Band Of Brothers And Sisters
When the call came to help defend America against the Axis menace, they were ready. Volunteers all, they were willing and able, too.
They completed basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. As part of Operation Torch, they participated in the Allied invasion of North Africa, doing their bit in the battles against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s crack desert troops. A few of their number were part of General George S. Patton’s invasion of Sicily. And of all them landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach barely a month after D-Day. They drove across France and into Belgium, played an important role during the Battle of the Bulge, and celebrated victory in Europe on occupied German soil.
All told, they would collect seven battle stars, six Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and one Legion of Merit. Yet the men and women who earned these honors were not combat soldiers. Rather, they were 47 doctors and 52 nurses recruited mainly from the KU School of Medicine and its Bell Memorial Hospital. And although they wielded bandages and scalpels instead of rifles and grenades, their battlefield contributions and wartime service were no less important to the eventual Allied victory in the Second World War.
Officially activated on May 10, 1942, as the US Army’s 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit, these KU medical personnel provided near-frontline emergency treatment to literally tens of thousands of injured Allied soldiers, civilians and even prisoners of war during a three-year tour of duty in World War II. Amid the most chaotic and, at times, most dangerous of conditions, they took care of bullet and shrapnel wounds; x-rayed and set broken limbs; and performed major surgery, orthopedics, blood transfusions, burn care, and dental work. Generally they worked in canvas tents, often dodging artillery fire and falling bombs themselves while tending to the sick and wounded.
Of course, not every patient’s life could be saved, and many of the wounded were not able to rejoin their comrades in the field. But thanks to the 77th’s herculean efforts, the majority of its patients were able to survive their injuries, rejoin their families and ultimately build lives that otherwise may have been lost.
The origins of what would become the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit trace back to the spring of 1940, a time when the Second World War had been raging in Europe for six months. The world had already witnessed the swift overrun of Poland, and Hitler’s German armies were now preparing for their blitzkrieg assaults on Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France.
At this time, the United States, though technically still neutral, was nonetheless undergoing a rapid peacetime mobilization. In August 1939, for example, authorized regular US Army strength had been 210,000. Less than a year later, that figure had nearly doubled to almost 400,000. Included in this enlargement was the Army’s Medical Department.
Should the US decide (or be forced) to enter the war, there had to be sufficient numbers of doctors, nurses and technical staff to care for the troops, whether they were stationed at home, at overseas American possessions, on foreign bases abroad, or, most importantly, on the battlefield itself. To meet these potential needs, the Medical Department – led by Major General James C. Magee, the Surgeon General of the Army – elected to revive what had been known as “affiliated hospital units” in World War I.
These were reserve units built around civilian medical volunteers recruited from and “affiliated” with hospitals and medical schools nationwide. And based on the Army’s positive experience with such units in 1917-18, it was confident they could perform as well or better in the event of another “national emergency.”
Indeed, during World War II, the Army would organize roughly 70 such detachments. The call to arms for what was destined to become the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit came on March 25, 1940, from Army Surgeon General Magee.
In a letter to Dean Harry R. Wahl of the School of Medicine, Magee inquired about the prospect of recruiting an affiliated hospital unit from KU, which, in the general’s flattering words, operated one of the nation’s “outstanding civil medical institutions.” Magee was particularly interested in having KU form an evacuation hospital, a 750-bed, mobile emergency medical and surgical unit whose wartime role was of “paramount importance.”
Evacuation hospitals “constituted the neck of the funnel through which all casualties passed” out of the combat zone, noted unit veteran Dr. Max Allen in his account of the 77th’s exploits, titled Medicine Under Canvas, which was published in 1949. “Generally situated several miles behind the division rear boundary,” such units were “usually” – as Allen added, rather coolly – beyond the range of enemy artillery barrages.
Each Army evacuation hospital consisted of two principal parts – a medical section and a surgical section. The former dealt with illnesses like pneumonia, tonsillitis, malaria and other common and uncommon ailments. The latter performed operations and emergency procedures. Each unit was further subdivided into various specialties, such as ophthalmology, dentistry and neurosurgery, and included nursing, receiving and supply departments as well.
KU Med’s Dean Wahl had served as a major in the Army’s World War I Medical Corps. Thus, he knew very well the attendant risks should such a unit be deployed, something he no doubt explained to the medical faculty and staff when they met to discuss Magee’s request. Even so, whether it was from a sense of professional obligation or a desire to serve their country during precarious times, they nonetheless accepted these risks and the Surgeon General’s proposal that KU Med form an affiliated evacuation hospital. Once decided, the first duty was to select leaders for the unit, though at this point, it existed only on paper.
Dr. Edward H. Hashinger, a professor of medicine and World War I veteran, became the choice of his Med School colleagues to serve as the nascent unit’s director. Hashinger also would double as head of the 77th’s medical section. Selected to lead the surgical section was Dr. James B. Weaver, an associate professor at the School of Medicine who likewise had seen action in the First World War. Both men were from Kansas City and later commissioned lieutenant colonels. (When officially mobilized, a regular US Army colonel would assume overall command of the unit.)
From March 1940 until December 1941, it appears that the unit’s activities were mainly preparatory and largely uneventful. Indeed, at this time, KU’s affiliated hospital did not even have a formal Army unit designation.
A key task during this period was recruiting the 77th’s full complement of 47 physicians and 52 nurses, culled mainly from the KU School of Medicine and its Bell Memorial Hospital, but also from other medical institutions in the greater Kansas City area. As people signed up, they attended lectures on “medico-military subjects” at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff School, underwent physical examinations, applied for commissions, and familiarized themselves with the Army’s Military Medical Manual.
Everything changed – in some cases, abruptly – following the “day of infamy” on December 7, 1941, when Japanese forces conducted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Upon America’s formal entry into the war, the US Army Medical Department rushed to give its theoretical and skeletal operation more corporeal form. This included not only its evacuation hospitals, but also its station, general and convalescence facilities (which, sequentially, would be located increasingly further away from the battlefield).
To this end, thousands of enlisted men – who would constitute each hospital’s vital supply and technical staff departments – received specialized training at military bases across the country. They learned to become everything from x-ray and surgical technicians to clerks, cooks, transport drivers and electricians. One of these instructional installations was Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood, which offered both basic and specialized training. The 99 KU and Kansas City-area doctors and nurses in the 77th would soon call this Ozark Mountains citadel their temporary home.
On May 10, 1942, the Army officially activated the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit and ordered LTC Hashinger and his detachment to report to Fort Leonard Wood in one week. They departed from Kansas City with quite the send-off from remaining KU Med faculty and staff. On May 16, a banquet was held in their honor. According to Allen, the soon-to-be soldiers appeared in their uniforms for the first time, managing “to present a reasonable facsimile of a group of military officers.” Perhaps sincerely, perhaps not, they were “repeatedly reminded by those who were staying that, ‘It will be a wonderful experience. I sure wish I were going with you.’”
Following “a few days grace” after their arrival at Fort Leonard Wood, the Army began whipping the 77th into shape. “The deep-knee bends, full body twists, and push-ups were always accompanied by moans and groans as this sedentary group of doctors in their third, fourth and fifth decades were hammered toward the peak of physical stamina,” as Allen described the ensuing ordeal. Mornings were filled with drilling, road marches and obstacle courses. During the afternoons, Uncle Sam schooled these professors in the finer arts of “map-reading, medical administration, military law, mess management, and latrine construction.”
The nurses also underwent physical training, though it was limited to close order drill. However, until their Army uniforms arrived, the 52 women members of the 77th marched about in their white hospital attire. This spectacle, according to Allen, “caused many a hard-shelled [military officer] to stare with amazement and mutter to himself about what this man’s army had come to.”
But like their male counterparts, the nurses – under the leadership of Lieutenant Bessie Walker, formerly the superintendent of nurses at Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City and the 77th’s Principal Chief Nurse – quickly and, by all accounts successfully, adapted to military life. Indeed, despite the rough conditions and the general scarcity of modern medical equipment, possibly the most essential skill imparted – purposefully or not – to all members of the 77th was the ability to improvise, to make the best use of available resources, and still provide patients with the life-saving and life-sustaining care they would so desperately need.
Embarkation day for the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit was July 31, 1942. Under the command of regular Army Colonel Burgh S. Burnet, the contingent included 99 medical professionals and 318 enlisted men. They traveled by train to New York City and then boarded a British ship called the HMS Orcades. The destination was Liverpool, England. After a zigzagging voyage across an Atlantic Ocean infested with German U-boats, they finally arrived on August 17.
The unit saw its first action, as it were, not on a foreign battlefield but, rather, in quite familiar environs. For approximately the next ten weeks, the 77th worked at a Bristol-area children’s hospital that had been converted to care for sick and injured American GIs stationed in England. This opportunity to work closely together, to bond, to build trust and unit cohesion, and to develop efficient procedures under relatively calm conditions proved invaluable. All of it and more would be required, indeed would be essential, for what was to come next.
On November 1,1942, the 77th was split in half and ordered aboard two transport ships headed for parts unknown. The reason for the division was that if a German U-boat sank one of the ships, the other might get through and at least a portion of the hospital would still be intact. Some better indication of the unit’s destination was provided three days into the journey when a booklet titled A Guide to North Africa began circulating. Four days after that, news came that combined British and American forces had just invaded Morocco and Algeria in what was being called Operation Torch. The long-anticipated Allied Second Front against the Axis Powers – which in this region included not only German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, but also Italian troops in Libya and Tunisia, plus Vichy French forces of uncertain loyalties – finally had been opened. And KU’s 77th Hospital Evacuation Unit was heading straight into the fray.
Upon landing at the Algerian port of Oran on November 11 (three days after the main invasion), the 77th immediately set to work in a place that appeared, to many, to be not another country but another world entirely. Based in the French-built and loosely termed Civil Hospital, the unit encountered rampant filth; dead bodies; inadequate or just plain nonexistent sanitation; burned, shot, broken, parched, starving and thoroughly desperate, if not dying, patients; and a generally sordid atmosphere that, according to Allen, simply “cannot be recorded in words.”
Adding to the chaos was the delay in delivering much of the 77th’s equipment, since the dock facilities at Oran had been damaged during the initial landings and sunken ships blocked the regular channels. From time to time, the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) dropped a few bombs on the city. All this, plus the knee-deep mud and the “nauseating” sight of roasted goat heads for sale in Oran’s market square, surely caused many of these volunteers to wonder what they’d gotten themselves into.
Gradually, the situation began to improve. Before long, the 77th was adapting to its new environment and providing high quality care to its patients. As Allen observed, the wounded “were frequently surprised that it was possible to obtain such excellent treatment … under the prevailing crude conditions.”
While many members of the 77th were racked by “profound homesickness” during their first Christmas away from home – for some, it was their first time ever – there were plenty of distractions and a rich camaraderie that seemed to make it all easier to bear. During down time, touring Oran’s impressive Roman, Spanish, French and Arabic-inspired architecture was a common activity, as was mastering the fine art of bartering with local merchants. There was also constant amazement over Arab children’s seemingly insatiable desire for American candy.
Listening to the radio was also a popular group pastime, even Radio Berlin, which regularly aired a program of American music, interspersed with Nazi propaganda delivered by a woman with a “low, beguiling voice.” GI’s called her “Axis Sally.” (In real life, she was American-born Mildred Gillars, a failed actress and pro-Nazi sympathizer who had spent much of her life in Europe.) As Allen reported in Medicine Under Canvas, “She spoke of the pleasant life the men had left in the States, saying how silly they were to be so far from home fighting the great Nazi war machine.” But as Allen further noted, the broadcaster’s dulcet tones did not exactly have the desired, dispiriting effect. “All forms of half-truths were used,” he recalled, “and the men enjoyed the program thoroughly, recognizing the element of propaganda and ridiculing the jerries [a commonly used derogatory slang for the German enemy] for their clumsy psychological approach.”
For many members of the 77th, though, such moments of levity were becoming all too frequent. The “yoke of idleness” was chafing and, as the year 1943 opened, there emerged a palpable sense that the unit was not contributing enough to the Allied cause. After all, its stated purpose was to provide near-frontline care to troops injured in battle, not to man outposts far from the action. But as American armies moved east across North Africa, the 77th remained in place.
All this changed on January 7, 1943, when the 77th was ordered to move out. Over a period of weeks, the unit proceeded by rail through Algiers and the ancient Roman city of Constantine to Tebessa, near the Algerian-Tunisian border. Allen described this location as “probably one of the dirtiest places the 77th ever encountered.”
The unit’s members did not have much time to lament the squalor of their new surroundings. On February 14, word came that their services were desperately needed. Near the Kasserine Pass in eastern Tunisia, US forces were getting a thrashing in their first major battle against German troops. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was living up to its fearsome reputation, and for a while, the green and untested American army seemed on the verge of being routed.
The 77th was deployed some distance from the front, but it immediately began receiving hundreds of overflow patients from other Allied hospital units. Often, the wounded came in as many as 200 at a time to the 77th’s 750-bed complex of tents. Arduous 72-hour shifts (broken only by brief naps) kept the chaos to a minimum. But everyone proceeded under the constant worry that they, too, might have to retreat before the advancing German panzers, lest they become patients themselves.
Unforeseen medical challenges also cropped up. Primarily these concerned the alarming number of battle fatigued or “shell-shocked” patients the 77th was receiving. As Allen noted, during this phase of the North African campaign, “Fifty-six percent of the cases on the medical service were cases of psychoneurosis due to the war. The [unceasing] heavy shelling, bombing, and strafing to which the soldiers had been subjected for long periods without rest was undoubtedly responsible for their mental breakdown.” (In due course, several Army psychiatrists were assigned to the 77th.)
In March 1943, Lt. General George S. Patton took command of the faltering American effort in Tunisia, and the tide began to turn. By mid-April 1943 German forces in North Africa were starting to suffer serious reverses before the combined British-American assault. And, as such, the 77th received orders to move again, this time north to the Algerian city of Bone (present-day Annaba). Morale was high, due not only to recent Allied victories, but also considering how well the unit had performed during the exhaustive previous months.
Located on the Mediterranean Sea, with its temperate, sunny climes, Bone must have seemed like a much-needed and long overdue furlough. Continuing Luftwaffe air raids, however, quickly disabused anyone harboring such a notion, as did the rapid influx of casualties from the hard-fought American victory at Hill 609 in northern Tunisia. In fact, during a 45-day period, the 77th treated more than 4,500 patients.
On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa officially surrendered. Three days later, an elaborate victory parade was held in Bone, during which the 77th’s indefatigable nurses were apparently the main attraction. “As the only feminine members of the Allied forces marching in formation,” recalled Allen, they enjoyed “the lion’s share of all the applause of the spectators.”
The 77th’s hospital at Bone remained open until late June. By this time, rumors were beginning to circulate about an Allied invasion of Sicily, and many members of the unit wondered whether this would be their chance to see real combat up-close. As it turned out, it certainly was – although only for 11 officers and 54 enlisted men. Chosen to augment the forces being amassed by General Patton, they would take part in what was being called Operation Husky. Included in this group, incidentally, were four faculty members from the KU School of Medicine: Captains Paul Harrington, Melvin Rabe, Nathaniel Soderberg and Robert Forsythe.
Launched on July 10, 1943, the US Seventh Army’s amphibious assault on Sicily and the attendant 38-day campaign, conducted with British forces under General Bernard Montgomery’s command, secured the island and indirectly resulted in a coup that toppled Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Members of the 77th – despite their lack of combat experience – hit the beaches, braved the machinegun and artillery fire, and endured the Luftwaffe strafing runs just like any other soldier, all the while administering medical treatment to those wounded in action. Caring for countless casualties, they suffered none of their own.
Released from the Seventh Army on July 27 – about two weeks before the liberation of Sicily was completed – the 77th’s veterans of Operation Husky rejoined their unit back near Bone, Algeria. They found that near-complete relaxation was the unspoken order of what turned out to be the next 30 days. With war no longer plaguing North Africa, the men and women of the 77th spent their days lounging on Mediterranean beaches. They surfed atop inflatable mattresses, built homemade boats – one of which was dubbed S.S. Latrine – and organized volleyball, boxing and horseshoe-pitching tournaments.
Baseball, though, appears to have been the most popular sport. In addition to making a series of “road-trips” to play teams from other military units stationed nearby – and addicting more than a few Algerians to America’s national pastime – the 77th hooked many of their British comrades as well. As Allen observed, before too long, polite remarks such as “Bravo” and “Well done” gave way to more colorful language. And by summer’s end, the Brits could “call an umpire a robber in [the] true Brooklyn fashion.”
During their month-long reprieve from the war, members of the 77th were also on the receiving end of some serious entertainment. Once, they were treated to an orchestral concert put on by German and Italian prisoners of war, many of whom had been professional musicians in civilian life. Although this performance garnered rave reviews, it could not quite top the USO event put on by Bob Hope and Hollywood bombshell Frances Langford. Although the comedian kept the troops in stitches, apparently the starlet stole the show. Langford’s appearance, recalled Allen, “in slacks and bra with exposed midriff brought forth a roar which must have been heard in Cape Town.”
There was, of course, a war still raging and the call of duty was rarely long silent. In late August 1943, the 77th – this time in its entirety – was ordered back to Sicily, now under Allied occupation. For about two months, the unit helped treat sick and wounded American and British soldiers, as well as Sicilians (mostly children) injured by land mines and grenades. November, however, saw the unit off again, back for a return visit to Britain. (According to the 1944 edition of Jayhawker MD, this transfer came at the request of General Omar Bradley himself. “Recognizing their efficiency,” the yearbook stated, he wanted the 77th “returned to England to be on hand for D-Day.”)
Records indicate that the unit’s actual duties over roughly the next seven months were fairly ordinary and, at times, seemingly akin to civilian life. Based in the elegant Georgian town of Tunbridge Wells, just outside London, it appears the 77th spent its working hours providing routine care at the local hospital and its off hours enjoying the hospitality of area residents.
Allen recounted a few of these latter functions, which included dances and dinner parties, at least one featuring a “generous supply of spirits.” There were also trips to the theatre and the occasional taking-in of a cricket match, a sport most found “quite dull” compared to baseball. By May, however, invasion rumors began to stir once again, this time regarding what would surely be the ultimate assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Few were surprised, then, when news came of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landings at Normandy on the French coast. The 77th had been on 48-hour alert, though no one knew just when their unit would be given the green light to assist in the Continent’s long-awaited liberation. In the meantime, the Germans gave members of the 77th – and much of southeastern England, for that matter – a small taste of what was to come, courtesy of V-1 guided missile strikes, also known as “buzz bombs.”
Finally, in early July, the 77th was ordered across the English Channel, destination Utah Beach. Upon landing, the unit set up its hospital in the town of Ste.Mère Église. Immediately the 77th began receiving badly wounded patients, most of whom had been victims of devastating German artillery fire.
In the ensuing weeks, some of the most carnage-ridden of the war thus far, the 77th followed close behind the Allied push across France, its mobility constantly being put to the test, even as it was subjected to many of the same dangers as frontline troops. At Ste. Lo, for instance, the unit took in more than 1,200 casualties in the first 12 hours alone, and in six days averaged approximately 44 patients an hour.
Additionally, the 77th cared for downed British and American airmen, liberated from German hospitals – where they had been treated badly – and simultaneously tended to captured enemy soldiers and French civilians caught in the crossfire.
Amid all this ugliness and death there were brief moments of pleasure. This was particularly the case when the 77th first entered liberated Paris, which the unit’s members unanimously dubbed “the most beautiful city they had ever seen.” Few neglected to visit (and be awestruck by) Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Palace of Versailles.
With wine in Paris going for exorbitant prices, it was French perfume that intoxicated the vast majority of these now battle-hardened GIs – and not just the nursing contingent, mind you. Indeed, Allen recalled, “It seemed rather strange to hear a group of men discussing ‘what’s good’ in the line of perfume.” And thanks to their discriminating noses and liberal spending habits, “The amount of perfume sent home during this time should have been adequate to make every woman in the States irresistible for the next year.” As is so often the case in war, however, this idyll marked the calm before a horrific storm.
On December 16, 1944, German forces – which seemingly had been driven back on all fronts – launched their surprise counteroffensive known to history as the Battle of the Bulge. It was Hitler’s last desperate gamble. Led by divisions of the Waffen-SS – the Führer’s best-equipped and most fanatical soldiers – this bold thrust through the dense Ardennes Forest aimed to retake the Belgian port of Antwerp, split the Allied lines, and thus isolate and annihilate three American and British Armies. Hitler’s goal was to force a negotiated peace in the West, freeing up badly needed manpower for his collapsing eastern front against the Soviet Union.
As part of the Allied defense, the 77th was ordered to Verviers, Belgium, a vital road junction through which thousands of American and British forces were being funneled in hopes of halting the German advance. Knowing full well the importance of Verviers, what was left of the Luftwaffe began a relentless bombing of the town.
These assaults, coupled with fresh barrages of “buzz bombs” and the toll exacted by regular army and Waffen-SS forces, delivered a tremendous number of casualties into the 77th’s hospitals. Indeed, the fighting was so close that some soldiers didn’t need an ambulance to get back to the 77th for treatment – they could simply walk in. On at least one occasion, the unit itself was savaged by German artillery fire, resulting in the death of Red Cross worker Ann Kathleen Cullen, who was ill but not injured and happened to be a hospital patient at the time. Overall, of the roughly 35,000 patients the unit treated during the entirety of 1944, almost 21,000 were casualties from the 77th’s five-week tour of duty at Verviers.
Ultimately, the Battle of the Bulge ended in German defeat, but at a terrible cost in lives on both sides. And while there would still be months of hard fighting to come, the Allied advance towards (and ultimately into) Germany proceeded apace.
For the 77th, however, the war was coming to a close, at least in terms of dodging bombs and bullets. The unit spent much of March-May 1945 treating German prisoners of war, mostly bedraggled adolescents and elderly men conscripted to fight for a hopeless cause during Hitler’s last days. And when V-E Day came on May 8, the 77th found itself just across Germany’s western border in the town of Rheydt – the farthest extent of the unit’s penetration – caring for these most pitiful of patients, medical professionals to the end.
By September 1945, nearly every member of the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit had been discharged and was bound for home. Miraculously, not a single solider from the original complement had been killed during 40 months of continuous active duty service. And apparently, this inherent survivability, through skilled hands, was passed on to their patients as well. In 1944, for example (by far the busiest and deadliest year), of the 25,408 patients admitted to the 77th’s surgical department – many of whom had suffered serious battlefield injuries – only 94 later died: a minuscule mortality rate of 0.37 percent.
In the years since 1945, members of the 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit, like millions of other World War II veterans, went back to their civilian status and pursued achievements large and ordinary that, in aggregate, confirmed their cohort’s designation as “The Greatest Generation.” Having temporarily taken up arms when their country was in mortal peril, their military service became (and remained) a defining moment in their lives.
Indeed, this was particularly true for veterans of the 77th who, for almost 60 years, met annually to reminisce about their World War II experiences and catch up on the present. Invariably well attended, the popularity of these reunions among this self-selected band of brothers and sisters reflected a sentiment once expressed by Dorothy Osgood, one of the unit’s nurses. “The 77th Evacuation Hospital,” she said in 1979, “was just like a big family.”
The passage of time, of course, has taken a far greater toll on the 77th’s ranks than wartime hazards ever did. By September 2004, only 15 members out of a presumed 30 survivors came together to celebrate the unit’s final reunion, held in Dayton, Ohio.