One Veteran's Life: A mortician in Vietnam
This is the second in a series of articles about one local veteran, Bay Village resident Anton (Tony) Dostal, who served as a mortician during the Vietnam War.
Tony Dostal arrived in Vietnam at the Air Force Base in Da Nang aboard a C-141 transport plane on Friday, Aug. 30, 1968. He arrived with 19 other soldiers, eight of whom were embalmers.
“We carried bullet clips in our pockets, but no weapons, because the rifle boxes were nailed shut in their shipping crates. We exited the tailgate of the aircraft in a secure area, so we were given the impression we would have nothing to worry about,” Tony recalled.
“We loaded up our personal stuff and were driven to our barracks in the Army compound, which was about five miles away from the airport,” he continued. “Because the eight embalmers were going into the embalming room the next night, the other 12 soldiers unpacked our bags and got our lockers together.
“As I'm walking to the barracks, someone yells ‘Hey, Anton!’” And there was a friend of Tony's from Cleveland, Denny Lazuta, a dental technician that Tony had attended mortuary school with. You never know who you'll meet the in theater of war.
Tony started work in the mortuary the following night.
“We went to the mortuary to work the night shift, Saturday night, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. We worked the night shift because civilian embalmers worked the first shift. At midnight, we had breakfast, and then we came back to the mortuary and I went to my second body.
“At about 1:25 a.m. Sunday morning, I went out to the embalming fluid barrels to fill my bucket with embalming chemical and as I’m walking back soldiers are running out of the office toward the bunker yelling, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ So this E6 (a staff sergeant) hollers, ‘Get down!’ That was all it took. The compound was under a rocket attack, and shrapnel was flying. Whenever you heard that first explosion, you hit the ground. If you got up to run to the bunker, you could be cut down.”
No one was injured, but this was Tony’s introduction to the dangers of a war zone.
His work in the mortuary presented more evidence of the horrors of war as the bodies of soldiers were brought in from the battlefield. “They were wrapped in linen and put in a black body bag in the field and from there they went to the collection point. From the collection point they were then transported with an escort to the mortuary.”
Upon receiving a body, the morticians used a detailed procedure for identifying remains.
“When the person was brought to the mortuary, in a jeep or was helicoptered in from the field, the remains were taken out of the body bag and an inventory was done of everything that they had on. We would take their clothes and effects to join with the personal artifacts collected from their base,” Tony explained.
Some bodies would be easier to identify than others, due to the severity of their injuries.
“The body would be examined for scars, wounds and identification markings. We also would do a dental exam and take fingerprints to match with F.B.I. records. If there were no fingerprints, we’d use military dental records. If the military records were insufficient, we would contact the Washington office of chief support services to go back and trace every base that victim was on in the States. In the meantime, we had to check every base or outpost he was at in Vietnam hoping to find dental records. This usually took about two weeks. If our search was not successful enough, the military would notify the family that we needed the person’s private dentist records.”
Tony admitted that was a difficult task. “It was with great reluctance and great embarrassment to have to go to the family and ask for the dental records, but we had to be 100 percent positive that the identification was correct.”
He remembered one instance that stood out during his 12 months in Vietnam.
“There was a body that was on board forever labeled ‘X3.’ X3 had only the top part of the skull, with the upper teeth. The morticians were 99% sure who it was but they weren’t 100% sure. The civilian ID specialist at the mortuary wouldn’t sign off on the release because he only had upper dental records and that wasn’t enough for him to be certain of the identification. The family wanted those remains so they went to their congressman. I got a call one night from Washington; someone took responsibility to sign off on releasing the remains to the family. So X3 finally went home before I left Vietnam.”
In the next issue, Tony recounts some of the experiences he had during his tour of duty in Vietnam.