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For Army surgeon, Vietnam was ‘like Boy Scouts until the bullets started flying’

Dr. Albert J. Maggioli, 78

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Major

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1963-1970

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, 2 Vietnam service ribbons

Specialty: General medical officer

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Albert J. Maggioli wanted to honor his cousin Andrew who, in the midst of a successful dentistry career, was struck down by cancer.

“I wanted to be a dentist. I thought it would be nice to carry on his legacy,” Maggioli said.

But he changed course when he started at Niagara University. Maggioli signed up for the Army ROTC program – known as the Purple Eagle Battalion at NU – and enrolled in pre-med courses. That put him on a path to service as a battalion surgeon with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. No one was safe there. Not even healers. Maggioli was wounded and the recipient of the Purple Heart.

That’s getting ahead of the story.

After graduating from NU and then the medical school at University at Buffalo, Maggioli completed an internship at Ireland Army Community Hospital in Fort Knox, Ky. After that, it was on to Fort Devens in Massachusetts. The future was looking good. Then in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson started increasing the country’s military commitment to the war. Maggioli found himself on a “three-week cruise” that ended in Vietnam.

He served as the surgeon for the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, at Phuoc Vinh, a village along a small river in the flatlands of the Iron Triangle, some 40 miles northeast of Saigon.

“They called me a surgeon, but I was just fresh out of my internship. That meant if there were injuries that required surgery, the injured were medevaced after I provided first aid, IVs, things like that, along with my medics.”

The beginning of his tour put him in mind of going to Boy Scout camp.

“We were setting up tents and clearing bamboo vegetation. It was like Boy Scouts until the bullets started flying,” he said.

His battalion was initially situated outside the perimeter of the main brigade’s encampment. That proved a tempting target for Viet Cong guerillas, who figured out a strategy to get Americans shooting at Americans.

“The Viet Cong would enter the area between our camp and the main camp and fire at us, just enough to cause havoc. One of our companies returned fire and the rounds went into the brigade’s main camp. There weren’t any injuries from this friendly fire, but we got orders not to fire in that direction anymore. About a month later, we picked up stakes and moved into the main perimeter, which had been a rubber plantation.”

Safety proved elusive for him and others.

“One of our engineers detonated a land mine. I heard the explosion, and one of my medics ran into our tent and said, ‘Doc, we gotta go.’ Two of my medics carried the wounded man out under his arms. He’d lost one of his legs. We stabilized him and called in a dustoff chopper. As we were heading back to the base, a sniper took some target practice at us and we jumped out of the Jeep and into a front-line foxhole until it was all clear.”

On another occasion, during a search-and-destroy mission, the doctor said they came under fire just as they were preparing to fly back to the main base.

“One of our troopers got hit in the chest and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to have sucking chest wound.’ But the guy was really lucky. The bullet must have hit his rib or sternum and traveled around his chest and out the back, never puncturing the lung.”

While on another combat mission, Maggioli recalled a chance meeting with one of the reporters who was bringing the war into the living rooms of Americans back home by way of television.

“We had just landed and were securing the landing zone when who comes popping along in another chopper but Dan Rather and his photographer. We talked a little but I can’t remember the conversation.”

What Maggioli does remember is that he was later wounded on that same mission.

“At night, we’d go into a defensive perimeter and we would fire mortars and larger artillery to keep the enemy away, to keep him honest. Luckily, I would be in the center of the perimeter. But on this one night, I was just about to lay down my shelter half and go to sleep when we heard an explosion close by. I felt pain pretty quick in my right hand. I’d been hit with shrapnel from the explosion.”

A medic named Eddie shouted, “Oh my God, the doctor’s hit.”

“But I wasn’t the only one. Three other troopers were hit, and thankfully none of us were killed. I was treated by my medics and given a shot of morphine. It was amazing that these choppers came in in the middle of the night to transport us to the evac hospital. I refused to give up my weapons. I thought to myself, what if this chopper went down? I wanted to be able to defend myself.”

That was in January 1966.

“One of the first surgeons that saw me at the evac hospital was a classmate from Niagara University, and luckily the surgeon that operated on me was a hand surgeon. The shrapnel had pretty much shattered my right thumb.”

Maggioli recalls receiving a dose of gallows humor.

“I could hear one of the doctors commenting, ‘I hope he didn’t want to be a surgeon.’ ”

Under normal circumstances, Maggioli said he might have laughed, but he was too busy contemplating whether the wound was enough to send him home. He had good reason for such thoughts. His wife, Lynn, was six months pregnant with their third child.

And as it turned out, he left Vietnam.

Following his recuperation, he was stationed at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., where he became a pediatrician over a two-year residency.

He then returned to Fort Knox, where he was the chief of pediatrics at Ireland Army Community Hospital. Two years later, in 1970, Maggioli left the service.

For the last 37 years, he has been a partner at Amherst Pediatrics, though now he works there on a part-time basis, three days a week.

In reflecting on his war service, he says that as young man, he sincerely believed the country was doing the right thing in Vietnam. But years have broadened his perspective.

“Now looking back, I realize fighting against guerrillas who have no time schedule and will fight forever for their cause wasn’t a smart move,” the doctor said. “It cost us 58,000-plus lives.”

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