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Tom Dooley

by Hugh Westrup

Mention the name "Tom Dooley" to almost anyone in America and you're likely to draw little more than a blank stare. Some may recall the popular song about a condemned man, "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley." But few remember or know about the man who, for a small window of time, was one of the most revered figures in America.

Tom Dooley shot to fame in 1956 with the publication of his memoir, Deliver Us From Evil, which recounted his participation in Operation Passage to Freedom, a U.S. Navy mission that took place shortly after France's defeat in the Indochina War (1946-1954) and the separation of Vietnam into two countries. Dooley, a Navy physician, was stationed in the harbor city of Haiphong, where he led a medical team that treated throngs of people awaiting transfer to ships that would take them from North to South Vietnam. The book, widely praised by critics, became an immediate best seller.

On the publicity circuit, the author's personal qualities boosted sales of the book. A born entertainer, Dooley was charismatic, movie-star handsome, and a marvelous teller of tales. "[T]he snappiest, best-looking young naval officer I had seen in a long time" is how the secretary to the Surgeon General of the Navy remembered him. "[H]e was blessed with a keen sense of humor and all the charm of his Irish ancestry. He always knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going, which made it a pleasure to work with him. Even at 28 he was a master of the spoken and written word, and his dictation was perfect and so fascinating you were sorry when he stopped. ... The public relations officers were wild about him, because he was in great demand and always made good copy. They could not get enough of him."

 Dooley achieved even greater renown in the several years that followed. He co-founded a humanitarian organization, MEDICO, that sponsored medical missions around the world. Several of those missions took him to Laos, where he spent months at a time practicing in far-flung villages whose residents were peasants with no exposure to modern medicine. Out of those experiences came two more best sellers, The Edge of Tomorrow and The Night They Burned the Mountain. Dooley's celebrity grew each time he returned home to promote his books and raise money for MEDICO. A Gallup Poll of Americans in 1959 named him the seventh most admired man in the world.

Dooley's story is equally intriguing for what he didn't reveal in his books or his numerous speeches and appearances on radio and TV. Born into a wealthy St. Louis family, Tom was a devout Catholic who at a young age rejected the Church's prohibitions against homosexual behavior. His high-school pal Michael Harrington, the future founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, remembered Tom hitting on other boys in school.

As precocious as he was, Dooley, like most gay men of his era, still lived a double life. Throughout his twenties, he played the role of dashing man about town and eligible bachelor. Privately, he socialized with well-connected gay men in the upper strata of East Coast society. One member of that world described him as "one of the most charming people you could ever meet."

Rarely a conscientious student, Dooley failed to graduate from medical school, opting instead to join the U.S. Navy and serve as a corpsman. A Dooley family friend eventually persuaded the U.S. Navy Surgeon General to overlook Dooley's poor academic record and admit him to the Navy Medical Corps. 

After interning at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., Dooley was transferred to a base in Japan, where he reportedly had an affair with an admiral's son. Dooley was put on a ship, the USS Montague, headed for the Philippines. It was that same ship that took Dooley to Vietnam, where his proficiency in spoken French and his competence as a physician earned him a promotion to the position of medical director in the Haiphong refugee camp.

Shortly after Dooley's return to the States from Vietnam, persistent rumors about his sexuality prompted navy intelligence to launch an official investigation into his private life. As he crisscrossed the country, speaking about his experiences in Vietnam, agents tapped his phone, searched through his luggage, listened outside his hotel rooms, and interviewed his pickups. Late in March, Dooley was shown the investigation's 700-page report. Rather than challenge its findings, he resigned. The report was kept secret and weeks later Deliver Us From Evil was published, catapulting him onto the national stage.

During Tom Dooley's second year in Laos, in the remote northern village of Moung Sing, he developed a lump in his chest that went unexamined for months. When a visiting physician finally took a tissue sample of the lump, a biopsy revealed the presence of malignant melanoma. Dooley immediately returned to the States and underwent an operation that was filmed and broadcast on CBS.

After a period of recuperation, Dooley returned to Laos in apparent good health and continued to practice in the country's hinterlands. The cancer eventually caught up with him, however, and he died in New York City on January 18, 1961, one day after his 34th birthday and two days before the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Just days before his election the preceding November, in a speech proposing the creation of the Peace Corps, Kennedy had cited "the selfless example of Dr. Tom Dooley in Laos."

After his death, Dooley's name quickly faded form the nation's memory. His books fell out of print. Critics of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia accused him of confusing the American public about the true nature of the situation there, framing it as an ominous battle between the "godless" and the "god-fearing." MEDICO eventually folded.

Among the men and women who remembered Dooley, many were so inspired by his example of compassion they chose to devote themselves to lives of service. Today, Dooley Intermed, a nonprofit organization named in his honor, provides medical assistance to refugees and people in less privileged parts of the world.

"If not a saint," wrote one journalist about Tom Dooley after his death, "he was certainly an exceptional human being, who worked courageously, and tirelessly, and deserved some form of immortality."


Hugh Westrup is currently writing a biography of Tom Dooley. If you knew Dooley or know someone who knew him or have a good story about him or the impression he made on you, please contact Mr. Westrup at hughwestrup@gmail.com

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