by Stan Griffin


     On a chain around his neck, Dr. Tom Dooley wore a gold St. Christopher's medal.  In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers.  Engraved on the back of that medal were these words from a Robert Frost poem:  "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep."  Such thoughts were constantly in the mind of the young doctor:  promises to the sick in Southeast Asia and all the miles he would have to travel (and time he needed to spend) in order to keep those promises.  Unfortunately, his final "sleep" came all too soon. 

     Thomas Anthony Dooley III was born in St. Louis, Missouri on January 17, 1927.  His family was of Irish-American ancestry, and they were lifelong Catholics.

     Dooley enrolled in Notre Dame University but dropped out temporarily to enlist in the U. S. Navy.  (World War II was in progress.)  He served as a medical corpsman until his discharge in 1946.

     At the age of 19, Dooley returned to Notre Dame.  After he graduated, he was accepted at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.  Completing his studies in 1953, he was awarded a degree.  He later recalled that his teachers had predicted he would eventually become a "society doctor."

     The following year Dooley rejoined the Navy, this time as an intern with the rank of lieutenant.  He was assigned to the "U. S. S. Montague" (designated as an AKA--Auxiliary Cargo Attack ship).  At this poiny in his life, Dooley planned to make the Navy his career.

     The "Montague" soon became involved in the largest evacuation ever undertaken by the U. S. Navy.  It was ordered to participate in "Operation Passage to Freedom" and was dispatched to Haiphong, Vietnam, (Indochina) in August, 1954.  Dooley's experiences there caused him to take another look at his future.

     The area called "Indochina" was the eastern half of a long and curving peninsula extending into the South China Sea from the mainland of Southeast Asia.  It included the  countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  At the beginning of World War II, Indochina was controlled by France as it had been since the late 1800s.  The Japanese drove out the French and occupied the area until war's end.

     In the first years which followed Japan's surrender in 1945, there was no real government in Vietnam.  A man named Ho Chi Minh returned from China as head of the "Vietminh" (the Communist Revolutionary League for Independence of Vietnam).  This group declared the country to be independent and under their control.  However, French forces returned to oppose the Communist-trained nationalists.

     After eight years of bitter civil warfare, the French were defeated in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the Communist Vietminh government took over.

     A treaty was signed in Geneva, Switzerland later that same year.  It provided for the independence of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Additionally, it divided Vietnam into two countries.  North of the 17th parallel became North Vietnam.  All land south of that line became South Vietnam.  Elections were to be held within a year to unite Vietnam under one government, but this did not happen.

     For about a year following implementation of that treaty, people living in the North were allowed to move South freely if they chose to do so.  In point of fact, the Vietnimh made it extremely difficult for them to get away from the oppressive Communist government--difficult but not impossible!  They came in large numbers, hoping for escape to the south.

     The city of Haiphong, North Vietnam was designated as a departure point for those who were leaving the North to live in South Vietnam.  Temporarily, a crescent-shaped area that  included Haiphong and the capital city of Hanoi was to remain a "free zone," accessible to all.  People who wanted to leave the North were to make their way to Haiphong where they could board ships headed south.  U. S. Navy vessels were to help in this "Operation Passage to Freedom," carrying Vietnamese who were fleeing the "godless cruelties of Communism..."

     The "Montague" was refitted to provide maximum amount  space for the refugees.  It was a 1,000-mile journey to the city of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.  The trip usually took two days and three nights.  By utilizing every inch of space, 2,000 refugees were brought on board to make the voyage.  Dr. Dooley worked diligently (and successfully) to maintain a healthy environment for them--only two of the passengers died during the first trip.

     After one more of these expeditions, Dooley received a different assignment.  He became medical officer (and eventully commanding officer) of a small detachment that helped care for the people waiting in Haiphong for the next ship to Saigon.

     An International Control Commission (ICC) had been created by the Geneva treaty.  Its job was to oversee the process which was taking place in Haiphong.  However, it did not provide any assistance in caring for the refugees while they were waiting for transportation.  So the U. S. Navy, in the person of Dr. Dooley and four young enlisted men (medical corpsmen), took on that challenging task.

     For approximately six months, Dooley was in charge.  During that time, about 600,000 refugees passed through Haiphong on their way to South Vietnam.  On any given day, there could have been as many as 15,000-30,000 people to be helped.  Fighting disease as well as Vietminh obstruction, Dooley and his men set up a number of camps.  The Navy provided shelter, food, water, and medical care for the exhausted refugees.  Dooley and his men had to work constantly to erase a negative image of America which had been planted in Vietnamese minds by the Communists.

     Necessary supplies were "scrounged" from Navy ships, many of which also sent temporary volunteers to assist Dooley.  Doctor and corpsmen labored long hours to maintain healthy conditions.  Dooley wrote:  "We saw TLC (tender loving care) and crude medicine change fear and hatred into friendship and understanding ..."

     It was there in Vietnam that Dooley saw " ...the possibilities of medical aid with its Christlike power and simplicity ... (and he would) make a positive contribution ..."

     The final days of Dooley's mission were chaotic as the Vietminh sent officials and soldiers into Haiphong.  On May 12, 1955 the final U. S. ship departed with its cargo of refugees headed for Saigon.  By the time he left Vietnam, Dooley who was 6 feet tall, weighed only 120 pounds (a loss of 60 pounds).

     The doctor resigned his commission in 1956 and became a civilian with a purpose.  His goal was to continue his medical work in the same geographic area, remembering the "... promises to keep ..." which haunted him in Vietnam.  He believed that medical aid could form a lasting bond of friendship between East and West and that American doctors had a duty to provide that aid.

     Dooley wanted to build a medical mission that would be privately funded with no U.S. government sponsorship, no connection with any church, and no obligation to anyone except the "plain people" who needed his help.

     Returning to Vietnam was out of the question:  the North was now behind the "Bamboo Curtain" (controlled by the Communists), and the South didn't seem to need him.  He had a series of meetings, including one with officials of Laos.  The Laotians were very eager to have Dooley come to their country.  The International Rescue Committee agreed to make "Operation Laos" part of their organization while it continued to function with Dooley's ideals.

     Laos had a population of one million people but had only one fully qualified medical doctor in the entire country.  They desperately needed medical assistance.

     Dooley made the rounds of medical supply companies in this country, asking for donations; he was very successful.  The U. S. Navy agreed to transport tons of medicine, food, and equipment collected by Dooley to Asia.  Three of his corpsmen from duty in Vietnam volunteered to be part of this project, too.

     It was mid-1956 when Dooley's first hospital was established in Laos at the village of Vang Vieng, 120 miles north of the capital of Vientiane.  He considered this a "shakedown" (test of performance) for the place he really wanted to go:  another village named Nam Tha.

     The doctor spent about six months in Vang Vieng, treating patients with a variety of ailments:  ringworm; yaws (a skin disease); tuberculosis; leprosy; pneumonia, malaria (half of their patients had it).  They also had to deal with injuries that had been neglected and had become infected.  Dooley and his staff gave classes in nutrition, hygiene, and cleanliness; they also trained native nurses and midwives.

     Early in 1957 Dooley was able to take his people to Nam Tha.  It presented additional hazards, being located far to the north and close to the Chinese border.  There they had to endure extreme isolation, monsoon rains, lack of transportation, hostile natives, snakes, leeches, bloodsuckers, and an occasional water buffalo and tiger.  The Americans lived in a "perpetual state of fear" under those conditions: but despite the hardships, they persisted.

     The Communists spent a lot of time creating fear and hatred among the natives, so Dooley had a constant battle to portray an accurate picture of American motives in Laos.  The Pathet Lao (Communist organization) spread the word that the Americans were spies.  Local "witch doctors" did not like the competition and frequently put a "hex" on the hospital.  Dooley made efforts to work WITH them whenever possible, even treating the same patients with both techniques.  There were times when he was referred to as the "white witch doctor Dooley."

     Dooley believed that the basic fight in Laos was ignorance, not disease.  He worked constantly to educate the people on how to improve their lives. 

     On the positive side, Dr. Dooley "saw God in the rainforest, in the monsoon mud, in the smell of the earth, trees, and flowers, and in the peace of hills and valleys" of Laos.

     Besides patient care in the village hospital, Dooley and his assistants would make regular "sick call" trips to the surrounding areas.  There they would treat people who couldn't get to the hospital or who were afraid to trust the Americans.  Dooley said, "We wanted to show ...  our ability to work at the level of the people we want to help."

     Another technique that he used was to encourage patients to pay for their care with whatever they had:  he received such things as chickens, rice, pineapple, etc.

     In late 1957 Dooley made the decision to leave Nam Tha and Laos (at least temporarily).  He asked the Minister of Health to do three things:  (1) give the hospital a charter which would insure regular financing; (2) send two trained nurses to replace his staff at the hospital; and (3) send two Laotian doctors to work there. 

     In return, Dooley would agree to leave EVERYTHING he had brought into the country and turn his facility over to the government of Laos.  This arrangement met with the minister's approval, and he told Dooley that he was welcome to return at any time in the future.

     Dr. Dooley made the point that " ...America should not try to build a dynasty in a foreign land ... (and) not attempt to make (them) dependent on us for its maintenance ... This is what aid should be ... (It should work) ... into a position where it abolishes any further need of itself."

     With final plans completed, Dooley left Laos late in 1957.  On his way to the United States, he stopped off in Africa and spent some time working in Dr. Schweitzer's hospital.  The doctor had admired Schweitzer's accomplishments for many years, and it was a thrill for Dooley to meet and work with him. 

     In Washington, D. C. Dooley met with Dr. Peter Commanduras, associate professor of Clinical Medicine at George Washington University Medical School.  They discussed American aid to foreign countries that would be independent of government control and performed by individual doctors.  They found they agreed on many elements of the subject.

     A week later Dooley appeared before the International Rescue Committee and asked them to approve this project:

     They would act as sponsor for six medical teams that would be sent around the world.  He would lead one team to Laos.  A second team would go to Burma and be in charge of Dr. Gordon Seagrave, the famous "Burma Surgeon."  The other four teams would go to designated critical areas. 

     After some discussion, the IRC gave approval to Dooley's proposal.  So  MEDICO (Medical International Cooperation) was created.

     At a press conference held in February, 1958 Dr. Dooley made these points about MEDICO:

     (1) "We will do our level best, wherever we go, and with what little we have, to let the 'plain' people of the world know that Americans really care."

     (2) MEDICO was not a religious organization.  Their intention was not to convert people.  It was also not a political organization.

     (3) Dr. Commanduras would be Secretary-General of MEDICO.

     (4) MEDICO would serve people of foreign lands, aiding the sick and would also win friendship for this country abroad.

     Dr. Dooley spent the next five months on a lecture tour in the U. S.  He had several objectives:  (1) recruit medical personnel for MEDICO teams; (2) raise money in donations from the general public; and (3) contact American businesses for contributions of medicines and surgical supplies needed by the teams.  He made 188 speeches in 79 different cities.

     When he had finished his tour, Dooley had been given $1 million worth of medicines and $300,000 in cash donations.  Another source of income for MEDICO would be all of Dooley's book royalties (money paid to an author by a publishing company).  He had written two books: "Deliver Us From Evil" in 1956 about his Vietnam experiences; and "The Edge of Tomorrow" in 1958 (just released) about his work in Laos.  Still another result of his efforts were the 600 doctors, corpsmen, and nurses who had applied to join a MEDICO team. 

     Dr. Dooley returned to Laos in August of 1958 for his second visit.  This time a village in the north named Muong Sing was his base of operations.  It was located west and north from Nam Tha, among the mountains and jungles. 

     At first their hospital compound consisted of two dilapidated straw-and-mud-cement huts.  A lot of work was necessary before they had usable buildings.

     Dooley recruited a group of local people to work in the hospital and provided them with necessary training.  Some of these were members of the local military.  Dooley said about this:  "We had to re-teach ourselves that patience is the companion of wisdom."

     Dooley sometimes referred to the hospital as a "compassionate candle in the darkness."  Still, the staff found their work at times to be drudgery:  frustrating, and sometimes hopeless.  It was their custom to work seven days a week, and every six months they took off a week to rest.

     Patients came in with all-too-familiar ailments:  malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, leprosy, etc.  One in 10 of the patients over 40 years of age was found to have tuberculosis; at age 50, that increased to one in five of them.

     The MEDICO team received contributions from schools all over the U.S.  Many of them made the hospital a class project.  At Christmas, 1958, Dooley sent a message to a St. Louis radio station for broadcast.  Thousands of letters were sent to the team every month.

     Dooley once wrote:  "We are simply the hands. The heart is in America."  and " ... the greatest power that God has given to men--they have helped their fellow man."

     MEDICO was organized so they would accomplish the following:

     (1) A team would be sent to places that made a request.

     (2) They would build and stock a small hospital.

     (3) They would train villagers to run the hospital on a simple level.

     (4) After 2 - 4 years, the hospital would be turned over to the host government.

     Dooley's hospital was never called an "American hospital" but rather a "Laotian hospital" run by Americans for a while.  In Laos, the government paid the salary of Dooley's workers, furnished 30% - 40% of medical supplies, took care of all internal transportation, and provided all building materials.

      It was February of 1959 when Dooley and his staff took a two-week trip back to visit Nam Tha, traveling part of the way by boat.  As they were returning, they stopped at several villages:  some along the smaller Nam Tha River and others on the larger Mekong River.  On his way to one of those villages, Dooley lost his balance and fell down a 25-foot slope.  He landed on some rocks, gashing his head and hurting his chest and arm.  At the time, this seemed like a fairly minor incident; but later it assumed much larger significance.

     Communists kept up their accusations that Dooley's people were U. S. spies and were sending agents into China, describing them as "corrupt and depraved ... monsters."  They also made threats.

     Dooley's shoulder and chest continued to give him pain, and he treated himself with codeine.

     One night in May, Dooley and his people witnessed the "night they burned the mountain."  The Laotian mountain tribes around Muong Sing didn't plant their rice in water paddies (the procedure in other locations) but on slopes of the mountains.  The proper time was chosen by village "sorcerors."  On the designated night, all of the tribesmen took torches. went up the mountain, and turned all of the jungle slopes into a fiery inferno.   This was a very impressive sight, with flames to be seen everywhere.

     When the fires burned themselves out, usually after several days, blackened ashes and dead earth covered the slopes.  The monsoon rains followed shortly, and the water falling on the ashes converted the ground into rich, fertilized soil.  It was into that soil that rice was planted.

     Dr. Dooley's chest pains increased.  By June a small lump on his upper chest had gotten larger.  His arm also continued to ache badly.

     In July, Dr. Bill Van Valin, a friend of Dooley's, came for a week's visit.  After an examination, Van Valin performed surgery to remove the lump (or tumor).  When the doctors checked it, they found its color was jet black.  Medical knowledge in 1959 told them that such a tumor was probably cancerous, but confirmation was necessary.

     The tumor was sent to a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand which had the facilities to do required tests.  In the meantime Dooley continued to work, in spite of his discomfort and the uncertainty he felt.

     In August, 1959 Communist North Vietnamese forces crossed the border to invade Laos.  From the hospital the Americans could hear gunfire in the distance.  Dooley had his staff go through some war training exercises, just in case.

     On August, 1959 Dooley received a letter from Dr. Commandura suggesting strongly that he leave Laos and return to the U. S.  No reason was given, but Dooley correctly guessed that it concerned his tumor.  When he arrived at the Bangkok hospital, he was told that the tumor had been diagnosed as a "second stage of malignant melanoma" (cancer).  Among patients with that condition in 1959, only 50% lived as long as one year.

     From Bangkok, Dooley flew to New York City where he underwent an operation which removed much of the "skin muscles, nodes, veins, nerves, and tissues on the right side of the chest and axilla (armpit) ..."   The date was August 27, 1959.  He came through the surgery successfully, although there was a lot of discomfort.  His doctors were not optimistic about what might be ahead for him.  

     Dooley's decision about the future was expressed in this way:  "Whatever time was left ... I would continue to help the clots and clusters of ... wretched (people) in Asia to the utmost of my ability ..."

     While he was recuperating, he received hundreds of letters from people who wished him good luck in his fight against cancer.  During this time, Dooley was announced as the recipient of Mutual of Omaha's Criss Award. It honored him as " ... an outstanding example of a free man helping other free men on a person-to-person basis."

     After a period of rest, he made some speeches to raise money for MEDICO.  He also finished his third book, "The Night They Burned the Mountain."  In November he attended a ceremony where he was formally presented with his award.  By Christmas, he was back in Laos.

     Dr. Tom Dooley died of cancer in New York City on January 18, 1961.  In recognition of his humanitarian work, Congress posthumously (occurring after death) awarded him a gold medal.

     While Dooley was in Laos with his team, an unidentified high government official in Washington, D. C. expressed this evaluation of the doctor's work:  "The success of American foreign policy in Asia depends primarily on the image Dooley and his friends create of America and Americans in the minds of Asian people."  High praise indeed!

     During the time he was practicing medicine in Southeast Asia, Dooley acquired a number of names in addition to the basic title of "Doctor."  He was called the "Jungle Doctor of Laos" and "The Splendid American."  In Vietnam, he was "Bac Sy My" (American naval doctor).  In Laos, he was referred to as "Thanh Mo America" (Doctor America).

     Dr. Dooley's faith was an important element in his campaign against disease.  This statement by the doctor  reinforces that fact:

     "Poverty, malnutrition, and wretchedness make health impossible--they are completely man-made.  But the cure for those problems, and the compassion to work for a cure, come from God." 


You might also enjoy these stories by Stan Griffin:

Alexander Fleming and Penicillin

"Always to the Danger"--Tom Griffin of Doolittle's Raiders

Will Rogers, The "Cherokee Kid"

Norman Rockwell : "The People's Artist"


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