That time Air Force surgeons disarmed a ‘human bomb’ in Vietnam
All in a day’s work.
A desperately needed surgery that could go very wrong at any time. That’s what one Air Force surgeon confronted 57 years ago when he operated on a patient with a live grenade embedded in his body, essentially making him a human bomb.
On November 5, 1965, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Humphreys was in South Vietnam working as the assistant director for public health with the U.S. Agency for International Development. An experienced surgeon, he’d commanded a U.S. Army medical battalion in World War II, transferred to the Air Force, and would eventually go on to become a director of space medicine at NASA.
On this day, though, Humphreys’ concern was removing a grenade from someone’s body without blowing everyone up.
The patient was a 52-year-old farmer named Nguyen Van Chinh, who had been struck with a round from an M79 grenade launcher. The grenade didn’t detonate, but it left the man with a three-inch-long explosive projectile lodged just above his right kidney.
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Chinh was taken to Saigon, where doctors discovered the grenade.
Humphreys, along with another Air Force surgeon and a civilian anesthetist, volunteered to remove it.
A makeshift operating room was set up, with the doctors partially shielded by sandbags and bulletproof glass.
As recounted in a central California newspaper in 1965, the grenade had been fired from such a short distance that it was still inert. The patient, incredibly enough, was apparently able to walk into the operating room by himself.
Video of the operation was caught on film and later posted online by Pathé News, a newsreel and documentary production company in the United Kingdom. The clip shows Chinh climbing into the heavily fortified surgical bed, as Humphreys prepares to start the operation.
Humphreys and his assistant used a scalpel attached to a five-foot-long pole to open up the wound and remove the grenade.
“Humphreys gingerly loosened the 40 MM grenade from the surrounding flesh, and pulled it from the man’s back with long forceps about the size of ice tongs,” reads a United Press International account of the surgery published in the Madera Tribune.
The entire surgical procedure lasted just 13 minutes.
If this scenario does seem slightly familiar, that may be because it was the secondary plot to an episode of M*A*S*H, a 1970s sitcom that followed a group of doctors in Korea, wherein the members of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital have to remove a live grenade embedded in a soldier’s leg.
In reality, it was apparently just another day at work for Humphreys, who remarked afterward that “it looked like a pretty good challenge.”
Correction: 11/3/2022; An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that M*A*S*H took place during the Vietnam War. That is incorrect. The series took place during the Korean War.
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