The Army I Remember, 1958
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The Army I Remember, 1958

By Keith Dahlberg. M.D. OCT, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.8

An American doctor recalls his encounters with the Burmese army in the years before it seized power. "KYA!" shouted the class of soldier recruits on our front lawn, lunging forward with their bayonets. Our two girls, Susan and Patsy, ages four and two, watched from our small porch as the master sergeant rapped one recruit on the head who had done it wrong. "KYA!" again; this time everyone apparently got it right. In the hot sunshine farther off, a half-dozen soldiers gathered around a disassembled Bren gun, preparing to put it back together. Over by the well, four student buglers practiced assembly call in dismal cacophony. Business as usual for the Fourth Burma Regiment. Kengtung was base of operations for the army division that guarded eastern Burma from the incursions of the Chinese KMT troops and assorted rebel armies and bandits. The "Fourth Burregt" and their families were quartered in a large grove just beyond the hospital and more or less assumed, without asking, that they could use the grassy mission compound as a drill field. The Fifth Kachin Rifles and Division Headquarters were on a hill a half-mile away. Several fighter planes nested in revetments along the town’s airstrip, guarded by sentries. Although my wife and I didn’t really care to have our daughters watch this daily show, and although we ground our teeth and held our ears as we tried to shut out the bugle beginners, the soldiers were good neighbors. Their mobile crane was invaluable in setting our hospital’s four-ton generator on its base one day, and a non-com and his squad hurried to the aid of four hospital workers who were struggling to install a vertical forty-foot section of iron pipe in the new well. And another day, when a civilian patient needed an uncommon blood type for transfusion, we were inundated with volunteers from the camp. We, in turn, took care of their women and children. There was a military clinic across town that took care of battle casualties, with the help of the government civil surgeon. When a convoy was ambushed and Major Periera attracted enemy bullets by diving for cover and returning fire, or when someone once tossed a grenade into a truckload of army families, the victims went to the government facility. What we got, at first, were soldiers’ wives bringing their children. "Nah nahdeh, Bogyi (His ear hurts, Captain)," a mother would explain, assuming I rated at least top company-grade rank. Or maybe it would be a kid with swollen glands, or a wife with a miscarriage. The turning point came when a sergeant came in carrying an underweight four-year-old in his arms. His son had not been doing well ever since he had a fever some weeks ago. I looked him over, thumped his chest, listened with my stethoscope. Dull sound to percussion, and absent breath sounds on the left. Low-grade fever. The kid didn’t look well. The father was gratified when I ordered a chest X-ray. I held up the film, pointing out to him the whited-out left chest, where air-filled lung should have been. "I think he has an empyema-pus in his chest," I told the sergeant. "If we can draw the pus out, and give him medicine, I think he’ll get well." This was worse than the sergeant had feared, but he reluctantly gave permission. We did not yet have surgery or anesthesia, so I had the father hold the boy in his arms, painted his back with antiseptic, and inserted a large needle into the left chest cavity. As I drew back on the plunger of the fifty-cc syringe, I was rewarded by a flow of greenish-white pus. The father was impressed. His chest yielded several hundred cc of pus, which a gram-stain in the lab showed to be probably a staphylococcus infection. This was before the in-patient hospital opened, and we didn’t have much that was suitable for injecting into the chest cavity. We did have some samples of an obscure antibiotic called oleandomycin, and I used all our supply on him over the next week. Every two days the sergeant would bring his boy, and because soldiers at that time were never far from their weapons, he would lay his Thompson submachine gun on the table so he could hold the child with both arms. Each time, pus was withdrawn. The child was too weak to put up much of a fight, but he gradually improved, starting to walk and gain weight again. He was left with a thick scar surrounding the lung, but he survived. The mission hospital was fully accepted by our soldier neighbors after that. As neutral medical workers, trying to maintain credibility with both the Shan villagers and the townspeople and government, we sometimes had to walk a fine line. I never went out on house calls to treat sick or injured rebels, but I let it be known that anyone who came to the hospital would be treated impartially, without unnecessary questions asked. On the other hand, I could not object to army personnel entering and inspecting the hospital.

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