The C-141, Lockheed's High Speed Flying Truck
by Harold H. Martin
IN THE CLEAN, well-lighted MAC terminal at McGuire AFB in New Jersey the mood and look is that of wartime. Drowsing in the red, blue, and yellow chairs are more than three hundred people in the uniforms of all the services-Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard-waiting for the planes that will take them to their posts of duty overseas. Between fifty and sixty thousand military and their dependents pass through here every month, and nowhere in the United States, except perhaps at Travis, can one feel so strongly the movement and bustle of our world-wide commitments unless it is on the scene in the receiving nation.
There is "nothing here of the joyous anticipation the tourist feels at the beginning of a journey. There is, instead, a mood of emptiness, the quiet sadness of a bus-station waiting room. Here is a mother with two little children, going to join a father at his duty station overseas. Here are teenagers, left behind at school, going "home" to join their parents in a land they have never seen. Here also are medical crews, the nurses and the male medical technicians of MAC's world-wide medical evacuation service that can deliver a patient from the battlefield of Vietnam to a hospital anywhere in the United States in less than twenty hours.
MAC's concern, though, is not solely with the passengers it moves, in the main, on commercial airliners under contract to the Air Force. Six times a week, from Sunday through Friday, StarLifters go out of McGuire carrying cargo far more fragile than any passenger. In 1956 the armed services established at
McGuire a Whole Blood Processing Laboratory capable of handling 21,000 pints a week. The idea was to be ready in case some national disaster, such as a nuclear explosion, made massive transfusions necessary. Fortunately no such catastrophe has yet occurred, but the war in Vietnam has kept the laboratory busy.
Loadmasters who fly the C-141 to the Far East could chart the ebb and flow of the battle tides in Vietnam by the number of blood pallets they loaded on at McGuire. When the laboratory was reactivated in 1966, it began shipping 3000 pints a month. As the tempo of fighting increased the demand for blood grew in proportion, and by the end of 1967 the lab was processing and sending out 14,000 pints a month. The fierce Tet battles saw the count surge upward to 32,000 pints in July of 1968, and finally to the high peak of 37,700 pints sent out in March of 1969. Random spurts still reflect sporadic activity on the battlefield, but efforts to deescalate the war are being reflected at the lab. In early 1972, shipments had dropped to 3000 pints a month.
In the matter of blood, the military takes care of its own. Orders for blood come from the combat zone through the Military Blood Program Agency in Washington, which sends out to each military installation the quota it must supply. Donors are volunteers from the services, their dependents, and civilian employees of the military, and no payment is made for the blood. For fear of transmitting malaria, no blood is taken from troops who have served in Vietnam within the past two years. Typed and tagged-A, B, AB, O, Rh positive or Rh negative-the blood is shipped to McGuire, where it is checked again and packed in little plastic bags, each with a tiny pigtail appended which can be snipped off in segments for further testing. At the lab at McGuire the pint-sized bags are chilled to 40 degrees and packed in styrofoam boxes with fourteen pounds of ice, for transshipment on to the Army blood bank near Tokyo. There the blood is again tested, recooled, and shipped on by StarLifter to the battle zone. In times of great emergency, no stop is made in Japan. The blood is rushed directly from McGuire to Vietnam. Speed and accuracy are of the essence. An error in typing can be fatal, and as little time as possible must elapse from the moment when one needle draws blood from the donor to the
moment another needle carries it into the vein of a wounded soldier. The lab technicians working at McGuire under the direction of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Carderell and Navy Lieutenant William J. Stith observe no regular duty hours. They work when the blood comes in, around the clock if need be.
Human blood is among the most fragile of all substances, Lieutenant Stith points out, and outside the body it has a useful life of only twenty-one days. Every effort, therefore, is made to process and ship it halfway across the world within seven days after it is drawn from the donor, to give it a two-week shelf life in the battle area. For the StarLifters this is no problem. With a two-hour stop in Elmendorf for re-icing, they can deliver the blood for rechecking to the Army's 406th Medical battalion representatives in Yokota in nineteen hours. From there to Saigon is only five hours more.
The crews of the blood-carrying planes receive a special briefing, for not only must they keep the blood at a steady temperature of from 38 to 40 degrees, they must handle it with the greatest gentleness. Plasma travels well, but whole blood will start to separate if sloshed about, and pilots carrying blood shipments must avoid turbulence, hard landings, and any acrobatics that might cause the red corpuscles to break down.
The blood is the last item of cargo to be loaded on the airplane, the first to be taken off. The crews who carry it do so with some of the care and pride with which they transport the wounded in the air-evacs. They know that of all the cargoes they haul into the battle zone this is the most precious, for in those first few moments after the wound, no medicine has the power to stop a man's dying. Only the whole blood, stored in these little plastic bags, piled in their boxes like strange dark red vegetables in a grocer's bin, can do that.
But it has to get there fast.