In his latest “Dear Grandson,” Stan Gerding describes his continuing experience as a Navy Corpsman, what he did at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and meeting President LBJ.
I came home for a few days, but then was scheduled to check in on December 23rd, 1967. So, no Christmas at home that year. Honestly, I was anxious to get to Bethesda Naval Hospital as the pictures will give you the reason.
The hospital has lots of history. President Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House in 1938 when the land was acquired to build the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. James Forrestal, Secretary of the Defense during WWII committed suicide while a patient at the hospital, jumping from the 16th floor of the tower. Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and various Cabinet members were seen occasionally at the Hospital. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his body was flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital where the autopsy was performed. Many Presidents and Vice Presidents were hospitalized at the hospital over the years.
I checked in and was put on a work detail until after the holidays when they would have an indoctrination class beginning. My good buddy Bill Farmer checked in about the same time and was also put on the same work detail as me. Bill and I were like brothers, where one went the other was sure to follow; and until we got assigned our job, that was the way it was.
Bill’s brother (a doctor) was living in an apartment in Georgetown and set up Bill and I with a couple of blind dates on New Year’s Eve to help bring in the year, 1968; both were airline stewardesses. Bill had his own car, a convertible Valiant, and we went to pick up the girls to go out on the town to several parties. We first picked up Bill’s date who was living with her parents in Bethesda, then we went to pick up my date who lived in a plush suburb called Potomac. Bill and I had no idea that this girl was the daughter of a U.S. Congressman.
We rang the doorbell and the Congressman came to the door.
He invited us in and asked, “What can I get you to drink?”
I said, “We’ll have what you’re having.”
He said, “I’m having scotch.”
I never had scotch in my whole life, all twenty years of it, and it was terrible stuff. My date was a very petite young lady and we got along very well that night and went from one party to the next. I had no clue where I was and neither did Bill. It was a fun night but neither Bill nor I ever saw these girls again.
New Year’s Day was on a Monday, so on Tuesday, January 2nd, we started our indoctrination and got our assignments. Bill got ICU and I got Ward 6C Neurosurgery.
The next day, myself and a guy named Tom Wilson reported for duty on Ward 6C to Lt. Kelly White, the charge nurse of the floor. She was a very dedicated nurse and preached excellent nursing care for all her patients and expected her Corpsmen to carry that sentiment to the T. I learned so much from her and her assistant head nurse Lt. (j.g.) Suzy Delaney.
The Chief Neurosurgeon was Captain Richard Senn and his assistant was CDR Calvin Early and both were very well known in the Neurosurgical field. I also learned a lot from these two professionals and they seemed to like me and would entrust me with doing a few fine procedures without assistance.
One day, Dr. Senn took me to the Operating Room to scrub for two of his surgeries that day, one was a craniotomy and the other was a laminectomy. I watched Dr. Senn intently and listened to everything he was saying, and I must say I sure learned a lot about the brain. He finished what he was doing and then started to close the patient up, he looked at me and said to watch carefully the suturing of this scalp to the head, and I acknowledged. He put two metal sutures in and then handed me the suturing devices and said, “FINISH IT.” I did exactly what he told me to do and I finished the suturing of this head. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared because, believe me, I was SCARED.
Then on to the next surgery, the laminectomy, Dr. Senn made an incision in the lower back of the patient and removed a bulging disc and put two sutures into the patient’s back and handed me the suturing material and said, “FINISH IT,” and so I did.
Every day I learned more and more. Some of the patients we had were head, nerve, and back injuries. Car accidents, sport injuries, and most of our patients were from the Vietnam War with shrapnel and gunshot wounds.
Every day I learned more and more. Some of the patients we had were head, nerve, and back injuries. Car accidents, sport injuries, and most of our patients were from the Vietnam War with shrapnel and gunshot wounds. We had hemiplegics, paralyzed on one side, paraplegics, paralyzed from the waist down, and quadriplegics, paralyzed from the neck down, depending on how or where they were wounded.
It was an interesting experience for me that year, with many things happening and many dignitaries visiting with our patients. General Lew Walt, a four-star Marine Corps General, came one day to issue a Purple Heart and a Silver Star to a heroic Marine who was paralyzed from the neck down due to an explosion from a grenade. We had another patient who was Army and had shrapnel to his head from an enemy mortar round and was visited by a three-star General who issued him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Bill Cosby visited the ward across from ours because he was a Corpsman and was stationed on Ward 4C back in the Korean War and he came over to our side to visit with our wounded. Then of course there was Bill Wedekind the Marine Recon Corporal who walked through a mine field and in doing so saved the lives of many fellow Marines. I talk about Bill in my book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.
I became Senior Corpsman of the ward after six months and was put on a different type of watch list. I was on an ambulance run to Virginia to pick up the wife of a Marine Corps Major who was about to give birth to her third child. We placed her on board the ambulance and headed for Bethesda. She was having contractions relatively fast and she told me the baby was coming. Basically, I assisted her in the delivery of this child, she was a pro. The baby was coming, and I was going to play catch. The baby plopped into my waiting arms and a blanket and commenced to cry. Baby was healthy, and mom was great.
I got called on one of my duty days to be on watch from midnight to 0400 over President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines. Luci gave birth to her first child at Bethesda and that night I had the watch over her. Around 0130 the Secret Service came in the door and stood there for a moment looking all around the room. Through the door came a towering figure of a man, it was the President himself coming to visit his daughter. He came over to me and introduced himself to me and shook my hand.
Picture this, LBJ says to me, “Hello, I’m Lyndon B Johnson. And who might you be?”
My hand was engulfed in his like I was a child again holding my father’s hand.
I told him I was Hospitalman Stan Gerding, Senior Corpsman Ward 6C and, Holy Moly, I was shaking. I had never met someone so famous before in my life.
More later, Grandson.
Stan Gerding is the author of the book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.