BOULDER, Colo. - Two Vietnam War veterans were recognized on Memorial Day, following the BolderBOULDER, for removing a 'live' grenade from a man’s neck and saving his life.
Jim Chandler and Pete Steinhauer were surgeons stationed at Charlie Med, a front-line field hospital in De Nang, Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
"It was a war-torn country. There were mines. These wounds are not like what you see in civilian life," Chandler said. "We might go a day and a half or two without any sleep."
Chandler was a general surgeon. Steinhauer was an oral surgeon. Both men were members of the Navy, who helped provide medical care for a Marine Corps base in Vietnam.
Steinhauer described it like a scene out of the TV show 'Mash.'
"It was a group of physicians, dentists and chaplains. It was like a little city. We had 100 to 150 Corpsmen that did all the nursing, blood bank, surgical technicians, ICU, cooks and more," Steinhauer said.
They spent more than a year treating too many patients to count.
"We've seen stuff you never want to see again," said Steinhauer.
"I did a lot of children surgeries, thoracic surgery, a lot of vascular surgery," added Chandler.
In December 1966, one patient's story caught the world's attention. It was that of 19-year-old Ray Escalera.
"This was the 22nd of December when this happened. We had mass casualties. It was raining and just awful," said Steinhauer.
Two Marine patrols were swapping out. The relieving party was mistaken for the enemy. Escalera was hit in the neck by a rifle grenade.
"It has a vicious scored copper shell that's designed to break into bazillion square fragments," Chandler said. "When it crashed into this guy's jaw and jugular vein in his neck, it didn't go off."
"Jim did a tracheotomy on him, because this guy was having a hell of a time breathing," said Steinhauer.
When they realized the grenade was still ‘live’ Chandler volunteered to get rid of it, while Steinhauer went to work saving Escalera from bleeding out.
"I carried it in my left hand, because I figured if it blew off my left hand I could still operate with a hook and a good right hand," Chandler said laughing, realizing, at the time, he really didn't grasp how powerful the device was.
"The kill-range was 15 meters long," he added.
As Chandler and Steinhauer's team continued to work on the patient, the device eventually exploded.
"We decided now how much jaw we had, how we were going to fill in this space and how we were going to use part of his tongue to make the lining for his cheek. While we were figuring all these things, there was (explosion noise) on roof of the console hut and those were fragments from that grenade," remembered Chandler.
The story of their courage instantly made news headlines back at home in the U.S. Their picture was seen around the world. In fact, they were featured on the Bob Hope Vietnam War special.
Now, nearly 47 years later, the two humble heroes downplay all the publicity.
"We were just doing our jobs," said Chandler.
There are only five documented cases of live ordnance removal in Vietnam, between 1966 and 1973.
Chandler and Steinhauer will receive special recognition during the 2013 BolderBoulder Memorial Day Tribute for their bravery.
When asked about that, Steinhauer replied, "We're just kind of old doctors (laughter). But it's an honor. It really is."
Steinhauer and Chandler have remained close friends with Ray Escalera who lives with his family in California.