When Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on the 14th of May, 1968, she was the youngest Australian nurse to serve, at just 22 years of age. Black was part of the second contingent of Australian nurses posted to Vietnam, and served at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau. During her time in Vietnam, she had to deal with injuries caused by explosions, gunfire, mines, shellfire, malaria and fever. She treated civilians and Australian, allied and enemy soldiers with kindness and respect.
Adjusting to life in a wartime hospital was hard for the 43 nurses of the RAANC. A study on the wartime experiences of Australian nurses in Vietnam found that 'The nurses that arrived in 1968 came into an environment in which they were uncertain and clinically underprepared.' Some of the most trying times at the hospital came when a new dust-off chopper landed with many wounded patients. All the nurses (eight when Black served) would rush to the chopper to perform triage - a process of sorting out the high priority patients to those with less urgent needs. This process was very "stressful and fatiguing" for the nurses, as they had to make quick decisions that could dramatically affect the lives of the soldiers in their care. Yet Black and the other nurses pulled through this hard time with teamwork, friendship and dedication.
Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black (left) with Lieutenant Diane Carlson at the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau. Australian War Memorial.
Another struggle that Black, and the other nurses at Vung Tau faced was the malaria crisis of 1968. This outbreak of malaria commenced in July, 1968 (just two months after Black arrived in Vietnam), and continued into August, when the admissions to the hospital grew to "pandemic proportions". The outbreak was caused by soldiers not applying anti-malaria discipline, and admissions continued to rise until October, when 258 Australian and New Zealand soldiers were diagnosed with malaria. The influx of patients caused up to 60 beds (out of 106) to be filled with victims of malaria. Despite the many patients, Black and the seven other nurses of the 1st Australian Field Hospital restored many to health - the Australian nurses maintained a 97.4% survival rate for their patients. The nurses' success was based on their teamwork, as many nurses would help out in the malaria ward, even if it wasn't their shift.
Life could be difficult for wounded soldiers in hospital, but Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black endeavoured to ease the pain. As well as providing efficient medication and treatment, she would perform songs for the soldiers' entertainment. Her performances would lift the bleak horrors of war, and help to shine hope, light and humour on the soldiers' situation. Black was extremely well-liked, and helped to lift the morale of many soldiers.
Black was promoted to Temporary Captain on the 2nd of June, 1969, and carried this position until the 1st of December, 1969. 1969 was a very busy and intense year in the hospital. The number of admissions rose to 3839 - a staggering number of patients for 12 nurses to deal with. Towards the end of 1969, Black was diagnosed with Leukaemia. However, the army doctors decided to withhold this information, as the disease was untreatable at the time, Black only had a few more months of service, and she was a very valuable nurse who was needed at the hospital. The doctors also believed that Black would want to stay and help the wounded for as long as she could. However, they did tell her to seek medical attention upon her return to Australia.
Lieutenant Barbara Frances Black returned to Australia and was relieved of duty on the 1st of April 1970. During her time in Vietnam, Black's dedication and kindness saved the lives of many soldiers, while her singing raised their spirits.