Germany’s Role in the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: 1968 Saigon, Vietnam. A child remains close to her injured mother at an aid station in Cholon.
The below article about West Germany’s role in the Vietnam War first appeared in Deutsche Welle. I’ve edited it, added some photos for illustration and put a link to the full article at the end.
“Germany also participated in the Vietnam War. But instead of soldiers, it sent the German hospital ship “Helgoland,” on which civilians from both sides were treated. For many Vietnamese, it was the last resort.
In 1966, the Helgoland, a former tourist boat, left Germany for her longest journey yet, roughly 12,000 kilometers (7500 miles) away: South Vietnam, where a violent civil war between communists and anti-communists had been raging for years. Soon, communist North Vietnam and the US got involved as well.
The Americans’ entry into the war put pressure on the German government. The US kept insisting on support from their Western German allies. The German response was the deployment of the Helgoland. In a rush, the German Red Cross had converted the boat into a hospital ship, as ordered by the German government, and it sailed under protection of the Geneva Convention.
Instead of tourists, there were ten doctors and 30 nurses on board from the German Red Cross. Some 150 beds and three operating rooms were set up along the boat’s 92 meters (300 feet). There was even a proper laboratory.
The Helgoland reached the South Vietnamese capital Saigon in September 1966, protected by mine-detection ships. But the doctors and nurses were not prepared for the horrors that were awaiting them. When the first wounded civilians were brought on board, the German medics were shocked. “We just cried,” one nurse said. The final harbor for the Helgoland in Vietnam was the city of Da Nang, close to the war. Only civilians were treated on board, no soldiers. Since the boat was under protection of the Geneva Conventions, it was considered strictly neutral.
“We never asked where they came from.”
The floating hospital was the most modern clinic in all of Vietnam. Medical care in the country was a disaster; there was only one doctor per 17,000 people. Word got around quickly that the German ship spelled salvation for the ill and wounded. The Vietnamese called the Helgoland the “White ship of hope.” The crew helped everyone, no matter which side they may have been on. “We never asked where they came from,” the chief physician aboard the Helgoland recalled. On top of that, treatment on the boat came for free.
For the doctors and nurses, working with the many civilian patients was a big challenge physically and mentally. They amputated limbs day and night from children, women and men, whose legs were torn to shreds by mines, who were wounded by gunshots or who had bad Napalm burns on their bodies. At night, the Helgoland left its harbor for the safer open sea. Surgeries still continued.
The once so far-away war in South East Asia made its way into German living rooms via the Helgoland. In 1970, German television aired the documentary “Only light fighting in the Da Nang area” about work aboard the hospital ship. The nation was shocked. The film showed the unadorned truth and horror of war. A medic said, “What I see here are many shot up, torn up kids.” And he despaired of the question how such a war could be justified.
The Helgoland mission ended in 1971, when a hospital on land took over the tasks. Until then, the boat’s staff treated more than 11,000 people. And they keep helping. Today, former crew members run an association to support Vietnamese children.”
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Peter Alan Lloyd
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