Sometimes during hellacious battles, heroes ride in on white horses. Sometimes quiet, unassuming heroes ride into the hell storm of battle in a Navy ambulance, combating tenacious enemy sappers while saving American and indigenous soldiers’ lives.
At midnight on Aug. 22, 1968, hospital Corpsman Third Class Henry Valentino (Val) Santo ended a 12-hour shift at NSA Naval Hospital, Da Nang, across Highway 1, east of MAAG 16.
At that time, NSA Naval Hospital, Da Nang was the largest casualty facility in Vietnam, and according to Santo, possibly the world. By the end of 1968, more than 13,500 casualties would be brought to the facility and treated during the peak year of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, with the highest number of personnel in-country at 543,000. As a Navy corpsman, Santo’s assignment in Receiving 1 was to give life-saving medical treatment, prepare patients for surgical intervention, and provide evacuation and triage in the field.
Exhausted, Santo and a fellow corpsman grabbed cold beers and casually walked over to a bunker on the eastern perimeter that faced east toward the South China Sea.
“I forget the exact time, but it was a beautiful night until the shit hit the fan south of us,” Santo told SOFREP in a recent interview. “We were used to MAAG 16 getting mortared and rocketed every night, but this was different. We knew there was a Green Beret compound down by Marble Mountain, but that’s about all we knew. I had been in there once or twice. I knew they had the songs “Spooky” and “Brown-Eyed Girl” in the club’s jukebox. That’s about it.”
The eruption of violence at FOB 4 was sudden and violent. Santo and his drinking partner quickly scrambled off of the bunker because tracers, both green (from enemy weapons) and red (from U.S. troops), were flying over their bunker. Suddenly, a box ambulance pulled up and the driver yelled to Santo, “Val, they need you.”
Santo had just turned 20 on Valentine’s Day in 1968. He dashed over to the armory, picked up an M-16, two bandoliers of ammunition, a vest, and a helmet, in addition to a pistol that he carried in a shoulder holster.
When the driver pulled up to the FOB 4 gate on the northwestern corner of the compound, “We were told we couldn’t come in,” Santo said. “My driver said, ‘We’re medics. We’re here on orders. Open up.’”
They drove straight to the dispensary, but no one was there. The medics on duty were out searching for casualties, so they headed toward the motor pool. Within a minute, Santo and the driver were pinned down in a firefight with NVA sappers who fired at the ambulance. “I slammed a magazine in my M-16. The enemy at that location was suppressed and eliminated through a combined effort of several SF (Special Forces) men. The fact of the matter is, I was no hero. I was just there to help save lives and not lose mine in the process.”
They continued over to the motor pool, where Santo and the stretcher bearer were separated. The stretcher bearer went with two Green Berets in the Navy ambulance while Santo jumped on the back of an Army Jeep that was rigged to carry stretchers. There were two Green Berets up front and two heavily-armed indigenous troops riding on its hood.
Ride Into Hell
Without hesitation, the Green Beret driver turned toward the unsecured part of FOB 4 looking for casualties. They came under enemy fire. They eliminated the enemy, jumped back on the Jeep, and found wounded American and indigenous troops who needed medical attention.
“We found guys wounded,” Santo said. “We patched them up best we could and took them back to the dispensary, which now had casualties flooding in while the SF medics triaged the worst ones.”
During the initial part of the early morning, Santo remembers jumping into what appeared to be a slit trench after coming under enemy fire again.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “One guy was wearing his Green Beret and a T-shirt and the other guy had on a white cowboy hat. One of them said, ‘Hey, look at what just dropped in.’ Then they went back to firing an M-60 machine gun. They never missed a beat.”
Because that early morning’s events were so traumatic, with endless life-threatening scenarios unfolding instantly while tending to as many wounded as possible, Santo said most of the early hours of Aug. 23, 1968 were a blur, and remain as such to this day. “We didn’t have time to reflect on what we did day to day,” he said. “We just did it.”
Looking back, a few instances stand out vividly from the devastating attack. At one point during the darkness of early morning, Santo was treating a wounded Green Beret sergeant who had suffered a gunshot wound to the top of his shoulder.
Santo was standing behind the bare-chested sergeant when a tremendous explosion ripped through the darkness. The enemy had blown up an LPG tank that provided propane to the entire compound.
“It was more than 100 yards away, but the heat from it gave the sergeant first- and second-degree burns across his chest and any skin that was facing in that direction,” he said.
Santo’s face “looked like [he] had an instant sun tan in the morning” while his mustache, eye brows and some hair were singed. “What was truly remarkable about that soldier was all he wanted was from me was to patch him up so he could return to the fight. He was still pissed that the enemy had attacked his camp.”
Sometime during the night he came across two wounded Green Berets carrying one of their fellow SF men on a makeshift litter. “Both men had been wounded, both qualified to be medically evacuated, but both refused to leave. They loaded their wounded comrade onto the Jeep and left to continue the search for more wounded comrades.”
In another case, Santo said, “I remember helping two other wounded Green Berets as they worked on a soldier with a nasty head wound. After we worked on the head wound, I told them they should take him to the dispensary and get treated. They said, ‘No, we’re here until we retake the camp.’ I didn’t stick around to debate with them. I was a 20-year-old kid, only in-country two months, and I wasn’t about to argue with two combat-hardened, wounded Green Berets.”
A 43-year-old Mystery
Sometime later in the morning of Aug. 23, Santo hitched a ride back to the NSA Naval Hospital, Da Nang with an ambulance full of casualties. He had been awake, treating wounded American service members and indigenous troops for the better part of 36 straight hours, and he was beat.
Santo found a six-inch-wide bench, laid down, and fell into a deep sleep.
“My night at FOB 4 ended with a bucket of water in the face,” Santo said. “They said, ‘Hey, wake up. We got a lot of work to do’ as choppers were bringing in additional casualties from the Marine Corps. I went right to work triaging the wounded Marines as well as the men from FOB 4.”
Santo went back to his daily labor as a hospital corpsman third class, doing everything from triaging, surgery preparation, going to hot LZs to pick up and evacuate wounded troops, to working with UDT personnel recovering dead bodies from the South China Sea that didn’t surface following attacks on Navy sea craft.
He returned to the United States, graduated from college, served on the Costa Mesa, California Fire Department for 31 years before becoming a state fire marshal, and today is working as a consultant to various fire agencies across the country.
Around 2010 or 2011, Santo read a March 1994 Soldier of Fortune magazine article titled “NVA Through the Wire.”
“Heck, before that article, I only knew that there was a Green Beret compound. I didn’t know anything about FOB 4, top secret missions, or anything. After rereading the article several times, I became curious,” he said. “How many Green Berets survived that night? Are there any around today?”
He went to the Internet, did some research, and learned about the Special Operations Association, which holds an annual reunion in Las Vegas. The SOA was formed by Special Forces soldiers who ran SOG missions. Its membership today includes Green Berets, SEALs, Marine Corps Force Recon, Air Force pararescuemen, and airmen from the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force who supported the SOG missions throughout the eight-year war across the fence in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
In 2011, Santo drove from his home in Southern California to Las Vegas for the SOA’s 35th annual reunion at the Orleans Hotel and Casino. He walked into the hospitality room, introduced himself to a few folks, and asked if anyone from FOB 4 was present.
Within a few minutes, he met a few Green Berets who had served at FOB 4 in 1968, and he asked if anyone was present during the attack on August 23, 1968. “It was funny, don’t get me wrong, I’m no hero or anything, but I said to the first guy, I was there that night. And, quite naturally, the first thing he said was, ‘There were no Navy guys there.’”
However, after a few minutes, he was introduced to Watkins, Robert J. ‘Spider’ Parks, and Joe ‘Pigpen’ Conlon. Within a matter of minutes, it became clear that all of them, with the exception of Parks, were there during that hectic, frantic night.
As they compared notes about that horrific night, Santo began to talk about some of the Green Berets who he remembered helping, but never learned their names nor their fates. Then he mentioned the sergeant who had suffered a head wound.
When he discussed helping two wounded Green Berets assist with the head wound, Watkins told Santo that he helped to save the life of Sergeant First Class Robert L. Scully. A medic, Scully was seriously wounded by a grenade while treating wounded soldiers.
Watkins said, “I remember him, because he and the other Navy man were among the few men who were in uniform, wearing a helmet, vest, boots, and fatigues. Most of us simply rolled out of bed when the explosions and gunfire started and went to war. We didn’t have time to get dressed. You know, having Val there showed me that we weren’t forgotten by the field hospital that night. That meant a lot. Who knows how many Special Forces troops and indigenous personnel they saved that night.”
“One thing for sure, when the shooting begins, the inter-service rivalry stuff ends. We were all Americans fighting a common enemy. That night, we stood against a brutal, well-planned communist attack.”
Conlon added, “That night was insane, surreal. I never realized Navy corpsmen helped us that night. But, after we talked to Val, it all came together. He put his life on the line for the Green Berets that night when he could have chosen to simply roll over and go to sleep in his barracks. That takes guts.”
“I’m no hero, I was just doing my job that night,” Santo said. “That night was one of the most stressful experiences of my life.” When the sun rose on August 23rd, “We ended our time at FOB 4 with an assault on an enemy-occupied bunker situated along the water line. Once the bunker was neutralized and the enemy killed, we returned to the triage area to transport the large number of our casualties to the nearby hospitals.”
Author’s Note: In the featured image at the top of the post, that’s Pat Watkins standing in the middle of the five men in Hue.