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Vietnam Oral History

Lieutenant Diane Mattern

Nurse, U.S.S. Sanctuary

Diane Mattern was an “F.B.I. Brat.” Her father was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent. Born in Iowa as one of seven siblings, she grew up in Buffalo, New York; then moved with her family to Atlanta, Georgia at the age of fourteen.  She attended nursing school at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, the largest hospital in Georgia, and one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation. 


In December 1967 she enlisted as a Nurse in the U.S. Navy.  She wanted to see more of the world and experience some adventure. Her family has a long-standing tradition of military service, and she also wanted to serve her country.  Diane contemplated the Peace Corps, but her father quickly put the kibosh on that in terms that were not subject to argument! So the Navy it was.


Her first duty station was at the historic Chelsea Navy Hospital in Boston. Following this, in April 1969 she reported onboard the U.S.S. Sanctuary, one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships cruising offshore Vietnam, affectionately known as “The Great White Whale” because of its large size and white hull paint.  The Sanctuary rotated with her sister ship, the U.S.S. Repose.  One would cruise off the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam, while the other would cruise off the large U.S. Naval and Air Force base at Da Nang. About once a week, they would pass by each other and rotate their stations. The two ships remained nearly continuously on station, being resupplied under way (known as “UNREPS”), only rotating to Subic Bay in the Philippines when periodic major maintenance was required.


Diane’s arrival at the ship was her first challenge.  Routine passengers and naval personnel were rotated to and from the ship by small landing craft, and then climbed onboard the Sanctuary using rope ladders, an experience that Diane found extremely “interesting” because of the U.S. Navy women’s uniforms, all of which featured skirts!

Diane was assigned to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) onboard.  Her previous training and experiences at Grady Hospital in particular served her well in this assignment.  The Sanctuary had a separate ship’s crew, that operated the ship itself; and a hospital crew, to which Diane was assigned, that staffed the Navy Hospital. The more seriously wounded men were transported from Vietnam to the Sanctuary by helicopter, and its landing pad on the stern of the ship was busy indeed. Every 1,000 helicopter landing was commemorated. Having arrived in March 1967, in its first year alone the ship had seen 2,500 helicopter landings!

The Sanctuary was a floating institution- a full service hospital featuring 316 medical personnel manning 20 hospital wards, dental and optical clinics and four operating rooms. In its first year, she admitted 5,354 patients and treated another 9,187 outpatients at her clinics. It had its own potable water system, kitchens and recreational facilities although the last were distinctly limited. As Diane remembered, “you can only play shuffleboard so many times.” Still, the kitchen, staffed by Filipino cooks and stewards, produced food that Diane remembered as being “wonderful.” 
The wounded, ill and injured only spent the minimum amount of time onboard the Sanctuary- her hospital’s primary role was to stabilize the wounded so that they could be evacuated as swiftly as possible to the next higher level of care in the Philippine Islands. 

The Sanctuary was an incredibly busy place, and operated in all types of weather.  During periods of rough seas, Diane remembered having to secure such items as glass IV bottles, and rig the gurneys and hospital beds so that they wouldn’t roll around.  At times of intensive combat operations, lines of stretchers would await treatment and transportation.  The Sanctuary also intermittently treated Vietnamese civilians. Diane was aghast at the poor level of health care and hygiene that most of these Vietnamese civilians demonstrated.  Lice outbreaks were not unknown.
Among Diane’s memorable experiences, she had the opportunity to visit the 101st Airborne Division to meet with the U.S. Army medical teams and personnel that transferred so many wounded and injured to their ship. She also experienced a landing and takeoff on an airplane on the deck of the U.S.S. Oriskany, and spent a couple of days as a guest onboard that aircraft carrier. Her brother was a Staff Sergeant with the U.S. Army, on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, assigned to the MAC-V Headquarters in Saigon. When she visited with him, he was unofficially promoted to “Lieutenant” so that they could spend time together without being harassed by humorless Military Policemen! Diane still maintains a spectacular patch collection, as trading unit patches was an extremely popular activity. Diane also had the chance to see one of the famous Bob Hope USO Shows at Da Nang Airbase, although she remarked that she was so far away that the entertainers “looked like ants.”

At one point, because of severe weather conditions on the Vietnam mainland, a number of Marine combat units experienced numerous grave cases of immersion foot (the infamous “trench foot” of World War I).  A separate ward had to be established to treat their feet, and Diane was one of the nurses detailed to staff it for the duration. The otherwise healthy Marines, relatively bored and having been in the field for an extended length of time, were absolutely thrilled to have an opportunity to flirt with American girls, even if they were officers!

Diane relates that “she had no negative experiences.”  She completed her tour of duty onboard the good ship Sanctuary in spring 1970 and took extended leave, touring the world including Thailand during her way home from Vietnam.  She then served at a U.S. Navy Hospital in San Diego and several naval medical clinics in California, married and moved to Casper.  Remaining in the U.S. Navy Reserves, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks Diane subsequently volunteered for her second war, and served as a Navy Nurse Practitioner in Kuwait supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom from June to September 2005.

Between 1969 and 1971, when Diane served as a nurse onboard the U.S.S. Sanctuary, the hospital ship recorded an astounding 10,701 helicopter landings on her flight deck, performed over 4,629 major surgical operations, admitted 13,500 patients and treated a total of 35,005 service members! Naval doctors, nurses and corpsmen like Diane Mattern provided a skilled and caring level of health care to both men and women in uniform and Vietnamese civilians, which saved and improved many lives. They are the nearly forgotten, but deeply appreciated and beloved, angels of the battlefield.

Diane and her brother in Saigon, 1968

Diane in the ICU on the U.S.S. Sanctuary

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