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My War


My War – Navy Dentist Jon E. Schiff USA Ret CALMOAA Member Story
By Jon E. Schiff, DDS 2/1/2009

"On Feb. 4, 1968, with incoming exploding all around, I was the 'Doc' who used an ink pen tube to open the airway of a badly wounded Marine." (Courtesy Jon Schiff)

Jon E. Schiff, DDS Colonel Navy Dentist, Cam Lo Hill December 1967-December 1968
It was early December 1967 when I arrived in Vietnam and was sent to Phu Bai to join the 3rd Marine Division. I was a dental officer, a lieutenant, not a grunt like so many of the fine young men I would meet in this strange place. I spent my first night in Phu Bai in a muddy-floored tent next to a 155mm artillery battery that was firing outgoing rounds all night long in a constant rain. I had volunteered for Vietnam to get away from a failed marriage. That first night I began to wonder, “What have I done to my life?”

I reported the next morning to the dental commanding officer, a colonel. I had already been in the Navy for three years and now, at the ripe age of 26, was considered an old, experienced dentist, as most of my contemporaries were right out of school. The colonel said he needed someone with experience to go to a place called Cam Lo Hill. Marine field commanders there had men who were unable to go on patrol or sit a night listening post because they had become “dental casualties.” The commanders wanted a Navy dentist near the field Marines to treat them and relieve their pain so that they could return to the fighting.

Units rotated in and out of Cam Lo, including the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines; the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines; the 3rd Tank Battalion and various 81mm mortar crews and artillery units firing 8-inch guns and other artillery pieces from the hill.

My assistant and driver was Dental Technician 3rd Class Larry Kent, from Pennsylvania. We took a jeep one day each week from Cam Lo to Con Thien to treat the Marines there. The ground commander at Con Thien didn’t allow any Marine on his hill without a helmet and flak jacket. I would line up the Marines with dental problems in a bunker, usually the battalion aid station, and then inject Xylocaine from the front of the line to the end. After everyone was numb, I would go back to the beginning of the line and start removing abscessed teeth and treating infections. We used a box of portable instruments, throwaway gauze and a flashlight or lantern.

At Cam Lo Hill, I was given an old trailer filled with empty sandbags and converted it into both my clinic and hooch for the next five months. I outfitted it with an air compressor, put a 55-gallon drum of water on the roof, hooked up a faucet my father had sent and soon had running water. There were no other buildings at Cam Lo, only bunkers. These places, including Con Thien, were taking a lot of artillery and mortar rounds, so everyone lived below ground in some type of bunker. My trailer, however, was above ground, and I noticed it took on more and more shrapnel holes. One night while reading by candlelight, I got up when the rounds started, ran out and jumped into a slit trench. When I got back, I found a jagged hole through the back of my lawn chair. After that, I imposed on the 11th Engineers to dig a revetment into which they rolled my clinic/hooch.

One night, in early January, the whole sky lit up with parachute flares, tracers (red and green—ours and theirs) and lots of firing in Cam Lo village near the base of our hill. I sat on top of my hooch thinking it was quite a show. All of a sudden, I heard what I thought were wasps or bees buzzing past my ears. Just as quickly, one of these wasps turned green as it flew by my head. Any farm boy from southern Indiana knows that wasps and bees don’t swarm at night. These were tracers, and I realized I’d better get off the top of my hooch and into a slit trench.  See photo below:

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California Council of MOAA

California Council of MOAA
California Council of MOAA
California Council of MOAA