Nurse in Vietnam - Frances Palmer

Submitted by fpalm on

I worked in Vietnam as a nurse on the international Save the Children Fund team (UK, Norway, NZ) 11 Dec 1974 to 5 April 1975 when evacuated. 

I was based in child health clinics on Quang Tri province border, and briefly in Da Nang as NVA advanced southwards.

My experiences in the last months of the Vietnam war are outlined in the attached nine pages below. Life was high risk for our clients but there were positive moments. I was one of the last foreigners doing medical work in Quang Tri on the north/south border. On our last day there, I gave each of our Vietnamese staff a tiki or kiwi from the NZ Medical Team. They wore these religiously, clutching them tightly 'for luck' as we investigated the latest bridge bombing, as NVA began their push south. We routinely crossed several bridges with raised platforms over missing sections, bombed regularly. That was impossible this time (10 March 1975).

When our clients flooded into Hue, we focused on refugee camps there, until relocating to Da Nang further south for 2 weeks or so. Despite the panic of Vietnamese civilians as the NVA moved south, there appeared to be little military confrontation around Da Nang.

In early 1975, I visited Dr Margaret Neave and NZ Medical Team in Qhi Nhon, and teed up with her there again on a return visit in 1991 where she regularly still worked in child health clinics. We kept in touch in Wellington early 1990s when I worked as NGO Liaison officer for ODA, MFAT. My Vietnam trip in 1991 wasn't 'official' but my position helped me set up some desperately needed NGO aid support for Quang Tri.

I later worked in reception centres for Vietnamese 'boat people' in England and Scotland in 1980. One in Leeds was for unaccompanied teens who were regularly attacked by skinheads when English staff weren't there. Police were slow to respond to pleas for help, if at all. The teens dared not fight back as they were afraid of being sent out of UK, so they wound up in casualty depts. The attacks stopped when I moved in (staying weekends) fortunately, as despair and suicidal ideation was setting in for some.

Nursing Cambodians stemmed from the same source, as intense 'secret' US bombing fuelled Khmer Rouge recruitment, paving the way for their brutal takeover in 1975, the ensuing destruction of Khmer society and refugee crisis. Another NZ nurse, Barbara Heasley, and I volunteered to work with SCF in Cambodia, but political pressure forced most western NGOs to deny aid to the Vietnamese supported Khmer govt. Instead we were sent in late 1979 to a camp for Khmers in Thailand, in which Khmer Rouge still had considerable sway. We each ran a clinic and feeding centres, training local staff.

In 2009 while Dame Cartwright was in Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge trials, and about the time Rob Hamill's documentary on his brother's capture went public, I did a PG Diploma in Secondary Teaching and found NZ students were intensely interested in this, so I wrote a handbook for teachers:'Cambodia - Faces of Violence: Hegemony and Holocaust'  published by AHTA (Auckland History Teachers Assn). It includes 'recent' kiwi involvement - legal, victim, peacekeeping, and medical, including photos of Sa Kaeo refugee camp.

Barbara and I visited Cambodia in 2010 to support good work NZ VSA volunteers did on education and child protection. NZ Cambodia Trust continues this work.


Frances Palmer

How to cite this page: ' Nurse in Vietnam - Frances Palmer ', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Nov-2022