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Rochester nurse remembers being 'ready for the worst' during tour in Vietnam

Mary Price signed up to serve after graduating from Saint Marys School of Nursing in 1966.

Mary Price Portraits
Mary Price in her home at the Mayo Clinic Retirement Living building on Thursday, May 19, 2022. Price served as member of the Army Nurse Corps as a Second Lieutenant near Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Never, during her time as a nurse in Vietnam, did Mary Price want to go home.

Not right after arriving at Tan Son Nhut air base near Saigon, even though she and all the others on board a Continental airliner were hurried off quickly with incoming mortar attacks. Not when caring for horribly wounded patients six days a week in 12-hour shifts.

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Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.
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Today, Price remains resolute about her decision to serve after graduating from Saint Marys School of Nursing. In much the same way, she is adamant about respect and appreciation for the soldiers and medical personnel who went to Vietnam – not the least of whom are the nurses.

Remembering has always been a part of Price’s life here. There have been conversations over the years with family and occasionally other nurses from her class and elsewhere who were in Vietnam. For the most part though, her experiences have remained tucked away with a sense of pride, all the while adding context to her life first as a nurse back home, then as a wife and mother of four and in Rochester.

By talking at length about her experiences just in advance of Memorial Day this year, Price said, she hopes to foster greater acknowledgment of the nurses as well as the others who served in Vietnam.

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Although numbers vary, estimates are that as many as 10,000 nurses volunteered to serve in Vietnam. A few died when a helicopter or transport plane went down. Most widely agreed is that nurses who served in Vietnam are among the least recognized of military veterans.

A journey begins

For Price, the journey to Tan Son Nhut began when army recruiter visited her nursing class sophomore year and asked for early commitments. She recalls the recruiter was a Sergeant Mahoney.

“I imagine he won an award for getting so many of us to join the service,” Price said.

After graduating and passing her state boards in the spring of 1966, she was formally inducted as a U.S. Army second lieutenant. For basic training, Price traveled to Fort Sam Houston in Texas while others in her class went elsewhere.

“We learned all about disaster and nursing in army and field hospitals,” she said. “We learned about Vietnam, how to shoot, how to camp in a tent and, most of all, how to march.”

Price said one sergeant delighted in asking and answering questions such as, “How many of you want to go home?” His reply, “You are home.”

Next, Price went to Womack Army Hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina where she worked in the camp infirmary before receiving orders to depart for Vietnam. She was granted a month of vacation which made for time at home with family in Iowa where she was born and grew up with three siblings.

Bound for Vietnam

In August of 1967, Price was sent to California and boarded the Continental airliner that took her on the 15-hour flight to Tan Son Nhut. On board with her were five other nurses and many more soldiers.

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“As we took off,” she said, “the soldiers became quiet. I remember feeling so badly for them because I’m sure many were wondering if they would return.”

Immediately after settling in, Price said, she and other new nurses were shown a map and given their choice of a hospital. “Of course,” she said, “most of us were clueless about the locations. I picked the 36th Evacuation Hospital on an airbase in Vung Tau, on the coast and not far from Saigon. I had made a good choice.”

Aside from the seafront location, Price said, she her presence was needed and valued.

“The medical officers stayed at a former hotel called the Villa du Bois. Before every shift, we would board a transport truck, sit on benches in the back and ride the few miles to the hospital,” Price said.

Mary Price Portraits
Photos from an album of Mary Price during her time in Vietnam as a nurse seen in her home on Tuesday, May 19, 2022.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin

The hospital was made up of Quonset huts and laid out with each ward parallel to the next. The mess hall was in the middle and the pharmacy, medical supply and labs were on the side.

“We only had orthopedic and general surgeons with general doctors. I was assigned to the ICU ward, which was next to the surgical area,” she said.

The Tet Offensive

Any sense of security ended when the Tet Offensive began in January 1968, Prince said, referring to the massive North Vietnamese attack on over 100 South Vietnamese cities and villages.

“The night it started near us, we could hear mortars close by and in the distance. The male medical officers took turns keeping guard on floors of the villa," she said. “When we reported to work the next morning, the ICU was full as was the whole hospital."

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In addition to injured American soldiers, there were Vietnamese patients, many of whom had suffered severe burns in the attack.

“Our hospital switched from eight to 12 hour shifts with one day off a week,” Price continued. “The injuries we were seeing were very bad. Many of our soldiers lost limbs, from one to all four. We also had South Vietnamese patients and an occasional Viet Cong patient.

“I quickly learned to start IVs,” Price said, explaining that at the time this was a procedure for doctors. “And we would wrap blood pressure cuffs around units of blood to squeeze the blood out faster.”

Price attributes her ability to treat the wounded under pressure to her preparation at Saint Marys. “I cared for critical patients there,” she said, “and so I was ready for the worst.”

The school’s motto “Enter to Learn and Go Forth to Serve” certainly applied, she said.

The price paid

Before her tour ended, Price also cared for patients at another hospital. Among her last was an American soldier who had been hit in a mortar attack.

“It blew up his face and much of his body. He just wanted to die. And I don’t know what happened to him because it was time for me to leave.

“The soldiers were so young,” Price continued. “Most of the patients I cared for were 18 or 19 years old. It was very sad. The draft was in effect and the soldiers gave up life and limbs. They did what they were called to do for the country.”

As Price returned to the United States in early summer 1968, the county was mourning the loss of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated earlier that year. The country was also being jolted by antiwar demonstrations.

“We wondered what was happening,” Price said.

Before the end of 1968, Price was back in Rochester working as a nurse at Saint Marys. The next spring she and Jerry Price were married. That, with their four children, was the beginning of, as she describes it, “a very active, busy and happy life.”

On a trip to Vietnam, the Price’s visited both the North and the South. They have visited the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its statues of two nurses and a wounded soldier. Price has also attended a few Vietnam nurses’ reunions.

As she looks back, Price said, her silence about Vietnam did not come from a fear of antiwar sentiment. Never did it come from wanting to forget. It was more that there were few people around who had the experience of Vietnam, she said. And, most of all, it was enough to be proud of what she gave and what she gained – strength, compassion, humility and an appreciation for peace.

That seems to be why Price never wanted to leave Vietnam when it became home for a time.

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