Jan 20

‘Bobbi’

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 12:37 PM

By

In August 1963, Lieutenant Commander Vila Hovis received orders to Saigon, Vietnam. The orders were not a surprise because she was the first Navy nurse to volunteer for service in that far-off corner of the world. Her orders directed her current command to “ENSURE THAT SHE IS ORIENTED IN CODE OF CONDUCT . . . AND DANGERS OF COMMUNISM.”

It was apparent that Commander Hovis was headed for a war zone, though not for the first time, since she had been a flight nurse in Korea more than a decade before. But these were the early days in a new war, and this sailor was going to be one of an advance force that would eventually swell to half a million U.S. military personnel.

Soon after her arrival, “Bobbi” (as she much prefers to be called) and the other medical personnel were tasked with setting up a new naval hospital. An exciting prospect for an experienced Navy nurse, but it would prove to be much more of challenge than she could have imagined. Because time was crucial and the South Vietnamese government preferred that the Americans keep a low profile, it was decided to use an old apartment building in downtown Saigon rather than build a whole new hospital from the ground up. Wading into filth and squalor, the Americans labored in the draining heat and humidity to convert the building into a hospital in a mere four days. Nine days later, they treated their first combat casualty, a Green Beret sergeant who had been shot in an ambush—a harbinger to say the least.

Bobbi Hovis served as a Navy nurse in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Bobbi Hovis served as a Navy nurse in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Less than a month later, Bobbi’s world descended into chaos. Coils of barbed wire blocked the streets and gun emplacements commanded urban fields of fire just outside the hospital. As Commander Hovis watched from the fifth floor, three aircraft dove on the Presidential Palace a few blocks away. Bullets flew in all directions, and Bobbi watched helplessly as one entered the rear window of a car, passed through the driver, and blew out the windshield in front. She saw national police madly tearing off their uniforms, throwing them down, and disappearing into the chaotic maze of Saigon’s streets.

As she watched from her high vantage point, Commander Hovis nearly became one of the tragic characters in the drama below as a .30 caliber bullet struck the balcony wall, missing her by inches. For many hours thereafter, she and the other nurses wondered if they would live or die in the midst of the frenzied fighting in which friend and foe were indistinguishable. Fascinated, frightened, and bewildered, they watched and listened as tanks rolled down the streets and artillery shells exploded in a deafening cacophony.

When at last the fighting stopped, the Americans learned that there had been a military coup and that President Ngo Dinh Diem had been deposed and ultimately assassinated. People poured into the streets to celebrate the beginning of a new era, not realizing that what had occurred was merely one of a string of dramatic events that would lead to a tragic end more than a decade later.

Commander Hovis remained at the hospital for another year, treating thousands of patients before returning to the United States. In her seabag was a journal that she would eventually turn into a very readable memoir, STATION HOSPITAL SAIGON, . . . and a .30 caliber bullet that nearly hit her.