Proof of vaccination was valued bargaining chip in Vietnam era

A front line medical worker receives a vaccination against COVID-19 at Providence Little Company Mary. Similarly to today, vaccinations during the Vietnam era gave soldiers freedom to travel between countries. Photo by Kevin Cody

by John Cody

In 1968, the last step in officers’ training was to get the Yellow Shot booklet. I had almost finished three months at introductory army at Fort Sam Houston during a brutally hot summer in San Antonio, Texas. I told the Army they could send me anywhere, just get me out of San Antonio. But before shipping us out, we had to get the dreaded Yellow Shot booklet.

The Army did not know where we were going to be sent, so we had to get vaccines for every possible location. The Yellow Shot booklet had pages that verified you had received shots for malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and typhoid among other possible diseases.

Under the hot Texas sun, we lined up before a large tent, dressed in T- shirts, fatigue pants and boots. In the tent, medics were lined up in two rows, armed with vaccine shot guns. We were told to march between the rows of medics as they pressed the vaccine guns into our arms. The medics administered  six shots, three in each arm. When we got to the end of the rows, our T- shirts were splattered with blood. This procedure was repeated the next day, and while we felt feverish and achy we each got our own Yellow Shot booklet, which allowed us to move from country to country.

The Yellow Shot booklet became our most valuable possession. If lost, then the whole vaccine process had to be repeated. On arrival at a new duty post, the Yellow Shot booklet was secured in the post medical facility. If you were going on TDY, or leave, you went to the medical facility and retrieved the booklet, which allowed inter country travel.

After three years overseas, I had become wise to Army ways and was a Captain assigned to Zama Hospital, a large evac hospital for injured Vietnam soldiers. One day, my CO called me into his office with a problem. The MP captain at the main camp was hassling our medical personnel with petty violations. Since this MP Captain had gone to Cal (Berkeley), and I had gone to UCLA, my CO thought I could talk to him and resolve this conflict. The main camp was about 5 klicks away so I drove down to meet him.

I explained we were all on the same team, with the same goals, and we were both returning to civilian life soon. This hassling was annoying my CO and counterproductive to our objectives. He responded that our guys were pompous jerks and needed to be taught a lesson. Actually, he expressed this more strongly, in MP language, and told me to get out of his office. I complied because he was a much larger captain than me.

I reported to my CO that we had a minor setback, but I had a plan. The next week I was assigned as OD, Officer on Duty. That meant the CO was off base and the OD was acting in his place. By chance, that day an MP sergeant came to the hospital to retrieve his Yellow Shot booklet. He was going on leave to Thailand and needed the booklet to enter the country. I explained that the night before the hospital had a minor pipe break and flooding had caused some problems. Turned out we could not find any of the Yellow Shot booklets belonging to the MP platoon. When I suggested we give him a new set of the 12 shots he started tearing up.

The next morning the MP Captain barged unannounced into my office and demanded an explanation. I told him bad things happen, or words to that effect, and we needed all the MPs to come into the hospital for new shots. After a bit of yelling he calmed down. He asked that if his guys gave special treatment to the hospital personnel maybe we could find the Yellow Shot booklets. I agreed this was a possibility and suggested his sergeant return the next day and perhaps his situation could be favorably resolved.

The MP Captain was very angry but I got discharged three months later and never saw him again. ER

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