As early as the eighth-grade, James Allan cultivated an interest in someday becoming a medical doctor. With encouragement from his parents, he enrolled in the University of Missouri (Columbia) after graduating from a St. Louis area high school in 1960. This educational endeavor not only marked the beginning of a lifelong professional pursuit, but resulted in his induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.
“My college experience began with three years of undergraduate school followed by four years of medical school,” Allan recalled. “During my junior year of medical school in 1965, I married my fiancée, Terry, whom I had met through church in St. Louis and was also attending the university.”
Upon graduating from medical school in 1967, he began an internship in Wichita, Kansas. The following year should have been a joyous occasion when he and his wife welcomed their first son, Daniel, but he and many of his fellow interns received notice that abruptly changed their future plans.
“It was a letter from President Nixon that stated we could become medical officers in the military at the rank of captain … or wait and be drafted as a private,” he said. “The letter was very clear and military service had not been in my career pathway, but the war in Vietnam just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
By September of 1968, Allan was in San Antonio, Texas, attending “doctors’ bootcamp.” For the next three weeks, he and many other inexperienced physicians were provided crash courses on wearing a U.S. Army uniform, performing drill and ceremony, undergoing brief classes specifically related to military medicine and conducting training exercises in a field environment.
He quickly received orders for Vietnam, flying into Saigon in the cover of darkness. When exiting the aircraft, he observed explosions along the skyline and immediately felt the heat and humidity that defined the jungle-laden country.
Allan recalled, “I was assigned to a replacement battalion and told that each doctor would receive six months of relatively good duty and six months of duty that wasn’t so ideal. My first assignment was at a dispensary at Cam Rahn Bay in South Vietnam, which was not bad duty.”
Allan continued, “It was myself and another physician in the dispensary and we had an X-ray, laboratory and a hardworking, well-trained staff. We did a sick call and it was a busy place because the base was a stop-off point for military personnel entering or leaving the country or for those traveling back and forth for R&R (rest and recreation).
As he recalled, some of his responsibilities became the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases that servicemembers contracted during their recreational periods in locations such as Japan, Saigon and Hong Kong.
Several months into his deployment, he was transferred to an artillery battalion under the 25th Infantry Division located on the Michelin Rubber Plantation at Camp Rainier near Dầu Tiếng, South Vietnam. Again, his duties were to conduct sick call and provide routine medical care, but came with the added responsibility of supporting clinics in three additional locations.
“One of the locations where I treated people was at a civilian hospital,” he explained. “I also visited a relocation camp where there were Vietnamese civilians who had been moved from areas that had been deemed free-fire zones. Also, I supported a little clinic for civilians situated along the perimeter wire of our base camp.”
Later in this assignment, he accompanied the 25th Infantry Division when they moved to a larger base camp at Cu Chi, where he was assigned to a headquarters company of an artillery battalion. He was often flown by helicopter to forward support bases, providing general medical care to infantry and artillery troops stationed there.
“It was generally just minor injuries I was treating since the war wounded were flown to evacuation hospitals,” he said.
While stationed at Cu Chi, the medical officer became more involved with assisting the civilian population. During his time there, Allan traveled to several remote locations to practice general medicine with local populations in a government effort to “win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”
Dr. Allan recalled, “We were told which locations we were to visit and filled our ammo cans with assorted medicines that might be needed. We developed a large following of civilians—often between 100-200 who would come see us—and I communicated through a Vietnamese interpreter.” He added, “Many of those coming to see us needed injections to treat tuberculosis.”
His overseas tour came to an end in November 1969 and he was assigned to Ft. Leonard Wood to finish out his active-duty commitment. Dr. Allan was subsequently awarded a Bronze Star for the medical service he provided to Vietnamese civilians in remote locations.
When returning to the states, he not only reunited with his wife and his young son, but met his second son, John, who had been born shortly after his arrival in Vietnam. After leaving active service in September 1970, he relocated his family to Jefferson City, maintaining a private medical practice until his retirement in 2008.
Allan acknowledges that his military experience was mandatory and something he recognized as an obligation or duty, but became a brief period early in his career leading to many important experiences.
He explained, “It was certainly an interesting period in my life that taught me to work alone, which benefitted me in later years.” In conclusion, he added, “Previously, when I had trained in a hospital environment, there were several physicians I could consult with on a diagnosis, but when I was in a remote area in Vietnam, it was up to me to make rapid medical assessments and treatment decisions.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.