Stark County Army nurse was only service woman killed in Vietnam War.
Fifty years ago this week, word came home to Stark County of the death of Army nurse Sharon Lane — the first and ultimately the only U.S. service woman to be killed by enemy fire during the Vietnam War.
“Cong Rocket Kills Beloved Canton Nurse,” said a headline in the Canton Repository on June 10, 1969, topping a story written by staff writer Jack Leggett two days after Lane was killed on June 8.
“First Lt. Sharon A. Lane, 25, died almost instantly early Sunday when a rocket fragment struck her in the throat during an enemy attack on the Army’s 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai, 335 miles northeast of Saigon,” wrote Leggett in graphic detail. “Ironically, Lt. Lane had declined transfer from the Vietnamese section of the hospital where she was killed.”
Life before war
The writer provided many details of Lane’s life prior to the Vietnam War.
Lane was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Lane of North Industry. A 1961 graduate of Canton South High School, she also graduated in 1965 from Aultman School of Nursing, where she served for two years as a nurse until she enlisted in the Army in 1968.
In April 1969, Lane was sent to Vietnam, where on April 26 she was assigned to the 312th Evacuation Hospital, offering nursing care to Vietnamese patients. When she was offered the transfer a few weeks later, she declined.
“She liked it here and wanted to stay,” Leggett quoted Capt. Lorraine W. Montz of Phoenixville, Pa., as saying. Capt. Montz was another member of the Evacuation Hospital’s staff. “She liked the Vietnamese and they appreciated her tenderness and concern for them.”
Viet Cong rockets came screaming into her area of the hospital.
Details Of Attack
Leggett reported that Lane had been on duty all night in one of the two Quonset huts that formed the 312th’s Vietnamese ward.
“We were just relaxing before starting to wake the patients,” Leggett learned from Patricia E. Carr of Louisville, Ky., a nurse at the field hospital. “I was sitting behind the desk, and Lt. Lane was sitting on an empty bed.”
A rocket hit and exploded between the two huts, according to details provided by Capt. John D. Medlin Jr. of Greensboro, N.C., the commander of the hospital detachment. The rocket “tossed shrapnel through both walls.”
Lane “died within seconds,” wrote Leggett, who reported that a Vietnamese child also was killed in the attack. Two Americans and 23 Vietnamese individuals were wounded.
Story told often
Lane’s story has been told by many voices in the five decades since her passing.
Immediately following the rocket attack, the Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army Technical Liaison Office in Washington, D.C., sent out a press release providing many of the details that Leggett reported, and also noting that a military funeral for Lt. Lane was set for June 14, 1969, with burial in Sunset Hills Burial Park in North Canton.
Several retrospective pieces were published in the Repository through the years, including one which quoted another nurse at the 312th, Betty Doebbling of Minneapolis, Minn., who said that Lane’s death “brought the war closer to home.”
“Although we had been treating wounded GIs every day, we hadn’t been hurt,” Doebbling explained. “When one of our own was killed, we understood GIs who were losing someone every hour.”
Another article, published May 30, 2005, noted that Lane’s last letter home, on June 4, 1969, assured her parents that it was “still very quiet” around her hospital. “Haven’t gotten mortared for a couple of weeks now,” she wrote.
Then on the 40th anniversary of Lane’s death, an article written by Melissa Griffy Seeton and published by the Repository in June 2009, reported that the family of Sharon Lane — after four decades — still felt the pain of her death.
“When I was little we didn’t talk about it,” said Edie Richeson, daughter of Lane’s older sister, Judy (Lane) Tritt, in that 2009 article. “It made everyone cry. It made my mom cry.”
Subject of book
It was in 1996 that Philip Bigler published the book “Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane.” In the volume, published by Vandamere Press, Bigler unfolds the story of Lane in the context of what was going on in the world in 1969.
“The larger events of those times – the American political scene, the progress of the war, the geopolitical maneuverings – are deftly woven into the story of Lane’s middle-class American life, showing how an average individual can be swept up in the tide of history,” reviewed the website historynet.com. “At no time does the author attempt to glamorize Lieutenant Lane, and for this he deserves credit. She volunteered for duty in Vietnam because she wanted to do something worthwhile, and this is reason enough to mourn her death and honor her memory.”
The book and its review both note that “a larger-than-life statue” of Lane was erected on the grounds of the Aultman Hospital on Memorial Day 1973. The statue, the book recognizes, bears the inscription “Born To Honor/Ever At Peace.”
Coming to terms
Leggett’s original article in 1969 included the words of a parent still struggling with finding that peace, speaking only two days after his daughter’s death.
“I have lost a wonderful daughter,” John Lane told Leggett. “Enlisting was a decision she made by herself and one I did not questions. She volunteered to serve in either South Vietnam or Korea.”
Lane called his daughter a “quiet person” who considered her nursing work during the Vietnam War “rewarding.”
“She planned to re-enlist for another year after her tour in Vietnam,” Lane told Leggett 50 years ago. “She wanted to see other parts of the world before returning home.”