JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
It was the morning of June 8, 1969, and 1st Lt. Sharon Lane, a U.S. Army nurse, was finishing an overnight shift at the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, South Vietnam, when the hospital came under enemy fire.
As the hospital was being attacked, Lane and the rest of the hospital staff sprang into action to protect their patients by moving them under their beds or, for those patients who couldn’t be moved, putting mattresses to cover them from the Viet Cong mortar and rocket fire hitting the hospital.
Lane was attempting to move Vietnamese patients to safety, to protect them from the mortar and rocket fire, when a Soviet-built 122 mm rocket struck the ward she was working in. Fragments from the rocket struck Lane in the chest, killing her instantly. She was 25.
With her death, Lane became the only U.S. military nurse killed by enemy fire in the Vietnam War.
The life of Lane and her legacy of service is the subject of a new exhibit at the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
George Wunderlich, AMEDD Museum director, said Lane was a devoted nurse who epitomized the Army values of selfless service, duty and honor.
“There are a couple of things that are unique about her,” Wunderlich said. “First of all, she gave her life actually protecting Vietnamese nationals who were being treated in a U.S. hospital. From what we can tell from the people who served with her, she was highly respected as a practitioner. She was incredibly energetic; absolutely devoted to what she did and then in the end, she gave her life to her patients.”
Born July 7, 1943, Lane grew up in Canton, Ohio, where she graduated from Canton South High School in 1961. She decided to pursue a career in nursing by attending the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing in Canton. After graduating from nursing school in 1965, Lane worked at a local hospital for two years before deciding to take classes at a local business college.
But after taking business courses briefly, she decided to get back into nursing by joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in April 1968.
Coincidentally, Lane started her military training in May 1968 at the old Brooke Army Medical Center, located near the AMEDD Museum at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, which now house the U.S. Army South headquarters. She completed her training at BAMC in June 1968 with the rank of second lieutenant.
Her first duty assignment was at Fitzsimons General Hospital, an Army hospital in Denver, Colorado, where she served for a year working in the tuberculosis wards and the cardiac division’s intensive care unit. During her time at the hospital, Lane was promoted to first lieutenant.
In April 1969, Lane got her orders to go to Vietnam. She arrived at the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai on April 29. Lane was in Vietnam for only 41 days when she was killed.
During her brief time at Chu Lai, Lane worked in the ward caring for Vietnamese patients, civilians and children. Even when she was off duty, Lane was still serving. She volunteered her time caring for critically injured American troops in the hospital’s surgical intensive care unit.
Wunderlich said the museum had a previous exhibit about Lane, which had a limited display of artifacts and some interpretation.
The newly upgraded exhibit has more interpretation and details about Lane’s life, service and death and additional artifacts, including her utility fatigue trousers and shirt, duty dress, the Bronze Star “V” for valor, Purple Heart medals that were awarded to her posthumously and an interpretative display. Other artifacts to be added to the exhibit later include a condolence letter from President Richard Nixon and photos of the Chu Lai hospital complex in Vietnam at about the time period she served there.
“There was not a lot of information about her and how she died in the previous exhibit,” Wunderlich said. “We’re going to be correcting that now.”
Wunderlich said the exhibit’s artifacts were donated to the Army by Lane’s mother and have been processed and transferred into the museum’s collection at different times during the last 12 years.
Angelique Kelley, AMEDD Center of History and Heritage museum specialist, said the museum has put together a new exhibit on Lane that better develops and tells her story.
Kelley said the upgraded exhibit has an interpretative panel that tells about Lane’s background and life story and the events leading up to her death at the Army hospital she was serving at in Vietnam.
“We wanted to focus on her actions,” Kelley said. “She was a great individual just in the sense of how far she was willing to go in her dedication to the mission. We weren’t doing that enough justice with what we had up before.”
Kelley said at the time Lane was serving as an Army nurse, the roles of women in the military began to change as more of them began to serve in areas closer to enemy fire - putting military women much more in danger.
“It really marked a turning point in the way the military addressed women, women nurses and the roles they played,” she said.
In addition, Kelley said the exhibit on Lane also touches upon the military’s efforts to care for civilians affected by the war.
“We start seeing more of our humanitarian efforts going out trying to offer relief to the civilian populations as well, and she (Lane) really kind of helps bridge that gap of showing where we were making strides to help the local populace, not just fight the war,” Kelley said.
During a 2001 interview, retired Col. Jane Carson, Lane’s commander at Chu Lai, said Lane was a very gentle and quiet individual who had compassion for the Vietnamese patients she was caring for in the hospital’s ward.
Lane was laid to rest with full military honors in Canton.
The AMEDD Museum, located at the corner of Harry Wurzbach and Stanley roads at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, is free and open to both Department of Defense cardholders and the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Visitors who want to come to the museum but do not have DOD access to get into JBSA-Fort Sam Houston can find information on base entry requirements at http://www.jbsa.mil/Information/Visitor-Information/.
Museum information is at http://ameddmuseum.amedd.army.mil/index.html. To contact the museum, call 210-221-6358.