The threadlike scars on retired Air Force Capt. Tom MacDougall’s right elbow are all but invisible — except to the man who put them there.
Dr. Bob Green may have been looking MacDougall in the eye when they shook hands for the first time in more than 45 years, but his mind was focused on MacDougall’s steely grip: powerful, surprising, almost excessive.
It was over a year ago that MacDougall, a Pennsylvania native who retired to Port Orange, reunited with the retired Air Force doctor and now Palm Beach orthopedic surgeon who saved his right arm and returned him to active duty after his F-4 Phantom was shot down off the Vietnamese coast in 1967.
Theirs is a friendship five decades in the making, strengthening like the bones in MacDougall’s right arm, since that night when a decorated pilot was airlifted 22 hours to a Dayton, Ohio military hospital. There, a young doctor, drafted into service, confronted all manner of disfiguring war injuries — including an arm so mangled that at least one doctor told MacDougall it might have to be amputated.
Green says any orthopedic surgeon worth his salt could have repaired it. MacDougall is not so sure.
“Dr. Green is being very modest,” MacDougall said. “I don’t think everybody has the skill to do what he did.”
That modesty may have been what took Green a year to voice an unusual request of his new old friend: Could he X-ray the arm?
After all, how often do you get to see how well a patient you worked on nearly half a century ago has recovered from your operation?
So last week, MacDougall drove down for lunch and a pit stop at the Palm Beach Orthopedic Institute, where Green works.
The verdict: “It looked good,” Green said with a satisfied smile. “You don’t get these kinds of results unless the patient works his butt off.”
He added the X-ray to the same file of yellowing chart documents he has kept for nearly 50 years on the pilot who he has never stopped thinking about since that fateful day.
“It’s a tribute to Dr. Green and what he did when a lot of other doctors wrote it off and said I’d never fly again,” MacDougall said.
A dangerous mission
Not that flying was all MacDougall ever wanted to do.
The reason he had left Detroit for the University of Buffalo, and played running back for three seasons, was to study medicine. Brash and ambitious, he dreamed of being a surgeon, like Green, and had already been accepted to medical school when a college ROTC instructor took him on a training flight in an F-80, performing aerobatics over Lake Ontario.
“He hooked me that day,” said MacDougall, who left behind ideas for a career in medicine and joined the Air Force, where he found himself flying bombing missions in F-105 Thunderchiefs over Vietnam during his first tour of duty in 1964.
His service earned him a silver star, a bronze star, six distinguished flying medals and a host of other air medals and pins. But it didn’t spare him a second tour at the height of the war.
On Memorial Day of 1967, six months into a year-long assignment in Da Nang, MacDougall was trailing his commander on a bombing run in their F-4 Phantoms just off the coast. The sun began to set over the jungles. As he dove toward a barge said to be carrying munitions, it exploded under a strafe of machine gun fire.
As MacDougall pulled up, his F-4 was riddled with gunfire from enemy ground troops. His left engine caught fire and then, a missile hit his fighter, sending him and the navigator in the cockpit behind him into a spin toward the water.
They ejected as the fighter nearly pitched upside down, and MacDougall’s helmet and arm slammed against the rocket-powered seats that rushed him away from the jet at 400 feet per second. He crumpled onto a beach, his right arm sagging next to him, when he heard gunfire coming from the trees.
He remembered that he had caught sight of an American ship off shore when he began his bombing dive. So he released his parachute and dove into the darkening sea, swimming one-armed and fearing capture as the sound of gunfire rang out behind him.
He swam for more than an hour — with one arm — and traveled over a mile.
“I kept thinking, ‘Any minute, that ship’s going to be there,’” he said.
MacDougall heard a boat motor trailed by gunfire. A skiff from an American intelligence ship that just happened to be in the area raced toward him, scooping him up as enemy bullets whizzed over their heads. (MacDougall’s navigator was rescued, too, but it took years for him to learn about it.)
Onboard the U.S.S. Benjamin Stoddert, the ship’s doctor appraised MacDougall’s mangled right arm — the main arm he used to fly the controls of his F-4 — and soon had him airlifted to a base in Da Nang, where MacDougall first heard from a doctor that he might lose his arm.
MacDougall was soon on a 22-hour medical flight from the Philippines to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, where an Air Force captain, a doctor, was lamenting a draft that had taken him away from his new bride, an infant son and his year-old practice in his hometown.
A determined flier
Bob Green hadn’t been home in more than 13 years since leaving Palm Beach High for college and Duke medical school.
His family was well-known on the island — his father started Green’s Pharmacy on North County Road. He was a new father himself and his orthopedic surgery practice was just taking hold when he was drafted in June 1966.
“It was tough,” he said.
It only got harder. From the moment he arrived in Dayton for a two-year commitment, he was overwhelmed by the level of injuries he saw coming back from Vietnam.
“I saw things in Dayton that…” he trails off.
He treated a disfigured soldier who was one of only three survivors of a 76-man platoon. A team of seven orthopedic surgeons — most hospitals only had two or three — dealt with injuries both physical and emotional. Patients came to him held together by plaster casts.
That was how he met Capt. MacDougall.
Green was stunned to learn that MacDougall had arrived in less than a day after the injury. And when he opened the cast, he found a right arm broken in eight places, all three bones in the arm shattered, a major nerve badly damaged. MacDougall, fading in and out of consciousness from the sedative —“They really had some good stuff to ease the pain,” MacDougall recalled — focused his mind enough to say to Green: Please save my arm.
Green had no doubt he could do at least that. But whether he would ever return to flight duty was “questionable. He had a pretty bad injury,” Green recalls.
MacDougall underwent six surgeries in nine months. In and out of a body cast that kept his arm at a 90-degree angle, like a waiter holding a tray, he endured intensive, painful rehabilitation at the base and back in Detroit, where he was able to stay with his wife and four children.
“I set my goal to get back to flying status, so I was willing to put up with anything,” MacDougall said.
Determined? Let’s put it this way: MacDougall’s wife became pregnant with the couple’s fifth child during that time, while MacDougall was still in that half body cast. MacDougall’s tenacity stayed with Green over the years.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” the famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, told Green when he told her that story at a convention decades later.
In May of 1968, one year after the injury, MacDougall returned to full flight status. He still wasn’t able to rotate his outstretched arm without twisting at the shoulder, but he could master any move in the cockpit and became an instructor to young military pilots until the Air Force granted him a full early retirement.
Too old for medical school, MacDougall went to Michigan State law school on the G.I. Bill and practiced aviation law for more than 38 years, finishing as general counsel to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
Green finished his commitment and went back to Palm Beach, where he became a renowned orthopedic surgeon.
Green and MacDougall lost touch as a steady stream of young soldiers passed beneath Green’s knife. But they often thought about one another, Green wondering what became of the determined young pilot who’d made it into his operating room from across the world in less than a day and MacDougall wondering what happened to the doctor who had saved his military career.
It took a generation to answer that question.
A gripping reunion
While working on a family history for her children last year, MacDougall’s daughter Caroline tracked down a host of memorabilia of her father’s military career, including a photograph a sailor had shot of MacDougall being brought aboard the U.S.S Stoddert — the vessel’s first ever rescue at sea. And that’s when she came across the name she had heard mentioned for years, Dr. Robert Green. She searched the web and found him practicing in West Palm Beach.
Green was just finishing with a patient when a nurse said she had gotten a very insistent call from a man who had wanted the doctor’s number or email address, an older-sounding man by the name of Tom MacDougall. Green nearly dropped his clipboard. He called back but got a machine.
“If she hadn’t gotten his phone number, I would’ve fired her,” Green said later, only half-jokingly. “As soon as I heard that name, I knew.”
They finally spoke the next night for nearly an hour.
“I was just flying when I spoke to him that night,” Green said.
MacDougall drove down with his wife to meet Green, his wife, and Green’s oldest son, Robert J. Green, an oncologist at Good Samaritan hospital who is also a pilot and had heard MacDougall’s story repeated over the years.
“I was overwhelmed with happiness that I was able to say thank you in person,” MacDougall said. “He was very important to me.”
Last week, the two met again at Green’s office in West Palm Beach so Green could X-ray MacDougall’s right arm before they headed to lunch.
MacDougall brought along the 10-inch pencil-thin, surgical pin that he had kept as a souvenir from Green’s surgeries. Green kept his own souvenir: a file on many of the young men he treated during the war.
“I’m sorry I didn’t realize (then) what an honor and a privilege it was to serve guys like you,” Green says as they sit across from each other in the doctor’s office.
Green reaches across the conference table and shakes MacDougall’s powerful right hand.
“Thank you, Dr. Green.”
“Bob… It’s just Bob.”
Later, when MacDougall isn’t listening, Green whispers to a guest, “Did you notice when you shook hands with him how strong his grip was?”
His crystal blue stare is bright, proud.