[The following is taken from "Never Fight Fair!" by Orr Kelly (Pocket Books; ISBN: 0-671-53266-9), and is used with the permission of the author. To purchase a copy of this book, click here. Special thanks to Mr. Kelly for his generosity.]
In 1969, Robert P. Clark was thirty-four years old, an E-6 and the senior enlisted man in the 10th Platoon of SEAL Team TWO. He was also the platoon's medical corpsman. The other SEALSs called him Doc. He had been through the navy's most advanced schools for medical corpsman and had served for four years with marine units at sea before becoming a frogman. But never, in his long career as a corpsman, had he actually treated a wounded man in combat - until the afternoon of 24 November 1969. This is Clark's account of the day John Brewton was fatally wounded:
I was on the operation the day John was shot. John had a staph infection in his nose. We said he shouldn't be out operating. But John was one of those guys who wanted to be out operating all the time. He was a good young operator. He just wouldn't stay out of that dirty, muddy crap.
We were operating in the Rung Sat Special Zone. It seems like the whole platoon was there that day. Usually I operated with my squad. Usually Brewton was with the other squad. So this was a joint operation.
We had been on an op where we had been given some intelligence. We set up an ambush. Nothing happened and basically we were extracting from the ambush when we walked into what was probably a Viet Cong base camp. We were going through water anywhere from knee deep to thigh deep and the next thing we know the shooting started. They were shooting from an enclosed bunker and just kind of spraying the area.
Not only did Brewton get shot, but Bob Christopher [EN2 Robert D. Christopher], one of our machine gunners, who I believe was on point at the time, was shot through the head and some of his fingers were blown off. He was also shot through the thigh.
Because I was the medic in the platoon, I was on rear security. We were leaving the ambush point, all going in a line. We had found an old abandoned sampan, looked it over. We got a little further and that's when the action started.
When the firing started, I was behind. Everybody has a field of fire. Everybody went their own way. The next thing I remember hearing is "Hey Doc, get up here!" I charged through everybody to get up... That's when I found Christopher facedown, shot. Brewton is over here to the right. He might have been shot first.
I got to Christopher. I thought he was dead. I found him lying facedown in the water. He had returned fire until he had taken all of these wounds. I thought he was dead. I heard him gasp. I turned him over. I got another corpsman who was on the op with us to come over and keep him afloat basically laying in water until I could get the serum albumin, which I carried in a little pouch on my back. I got an IV started in him. I got people to come up to return fire. We were taking fire at this time, too. I got [Lt.] A.Y. Bryson, who was the officer in charge, to call in a medivac.
I got a dressing on his head. I think the bullet went in and came around and came out his jaw. I used to carry an ace bandage and what I did was I took the ace bandage and wrapped the fingers that were just kind of hanging there. I wrapped them in ace bandages. Then I noticed a lot of red, which was blood, down in his lower extremities. I didn't even know he was shot in the leg. It was the femoral artery. I saw he was bleeding real bad. So I real quick got a tourniquet on that to stop it and then put a pressure dressing on that.
Brewton was hit, too. We had another chief hospital corpsman on this op with us, from another platoon. I'm not even sure why he was on this op with us. His name was [HMC Erasmo] Riojas. He was - I guess he just went out in the field to go out. While I was working with Christopher, he was working with Brewton. I was so involved with Christopher, just to keep him alive, to keep his head above water. And of course the rest of the squad was returning fire. There was a pretty good firefight there for a while.
It's funny. Once I started treating Christopher - I know there were two guys, one on each side of me. A guy named [SH2 James J.] Folman was on one side. I think [AO2 Thomas H.] Tom Keith was on the other side. They were suppressing fire. To tell you the truth, I don't remember hearing anything. It was going on all this time. There were people in the bunker. They were shooting at us and were were shooting at them. I just don't remember any of that. I shut it out. I had a job to do and that was to save this guy's life.
[Up to this time had you had experience in combat as a medic?]
Not in a combat situation. This was actually my first time I had to do anything like that.
[Did you have to move?]
Actually they came right down through the canopy to get us. I thought moving Christopher, anyone, we might kill 'em. I don't remember whether it was a medevac or a Sea Wolf that came down and got us out.
[Were you under fire duing the medevac?]
No. We had suppressed all the fire so they could come down and get us out. I remember I rode the helo back. My officer in charge told me when we put the guys in the helicopter, Bryson said, "Doc, you go with them to make sure they're all right." Christopher, because of the serum albumin I'd given him, he was starting to come around. He was having a lot of pain and he didn't know where he was. He didn't know what was going on. I couldn't give him any morphine because of his head wound. I was basically just trying to keep him quiet and hold him down until we got to Saigon.
[You flew right to the hospital?]
I don't remember whether we went directly to Saigon or one of those MASH-like units on the outside. They unded up at the hospital in Saigon. Our base wasn't that far from Saigon. We could go in on a daily basis to see how they were doing.
[What was the quality of medical care?]
The hospital in Saigon seemed almost like a hospital here in the States. We felt once we could get them to a hospital, they had the best chance they could. It was getting them from that environment. A lot of times when you were operating and you had a casualty, you had to call for a medevac and the medevac had to get there and they had to come in and pick up the wounded and take them out. Well, of course it takes time. In this case, from the time they were shot, it was probably a good hour from the time we actually took fire until we got them to a hospital.
[Did Christopher survive?]
Yes. I saw him at one of our UDT/SEAL reunions a while back.
[But Brewton died?]
Once John got shot, he's lying in all this dirty, muddy water. We saved his life and got him to the hospital. They put him on these massive doses of antibiotics. But it was an almost irreversible kind of thing. He wasn't getting any better and then his kidneys just shut down. Eventually, he just died. I think it was the infection from the wounds plus the staph infection he already had.
[Captain Rick Woolard visited Brewton a number of times in the hospital. His account continues:]
They initally misdiagnosed him. They thought he had malaria in one hospital and then they sent him to 3d Field Hospital. I can tell you my impression of 3d Field Hospital. I had to have myself kidnapped from there by my platoon. I just wasn't good treatment.
They thought he had malaria and then - he had been shot three or four times, more times than they though he had, as it turned out. They ended up having to take off part of his leg, and then they had to take it off higher, and finally they took it off up here [indicating near the hip].
When they did that, they found out that he had another bullet lodged in him they didn't even know about. He just got worse and worse and finally died. Every time we got up to see him he looked worse. If they had x-rayed him thoroughly and found that other bullet, that was the source of the infection. He had something else [infection] on top of that that he had had earlier.
His fiancee came over. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. was commander, naval forces Vietnam. he took good care of Cheryl Kurit, who was Brewton's fiancee, put her up in his personal trailer. When it became apparent he was going to die, she came over and his father as well. Zumwalt took really good care of them. He personally presented him with his Purple Heart in the hospital.
After Admiral Zumwalt became the chief of naval operations, he changed the name of an FF-1086 [class fast frigate] from whatever it was going to be to Brewton in honor of Bubba.
[Lowell E. "Bo" Burwell also visted Brewton in the hospital. His account continues:]
We went up to the hospital to see him. My understanding was John had some kind of staph infection and when his body got weakened by the wound, the staph spread more quickly. I knew he had some very bad infection. In fact, the day we went to see him, the day before he died, you've have to get real close to him and talk to him. His hearing was just about gone. And his breath was almost like urine. His kidneys had quit about quit functioning. John was quite a man.
Years later, I was in Alameda when a ship came to bring the bones of the [Vietnam War] unknown, that they were going to put in Arlington. Right across from the vessel I was working on at Alameda Naval Air Station, sometime in the night, in slipped the ship that was carrying these remains. And it was the USS Brewton.
The next morning, I was going to go aboard that ship and say, "Hey, this guy right here was my squad leader." So I got my dress uniform because I wanted to look the part. And lo and behold, when I went down there, the ship had already slipped away. It was like John, you know, slipping in and then gone again during the night.