Return To A Sanctuary

November 13, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

All of the Vietnam War combat hospitals are gone but one.

If a veteran of that war wanted to come back and see where doctors and nurses put broken soldiers back together, they'd have to travel along a grim stretch of South Baltimore waterfront to the end of Childs Street.

They would have to make a pilgrimage to the former USS Sanctuary.

Yesterday, as part of Veterans Day observances in which the United States finally and formally acknowledged the contribution American women in Vietnam, 60 of those women were reunited on the Sanctuary.

FOR THE RECORD - PLEASE READ MEMO.

For many of them, it was their first time aboard the ship since leaving Southeast Asia, where the Sanctuary treated 25,000 wounded between 1967 and 1971 and earned 11 battle stars.

The women traveled to Baltimore from Washington after taking part in Veterans Day celebrations Thursday that featured the unveiling of the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

An estimated 11,000 military women served in Vietnam. Ninety percent were nurses.

"The field hospitals are gone and the [USS] Repose has been scrapped. This is the only place a Navy nurse can come back to and remember," said Jean Bolduc, a former Navy nurse from Calvert County who organized the reunion. "This was the place where the men could forget about the dirt and the bugs and forget about maybe getting killed."

Saved from the fate of its sister ship, the Repose, by the late Rev. Robert N. Meyers of Silver Spring who bought the vessel from Congress for $15 in 1990, the Sanctuary is set to be used as a shelter for Baltimore's homeless.

In asking the women who gathered yesterday to "remember the men who died aboard this ship . . . to feel the spirit of the men who served on this ship," Ms. Bolduc lauded local efforts to preserve the vessel's legacy of comfort.

"This ship will go on to give the needy of Baltimore a sanctuary from a hard world," she said.

In the late 1960s, it was a world far harder than Helen DeCrane Roth ever imagined.

A young Navy nurse when she served on the Sanctuary, Ms. Roth read "Eyes," a poem she wrote about her war experience.

"There is an immediate bond between us. The lower half of my face is concealed by a surgical mask. The lower part of yours is torn away by an act of war," read Ms. Roth as her old pals wiped tears from their eyes. "The truth is, I have never seen a man with the lower half of his face torn brutally apart. . . . I will take my mask off if it will help again, but when I start to cry, I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. You see, I need to know that your wounds healed. That you can smile again and laugh. Then I too will be at peace."

Susan Ritzie Spencer was pretty much at peace yesterday until 11:30 a.m. when a Huey helicopter landed on the stern of the Sanctuary to ferry two memorial wreaths to Baltimore's Vietnam Memorial near the Hanover Street Bridge.

Once she saw the deep-green war bird and heard its blades chop the air, the tears came.

"I had been a schoolteacher before Vietnam. I didn't know what I was getting into. You had to block what was really going on so you could do it," said Ms. Spencer, 58, who was a Red Cross worker in charge of recreation on the Sanctuary and marveled when 70 tough soldiers would show up to play bingo.

"Men used to come into my office dressed to return to duty, close the door and cry. They didn't want to go back," she said. "They'd fly back on the same helicopters carrying empty body bags to the war. You never knew what to say to them."

Now retired after working for 23 years in an Ohio state mental hospital, Ms. Spencer said that after the experience, the only work she could do was helping others.

"Vietnam," she said, "is our country's greatest shame."

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