Vietnam Veteran Reconnects With Nurses 45 Years After Rescuing Them
Former Army MP Ron Paliughi (L) helped save the life of USAID worker Carol Portner (second from left). Maureen and Steve Orr were stranded in the same villa as Carol when the Tet Offensive began. (Courtesy Carol Portner)
Late in the evening of January 30, 1968, what nurse Carol Portner thought were fireworks celebrating the Vietnamese lunar New Year turned out to be mortar and gunfire.
"It really sounded like fireworks,” Portner says. “And then it sounded like the war was just all over the city, people running and yelling. It was just total chaos, it was total chaos.”
North Vietnamese forces had launched a surprise attack on many South Vietnamese cities in what became known as the Tet Offensive.
Portner was on a USAID mission treating patients with Bubonic plague and tuberculosis in a hospital in the coastal city of Nha Trang. She lived in a run-down French Colonial villa across from a U.S. military compound and was at the house when the attack happened.
"We knew we were in critical danger but we didn’t know what to do,” she says.
Portner and another nurse, Sally Maxwell, hid behind a steamer trunk in a closet. They covered themselves up with clothes. They could hear the footsteps of North Vietnamese soldiers in the house and even on the stairway up to their second story room. But in the morning, the soldiers who opened the door were American.
“It was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it, somebody’s come to rescue us,’” Portner says. “They gave us their helmets and they gave us their flak jackets and walked us across through all kinds of fire that was going on in the streets.” She had to avoid dead North Vietnamese and American soldiers on the ground.
Army soldiers Ron Paliughi and Ed Smith whisked the nurses to the military compound, and then returned to the street fighting. Portner never saw them again. She knew that several soldiers had been killed that night.
“I think we were probably just in shock and didn’t want to know if the ones that rescued us were killed,” she says. “I don’t know what our thinking might have been at the time. It was so chaotic.”
Paliughi remembers the event as if it were yesterday. “It was very intense, there was a lot of shooting, a couple of grenades were thrown,” he says.
The American unit across the street was having trouble getting into the villa. So Paliughi’s unit was called in.
“Nobody knew where the nurses were, the thought was they were perhaps dead,” he says. “And we were sent in, my small group was asked to assist the unit in charge of security for this area.”
When they got into the villa, there were bullet holes all over the walls. “We did not find them the first time so we went back in,” Paliughi says.
“We’d thought they’d been abducted because we couldn’t find them, we almost walked out, but then I saw a foot or something behind a big steamer trunk.”
Paliughi and Smith pulled the nurses out and protected them. “If it hadn’t been for those two, none of us would have lived,” Portner says.
After Nha Trang, Paliughi and Ed Smith deployed north. Smith was sent to the city of Hue. Paliughi says it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Tet Offensive.
“A lot of atrocities were committed by the North Vietnamese on the civilian population. I think Ed saw a lot of that and was really affected by it,” Paliughi says.
But both soldiers survived the war, and came home. They remained good friends and were each other’s best man at their weddings.
Two years ago, Paliughi stood grieving on a hillside in a rural cemetery in Indiana -- at Smith’s burial. He thought back to that New Year’s and the Tet Offensive, and decided as a tribute to Ed, he would find out what happened to the nurses they rescued.
“Knowing what he went through, I wanted to know that it had some meaning, I guess,” he says. “And I think when you’re an older person you think like that. When you’re a younger person, you don’t think like that. So that really spurred me on to try to find out what happened.”
Portner understands. “He wanted to know if what he had done and what Ed had done had been worth it in terms of the nurses at least because they had so many other things that went on after the Tet Offensive that I’m sure were just horrendous.”
Paliughi had looked for the nurses before but he always used the search terms military nurses. He didn’t realize they actually worked for USAID. Finally he just googled the name of the military compound and up popped a book called The Perennial Wanderer written by a state department consultant named Steve Orr.
In one chapter, Orr, then a refugee officer, described how he and his now wife Maureen were also in the villa on the night of the attack. They were hiding under a mattress, terrified.
Paliughi read the book on his iPad on a sleepless night in Fresno. It gave him the chills.
“So I emailed him right there at 2 o’clock in the morning and said ‘I’m reading your book and I’m astounded that I found out finally what happened. If you get this email, please get back to me.’ And he did the next morning.”
It turned out that Maureen Orr had worked with Carol Portner and Sally Maxwell in Vietnam. In fact Orr and Portner were good friends in Vietnam but lost touch with each other after they returned to the States. When Maureen heard about Paliughi, she decided to try harder to find Portner. She soon learned that they were both living in Florida, a few hours apart.
Maxwell had recently passed away. But the others have reunited twice in Florida. Portner says she was thrilled to finally meet Paliughi.
“I had no idea that this man was alive and well, and was the soldier who saved my life,” Portner says. “I always thought it was the soldiers who lived in the MP compound across the street from our villa but it was Ron and his group of soldiers that had been asked to help out the MP group across the street from us.”
She says she knows Paliughi carries the scars of war with him.
“I wanted him to know that we had had wonderful lives, we had had rich and fulfilling lives, we had done some good things with our lives,” she says.