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Vietnam is a blistering country, a lousy place to run a high fever — especially without air conditioning or ice at the hospital.

But there U.S. Army medic John Spence was, trying to care for a patient with a temperature of 106, during the Vietnam War, "in pretty bad shape."

"Over there it's so hot. We were in a tent, we really didn't have air conditioning, and we never had ice and stuff like that," Spence said. "There wasn't much to do for a high temperature."

The doctor said to just put water on him, but that wasn't working.

"I mixed some alcohol with the water. I remember my aunt saying that she did that sometimes with a temperature," Spence said. The temperature came back to normal.

"That was about my worst experience," he said.

Another was when a patient had been shot in the knees by a machine gun.

"He was on a helicopter, and your body's exposed when you're on a helicopter, and somebody shot him in the knees," Spence said. 

"That was a pretty bad wound. We had to take care of it," because the patient was expected to go back to work when the wound was healed.

Spence, who grew up near LaPorte and now lives in Portage, was Spec. 4 Spence when he was in the Army. As a medic, he served as the rough equivalent of a registered nurse, a credential he never attained upon his return home.

"The doctor would give me orders, and you would have to pass medication, do the IVs, whatever the doctor said, that's what you'd had to do. Take care of the wounds, treat the wounds, dress the wounds, whatever," Spence said.

Before the Army drafted him, he was a farm kid in a large family — seven brothers and seven sisters. Spence was one of the oldest.

"When it came time to graduate, I sort of left and made room for the others," he said.

He attended St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer for a couple of years, then went on to Purdue University at West Lafayette. When he ran out of money, he had to drop out. That's when he got drafted.

After basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., he went to Fort Sam Houston at San Antonio for training to become a medic in Vietnam.

He took a commercial flight to Vietnam, with a couple of stops for fuel.

"I remember getting off the plane and it was pretty warm over there, and that was a big change. Even though I came from Texas, it was still warmer in Vietnam."

Soon after he arrived, he had to go with a fellow soldier in a large truck for medical supplies. 

"When we left there, we got on a road where there were no American vehicles, and so he asked me what we should do. I said, turn around, go back to Saigon and get lost again. We'll find other American vehicles and find our way back to our camp. That's what we did."

Spence served in the 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade, Company C.

"I was told I was supposed to be a field medic because they were losing a lot of medics and officers in combat," he said. 

"They told me not to carry a gun." He told a doctor, and "he was going to give me a Viet Cong gun and had ammunition in it."

But the following day, he didn't have to go out into the field.

Spence believes a young man looking for more action volunteered for that position.

Out in the field, helicopters would drop off and pick up soldiers. It was a dangerous operation, exposing soldiers to enemy attack. But that wasn't the only danger.

"A couple of helicopters came down and collided, and we had casualties there from that," Spence said.

After the war, he worked at U.S. Steel Sheet & Tin in Gary, where he had worked before being drafted, for a year and a half.

"I was working 10, 12 hours a day, and I thought, this was like Vietnam, where you never got to see daylight."

In Vietnam, he rarely had a day off. Spence remembers little of his time off, other than reading, and a trip to an air base for rest and recuperation.

Some soldiers left Vietnam for R&R, but not Spence.

He had talked to a Vietnamese man, "and he said, 'I'll take you there,'" Spence said. "I'm glad I didn't go with him, because I probably wouldn't have made it there."

"We took a helicopter, and they were going over the jungle with a machine gun, and I was in the back seat."

Spence spent his time at that air base photographing the planes.

At first, soldiers could go to Saigon for R&R, but it became too dangerous, so that city was off limits.

After deciding to quit his job at the steel mill, Spence went to Purdue University North Central, took some nursing classes, then worked as a maintenance man for area hospitals, then at St. Thomas More Church.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.