Robert E. Feighny Papers
Manuscript Collection No. 179
This collection, containing approximately 280 letters, consists of correspondence of Dr. Robert Feighny to his wife Helen. These letters, arranged chronologically by date of authorship, span the period April 19, 1964, through March 30, 1965, during his tour in Vietnam. There are also a few newspaper clippings of war activities. Dr. Feighny donated these letters to the Historical Society in 1986 with a small collection of photos he took while in Vietnam. Although most of the images deal with combat wounds, several of the photos relate directly to events in his letters. These can be found in the Photograph Division of the Kansas State Historical Society. The letters are both numbered and dated but only the dates have been used for reference to material in this collection.
Dr. Robert Feighny was stationed at the 8th Field Hospital in Nha Trang, South Vietnam. His specialty was orthopedic surgery, although he had to work in other medical areas while he was there. Feighny was a professional army officer who had served both in World War II and Vietnam. He was a major during his service in Vietnam, and later retired from the army as a lieutenant colonel.
These letters are a unique representation of a man trying to do his duty in the army, while at the same time trying to remain part of his family’s life. At the time, he had been married for twenty years and had a very large family, the oldest child nearly ready for college and the youngest still a baby. The majority of letters have pieces of advice to his wife on how to handle family problems, such as a car accident, how to get the house ready for winter, and how to do income taxes.
Another prevalent topic throughout the letters was how inexpensive items cost in Vietnam compared to the U.S. Feighny spent a large amount of his spare time shopping for gifts for his family and friends. These letters are a good reference to how much things cost in 1964 and 1965 because Dr. Feighny always gave exact prices of everything he bought. These price lists are found throughout the entire collection.
A major strength of this collection is Dr. Feighny’s impression of the Vietnamese people and their culture. He describes what the people look like, their native dress, and Vietnamese food. He also gives interesting accounts of Vietnamese religion and their basic values and beliefs towards life. References to Vietnamese culture can be found in his letters of April 22 (2nd letter) & 23; May 2, 6, & 12; July 14 & 26 (2nd letter); August 14 & 20; September 21 & 28; October 10, 18, & 19, 1964; and February 1, 1965.
The living conditions of the people are described in some detail. Dr. Feighny talks of the poverty of the people, the malnutrition of the children, people sleeping on the streets, and the way the Vietnamese tried to make a living during the war. Living conditions are described in letters dated April 22 (2nd letter) & 29; May 3, 4, 7, 10, 14, 17, & 24; August 28; and November 13, 1964.
A minor part of the collection describes the weather of Vietnam. Dr. Feighny experienced a monsoon season for the first time, and he had to adapt to the living conditions the rainy season forced on people. Discussions of weather can be found in letters of October 29 & 31; November 9 & 16; and December 12, 1964.
The Vietnamese people faced medical hardships that were particular to their situation. They were extremely poor so they could not pay for good medical care. This meant that they usually would not go to a doctor until it was absolutely necessary. Dr. Feighny writes of specific medical cases that were not common in the U. S. Discussions of medical conditions are found in his letters dated April 27, May 12 & 27; June 3; July 7, 8, & 30; August 3; September 8; October 5, 8, & 9; November 8, 22 & 27, 1964; and March 20, 1965.
The Vietnamese attitude toward the war was much different than the American position. The people were more concerned with basic survival than with governmental policy. Dr. Feighny received the impression that if the U. S. pulled out, the people’s everyday life would go on the same way. There were more active demonstrations by small groups in Vietnam. There were student, Catholic, and Buddhist demonstrations in protest against the Vietnamese government. Buddhists were also anti-American. Letters on the Vietnamese attitude are dated May 3 & 12; June 7; July 16; August 14, 26 & 28; September 3, 4, 13, 15 & 16; October 8 & 27; November 7 & 13, 1964; and January 26, 1965.
Dr. Feighny often dismissed the political situation in Vietnam. He did not think there was anything the U.S. government could do for the country. He believed the situation was too complex, that the American government did not really understand the Vietnamese people, and that the U. S. could not resolve the situation by warfare. American soldiers were fighting the Viet Cong more than the South Vietnamese soldiers were. South Vietnam was going through a civilian overthrow of the government, so there was more conflict among themselves than against the Viet Cong. There are several letters dealing with the political situation: May 8, 21, & 22; June 5, 7, 9, & 29; July 10 & 12; August 27 & 31; September 14 & 28; October 13; November 4, 25 & 29; December 5, 1964; and February 14 & 19, 1965.
Although Nha Trang was not very close to the heavy fighting, it occasionally was affected by the conflict. Americans were usually restricted to one area and could not travel anywhere during heavy combat. The doctors could go only to the hospital and to their house and were supposed to carry a gun. Details of war-time restrictions can be found in letters of August 5, 6, 8, 9, 15, and 16, 1964. During heavy attacks by the North Vietnamese, the 8th Field Hospital would receive wounded. Descriptions can be found in letters of November 1 & 3, 1964 (Air force base bombing near Saigon); February 8, 19, 16, 17, 18, & 1965 (attack on Pleiku); and February 11 & 12 (attack on Quinlan).
War activity was infrequent the entire year so he was able to take several trips to other areas. Sometimes the trip was strictly business, as when he went to Quinlan on August 22-31. Usually the trips were just for pleasure. He went to Bangkok on June 19-25, and he went to Hong Kong on February 22-26. He describes the people and all the tourist attractions he visited. He took a trip to Dalat on October 23-25 as part of a Catholic retreat.
The last major topic of this collection is that of army life. Dr. Feighny described the rules and regulations the army assigned. He also talked of the censoring of news by the U.S. Army so that the soldiers never knew what was happening. Other examples of army life he described were the inability of the army to correct mistakes and the slow pace of the bureaucracy in getting orders approved. Lastly, there were descriptions of the recreation, such as swimming and movies, that the army provided. Letters of typical army life are found in those of April 17; May 1, 13, 14, 19, 29, & 31; June 1, 10, 18, & 25; July 1, 3, 5, 9, 19, & 31; August 2, 7, 10, 12, 18, & 21; September 5 & 10; October 1 & 11; November 6, 14, & 26; December 2, 15, & 21, 1964; February 28, 1965; and March 4, 8, & 28.
Anita Mason-Selby, Intern
December 17, 1986