Ohio nurse’s legacy lives on 50 years after death in Vietnam
CANTON, Ohio (AP) — A 7-foot-tall monument stands in a courtyard outside of the Aultman School of Nursing.
It’s topped by a life-size bronze statue of a young woman dressed in an Army uniform. Its base is inscribed with the names of 110 Stark County servicemen, and one woman, who died during the Vietnam War.
Sharon Lane, a first lieutenant, was killed 50 years ago today — June 8, 1969 — when a rocket hit the 312th Evacuation Hospital’s Vietnamese ward in Chu Lai. She was 25.
Lane, a U.S. Army nurse, was the only American servicewoman killed by direct enemy fire during the Vietnam War.
“I think she represents that caring heart. That caring, compassionate side of nursing,” said Dr. Jo Ann Donnenwirth, dean of the Aultman School of Nursing.
“I wish all of our graduates would have the characteristics Sharon Lane exhibited.”
Lane was born July 7, 1943, in Zanesville. She was raised in Stark County and graduated from Canton South High in 1961 and Aultman in 1965.
She took a job in the obstetrics unit at Aultman but didn’t like the work. So Lane switched to secretarial work, which she found tedious. She returned to nursing and joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in 1968.
Lane was looking for something more exciting and challenging, Donnenwirth said.
“It was a turbulent time,” she said, noting the protests and unrest in the U.S. “People were dying in Vietnam but they were soldiers, not support staff and certainly not health care workers.”
Lane was first assigned to the Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver where she cared for patients, mainly former soldiers, in the tuberculosis wards and intensive care units. Lane several times petitioned to go to Vietnam and in April 1969, the Army finally assigned her to the hospital in Chu Lai.
Some nurses and doctors didn’t want to tend to the Vietnamese civilians and prisoners of war in the hospital -- they didn’t want to assist the enemy -- but Lane volunteered for the job, said Patricia Powell, vice president of the Sharon Lane Memorial Chapter 199 of Vietnam Veterans of America.
The Canton-based organization is the only VVA branch named after a woman.
“She was a very loving caring person. I don’t think she ever looked at what nationality people were. She was there to help,” Powell said. “She was a very dedicated nurse. If you needed help, that’s what she did.”
Lane was finishing up a night shift in the Vietnamese ward when the hospital was hit. She was killed instantly by shrapnel while trying to move patients to safety.
Eight American servicewomen would die during the Vietnam War; Lane was the only one killed by enemy fire.
Lane was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Order of Vietnam Medal, and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm. She was the only servicewoman at the time to receive the Bronze Star with valor, according to the Purple Heart Foundation.
In 2003, she was inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
Though women served in the military during Vietnam, they didn’t always get the same respect or recognition as men who served, Powell said.
“She was just as much a hero as all of the veterans,” Powell said.
“She should be honored for her service to America. That she was willing to go and serve in the capacity she did: healing. She didn’t go into battle, but she battled for her patients.”
In the 50 years since Lane’s death, women have gained more equality in the military. They have opportunities now they didn’t have during the Vietnam era, she said.
It wasn’t long after Lane’s death that Canton began plans to honor her.
“Fund Drive Set for Memorial to Viet Heroine,” read a May 16, 1971, headline in the Canton Repository. Canton City Council approved plans for the memorial, which would be inscribed with the names of all Stark County residents killed in the war, later that month.
The drive set a goal of $15,000 for a bronze statue. Aultman offered land for the monument.
The Denver hospital where Lane began her military career had already dedicated the Lane Recovery Suite in her honor. And a plaque was placed at the evacuation hospital where she was killed.
After months of fundraisers, door-to-door campaigning and donations, the statue was finished in 1972.
On May 29, 1973, about 250 people gathered in a courtyard at Aultman for the monument’s dedication.
“She has paid the supreme sacrifice and we join in tribute to someone we have loved; she was one of our own,” eulogized Canton Mayor Stanley Cmich.
The memorial was later moved to Aultman’s Seventh Street entrance where it remains today. The hospital has exhibits dedicated to Lane in its main lobby and inside the school of nursing.
“It’s interesting to me that she was just a simple girl from Canton South who made a huge impact,” Donnenwirth said.
The college ensures that new students know about Lane and her sacrifice.
“Her legacy is alive and we certainly honor and respect that here at Aultman,” she said. “I hope it goes on a long time. It certainly will while I’m dean.”
Donnenwirth has spoken with Aultman nursing alumni who went to school with Lane. They remember her as being smart, quiet and introverted.
“I haven’t found one person say a negative word or negative thought about her,” she said. “She just sounds like a sweet person and looking, at 21 or 22, for a little adventure in life.”
“I’d like to have a beer with her,” she added.
Museums, including the Wm. McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, have gathered artifacts from Lane’s life. This year, the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston opened an exhibit about Lane.
Lane’s legacy also isn’t forgotten in Vietnam.
The Sharon Anne Lane Foundation built a hospital in Chu Lai, near where Lane was killed, in 2002.
Powell, a member of the now-closed organization, remembers stepping off the plane in Vietnam worried that they’d be greeted with weapons. But the Vietnamese people embraced them.
The facility is dedicated to women and children in the region. At the time, a pregnant woman who needed a caesarean section would have to be transported by bicycle to a hospital down the mountainside. Now, they can receive all the care they need at the clinic, Powell said.
The hospital is thriving, Powell said.
A fitting tribute to someone who’s legacy is “her kind compassionate consideration for all people.”