Tales of the brave, young physicians who saved countless lives in Vietnam.
I’ve never really shared “my” Vietnam War memories with anybody. It took me years before I even knew how to process and comprehend the enormity of the war. And I never wore a uniform.
I only observed the war from my family’s dining room table — a 12-year-old in 1967, eating dinner while watching Walter Cronkite. It sickens me how I was numb to the fact that the day’s U.S. casualty numbers appeared on our television screens as mundanely as the day’s sports scores. The American death toll in 1967 alone was 11,363.
I grew up sheltered and unscathed in 1967, while American teenagers just six years older than me were dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I didn’t have a clue.
Those childhood memories came rushing back to me recently during conversations I had the privilege of having with several Jewish Detroit doctors who served in Vietnam and still reside in our community. I learned about them through a column written 30 years ago in the JN.
Dr. Paul Gold, Dr. Jerry Taylor, Dr. Larry Blau and Dr. Irving Gold (no relation to Paul), were featured in the June 1, 1990, article by Susan Weingarden. The Academy Award-winning film Born on the 4th of July was released that year. Oliver Stone directed the film. The four doctors lived it.
Weingarden wrote of the film: “It offered a vivid depiction of the horrors of the war.” She chronicled the physicians “revived memories of their own experiences” that the 11-time Oscar-nominated movie generated.
The four men, who all grew up in and around the beloved old Jewish Detroit neighborhood of Dexter and Davison, were drafted — not at the minimum age of 18, but in their mid to late 20s. Barely out of their internships, some married with young children, they were just establishing their medical careers in Detroit when their fateful draft letters arrived.
Dr. Paul Gold, 80, originally made me aware of the previously written JN article, and I enlisted his help to seek out his three comrades. He provided valuable contact information and backstories about each. This Veteran’s Day, in the 45th year since the end of the Vietnam War, I wanted to know how they were faring nearly a half-century later and, in so doing, I discovered some amazing untold stories they still had left to share.
During our initial conversation, Dr. Paul Gold informed me that sadly Dr. Irving Gold (Army) and Dr. Taylor (Navy) passed away in 2015 and 2010, respectively. After fulfilling their two-year tours of duty, which typically included a year in Vietnam, both returned to Detroit to resume building their lives, families and careers. Irving Gold was a radiologist. Taylor was an orthopedic hand surgeon.
Paul’s Heroic Service
Paul Gold vividly remembers the day in June 1967 when his draft letter arrived from the 5th Army Headquarters in Chicago. The then-27-year-old was in his apartment located behind the formerly named Botsford Hospital, now part of Beaumont Health, where he was completing his internship.
He didn’t fully comprehend the entire contents of the letter, and friends encouraged him to call Chicago for clarification. “So I’m on the phone and I said to the Army private, what does RVN mean?” The voice on the other end of the line, who seemed to chuckle at his naivety, replied, “Republic of Vietnam. You’re going to Vietnam.” Gold remembers the fear that seared through his body.
That rude awakening would pale in comparison to the environment he found himself in just months later. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967.
The commander of his 11th Armored Calvary Division had three physicians under his charge, and he was one of them. That commander was Col. George Smith Patton, son of the legendary WWII Gen. George S. Patton Jr. “I remembered he carried his dad’s ivory-handled pistol,” Gold said.
As a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, Gold spent the majority of his year in Vietnam in harm’s way, typically positioned just behind the fighting. If the wounded weren’t accessible to treat from his armored personnel carrier, he would be dropped into the action by helicopter.
For his courageous service, this “Gold” would be decorated with bronze and silver.
His Bronze Medal citation, awarded for exemplary action in a combat zone, spoke to the ingenuity and bravery he brought to his missions: “Captain Gold distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious service … against a hostile force. To further improve medical assistance for troops in the field, he devised a program whereby he traveled to an area of contact while his medical staff remained behind preparing the medical aid station.”
Gold’s heroic actions upon his arrival to an area under heavy enemy fire on June 28, 1968, earned him the U.S. Armed Forces’ third-highest decoration — a Silver Star. As a brigadier general documented in the letter of commendation for the award: “Captain Gold, totally disregarding his own safety, leaped from his helicopter and ran across a minefield through intense hostile fire … completely ignoring shouted warnings concerning the presence of mines.”
The announcement further said that Gold “fearlessly went from one injured soldier to the next. Captain Gold’s unwavering devotion to duty, courage and disregard for his personal safety … were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the U.S. Army.”
When not on the front lines, Gold participated in a Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP), which occasionally found him treating the Montagnards, a village of Vietnamese tribesmen.
“We treated people with all kinds of diseases and gave vaccinations,” he said, “while at the same time, Army intelligence people would be talking to the local leaders to find out information about the Viet Cong.”
The villagers showed their appreciation by making Gold a musical instrument out of tree bark which he displays at his home.
Before I delve into Dr. Larry Blau’s history, the other doctor I was able to interview from the 1990 JN article, there are two other Jewish Detroit physicians who served in Vietnam I came to learn played significant roles in Dr. Paul Gold’s life.
Familiar Faces in Vietnam
Gold was also the recipient of a Purple Heart. In March 1968 he was a victim of a rocket attack which left his abdomen splintered with shrapnel. He was helicoptered to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh.
Upon being wheeled into the operating room, he discovered, to his astonishment, that while lying nearly 9,000 miles away from home, the surgeon about to operate on him was Dr. Arnold “Arnie” Leshman, Gold’s childhood neighbor he grew up with on Buena Vista in Detroit and a Bronze Star recipient in his own right.
Vietnam didn’t take the life of Leshman, but cancer did. He passed away at the age of 75 in 2010 after a distinguished career as a general surgeon in Detroit, which included being selected Outstanding Intern at Sinai Hospital and his being appointed chief of surgery at St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital between 1994-2000.
Of his service to his country, Leshman’s widow, Sandra, told me that her husband never tried to get out of serving; instead, he only asked for a delay of one month so he could be home for the birth of their third child. His request accepted, Leshman eventually left for Vietnam, leaving his wife and three children under the age 5 behind.
It became abundantly clear during my conversation with Sandra that her husband never sought recognition for his service, a sentiment her children shared as well. “He was just one of many. He did nothing more than thousands of other men and women,” Sandra said, reflecting also on the many who lost their lives in service to their country.
Vietnam veteran Dr. Joel Leib, 79, and Dr. Paul Gold, 80, have been friends since their teens. They did everything together. They attended Durfee Middle School, Mumford High School, Wayne State University and Des Moines University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, got drafted together, and even flew on the same plane to Vietnam where their assignments finally separated the two.
Gold served on the frontlines, while Leib became the commander of the 332nd Medical Dispensary on the Long Binh Post, which didn’t always keep him out of harm’s way. Leib described a harrowing event that occurred within 24 hours of his arrival: “The first night I was in Vietnam, I was laying on a cot. Incoming mortars came in and went ba-boom! I was 6 miles from the perimeter of the fighting and, honestly, it knocked me out of bed.”
Leib enjoyed one memorable respite from the ravages of war when he was assigned to be the on-call doctor during one of Bob Hope’s legendary Christmas Tour stops at his base. He didn’t get to meet the comedian, who entertained troops around the world from 1941- 1972, but he did get close enough to photograph the star-studded cast, which included actress Raquel Welch and singer/actress Barbara McNair.
Based on their history, it should come as no surprise that Leib and Gold returned on the same flight home from Vietnam in September 1968. Their lifelong bond would remain intact through their professional lives, when they partnered in a family medicine practice in July 1970, a relationship that lasted 50 years. Today, their friendship remains as strong as ever.
Larry Blau’s Turbulent Tour
Twenty-eight-year old Dr. Larry Blau had every reason to believe he would be spared a tour of duty in Vietnam when he suffered a ruptured disc while stationed in Hawaii in 1967.
At the time of the injury, Blau was receiving training by the Army in radiology. “I had to have back surgery, and I figured they’ll never send me to Vietnam. The day I was well enough to return to my desk in my radiology office was the day I received my orders.” A shock to this married man with three kids under the age of 6.
While serving as a radiologist in the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, Blau had another reason to believe his tour of duty would be cut short when the Red Cross sent him home on compassionate leave to visit his hospitalized mother who was believed to be terminally ill.
His trip home was, to say the least, eventful. “I was visiting with my mother in the hospital when my father came in,” said Blau. “He was white as a sheet.” The father said he was having indigestion, but his son the doctor recognized other symptoms. “Dad,” he said, “you’re having a heart attack,” sending him immediately to the emergency room.
Three days later Dr. Blau made it a medical trifecta of sorts when he developed a kidney stone. “My father was in cardiac intensive care and my mother in surgical intensive care at the same hospital while I was hospitalized elsewhere.”
Even this was not enough to convince the Army to curtail Blau’s tour of duty. After passing the stone he was sent back to Vietnam. Fortunately, his parents would recover.
Blau was discharged exactly two years to the day of when his service had begun, Sept. 6, 1969. Just six days later, Blau’s father died in his son’s arms at Grace Hospital in Detroit from congestive heart failure, hours after the family’s Rosh Hashanah meal.
After fulfilling his two-year Army commitment, Blau resurrected his medical career in Detroit focusing on occupational trauma, eventually expanding his practice to include five clinics throughout the tri-county area.
While in Vietnam, Blau, like the other doctors’ stories I’ve shared, regularly sent audio messages to his family, captured on small reel-to-reel tapes. These often included reading bedtime stories to his children.
Turns out Blau, now retired since the early 1990s, had one final tour of duty in Vietnam, only this time it was on his own terms and involved his grandchildren. In 2013, at age 73, he returned with grandsons Alexander and Max, who were 14 and 12 at the time. “They had a curiosity,” Blau said, a result of his sharing stories about his service while he had his own lingering desire to return to see the aftermath.
He sought out the location of the 3rd Field Hospital where he worked. Upon his arrival he discovered that “at least the ground floor had been converted into a wedding chapel with porcelain swans and hearts.” Could two images be more juxtaposed?
Blau’s most impactful story occurred when he spoke with a former Viet Cong soldier, now a guide assigned to describe the set of intricate wartime tunnels they were touring in the north. The man had lost an arm in the war.
Blau said to him: “You know, not too many years ago, you wanted to kill me, and I wanted to kill you. Isn’t that strange? You hated me. I hated you. And he said to me, ‘I never hated you. Never hated you.’ And he put out his good hand to shake mine.”
So many aspects of these brave Americans’ stories moved me, not the least was that, to a man, there was a total absence of any hesitancy on their part to report for duty.
“I was chosen. It was my duty, and I had to make the best of it. I was going to make the best of it,” said Dr. Gold, echoing the sentiments of all the veterans I spoke with.
Those conversations also revealed, thankfully, that none of them had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps this commitment to serve had to do with the fact that these doctors were called to duty in their mid- to late-20s, old enough to remember the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation and not yet part of the intensifying anti-war movement.
After many years of lingering resentment and disrespect, there has been a certain measure of healing and newfound gratitude in the country for our Vietnam veterans.
With Veterans Day upon us, we are reminded once again of their selflessness and sacrifice, today similarly afforded our frontline warriors battling the coronavirus, a battle in its own right that is rife with divisiveness and incalculable death.
Let us always remember all the men and women who have served and continue to serve our nation.