498th Dust Off

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The Leprosarium was located a mile or so south of Qui Nhon in a small crescent shaped valley. It’s mile long, sandy beach was pinched off at both ends by rocky outcrops—so that it was impossible to travel beyond the limits of the beach without swimming around, or climbing over, these rocky bookends. This unique geological feature, along with the hills that encircled the colony, effectively isolated the lepers from casual passers-by.

The colony was administered by a dedicated group of French nuns. And, while much of the Vietnamese population lived in drab, makeshift shanties, the leper’s homes were neat, clean, and brightly painted. One could say they were cheery by comparison.

When work schedules allowed, groups of Dust Off personnel would be flown to the Leprosarium for a ‘day at the beach.’ A pick-up ship would be sent over in the afternoon, to return the beach-goers to the drab confines of Lane.

The nuns had a special place in the their hearts for the boys from Dust Off, for we would always bring them “surplus” medical supplies and food stuffs for the lepers. One time we even managed to fill a “Deuce ‘n’ a half” (2 1/2 ton) truck with surplus goodies that we delivered to the nuns, much to their delight.

So it was, after we'd spent the morning body surfing in the South China Sea, the nuns would come out to the beach calling “Dust Off! Dust Off!” -- letting us know it was time for lunch. We would hurry eagerly to the main building where we'd be treated to fresh-baked cakes and pastries, served with iced tea or French coffee. Sometimes the nuns would prepare a set-down meal for us, usually of fresh fish, lobster, and shrimps. Homegrown vegetables and freshly baked breads rounded out these wonderful meals.

And so, in the middle of a leper colony, on a small, enclosed veranda shaded by dazzling Bougainvillea, while being served fresh baked brioche by French nuns, we would forget, for a scant few moments that we were in Vietnam.

I often wonder about the leper colony, and the dedicated nuns who ran it. I can only hope they survived the tumultuous changes that racked their country.


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