soon the names, Sergeant Heyworth and Lieutenant Baldwin, became Bob and Debbie. I watched as she cleaned and bandaged the cut with deft, professional care, and wondered how she came to be here. “ Debbie, I don’t mean to get personal, but its obvious you’re educated, well trained, and intelligent, not to mention, very attractive. . .” I hesitated, wondering if I had overstepped my bounds. “What I mean to say is, you could be back in the States, in a clean, safe environment, making three times the money. I can only assume the reason is patriotism.”
She, as if to make a point, slowly switched her gaze from the bandage, to making direct eye contact as she softly said, “I’m here only for the people,” then added with a devilish grin, “Say, you’re not hitting on me, are you?”
Embarrassed, I stammered, “No, no I’m not . . . well maybe. Anyway, the thing about the people, what does that mean?”
Suddenly serious, she said, “It means that I’m not convinced our government should have us in Viet Nam.”
“You’re not a man. They couldn’t draft you, so if you believe that why are you here?”
She smiled and said, “And if I weren’t here, who would wrap your hand, you big baby?”
I mentally squirmed a little as I realized she’d driven her point home. “Okay, okay. I get the picture. There are others that need your services more than I. And thanks, it feels a lot better.” Putting on my hat and heading for the door, I added, “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
“Not professionally, I hope. Take care.”
I saw Debbie occasionally after that until she got orders to leave NKP. It seemed the Air Force needed her at Da-Nang Air Base. She was supposed to wait for a C-130 Medivac bird to pick her up and fly to Da-Nang, around the South China Sea route, which was a bit more safe. Unfortunately, she’d heard about the Chu-Noy massacre, and was convinced she was urgently needed. Not wanting to wait, she came to see me.
I was on the flight line, loading flares on my C-123, when I heard her voice behind me. Delighted, I turned. “Debbie! What’s up?”
“Bob, I need a ride. I’ve cleared it through your commander. He don’t like the idea, but said it’d be okay if I could get your okay. I know that when you guys complete a flare run, you go on to Da-Nang Air Base, to gas-up before coming back.”
“He’s right. It’s a bad idea.”
Standing as tall as her five-feet would allow, she casually tossed her short blond hair back with a little grin, and replied, “Don’t argue, Sergeant. Just pitch my bag on-board.”
* * *
We were just completing a run at three hundred feet and climbing, when the VC let go with triple A light cannon and small arms fire. An instant later I heard Captain Bugliosi’s panicked voice come through my headset.
“Heyworth, get up here and check Robinson. I think he took one through the chest or neck. There’s so much blood I can’t tell.”
I rushed forward and pushed my way into the cockpit. Lieutenant Robinson our co-pilot was a mess, and unconscious. Grabbing him under the arms, I struggled to get him to the rear of the plane for a better look; thinking it was a good thing we had a nurse on-board. As I was laying him out straight, I heard Deb scream and looked around the smoke-filled airplane for her. I took a few steps to the rear and was shocked and sickened at what I saw. She was white as sheet, and her thigh was saturated with blood. I was no doctor, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that she had a cut artery.
With a worried look she said, “Bob . . . I was coming forward to help with Robinson, when part of the airplane tore open and all of a sudden I was covered with blood. I was so shocked I froze. I don’t know for how long and then I just started screaming. I think I’m over the shock. How’s he doing?” Trailing blood, she hurried over to Robinson and started an examination. Not looking up, she yelled, “Bob, get the first aid kit, anything else medical, and a small object like a tube or pen. If I don’t do a tracheotomy, he’ll die.”
With a feeling of extreme apprehension, I said, “Debbie, if we don’t get a tourniquet on that leg, you’ll die.”
“Okay, okay. Get a belt or something around my leg above the wound and make it tight. Just don’t get in my way. This man is critical.”
“Deb, I can’t work on you properly if you’re moving around – will you please stop. We have to check the blood flow now. Do----“
Tears flowing, she screamed, “Bob! Damn it, I’ll be okay, but this talking is taking time we don’t have. Now just shut up and get to it!”
Moving quickly I stepped to the bulkhead and ripped the first aid kit from the wall then reached down and scooped a cargo strap from the floor. I handed the kit to Debbie then kneeled next to her and slipped the strap around her leg and pulled it tight. Almost immediately my hand and the strap became saturated with blood. Fearing the worst, I tightened the belt and the bleeding seemed to subside.
She glanced at me with panic filled eyes and nervously said, “There’s no tube in the kit. Bob, I told you to get me a pen or something.”
I stood and quickly worked my way to the cockpit although the smoke was making it hard to breathe. As I stepped through the door into the cockpit area I saw that the Captain was having a hard time controlling the plane. He had opened the side windows to clear out some of the smoke, which in turn had created a loud wind noise. I shouted above the din to get his attention. “Capt’n I need your pen, the one you write the logs with.”
He glanced at me with a red sweaty face full of bulging veins. His tense expression made him almost unrecognizable. Laboring with the controls he replied. “What? Why. . . a pen?”
“The nurse needs it Capt’n, to do a tracheotomy on Robinson.”
“It’s on the floor . . . attached to the clipboard. Listen, Heyworth I’ve had to shut down the port engine and trim the hell out of the plane to keep it straight and I can only climb to about a thousand feet but I think we can make it to Binh Hoa. It’s our closest runway. Tell Lieutenant Baldwin not to worry.”
“ Gotta go Capt’n. Debbie needs help.” I reached down, grabbed the pen, and hurried back to Debbie.
I watched as she worked to save Robbie’s life while all the time her own ebbed away. Finally I heard him gasp and begin taking in short bubbly breaths.
She leaned back, and passed out.
I checked her pulse and was instantly gripped with fear because I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to make it. As I sat there holding her head close to my chest, it occurred to me that in the previous twenty minutes she had demonstrated more about how to be a human being than I could ever in a lifetime learn on my own.
Deborah Baldwin had been for real back at the hospital when she’d said she was here for the people. She had put her life on the line, and paid the ultimate price.
Looking in retrospect to my days in South-East Asia I’ve pondered the reasons as to why we were there. It may have been as simple as someone telling us to go. Possibly we felt it was just a job. For whatever reason, it’s a sad commentary that for me it’s so unclear. In contrast, I’m sure that Lt. Deborah Baldwin knew exactly why she was there.
Debbie was many things. Most notably a nurse, an Air Force officer, a beautiful young woman, and a person who shed more light and warmth on the people she touched in her short twenty-six years than anyone I’ve ever known. Finally, I have to add one last item to the list. Deborah Baldwin was also a thief . . .she stole my heart, and I’ll never forget her.