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Medical Support

 

An important role in South Vietnam for New Zealand was the provision of healthcare and general medical support. The civilian New Zealand Surgical Team had been formed in 1963 and was located in the hospital at Qui Nhon, the capital of Bin Dinh province, about 400 kilometres north of Saigon. From the time it was formed until it was withdrawn in late March 1975, its purpose was to improve the standards of treatment at Qui Nhon hospital by Vietnamese medical staff, and boost the surgical capabilities at the hospital, especially for the treatment of war-related injuries. The Surgical Team was not a part of New Zealand’s military contribution to South Vietnam.

Part of the pressure on Wellington for a military contribution brought by the US Government resulted in a military medical team being sent to South Vietnam. No. 1 New Zealand Services Medical Team was formed in 1967 and was sent to Bin Dinh province. It was based at Bong Son, about 40 kilometres north of Qui Nhon, and worked in the surrounding district. The Services Medical Team was part of New Zealand’s military force in South Vietnam, and included RNZAF doctors and medical personnel. It undertook surgical and general healthcare work, particularly for the treatment of tropical and other diseases that were prevalent in the area. Both the Surgical Team and the Services Medical Team were supported by No. 41 Squadron. A weekly Bristol Freighter resupply flight into Qui Nhon and Bong Son was provided throughout the two team’s time in the country until they were withdrawn.

Despite their largely non-combat role, the Army, Navy and Air Force medical personnel were still at considerable risk in the volatile environment of South Vietnam. On 1 March 1970, tragedy struck. While inside the Roman Catholic church at Tam Quan, north of Bong Son, Sergeant Gordon Watt accidentally triggered an enemy booby trap explosive device and died shortly afterwards from the wounds he received. He was the only member of the RNZAF to lose his life on active operations in South Vietnam, and a building was named in his honour at the New Zealand base in Singapore. The plaque from that building now resides in the Medical Centre at RNZAF Base Ohakea.

Some members of the team did see some combat in the front line. Warrant Officer Ronald McNaughton, an RNZAF member of 1 New Zealand Services Medical Team, was awarded the British Empire Medal for gallantry after his part in a fire-fight with enemy forces on 3 April 1968.

With the situation in South Vietnam deteriorating, No. 1 New Zealand Services Medical Team was withdrawn in December 1971.

Next page: Life in Vietnam