The Surgeon Who Did Not Want the Medal of Honor
Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.
General George S. Patton, Jr.
David Taft was a young boy at the movies in Ames, Iowa with his father and brother John watching "Sergeant York" when the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place on 7 December 1941. He vividly remembers the distress and anger that emanated from his father's reaction to the unprovoked attack.
A few months later he received a beautiful shoulder patch from a neighbor whose son was a Marine, emblazoned with the Southern Cross and a large red "One" with Guadalcanal written on it. The patch was the emblem of the famed First Marine Division who were primarily responsible in the early stages of WWII for stopping the Japanese in their southeasterly drive toward Australia and New Zealand.
Little did David know at that time that he would end up years later in Vietnam in that very same First Marine Division. Nor did he know that in the division as a young 34-year-old skilled Navy surgeon he would receive the nation's second highest award, the Navy Cross.
The greatest challenge to David Taft's own courage, coolness and skill would be to remove a live 2.75 inch rocket embedded in a young Marine's knee joint. The precariousness and required skill of that surgery would mark David Taft for life. With many people it seems as though all of life's difficult circumstances, training and discipline unknowingly point us toward one traumatic event that brands us for a lifetime. This event or circumstance is beyond our knowledge or control and choosing. It must come from the God who controls all circumstances. It seems this was true in David Taft's life. Vietnam awaited him. Taft graduated from medical school in 1959 and in his own words, "We cheerfully went off to our internships thinking we were pretty hot stuff. Fifteen minutes into my internship at Ohio State University Hospital, I quickly learned how much I didn't know!" In his surgical residency at Ohio State, he had the good fortune to train under Dr. Robert Zollinger, whom David described as, "One of the most fascinating, slave-driving, hard-working and talented surgeons in the US." In six years under the tutelage of Dr. Zollinger, Taft progressed from a green intern to a well-trained and capable surgeon that had cared for a large number of complex trauma patients. He had learned enough neurosurgery to do craniotomies for intracranial bleeding, was adept at lung, heart and vascular surgery, and could carry out all the abdominal and head and neck cases that make up the range of general surgical procedures.
During further training at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1956 and 1965, David met and pursued Miss Sheila Blackwood, who is now his wife and "best friend of 34 years." One of Taft's mentors, a surgeon in the European Theater in WWII, told him that "a surgeon's training is not finished until he has served as a combat surgeon." David wanted to go with the best, the US Marines and to get in on the action as soon as possible before the Vietnam war was over. Through Dr. Zollinger's influence and a basic physical exam, he was soon sworn into the US Navy as a Lieutenant Commander.
"Dr. Zollinger was amused that I thought it necessary to try so hard to go to Vietnam as he didn't think the volunteer line was very long. He was right!" Taft mused. He was soon destined for hazardous duty with the Marine unit whose patch with the Southern Cross had been given him as a young boy.
On 1 Oct. 1966 Taft arrived in Vietnam and was posted in Chu Lai to the 1st Medical Battalion, 1st Marine Division. He describes the scene:
"I walked into the grubby little office, was cheerfully greeted as the new surgeon and was hustled across the road to the triage area teeming with patients. I selected the worst one and was steered to the operating room by a harried Navy Corpsman. My war had started three hours after my arrival in Vietnam."
Taft goes on to say:
"In my next 15 months as part of the medical team I did the neurosurgery, chest surgery and vascular surgery, as well as general surgical cases, and even delivered a Vietnam lady of a fine baby boy while in the air inside a CH/34 helicopter. We probably had 150 corpsmen who tended to rotate with the field corpsmen." That life-defining moment soon came into Dr. Taft's life, when on 27 August 1967, they brought in a severely wounded Marine with "something stuck in his knee." A roentgenogram soon showed that the object was a 2.75 inch live US rocket fired from one of our own helicopters. It had destroyed the kneecap, the vascular structures, as well as the articular surfaces, necessitating amputation above the knee.
Taft asked for one corpsman volunteer to assist him and then cleared the operating tent and the surrounding area. Daniel Henry bravely stepped forward, knowing that this could well cost him his life. Even though both medical men donned flak jackets for the operation, the jackets would likely have afforded little protection had the missile exploded. A critical point in the operation was the sawing of the leg bone. The vibration of a power saw could well detonate the rocket. Taft instead used a regular amputation saw, holding the rocket steady with his left hand. The tension both for those waiting outside the tent and for the three heroic men inside was indescribable. Many prayers were offered for the success and safety of this amazing venture.
God was merciful. The surgery was a success. The corpsman, Daniel Henry, was decorated with the Silver Star, our nation's third highest honor. Tragically he was killed a few months later in an enemy mortar attack.
The young Marine whose leg was amputated had a basketball scholarship at New York University. After the war, the school honored it, enabling him to become a successful CPA. Eventually he served in the state legislature. His life ended a few years ago by a heart attack.
David Taft has this to say about his 15-month Vietnam experience: "An impressive observation we made in our care of casualties was the very low mortality rate once these wounded Marines reached our facilityCand the fact that these casualties were often seen at our unit 30 to 45 minutes following the time of their wounding. No other war that I know of had this advantage of extremely rapid casualty evacuation to first class medical units, almost all carried out by helicopters." Again, the doctor shares how the war personally affected him: "Surgeons through the ages have gone to any length to salvage the young that fight our wars. The personal trauma that any surgeon of significant combat surgery experiences will always leave wounds in him that never heal, but bleed each night when dreams arrive. Fortunately, the good that is done on the operating room table outweighs the occasional bad night or flashback. The results are worth it."
The Rest of the Story
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction! The amazing miracles that took place in this surgical story have not ended. Following the amputation, the intrepid Dr. Taft carried the leg outside the tent with the rocket still embedded. Marine ordinance personnel had dug a hole about 200 yards away.
Taft very gently placed the leg in the hole and quickly returned to the operating tent to finish the operation. Before the surgery was completed, the rocket exploded before the ordinance crew could detonate it! Is this not the Lord's gracious and merciful timing?
Captain David Taft, USN, was rightfully awarded the Navy Cross. Why did he not want the most prestigious Medal of Honor? That would only have been awarded posthumously, if the rocket had exploded during the surgery!
SCRIPTURE: You, O Lord are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant Your strength to Your servant and save the son of your maidservant . . .Psalm 86.15,16
PRAYER: Thank You, Lord, for your abundant mercy to these three stalwart menand to me every day, even though I do not deserve it. Continue to provide that mercy for Your great name's sake. Amen.