In 1971 I found myself in Kontum. Less than a year out of medical school and in the last few months of my hospital internship, I met Dr. Patricia M. Smith on one of her trips to the US. I was intrigued by Minh Quy, the hospital she had founded for Montagnard civilians in Kontum in 1959. About the same time, I received notice that I had been drafted into the Navy. For several years prior to this I had studied the history of US involvement in Vietnam and had concluded that the war was unjust. I refused induction and left the US, informing the Navy that I was instead going to Vietnam on my own to do volunteer medical work at Minh Quy.
My draft board turned my case over to the US Attorney for prosecution. 15 months later, he declined prosecution in view of my Vietnam activity. (It certainly didn’t hurt that his office was at that time also busy prosecuting Spiro Agnew, the sitting Vice President, for bribery.) I didn’t learn any of this until about two and a half years after I left the US. I just knew I was not supposed to be in Vietnam, at least not on my own.
1972 was an eventful year in Kontum and for Pat Smith's hospital. As the southern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Trường Sơn Road) the Kontum area was of prime strategic importance to both sides. With most US forces already withdrawn from Vietnam, Hanoi strategists launched the 1972 “Easter Offensive”, trying for a swift end to the war through coordinated attacks on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at Quang Tri, the Saigon region at An Loc, and the Central Highlands at Kontum. In late spring, North Vietnamese forces overran several nearby towns and briefly entered Kontum city before being beaten back a few days later. Watch the video: The Siege of Kontum (26 min).
Shortly before the northern forces arrived, and with the help of US military helicopters, Minh Quy staff airlifted over half of the patients, staff and their families to Pleiku and set up new operations there. Montagnard staff continued to provide care at the Kontum location, supported by regular day trips of one or two Western staff commuting from Pleiku by helicopter. Five months later the two sites were reunited in Kontum.
More information about Montagnards, the hospital and the events of 1972 can be found in:
• Smith, Hilary Lighting Candles: Hospital Memories of Vietnam’s Montagnards, Northlight Studio Press, 1988
• Heubeck, Kerry Where Feasts Come Rarely: A Viet Nam Album, Pomegranate Communications, 1989
• Seitz, Paul Men of Dignity: The Montagnards of South Vietnam, J Jackson, Cambridge, England, 1975
• Andrade, Dale America’s Last Vietnam Battle: Halting Hanoi’s 1972 Easter Offensive, University Press of Kansas, 1995
• McKenna, Thomas Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam, University Press of Kentucky, 2011