Manatu Taonga and the Viet Nam Health Trust are marking the 50th anniversary of the New Zealand surgical team's arrival in South Vietnam to treat civilian casualties of war-related accident and injury.

NZ Surgical Team

Anzac Day this year heralds half a century since inaugural team leader Dr Michael Shackleton's 1963 arrival in the Binh Dinh province, the geographic hub for New Zealand's civilian – and later military – medical support for the region's citizens over more than a decade.

A six-strong civilian medical team was part of New Zealand's initial assistance programme to Vietnam. In 1966 the Qui Nhon-based team grew to 14 – comprising three surgeons, a physician, an anaesthetist, an administrator, a laboratory technician, six nurses and a maintenance officer.

Manatu Taonga historian Claire Hall says this anniversary is a chance to commemorate the little-known history and legacy of New Zealand's support for civilians affected by the US-led military intervention in Vietnam.

"The civilian surgical team's 12 years in South Vietnam bookends New Zealand's involvement in the war," Claire Hall says.

"Dr Shackleton broke important ground when he set up home and hospital for the team in Qui Nhon, an impoverished provincial town 300km north of Saigon. With wife Annabel and their five young children in tow, he brokered difficult relationships to obtain the equipment his team needed – and win the trust of locals. Thanks to his efforts, surgical team stalwarts stayed in Vietnam beyond the withdrawal of combat troops in December 1972, and were among the last out when Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975."

The legacy continues

That legacy of compassion continues today in Qui Nhon through the work of the NZ Viet Nam Health Trust (NZVHT), a group founded by military and civilian medics working in Binh Dinh during the war.

Trust Vice chair and surgical team member in 1972 and 1974 Dr David Morris, is delighted his predecessor's pioneering efforts are being formally acknowledged.

"It's fitting that this year, for the first time, Dr Michael Shackleton and his family will stand alongside other veterans of the Vietnam War at Anzac Day celebrations in Wellington," Dr Morris says.

Civilian surgical team members and Red Cross nursing staff who worked in Vietnam, will also be included in future war-related commemorations, including Vietnam Day on August 18.

"While recognition was the last thing on our minds at the time – we knew that the situation in Vietnam was desperate and we had to help - it's gratifying to see the medical team's story assuming its rightful place in history alongside the more dominant narratives of military involvement."

Since the mid-1990s, Dr Morris has been part of an effort to re-establish the close bonds formed in wartime between Vietnamese civilians and Kiwi medics, and reinvigorate health promotion efforts in Binh Dinh.

This work is now being supported by a new generation of medics – former anti-war protestors amongst them. One such is NZVHT chair and Rotorua paediatrician Johan Morreau.

"Like the Vietnam War itself, this anniversary will mean different things to different people. I'm conscious that different generations have had differing experiences of Vietnam, and that we've all become involved with the Trust for a range of reasons. " Dr Morreau says.

"For those of us carrying on the medical aid and health promotion work initiated in wartime, this anniversary marks the genesis of a close relationship which endures to this day."

NZVHT currently supports orthopaedics, neonatal paediatrics, maternal health, cervical cancer screening, and mental health projects in Binh Dinh.

"I'm sometimes staggered by the strength of positive feeling towards us for our work in the Binh Dinh province, and the affection afforded us by the older generation of Vietnamese who colleagues would have cared for during the war. It makes me really proud to be a Kiwi when we experience this."

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Editorial Team

How to cite this page: '50th anniversary for NZ medics in Vietnam', URL: http://www.vietnamwar.govt.nz/memory/50th-anniversary-nz-medics-vietnam, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 15-Oct-2013