Monday, June 6, 2016

When Grinnell reached out to Vietnam...

As I've written before, I am often the beneficiary of topics suggested to me by friends. Today's post reports on an endeavor I'd never heard about, but which my good friends Dorrie Lalonde and Monique Shore put me onto. The subject is how the town of Grinnell in 1964 got together to raise money to purchase linens, washers and dryers for a hospital in what was then South Vietnam. It's a good story, one we should remember and celebrate.

It may be hard to associate the word "celebrate" with Vietnam, even all these years after that rather grim chapter in American history was written. Rereading the news of the 1960s now, I am reminded that the early public narrative of American interest in Vietnam had a more optimistic and benevolent tone than it came to have as the war dragged on and casualties multiplied. The story of Grinnell's reaching out to Vietnam, however, belongs to that youthful phase of American involvement, and even fifty years later speaks loudly of some of America's—and Grinnell's—most generous values.
Des Moines Airport, August 23, 1964 (Photo courtesy of Drake Community Library)
The story begins with an article in Look magazine in January, 1964: "Steady Hand in Vietnam's Hell Ward." Like most titles in Look, the article was brief—just three pages—and was heavy on photographs. All the same, it made for compelling reading, telling the story of a young doctor—33-year-old Robert Norton—who, after a Phi Beta Kappa graduation from Grinnell College, and after having completed Harvard Medical School and a surgical residency at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, had opted to work in an under-equipped and under-staffed hospital in Can Tho, South Vietnam, deep in the Mekong Delta where the war frequently erupted. "I didn't go into medicine to stay in one part of the world and make money while people on the other side [of the world] bleed to death," the magazine quoted the doctor as having memorably said.
Dr. Robert Norton with patient at Can Tho Hospital (Look January 28, 1964, p. 29)
In mid-February, the Sunday Des Moines Register (like Look, part of the Cowles publishing empire) returned to the story, adding a bit more text but using many of the same photographs. Retitled "An Iowa Doctor in Viet Nam," the Register article began with the same inspirational quotation that Look had featured, but contributed detail about the circumstances that confronted Norton and another American surgeon with whom he worked, Dr. Robert Edwards. Almost all the patients at Can Tho were Vietnamese civilians whose war-related injuries accounted for eighty percent of the hospital's intake. In addition to wounds incurred during the fighting, Norton observed, "We see a lot of typhoid fever with holes in the bowel and peritonitis; diphtheria needing tracheotomies, appendicitis where the appendix has been perforated for days, trapped hernias, wombs torn during delivery...and far advanced cancer." Nearly all these patients lay on beds without sheets: "In our 30-bed post-operative ward," said Norton as reported in the Register, "we patient to a bed with sheets. [However,] in our other wards we have two or three patients to a wooden bed with a straw mat [and no sheets]."

These published stories had a powerful and immediate impact upon Grinnell, where Robert Norton had gone to school and grown up. The son of Grinnell College professor, Dr. Homer Norton, and his wife, Margaret, young Robert was born in Grinnell in 1930, shortly after his parents, both Canadians, had moved to town. Young Robert grew up in the family homes, first at 1210 Fifth Avenue, then at 823 East Street where his parents were still living at the time of the media attention. He attended local schools, and graduated from Grinnell High School in 1948. His yearbook photograph shows a smiling, confident young man who, the adjacent biographical crib reported, had been president of both the Latin and Spanish clubs, and also president of the Freshman Science club.
Robert Norton, 1948 Grinnellian
Norton's next stop was Grinnell College, where he focused study upon chemistry and zoology in anticipation of his later vocation. Unsurprisingly, he did very well, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, thereby foreshadowing admission to Harvard Medical School immediately after his 1952 graduation. After successfully completing medical school, Norton settled into a four-year surgical residency at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, living nearby at 1016 1/2 Pleasant Street. He chose to join the Public Health Service, from whom he received in 1962 the invitation to work in South Vietnam. He and and his family set off for Can Tho, ten years after having graduated from Grinnell College.

In other words, Robert Norton was well-known in Grinnell, so it is easy to understand how townsfolk took notice when a national publication like Look magazine touted the doctor's dedication and high-mindedness. Immediately after the feature appeared in the February 16 issue of the Des Moines Register's Picture magazine, the Grinnell Herald-Register published an editorial that focused upon Norton's work and the needs at his hospital. Noting that Vietnam was situated on the far side of the globe, the paper affirmed that "Grinnellians feel a great pride in knowing that one of their number is serving there in the face of tremendous odds, and serving well." The editorial went on to encourage Grinnell service clubs to organize "a drive for funds to ship supplies to Dr. Norton in Vietnam...and [thereby] deal a blow against death and disease, and for the brotherhood of man."
Editorial in Grinnell Herald-Register February 17, 1964
Evidently the Grinnell Jaycees had anticipated this sentiment, because in a letter dated February 13—three days before the Des Moines Register feature and four days before the Herald-Register editorial—Jim Cunningham, president of the Jaycees, wrote Dr. Norton to solicit details about the supplies his hospital would need, indicating that the Jaycees had already decided that this was an effort that they wanted to undertake, intimidating though it might be.
Jim Cunningham (center) at Des Moines International Airport (Grinnell Herald-Register August 24, 1964, p. 6)
Eleven days later Norton was already typing a three-page reply that described both the general operation of the hospital in Can Tho and the specific requirements that the Jaycees might fund. Norton reported that he and his fellow American doctor had between 250 and 300 patients in hospital, and that they assisted with as many as 30 maternity deliveries a day; their Vietnamese colleagues had another 150-250 patients, and almost none of these 500 or so patients had linens of any sort. Sheets were available only for surgery and post-op; the male and female civilian wards had no linens at all, with between two to five patients per cot. The hospital had piped cold water only in the operating room and in the maternity ward, although they hoped soon to arrange for hot water. Electricity was usually available, so both washing machines and dryers—especially dryers because of the six-month rainy season—were desperately needed.
Grinnell Herald-Register March 30, 1964, p. 1
Before the town turned its calendars to March, the Jaycees had agreed with the Grinnell Ministerial Association to co-sponsor a fund drive in support of Dr. Norton's hospital. A March 30 article in the Grinnell Herald-Register announced that the drive was fully organized; the cash goal was set at $7500, having already been begun with a modest collection ($131.54) from the recently-observed Grinnell Good Friday services. Church youth planned an "Operation Vietnam Workday" for April 11, with a car wash downtown and other youth volunteering to perform odd jobs—yard work, window washing, etc.—all proceeds going to the fund. Grinnell College also joined in the effort: students collected donations at campus lunch lines in early May after an article describing the project appeared in the Scarlet and Black. 
Headline of article in Scarlet and Black May 1, 1964
A May 7 article in the Herald-Register announced that the fund had grown to more than $1000, a significant accomplishment but far short of the announced target—$7500. It was surprising, therefore, to hear that organizers expected to complete fundraising by May 15—just a week away.

Nothing more was said about the fund as summer arrived, but behind the scenes the Jaycees and friends were busy purchasing the needed linens and arranging to acquire the laundry facilities. As they reported in a late-August letter to Dr. Norton, they had purchased and packaged 720 sheets, 288 pillow cases, 300 hospital gowns, 204 towels and 192 wash cloths. More importantly, the Maytag Corporation of nearby Newton had generously contributed six washing machines and four dryers suitable to the hospital's circumstances; manuals, tools, and spare parts were added. This vital donation was not reported publicly, but seems to have made up the bulk of the fund's total cash value.

Meantime, with the assistance of the Air Force, a C-97 cargo plane of the Oklahoma National Guard was directed to the Des Moines Airport on August 22 to collect the donations, which were loaded in the view of some fifty Jaycees, ministers, and other interested Grinnellians. The plane and crew then flew the cargo to Japan; from there the donations were later shipped to Vietnam by regular Air Force transport.
Packing the donated items inside the C-97 at Des Moines Airport (Courtesy Drake Community Library)

Grinnellians watch the loading of cargo destined for Vietnam (Grinnell Herald-Register August 24, 1964)
Jim Cunningham and his group of Jaycees as well as the various clergymen were obviously very pleased at how quickly they had succeeded in collecting and sending off items that were so obviously needed at the hospital in Vietnam. Unlike the increasingly aggressive military options being pursued in Vietnam, the provision of linens and washing machines to a hospital seemed altogether altruistic and humanitarian, sidestepping the more political discussions about communism. The Sunday issue of the Des Moines Register (August 23) quoted Grinnell mayor, Floyd Beaver, to that effect: "This demonstrates man's interest in helping his fellow man," said Beaver. Jim Cunningham also appeared in Sunday's Register, confirming Beaver's sentiment: "We felt [that Dr. Norton] was getting along with so little when we have so much." The Grinnell fund drive aimed to try to even the scales ever so slightly, without worrying about the political persuasion of the patients who might benefit from the gifts. The Des Moines newspaper concluded by observing that "Grinnell is proud of its accomplishment. So is Iowa."
Wheeling a patient from the operating room at Can Tho Hospital (Saigon Daily News January 11, 1964)
The next day's Grinnell Herald-Register joined in the song. In a front-page story, the paper remarked that "a remote Asian land with which most Americans are acquainted only through the headlines seems just a bit closer to Grinnellians this week. For the hand of brotherhood, which seems to clasp the strongest during times of suffering and deprivation, now reaches out to close the gap of thousands of miles between Grinnell, Iowa and Can Tho, South Vietnam." Similar language attended a later report in the Des Moines Register (October 18, 1964): "Grinnell citizens—and all Iowa—in a way were telling Dr. Norton, 'Well done. Keep up the good work.'"
Later that year Norton was back in Iowa, visiting family and speaking about his work in Vietnam. At a meeting before the Polk County Medical Society in mid-December, Norton outlined the rough conditions under which he and others were working, and showed slides to illustrate the kinds of surgeries he performed. The next month he was in Grinnell for Dr. Robert Norton Day, providing an occasion for Norton to meet some of those who had organized the hospital donations. At meetings like these, Norton offered support for American military involvement in Vietnam, sometimes echoing the language of "domino theory" and other justifications for the war. More immediately, the surgeon confirmed that he and his family—his wife, the three children born to them and the two Vietnamese children they had adopted—would return to Vietnam the following March.
Grinnell Herald-Register January 4, 1965, p. 1
The war, however, was heating up. At almost the same time that Grinnell was packaging sheets for South Vietnam (August, 1964), the U.S. Congress had approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the President to exercise conventional military forces in Vietnam. One consequence of the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) that opened in March, 1965. The following month the number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam rose to more than 60,000, and the pace of conflict rose accordingly; North Vietnamese troops now openly coordinated attacks in South Vietnam with the Viet Cong.

I wondered what had happened at Can Tho and how Dr. Norton had reacted to these developments. Did he and his family return as scheduled? And if they did, how long were they able to stay? Had conditions at the hospital gotten worse, despite the arrival of linens and washing machines? Had he or members of his family perhaps suffered wounds themselves?

These days Dr. Norton is enjoying a well-deserved retirement in Port Angeles, Washington, where he lives with his wife, just down the street from their daughter, a nurse. When I reached Norton by telephone, he kindly entertained my questions, but particulars of that long-ago experience proved difficult to call to mind.  Consequently, I am still not sure how his surgical experience in Vietnam played out as the war heated up.

However, I did learn that, even before the family's scheduled return to Vietnam, the U.S. State Department had ruled that American dependents would not be allowed back in South Vietnam, presumably because of the deteriorating situation. The Grinnell Herald-Register, in reporting this news (February 11, 1965), acknowledged that Norton himself had another year left on his contract, and would therefore soon return to Can Tho. However, the newspaper continued, with the family destined to survive apart, Norton planned to renegotiate his contract, perhaps shortening his stay in Can Tho to three or six months.
Grinnell Herald-Register February 11, 1965
How all this worked out, Dr. Norton did not tell me. But what is clear is that, once he left Vietnam, Norton chose to continue his surgical career not at some high-priced, private American practice, but rather at what is today called the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, part of the Indian Health Service. In opting to serve native Americans, Robert Norton reasserted the ideals that had taken him to Vietnam in the first place and that had garnered so much attention back in 1964. Today, therefore, fifty-two years after the fact, we can once again celebrate the selflessness that encouraged a very talented Grinnellian to do good rather than to do well, and the town that embraced and shared in this noble effort from afar.

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