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Dr. J. Birney Dibble
Eau Claire, Wisconsin-
"My time in Korea was sometimes exciting, often boring, usually safe, and frequently dangerous. I experienced months of numbing cold with no way to get warm, months of steaming heat with no way to get cool, and days or weeks of unpleasant lack of hygiene. Yet through it all, I had a persistent sense (never voiced) of doing one's duty in an unforced way. "
- Birney Dibble
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My name is James Birney Dibble from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I was born on December 8, 1925 in Madras, India, the son of Methodist missionaries to India. My father was Paul Gladstone Dibble and my mother was Marie Larson Bjerno. I had a sister, Elsie Marie, who was a year and a half older than I. She was born in India, too.
My father knew in high school that he was called into the ministry, and in college that he was called to a foreign mission field. He took a Bachelor of Arts degree at South Dakota State University and a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Garrett Biblical Institute, Northwestern University's seminary. He had never been out of the United States before he went to India. My mother felt the call to a foreign mission field as a nurse when she was still in high school in Vejle, Denmark. She was counseled that in order to be properly prepared, she should get her degree in the United States. She got that degree at Northwestern University's Wesley Hospital. When she was 18 years old, my mother came over to the States from Denmark to become a missionary nurse. That was just before the First World War. She met my dad, whose plans were to be a missionary pastor, and then they married.
We lived in the Kilpauk section of Madras. The home was built of local stone, with a poured concrete floor, arches rather than doors between rooms, a large kitchen with a wood-burning cook stove, and Venetian-type blinds rather than windows and curtains. My father was headmaster of the boys' school, grades 1-8, and pastor of the Methodist church. My mother was a housewife, but also took care of minor medical problems in the school. The gospel was spread primarily in the school, with little outreach from the church. The boys almost always became Christians, but often left the church when they returned home. Missionaries in India at that time were welcomed because they brought education and medical facilities to areas that had neither. Proselytizing to Christianity was not considered a threat by the government.
It's hard to separate my own memories of India from the stories my parents told and the pictures they took. I played with the children of our household staff and learned Tamil in that way. We frequently had dinner guests, both Indian staff and missionaries. We had a very tame three-legged goat that I loved to play with. For a while we had a monkey (Rhesus, in retrospect) until it got into my mother's cosmetics once too often. The boarding school for the 100 grade school students was on our compound, perhaps a couple of hundred feet away, so the boys were out there playing a lot. We all wore topis (cork helmets)--even we little guys, whenever we were out in the sun.
My parents were missionaries in India for a six-year term. We came back to the States in 1929 when the stock market crashed. When it crashed, it affected church giving. When my dad was due to go back out in the missionary field, there were no funds to send him and he was given a charge in Northern Illinois. By the time there were funds to send him back out, they wanted him to go to a different country other than India. He had already spent two years learning Tamil, an extremely difficult language that was worse to learn than Arabic. We didn’t go back to India. My sister and I grew up in Northern Illinois.
I grew up in a number of small towns in Northern Illinois, including Greenwood near Woodstock, New Lenox near Joliet, and finally Rochelle and East Aurora. I graduated from East Aurora in 1943. I attended school during World War II. Like everywhere else, there were constant scrap drives. Our class motto was, “A Place in the Ranks Awaits Us.” We all knew we were going in. In fact, most of us had already enlisted. I enlisted in the Fall of 1942 while a senior in high school and then went into the Navy just days after I graduated days in 1943.
In my freshman year at Rochelle, I played football, basketball and tennis, but was not outstanding in any of them. I moved to Aurora early in my sophomore year, too late to play football. A friend, Ray Mietz, encouraged me to go out for track. It was a fortuitous move. I found I had the speed and endurance for the half mile. After taking second in the first meet, I never lost another race until I lost in the state finals at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I played second string on the basketball team for three years, not good enough to play first string, not bad enough to get cut. I also played second string football in my junior year and first string most of the second year when the first stringer got a season-ending injury. I was elected co-captain of the track team as a senior. My co-captain was Paul Patterson, a Negro boy who went on to play for the University of Illinois and then the Chicago Bears in the National Football league. I was elected president of the junior class and president of the Student Council my senior year in a school with almost 1,500 students.
I always, always worked while I was in grade and high school. Between school years in the summer I worked in construction gangs, literally digging ditches. They didn’t have the backhoes then. I worked in grocery stores and had a paper route from the time I could ride a bike until I started getting better jobs such as in grocery stores working afternoons, weekends and Saturdays. I also worked in an ice cream stand dipping sundaes and mixing malted milks one whole summer.
Choosing My Profession
Religion was important to me in the sense that I was immersed in it. We attended Sunday School and church every Sunday. We said prayers before every meal. There were family devotions after breakfast. I attended Epworth League (named for the hometown in England of John and Charles Wesley, although I certainly didn't know that at the time) for high school kids every Sunday evening. I went to summer camp at Lake Geneva each summer between high school years. In mid-June before my senior year, I took a week off from my job and went to a high school summer camp at Lake Geneva. For an hour after lunch each day we were encouraged to find a spot to meditate without anyone else around. I took my Bible down to the beach, found a shady spot under a tree, and began to read. I didn't hear a voice, but the thought that entered my mind--and which I said out loud, certainly came from God: "I'm going to be a missionary doctor." This epiphany gave me the focus I needed.
My mother was a nurse and may have subtly influenced me, but I don't remember ever hearing her say anything directly to influence me. Anyone in any medical field (doctor, nurse, technician, etc.) can be a missionary. He/she performs the same duties in the field as here in the States.
After I made up my mind that I was going to be a missionary doctor, I just never thought of anything else. I grew up in an environment of helping other people and this was my way of continuing to do that. My grandfather, my great grandfather, my great-uncles and my father were all Methodist pastors. I had decided in grade school that I was going to be a doctor. When I decided to go into the medical field I said to my dad, "Well, Pop. I guess I broke the line." He looked me in the eye and said, "No, you didn't, Birney!" A lot of men and women go into medicine because it is a lucrative field, but he knew that my goal was not the usual. I wanted to go into the mission field as a physician. I had that in mind all the years that I was growing up. It was what I always wanted to do.
Conventional wisdom at the time dictated that an aspiring doctor should take Latin in high school because prescriptions were written in Latin (true), and all the parts of the body were labeled in Latin (true). What we didn't know was that learning high school Latin would not be helpful in either instance. I had picked out Northwestern University, not knowing that I would never go there, even if there hadn't been a war, because I never could have afforded it. I don't remember ever talking to high school or college counselors, doctors, or anyone else about becoming a doctor. I don't know if they even had such animals back then!
A Navy officer/recruiter came to our high school in November 1942 with a V-12 program, which was a college training program. They said they would give us four semesters of university experience and then commission us as ensigns in the Navy. I didn't want to go into the Army for three very good reasons. One, all my close friends were going into the Navy. Two, everyone "knew" that anyone could get in the army but you were special if you could get in the Navy. Three, everyone knew (this was true) that 17-year-old army boys were cannon fodder. So I took the V-12 test. The recruiter monitored a written exam for all the seniors who wanted to enter the program. If you passed, you took a physical. If you passed that, you got orders to a college somewhere. I passed both.
In the months that followed, I had no contact with the Department of the Navy except orders to report to Duke University on or before June 30, 1943, to begin my career in the Navy. My parents didn't have any choice in accepting my decision to join. In 1943, all graduating males were headed for the service. Of course, my parents didn't like it, but they were never asked for their approval--by me or anyone else. A week after high school graduation I was sent to my first duty station--Duke University.
Attending Duke was like one long, 22-month boot camp. We were in the Navy and wore a uniform. We fell out for calisthenics at 0630, showered, shaved, etc., and marched in formation to classes. The guys in the V-12 program often said that most guys went to boot camp for six to twelve weeks, whereas we had a year and a half of boot camp. We had chief petty officers from the Navy and Marines yelling at us all the time. We had naval organization classes, as well as training with weapons. We had very basic training on the M-1 and learned how to strip and clean a .45. That was a minor part of what they taught us. We had other classes on how to be a sailor. We had to march. We had to learn the Bluejackets Manual. Being in the Navy was definitely secondary to being in college, but it took up a lot of our time. I think we started out with a group of 300 pre-meds and ended up with eight of us staying on. It was tough. Those who weren't in the upper two percent of the class were not allowed to stay in pre-med.
I took pre-med courses at Duke. These included comparative anatomy, physiology, chemistry, German, normal and abnormal psychology, mathematics and sociology. I was only involved in one extra-curricular sport while attending Duke University, and that was track. According to the Durham newspaper sports page, I was "Duke's cinder star" in both the mile and half mile. In point of fact, in the two track seasons I was running at Duke, I won both distances in every meet I entered, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Annapolis, Penn Relays, and probably a couple of other schools that I don't remember. I ran under two minutes in the half, the best 1:58.1. I ran under four and a half minutes in the mile, the best 4:26. I've often wondered what I could have done if I could have run two more years.
At the end of the first semester with three semesters to go, they told us pre-meds that we were able to take any classes we wanted. Instead of taking the usual 15 or 16 semester hours my first semester, I thought I could handle 24, which I did. The second semester I took 28. I wanted to get as much pre-med in as I possibly could.
They allowed those of us that were in the upper two percent of the class at Duke to stay in school because they thought at that time that the war was going to last ten years. I’m talking about the Second World War. By the time they realized that the war was winding down and it wasn’t going to last that long, I had already accumulated 112 semester hours in eight quarters of school. This was in February or March of 1945 and I was still at Duke. We had already taken Guam and the Philippines and were working toward Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Duty at Camp Lejeune
After finishing at Duke University we were sent to fleet duty, as they called it then. I was assigned to a Marine unit at Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville, North Carolina. It is poorly understood by the general public, but the Marines are a department of the Navy. They are the fighting arm of the Navy. The Marines have no medical corps. No dentists. They have no lawyers. They have no administrative people. They have nothing except the infantry Marine. So when they need medical support, they get it from the Navy. At Camp Lejeune, Camp Pendleton, and everywhere else in the world, the Navy supplies medical services. There was a big Navy hospital at Lejeune, and that's where I was sent. I took a Greyhound bus to Jacksonville. When I arrived there at 2330, there were no Marine buses that night to Lejeune, so I walked the two and a half miles. I left my seabag at the bus station and they sent it out the next day. I checked in with the yeoman on duty. He looked at my orders and said, "I dated a Dorothy Dibble in high school in Arlington Heights." I said, "Yes, my cousin. She still lives there." Small world.
There were some barracks at Camp Lejeune, but we lived in temporary wooden huts that were literally in the swamp. "Swamp Lejeune" is what we called it, as a matter of fact. The relatively high ground of the main base was surrounded by swampy lowlands abounding in alligators and mosquitoes--the latter the more dangerous. There were mosquitoes everywhere. It was not fun at night because we slept with those mosquitoes all night long. The bunks were double-deck and about a yard apart. We had no lockers, bedside stands or closets--just long slats above the bunks to stow our seabags on. So, inconveniently, we lived out of our seabags. There was no glass in the windows of the huts--just screens and wooden shutters held up by props which could be lowered in a rain storm. In the brick barracks next door was a pool table, a game room, and a writing room. Showers and heads were in another building still. "Dining" was more properly called "chow-down for the troops" and was in still another permanent brick building.
Close by were two asphalt tennis courts, and two handball courts that had no side or back walls. About 100 yards away the New River widened into a bay before it emptied into the ocean. On the bay was a small building housing Lightning-class sailboats. I used all the facilities from time to time. Sailing was my favorite sport at the time. One day I went out with Dale Ranft, an electrician's mate third class. He had a cast on his left arm from axilla to wrist. We flipped the boat in coming about and he went straight to the bottom with that heavy cast on. Fortunately he was a strong swimmer and was able to come up and grab hold of the boat until the shore crew could motor out and help us right the boat and get back in. It certainly wasn't funny at the time, but we often laughed about it later.
During World War II, casualties were sent back to the States to the naval hospital at Camp Lejeune and other naval hospitals throughout the United States. Wounded Marines from the South Pacific didn't always go to these naval hospitals when they were first injured because of the logistics of the war, but they always ended up in naval hospitals. We were taking care of the casualties from Okinawa and Iwo Jima at that time. I was on an orthopedic ward and what we had there at that time and all through the summer were patients with shrapnel and bullet wounds--mostly shrapnel. Most of them were infected or they wouldn’t have been on the particular ward I was on. All wounds that I took care of were.
These wounded World War II veterans never talked with us about what they had gone through and we never asked. We had nothing in common except that we were all young men (old boys?). They were Marines that had just been through a hell of which we had no concept, and we were a bunch of college-boy swabbies, so there was absolutely no sense of camaraderie. However, having said that, there never was any hint by the Marines that they were superior to us, that we were slackers, or that they had done their duty whereas we hadn't. In retrospect I find that interesting and explain it by pointing out that the Marines--without verbalizing it--accepted the fact that they had obeyed their orders and we had obeyed ours.
At this time I was not being trained. Fifty of us were assigned to wards, the other five to the lab. As mentioned, I went to an orthopedic ward for infected wounds. We stood port and starboard watches. One day, duty from 0800-1200, 1600-2100. Next day, 0630-1200, 1300-1600. Then repeat. It was confusing at first, but we quickly adapted. There was no classroom training. Rather, we had daily on-the-job training in nursing-type duties.
None of us had had any medical training yet except basic first aid from The Blue Jackets' Manual, so our work was quite simple (and had to be). Supervision was by registered nurses and fully trained corpsmen (called "pharmacist mates" then). We changed dressings. Sprinkled sulfanilamide into open wounds. (We didn't know then that although the sulfa did help control infection, it also delayed healing.) Aqueous penicillin was available; 5,000 units were injected by a nurse or a trained corpsman every three hours. Long-acting penicillin had not yet been developed. Nowadays penicillin, if used at all, is given in doses of millions of units. We gave back rubs and massages to the bed-bound men. We made up "ether beds" for returning surgicals, meaning a rubber sheet between the regular sheet and the mattress because many of the patients vomited as they woke up. It was also our job to empty bed pans and urinals ("ducks"), make rounds with the Navy doctors and nurses, help patients in and out of bed and in and out of wheelchairs, etc. In short, we were the much-needed, un-skilled extra hands on the wards.
Strangely enough, I don't remember any specific cases that stand out. They all sort of blur together--a lot of messy bone infections everywhere in the body where there is a bone, caused originally by shrapnel, rarely by bullets, because shrapnel carried dirt, cloth and other foreign bodies into the wound, whereas a bullet penetrated without carrying much, if anything, with it. I was at Camp Lejeune from July to September 1945. By the time I left I felt that I could handle just about any type of nursing duties if given the chance.
The war ended in August of 1945. I stayed at Lejeune until I talked the people into letting me go to the University of Illinois Medical School in October 1945, even though I was still in the Navy. They said, “We don’t teach it. You can go.” So I stayed in uniform as a Navy enlistee until December 31, 1945. I went to Great Lakes, got discharged, and came back as a civilian and attended my freshman year in medical school on the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois.
Medical School and Internship
I got the GI bill for the three months that I was at Camp Lejeune and wasn't in school at Duke, plus twelve months. So I got about the first 15 months of medical school paid by the government. After that I had to pay for my schooling myself. There were a bunch of hospitals around Chicago that were drawing blood, so I went to a hospital locally and got $50 for each donation. I also bussed dishes at the Union Building for four years. I got my noon meal for bussing dishes for 45 minutes between classes. I washed dishes at the fraternity house every night for four years to get my evening meal, and for my books and tuition I made it by donating blood once a month. If I was sick they wouldn't take my blood, but I would say that over a four-year period I doubt if I missed five to seven times giving blood.
The requirements for medical school now have not changed much at all since I attended the University of Illinois. Today there has been a shift in emphasis to preventative medicine, particularly with the growth of immunology, especially with the knowledge that cancer is probably viral, which puts it into immunology.
I met Edna Baird on the orthopedic ward when I was 22 years old and a junior in medical school. That was the fall of 1948. She was a graduate of the Springfield Nursing School in Springfield, Illinois. As with most young loves, I was at first attracted by her beauty. Once I got to know her, I found that she was a strong person, a good nurse, not flighty but solid in her character and her actions, a devout Christian, but not holier-than-thou, had many of the attitudes and core beliefs that I did, and she was just fun to be with. In short, she was just the kind of a girl I was looking for, even though I wasn't really looking for a wife when I met her! We fell in love and got married a year later on June 21, 1949 in Springfield, Illinois, five days after I graduated from medical school. That was 50 years ago this June .
After we married, Edna stayed on at the University of Illinois Research and Education Hospital, where she was getting $200 a month. I was getting $15 a month (room, board, and laundry) at Cook County Hospital as an intern. We put that together and we could live on that back then. It doesn't sound like much today and it wasn't much then, but we did get by. We asked my father for a ten or twenty dollar loan once in a while, which we paid back as soon as we could. The economy was quite a bit different and our medical center was able to furnish us with an apartments at $18 to $22 a month. They were all run-down tenements that had been fixed up enough that we could live in them--although not gracefully. My mother practically fainted when she saw where we were going to live. She said, “Oh Birney! You’re not going to live here?” I replied, “Yes we are, Mom.” It was slum. The floor slanted and there were cockroaches all over. It was leaky. As far as the air was concerned, it whistled around the windows and we had to plug it up with newspapers. But these things did not deter us from what we were doing. We were young. Both of us were 23 years old when we married. We knew our living conditions were temporary, whereas other people living around us were living there permanently. Our ultimate goal was me in the practice of medicine and surgery, with my wife nursing. I still had some memories of India and hoped to return there. I thought I would enjoy India as a mission field. I've since been back to visit the house where I once lived.
I stayed in the Reserve when I got out of the Navy and as soon as I finished medical school I was promoted on paper to Ensign from enlisted. At that time I was still inactive. When I finished my internship in July of 1951, I was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade. Those ranks were equivalent to Second and First Lieutenant in the Marines or Army. When I was promoted to Lieutenant JG, I went back to active duty. My first duty station was at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. All I did there was examine recruits all day long. It was dull and boring, so I asked for a transfer to the 1st Marine Division. I was sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, for inclusion in the 16th Replacement Draft.
When I left for California I first suggested that Edna just stay in Illinois and go back to live with her parents in Springfield, Illinois. I had been at Pendleton for just a few days when I realized that it was going to be a long three months without her. I called her and suggested that she come out to California and we would find someplace to live in San Diego. As it turned out, her parents had good friends in San Diego who had a spare room. They agreed to put us up for that 2 1/2 months. As an officer I could leave when we were done with the day's training unless we had an overnight maneuver, which wasn't very often.
At Camp Pendleton we underwent almost three months of regular combat infantry training. There were forced marches and overnight bivouacs. We learned the use of firearms such as the M-1, which was the standard infantry rifle at the time; the M-2, which was a carbine and automatic rifle; and the .45. We had to learned how to handle those because we were going into combat and we would never know when we might need to use them. I was a physician, but I would be assigned to an infantry unit.
We knew that we were going to ship out to Korea after we finished our training because we had already been assigned to a replacement draft. I would be going to Korea as a battalion surgeon. A battalion surgeon is a commissioned officer, while Navy corpsmen were enlisted men like I had been during World War II. When I left for Korea, Edna went back to Illinois and lived with her parents in Springfield. She got a job in a doctor's office there.
Bound for Korea
We left for Korea on December 15, 1951 and got to Korea on January 2, 1952. Since I had taken care of Marines coming back from World War II, I knew that the life expectancy of a medical man on the front line was not lengthy, but it wasn't something I contemplated. I knew I was going to Korea. I had already been assigned to a unit. I don't know how to explain how I dealt with it. It was something that I just did. I didn’t have any choice as far as going back on active duty because that was at a time when they were drafting doctors who had not been doctors in the Second World War. I was still in the Reserves, so they just called me back. There just wasn’t any choice. It was just something that we did and something that everybody knew they were going to have to do. I think they went down the list and figured out how many medical people they needed. If a doctor had been a doctor in service in the Second World War for 17 months or more, he was not eligible for recall or drafting or anything else. If he had been in for less than 17 months, then he was eligible for drafting or recall if he was in the Reserves.
I went to Korea via the USS William Weigel. I think most of the guys onboard ship were excited to be going to war. They weren't boisterous, but they were all trained Marines. This was their profession. It's a strange thing to try to explain, but I think I also felt a certain amount of excitement to be going into combat. A week before shipping out, I turned 26 years old on December 8, 1951. There was nothing special about the day.
Except for Navy personnel such as corpsmen and doctors, everyone on the ship was a Marine. Even those of us who were Navy medical men were all dressed in Marine green. You couldn’t tell the difference been Navy and Marine except for the fact that the corpsmen wore a caduceus on their uniforms and upside down Navy chevrons instead of wearing the chevrons of a Marine with the Marine emblem. When doctors were not actually on the front line in combat, they wore their rank bar on the right collar and their caduceus on the left collar so others could tell a doctor from a line Marine. Everything else was the same.
There were nightly movies on each open deck, with a translucent screen so that half the Marines sat on one side and half on the other. Any writing was backwards for half the audience. Daily life included abandon-ship drills, though we didn't actually get in the boats. There was an initiation ceremony for those who hadn't crossed the Date Line before, which was almost everybody, of course. We were made to crawl naked through troughs of garbage and do other horrible things! It was optional, of course, but no one refused as far as I know. Esprit de Corps. Semper fidelis. GO NAVY!
Seven days out, on the 22nd, the wind began to pick up and the rain was a continuous cloudburst. It was impossible to go out onto an open deck. By the morning of the 23rd we had swung north directly into the wind and were told that it was blowing at nearly 100 knots. Later we learned that we had been through a typhoon of 140 knots. We had a window facing forward and could watch the bow of this great ship climbing up, up, on giant waves. Then we would crest the wave, slide down the other side, and the bow dipped down, down, down, completely under water. For what seemed an eternity the bow stayed under while the twin propellers in the stern were out of the water, the whole ship shuddering violently. Finally the bow came up, tons of water cascading overboard as we climbed another wave. Kids nowadays don't know what "awesome" really is, but let me tell you, what I witnessed was awesome.
Although I hadn't been on a ship since I was a youngster coming back from India, I wasn't sick. One of the two Navy doctors assigned to the ship's crew approached me and asked if I could help. I replied, "Of course? What can I do?" He told me to go down into the enlisted men's quarters and give anti-emetic shots to the worst cases. I was led down below by a crew member who was not seasick. The bunks lined the bulkhead four and five deep. You had to be an acrobat to climb to the top bunk. Everyone was vomiting. Where? Onto the deck, of course. There weren't enough toilets in the head to accommodate that many sick men. When the ship's bow was up, the vomitus ran down the gutters on each side, just below the bunks. When the ship's bow went down, it ran the other way. It almost, but not quite, made me ill. I spent an hour down there injecting the worst cases, and finally was able to escape.
The storm raged all night, well into Christmas Day, when it began to subside and the ship was able to come about and head for Korea once more. But there were only about 600 Marines who felt like eating the turkey and all the trimmings. I've often wondered what they did with the uneaten Christmas dinners for 4,400 Marines! Were they able to keep it frozen and save it for a better day? Did they feed the sharks? All I know is that they didn't give it to us any time during the remaining nine days we spent at sea before hitting the beach at Sokchori. Yes, a Christmas to remember! No tree, no services, no entertainment. I don't know if anything had been planned, but the typhoon took care of that.
We arrived in Korea during the night and were anchored off shore when we awoke on January 2, 1952. After breakfast we heard over the intercom, "Now here this. Now hear this. All hands lay below and prepare to disembark. All hands lay below and prepare to disembark." Our seabags were packed and our rifles unloaded but uncased. We filed out onto the deck. An LST was already right alongside. It took 1,000 men at a time, 500 on each of its two decks, and unloaded them on the beach. We doctors and corpsmen were on the fourth transfer out of five.
There was no port. There were no buildings, no dock, no nothing. We disembarked from the LST directly onto the beach. We knew immediately that we were in a war zone because we could hear big guns booming. Every man was issued forty rounds of ammunition for his rifle. The only natives we saw were Koreans in uniform attached to our forces--interpreters and laborers.
We never saw the town, but they told us that we landed near the village of Sokchori when we arrived in Korea. It was on the east coast near Wonsan and Kojo. We were well up in North Korea and it was very COLD!!! This part of Korea was mountainous, heavily wooded, and empty of habitations and people. As soon as we left the beach we were picked up by open 6-by trucks and taken up through the mountains. We went almost straight west from Sokchori and then a little bit to the north just east of the Punchbowl. We kept on going higher and higher and it kept on getting colder and colder. We were all from Camp Pendleton in warm Southern California and just off of a ship that had been heated. We had our cold weather gear, but we were all just cold. I remember it took us about three or four days before any of us acclimated and felt warm again.
At that time the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment was located on Hill 812 between Hills 751 and 556 in eastern Korea. These two hills were taken before I got there, so I knew very little about them. They were behind us and could be seen from 812. The Main Service Road (MSR) to 3/5 snaked between them. I spent a day at division headquarters, a day at regimental headquarters, and then a day at battalion headquarters. There was a ruling at the time that we had to be in the country for three days before they could put us on the front line. Someone in a jeep took me out to battalion headquarters and then I went to the front lines. The first casualty that I saw was as we were driving into H&S. They were bringing a Marine down off the hill by jeep ambulance. The battalion surgeon that I was relieving said, "Hi, Dr. Dibble. I'm gone." He jumped into the jeep that I had arrived in and left.
When I first arrived at Headquarters and Service (H&S) Company, there were no buildings. All of us lived in tents. Later, a Quonset hut replaced the Rear Aid Station tent. A row of tents on the back (southeast) slope of Hill 812 was called Mercy Row by the Marines because they were the tents of the Aid Station, doctors, corpsmen, and chaplain. The other battalion surgeon was Bob Kimball. The chaplain was Bob Fleming. All tents except the corpsmen's tents were 16x16-foot pyramidal tents. The corpsmen lived in a 16x32-foot squad tent which easily held sixteen men in the summer and twelve men in the winter when a stove was installed.
Bob Kimball (I called him "Kim") was from Virginia and is still living there in 2011. I keep in touch with him by phone. We doctors lived in a small tent with two others, Charlie Schuster and Jack Murnane. Charlie Schuster, who died a couple of months ago, was the supply officer. Jack Murnane was a Marine pilot who was in H&S as a forward observer. He and his buddy Eddie Abner alternated going up into the front lines on an observation post. They were the ones who called in air strikes off the aircraft carriers.
At that time nothing was going on at the Punchbowl because they had already taken it. The Punchbowl was south of us a little bit. There was a trench system that extended from coast to coast at about the 38th parallel. There were many of them as UN troops moved northward from the Pusan Perimeter in the early part of the war. From the time I got there until the end of the war 19 months later, it remained fairly stable, moving only when one side or the other mounted an offensive. It paralleled the enemy lines, sometimes only a hundred yards apart, but mostly 200 to 300 yards. It was dug down about three to four feet in a serpentine manner so that incoming shells landing in the trench could not do damage for any great distance. It was wide enough for only one man to crawl along, so when you met someone coming from the other direction, one man had to flatten out while the other crawled over him. Bunkers were dug out of the hillside about every 15 to 20 yards, roofed over with whole trees, covered with dirt and then reinforced with another layer of logs and covered with another layer of dirt. They withstood all enemy fire except a direct hit by a large artillery shell.
I joined the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment probably in the area of Kunsong. At that point we were just holding the line and most nights the Marines sent out patrols of one kind or another. There were reconnaissance patrols, prisoner-taking patrols, and assault patrols for us to try to move the line forward. Every once in a while we were driven back off a hill and then we tried to take it again. It was a see-saw battle back and forth for control of the high ground.
I was assigned as battalion surgeon at the main aid station in Headquarters and Service (H&S) Company. H&S was also where the commanding officer of the battalion, the executive officer, and other officers had their bunkers or tents, depending on the situation. It was back of the lines anywhere from a couple of hundred yards to maybe as much as a half a mile. About half of the corpsmen that I had in the battalion were assigned to line companies on the front lines themselves. The other half of the corpsmen were in the H&S Company.
There were three platoons of about 40 infantry Marines to a company, three companies to a battalion. Two Navy corpsmen were assigned to each platoon, for a total of 18 in the battalion. There was also a Weapons Company: machine gunners, mortar men and flamethrowers, to which I assigned another two corpsmen. When we were at full strength, I had 20 corpsmen on the MLR. We had another 12-15 corpsmen in Rear Aid for a total of around 35 per battalion. All corpsmen except Chief Petty Officers served in a platoon for three months, in Rear Aid for three months, then rotated to a rear-echelon position for the next six months, then home.
The forward aid station was on the front line. When we were on the move it was just where the corpsmen could find some kind of shelter—a bunker or behind a hill or some abandoned house. The line company corpsmen were the ones who treated the injuries immediately because they were with the Marines on patrol. When the Marines were hit and went down, the corpsmen were the ones that gave them the first aid. If they could be spared, the corpsmen took the wounded back to rear area. If they couldn’t be spared or there were too many wounded, the Marine units themselves would tell men to carry their fellow Marines on stretchers. If they were walking wounded, someone guided them back to the Rear Aid Station in H&S Company. In other words, they went from forward aid back to rear aid, which was H&S Company where the other battalion surgeon and I spent most of our time.
At H&S we as doctors examined each Marine to determine whether they could go back on line. If they were in a real big firefight they could go back with minor wounds that could be taken care of later, but that didn’t happen very often. They could be sent back as walking wounded or be taken back by jeep ambulance. Sometimes they were sent back in what we called Cracker Boxes--big square ambulances, if we were in an area where we had roads. If they were really badly hurt, I called a helicopter.
Each battalion had what was euphemistically called a "copter strip" as close to the H&S company tents as possible. What it really was, was an area in the forest or in a flat rice paddy big enough for a small Bell helicopter to land on--roughly about 50x50 feet. Some were bigger, none were smaller. Each corner was marked with a vermillion flag held down by a rock or a tent peg. But that was just for the new pilots. All the experienced ones knew where each battalion had its strip. At night four corpsmen stood at the four corners, each with a flashlight. When we heard the copter coming, they turned on their lights and pointed them straight up. When the pilot turned on his downward-pointing landing lights, the corpsmen turned theirs off. Copter landings were not limited to that one strip, however. Many times they came right up to the back of the MLR where we could mark out an area big enough for them to land. This was especially important if we had a really desperate emergency case who might very well die if we took the time to get him down to the battalion strip by carrying him or by jeep ambulance. Each medical company (forward hospital) had two copter strips. At Easy, to which I was transferred after six months with 3/5, one was just a few hundred feet or so from my command post in an abandoned house. The other was a hundred yards away just behind the row of tents housing enlisted personnel, corpsmen and Marines.
A helicopter could take two wounded men at a time in pods located on each side of the helicopter. The helicopter then took them either to a medical company or sometimes directly to a hospital ship. If there was only one casualty to be transported, the pilot had to balance the weight with sand bags. It was a simple matter of the pilot knowing how much his sand bags weighed, guessing how much the Marine weighed--or asking him if he was conscious (most were), and putting an equal weight in the pod on the other runner.
There were casualties all the time. There were a couple of breakthroughs at battalion and during one of them I had a corpsman shot right on the other side of a WIA we were treating. He was hit by a burp gun and died later. I can't remember his name. He had just come back from the line.
Sometime during the month of each reserve time, a memorial service was held for the Marines and corpsmen who had been killed during the previous hitch on line. Each of the nine platoons marched in tight formation from its bivouac down to the "parade ground", which at Camp Tripoli was a flat area alongside the Nam-gang. For the first time in three months, each Marine dressed in full battle gear with stateside carefulness, olive-drab fatigues scrubbed free of mud and blood, faces scrubbed clean of carbon black. Rifle, belt buckles and all other metal gleaming. Web belts and shoes scrubbed, helmets set squarely. Legs swinging in easy lock-step to a measured beat without anyone calling cadence. When all were in place, the master sergeant read the names of all the dead, slowly, somberly. "Corporal John Smith....Second Lieutenant Frank Jones...Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class Joe Larson...." A bugler sounded taps, and the troops were dismissed. It was a ceremony solemn and sometimes tearful, hated by everyone but important to all.
Baptism of Fire
Being a battalion surgeon at H&S was a safer job than being on the front lines. H&S Company was in defilade or out of the direct line of fire of rifles, although it was obviously open to mortar fire because we were still out in the open. Artillery fire was lobbed up. Still, H&S Company was a safer place--much safer place than on the line. The problem was, however, that I went up into the lines a lot. No doctors were routinely distributed to the line companies. A few battalion surgeons never went up to the lines, but most did. Kim and I went up routinely and often stayed in the Forward Aid Station bunker for several nights at a time during heavy action.
On one such trip to the lines I was slightly wounded by a Chinese mortar. I never received a Purple Heart because of some interesting circumstances. The incident occurred on or about the 15th of February 1952, only about six weeks after I joined 3/5. A runner came to me in Headquarters and Service Company from Lt. Colonel McLaughlin with the urgent request to go up to George Company to evaluate a wounded man for possible evacuation by helicopter. With Sgt. John Gumpert driving the Jeep ambulance, we drove up as far as we could, then started to climb on foot the rest of the way up to the ridgeline of Hill 812. There had been no incoming, but all of a sudden there was. We were already too far from the Jeep to go back to it. Gumpert hollered, "Run for it, Doctor." There wasn't any need to duck or dodge because the shells were coming in randomly, not as if they could see us where we were. Later we decided that the Chinese had been trying to hit the bunkers in our front lines, but were inaccurate and the mortars were exploding around us 40 to 50 yards back of the MLR.
I remember it as if it were yesterday because it was the first time I had been under fire. I dove into a deep shell crater just as a round landed quite close by. I expected Gumpert to pile in on top of me. When he didn't, I cautiously got to my knees and saw him sitting on the ground only about ten feet away. He was slumped over with his eyes open so I knew he was just stunned, not badly hit. I crawled out and dragged him down into the shell hole. We lay in that crater for what seemed a long time--I don't know how long, maybe twenty or thirty minutes, until the incoming stopped. When the stuff is landing all around you and you're wondering if two shells ever hit in the same hole, twenty or thirty minutes can seem like a really long time.
We sat up and Gumpert took off his helmet and handed it to me. It had a small hole in the right side. The helmet liner was dented, but without a hole in it. Then he turned his face sideways and pointed to his temple. There was a tiny cut and a big lump on his scalp just above the hair line. It seemed pretty obvious that the indented helmet liner had caused the damage, not the fragment itself, so I pulled a small combat dressing out of the pocket of my field jacket and applied it with steady pressure to the wound, then tied it in place.
I had gotten five or six small pieces of shrapnel on the back of my right forearm. (The scars are still there.) I figured later that I had probably raised my right arm to balance myself as I jumped into the shell crater and the same mortar round that got Gumpert had broken into small fragments and hit my arm.
I'll never forget the essence of the short ensuing conversation. I can't repeat it verbatim after sixty years, but can give the gist of it:
Now this is the key to the whole thing. If I had written it up for Sergeant Gumpert, this would have been his fourth wound. He had already had some trouble staying with the front line battalion because of those three previous wounds, and now with a fourth one he would certainly have been transferred to some rear-echelon outfit and he didn't want that. If I had written myself up for a Purple Heart, or had had the other battalion surgeon do it and didn't write up Gumpert, someone in the headquarters company would have picked up on that right away, and would have been sure to get suspicious and look a little more closely at Gumpert's helmet and head wound. So I didn't report either of our wounds. No harm done. It was a simple matter to explain offhandedly to anyone who asked (few did) that the small bandages were the result of scratches incurred crawling along in the trenches. That happened all the time. If I had reported the wounds I would have gotten my Purple Heart, but at the expense of a friend. It didn't seem worth it at the time--and I would do it again. Now that I can't hurt anyone by receiving the Purple Heart, I would like to do so. I have recently (August 2011) begun the procedure to get it.
Gump was a 21-year old Marine sergeant. He had enlisted at age 18 and went through boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego. He had been in Korea for about six months as a machine gunner in Weapons Company when I met him. He had been wounded three times, none of them serious enough to warrant sending him home. The last time had been at the Punchbowl in November. John Gumpert was from St. Louis and I think had had one year of college. He was a fun guy to be around, always cheerful, cracking jokes, but not a clown. He had a great sense of humor. He was respectful of rank, but not at all obsequious. I was always "Doctor", not "Doc" or "Birney." He elected not to stay in the Marine Corps after the Korean War. He became a commercial pilot, finishing up his career with the long-time post of senior pilot for Wyerhaeuser Lumber Company.
If they had communication lines, the line company used a telephone to call for more medical assistance. Otherwise they called for help from H&S via radio saying, “We need a doctor up here. We’ve got a man we can’t move." Or, "We’re afraid to move this Marine. We want to see if a doctor thinks we can safely move him or if anything can be done to get him in shape so we can move him." Or, "Should we have a helicopter come right up to the front lines for this one?”
Sick bay was in a Quonset hut with a dirt floor. The corpsmen could take the Quonset down in about ten minutes and put it up in about a half hour. Whenever we moved they just struck it or we left it just like they would do at a campsite. Our basic equipment was khaki-colored combat bandages with tails on them. They came in all different sizes--little ones, big ones, and great big ones that could cover the entire abdomen. We had a supply of plasma in little bottles that held about 100cc's of plasma. They were small so we could carry them on us when we were up on the lines. We taped one of them on each leg to keep them warm so they wouldn’t freeze. We also had first aid equipment of all kinds—scalpels and hemostats. The basic stuff.
We weren’t even a holding company. Our job was to triage the people and decide if we could take care of this guy right there and send him back to duty on the lines right now, or if he was a walking wounded that could walk back. If he could walk back, he did. He put his backpack on an A-frame board, put it back on, and went back. We also had to determine if he should go by truck. If there were a lot of walking wounded, we piled as many as we could in the back of a truck and sent them back as many as 18 or 20 at a time. Sometimes a guy needed to be carried by jeep ambulance or cracker box ambulance evacuation. If so, he would be among the more seriously wounded ones, but still didn’t need helicopter evacuation. The worst ones--those with belly wounds, fractures of the femur, and major wounds like that, were evacuated by helicopter.
Our presence could make a difference to those with chest wounds, but we really couldn't do much with abdominal wounds. We could give them morphine and get a helicopter in and send them out, but that’s all that we could do. For the chest wounds, if a lung was collapsed we could put a chest tube in and drain the air and or blood out and keep doing that. Then we called to get a bigger Sykorski helicopter in where a corpsman could get in the cab with the wounded man so he could keep drawing the air to keep the lung expanded. That didn’t happen all that often.
There were success stories. I did tracheostomies where shrapnel had gone into the neck and was closing off the upper trachea. I did the tracheotomy down below the voice box. There were some corpsmen who were trained to do that, but most were not. In those two cases in particular, my presence make a difference because these guys were dying. One other time before this I actually went down into No Man’s Land. There was a badly injured Marine that they couldn’t transport--or at least they were afraid to. They actually thought he was dying, but they sent for me anyway. I got down there real quick and was able to stabilize him so he could be transported out of there. There were other times when things were moving pretty fast and we were able to help stem blood loss from the injured, femoral arteries and one arm artery. I remember the arm artery because the patient would have bled to death if somebody hadn’t been there. A corpsman could have taken care of him, but I just happened to be there.
There were many, many other cases where the helicopter helped save lives. As a doctor I could call a helicopter, whereas a corpsman could not. Sometimes they used to joke that that’s the only thing that I could do that a corpsman couldn’t. It wasn’t too far from the truth, to be frank. There were times when I felt overwhelmed because there were so many casualties to deal with. For instance, there was one time on the back of a hill where we were surrounded by Chinese at one point. We were working on the ground and it was dark. We had to use flashlights, which pinpointed where we were. The Chinese just kept coming and coming and coming. This happened several times. All we could do was just work as fast as we could.
For almost the whole first winter that I was in Korea we used specially designed sleeping bags that had zippers in about eight or ten places so we could keep the bodies of our casualties warm. We would open up a place and work on an arm or a belly or a leg, and then zip it back up again. The cold weather hurt our efforts to take care of the wounded. It was much better when it was too hot rather than too cold because a lot of the guys were in shock already and one of the things that we did for a patient in shock was try to get their body temperature back up to normal. Many had lost blood and so it was difficult. Some of them lay out there for hours before they could be transfused.
We had one chaplain assigned to the battalion and he stayed in a tent with his chaplain’s assistant, who was a Marine. We also had a Navy chaplain’s assistant for a while, but most of them were Marines. The chaplain’s assistants were usually young men who were interested in going into the ministry. They were invaluable. We actually had three different ones at that time because they were rotated back on a three-month basis.
When the corpsmen first came out they went directly into line companies and replaced corpsmen who came back to H&S Company. This was routine. And then if somebody was hit on the line or got sick—usually it was being wounded and incapacitated and not able to continue, then I had to send a corpsman from H&S Company back up into the line. That was one of my most distasteful administrative jobs. As I mentioned before, it was safer back in H&S Company. Here’s a guy who just came back thinking, "Okay, I’m out of the line now; I’m relatively safe compared to my position before; and now I’m going back." But there was never any question about this. Everyone knew that the last one to come back was the first one to go back to the line. I can remember the look on their faces. "Oops." When we got a call that someone was needed on the lines we got the H&S corpsmen together and I asked the chief, “Okay, Chief. Who was the last man back?” Of course, the corpsmen knew. “Okay, Joe Jones. Back up.”
Corpsmen are as selfless a group of people as any group I have ever known. When a Marine went down a corpsman went after him under combat conditions. I think corpsmen select themselves out. They know when they go to Corps School that it’s very possible that they will be assigned to a Marine unit. If there is a war going on, they know that they are going to be in combat. That’s what corpsmen do best. I have nothing but the highest respect for them. I never had to do that—crawl out under enemy fire and drag a wounded Marine back. I was under fire periodically when I was up on the lines and elsewhere, but I never had to actually go out and expose myself. That’s what these guys did without even thinking about it. That was their duty. Tops on my list of real war heroes are the corpsmen that I saw leave the shelter of a bunker or the protection of a tree or other ground cover and go out into the open when there was automatic weapons fire and/or incoming mortars or artillery to minister to a downed Marine in total disregard of their own safety. Then, after getting the wounded in action taken care of, they would pile back into the bunker (where I had been hiding!), covered with blood and with a big smile on their faces and make some stupid comment like, "Damn, that was close!" I tear up even now just thinking about it.
There were periodic times when we came under fire when we were up on the line or going up and coming back from it. Nobody moved when there was an actual artillery bombardment going on. As soon as it was over, that’s when we moved. Also, sometimes we got caught in the open because we didn’t know it was coming. Sometimes when we were on the line we would be in a bunker and all of the sudden realize the time. We said, “Hey. It’s about time to get to H&S Company.” Maybe it was chow time or we needed to get back to the battalion briefing that was always held at 6 o’clock in the evening. We knew we had better get back to the briefing or the Commanding Officer (CO) was going to be angry because he probably had something for us to do the next day.
I had two COs while a battalion surgeon with 3/5. The first was Colonel McLane and the second was Colonel McLaughlin. I had McLaughlin for most of the time that I was with 3/5. They held briefings in what we called the 5/6 tent. Six was the H&S designation, so the S-6 was the commanding officer of the battalion. The G-6 was the commanding officer of the regiment. The S-5 was the executive officer. The S-4 was the supply officer. S-3 was intelligence, S-2 was operations, and S-1 was organization, I think. Briefings were about the activity in the battalion. I always reported the number of casualties that were coming through the aid station. That was my part of it. When they were planning a special type of patrol and needed a certain number of corpsmen for, say, a prisoner-taking patrol at night, I had to assign corpsmen for the mission. If we were going to move, there were always reports. Each of the officers gave a report of their section--what had been going on during that day and what was planned for the next day.
Many times I had the responsibility of taking care of a wounded corpsman. It was not any more difficult to take care of him than it was to care of the Marines. One adopts a professional attitude when getting out of medical school, so that a patient is a patient. The Marines and the corpsmen and the Chinese prisoners, they were patients. I don’t think I got emotionally involved in one any more than any other.
One of my functions was just to be there as a doctor. Although the line corpsmen usually evacuated most of the badly wounded without my say, there were times when I went to the front line and crawled into a forward aid bunker where a corpsman was taking care of a Marine who was badly hurt. Although the corpsman was doing a good job, he was a corpsman. Many times when I crawled into the bunker a Marine recognized me and I could see the flood of relief. He would say, “Hey, the doctor’s here.” The corpsman probably felt that way, too, because he was way out of his depth taking care of this. I think they might have had a feeling of inadequacy, but it was not a feeling of guilt that they could not do more. They did as good as they could, but they weren’t trained as doctors. They were trained in first aid. They could take care of these people, but they knew that to have the doctor there meant that if anything could be done I could do it. They didn’t know what I knew--that I couldn’t do anything much more than the corpsman, but they figured that if there was anything that could be done, the doctor was there. Many of these corpsmen went into the medical field after returning to the States from Korea. When I was in medical school there were several fellow students who had been corpsmen in World War II.
The terms of the Geneva Convention did not matter to the Chinese and they had no sense of courtesy to us because we were medical personnel, but I not only took care of Marines, I took care of Chinese prisoners. (I never took care of any North Koreans.) One time I was treating a Chinese prisoner for a head wound. He was on the ground on a stretcher when a Marine officer came by, stopped long enough to kick the prisoner's head hard enough to raise another "goose egg" on the side of his head, and walked on. This was not typical, but it was memorable. I considered it an atrocity.
The Marines went out on patrol and they took prisoners. Often times these prisoners were wounded when they brought them in. The attitude of the Marines was to just let them die. I had a little bit of a run-in with the executive officer once when they brought in a Chinaman and he said, "Just let him die." I had to tell him that for me, at that moment, this was not a Chinese soldier. This was a human being. Whether he accepted it or not I don’t know, but we were in a tent by the line taking care of him then. That was usually not a problem because generally we were given free rein. The exception was that they would not send a helicopter up at night for a Chinese casualty, whereas they would for a Marine. The pilots had to fly without lights through the mountains, so it was a hazardous mission for them. I’ve tried to find out whether or not there was ever a helicopter crash. I never saw one crash and I never heard of one crashing, but I assume that there were some. I was in a Sikorsky once that went down. We had a patient and we were on the way out. It just lost power. When it lost power the rotor reversed and had some kind of a braking effect. We went down pretty fast, but we didn’t crash. We lit hard, but we weren’t shot down. We were way back of the lines and landed in a rice paddy. They got it fixed and we took off.
As to the wounded enemy that we treated, there was no apparent gratefulness or antagonism on their part that I could detect. None spoke English. Many were badly wounded. No detailed history was ever required from them because the wounds were self-explanatory. I relied on interpreters for post-op questions and instructions. They were never around long, being transferred to a more secure medical facility--usually to the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Yong Dong Po (near Seoul) or a hospital ship where they could be kept in a private room with a guard, neither of which we could furnish on the front lines or even back in Easy Medical Company where I served later.
At H&S, one corpsman was assigned to stores, which was in the same tent as the battalion stores. A six by six truck went periodically (I don't have any idea how often) to the rear with a list of needed supplies, including medical. Each corpsman on line had his Unit One with basic first aid materiel. The forward aid bunker had big boxes of many different sizes of olive-drab combat bandages, from band-aids to arm and leg to chest and abdomen. Although there was a roll of tape in the Unit One, it was much faster to secure them with the attached ties. I think medical supplies were stored at Able Medical Company about ten miles back of the MLR. Other stores were at Division Headquarters even further back. For the aid station, Supply had to deal with the logistics of poor tracks and roads, or sometimes lack of them, especially in stormy or snowy weather.
When we were on the move on the front lines, we never kept clean. Once I went three weeks without shaving, bathing, or a change of clothes. I usually could fill my helmet liner with warm water every three to five days and give myself a "sponge" bath in the tent or bunker. Later, back at Easy Med, I shaved daily and had a basin of hot water for a sponge bath.
In January of 1952, I was with the Marines of the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marines in Korea somewhere north of the 38th parallel in the mountains that ranged along the eastern coast of the peninsula. One day I came back from several days in the Forward Aid bunker. My fellow battalion surgeon Robert Kimball didn't look at all happy. Surrounding him in a tight semicircle were the regimental surgeon, the CO of the Third Battalion, the Marine Division's epidemiologist, and two regular service company officers. From the dour look on everyone's faces, I could only conclude that Kimball had somehow committed some heinous crime. He had--and this is what had happened:
At about 1400 the previous day, Kimball had gotten a call from a frontline company corpsman. Two Marines coming from the shower point down by the Soyang-gang River had told the corpsman that they had discovered body lice in the clean clothes they had exchanged for the filthy rags they had worn in combat for the past three months. Kimball concluded that the newly-issued clothing had become infested. He closed the showers. This effectively closed the regimental clothing issue. This closed the entire division clothing issue. Now the question was: Who saw the lice? The service officers who had closed the showers? No. The medical officer (Kimball) who had ordered the shower closed? No. Only the two men themselves. So, find the men and check them. They were gone--headed for Japan for rotation home. That's why they were taking a shower in sub-zero weather in the first place.
Kim and I were ordered to examine the entire company from which the two men had left. We crawled along the front-line trenches, went into every bunker and every fighting hole. Examined everyone. Stripped them down in this same sub-zero weather. Turned their underwear and outerwear inside out. Found no lice. When we reported this to the colonel, he was livid. "You, Dr. Kimball, usurped my authority with that stupid order." "Yes, sir!" "Not only that, but you also usurped the authority of the commandant of the First Marine Division." Kimball answered with the kind of a blank face that Jack Benny used when he was told by a gunman, "Your money or your life!" Kimball answered, "Yes, sir. That's almost as bad." The colonel stared at Kimball for several long seconds, then roared with laughter and said, "Get out of here, doctor!" Bob Kimball had a droll sense of humor, as you can tell from this anecdote, but he wasn't a clown nor did he often tell jokes. There were no really funny guys in our company that I can remember.
The Move West
It was an inky black night, the night the ROKs relieved us on the east coast. The entire Marine Division was then transferred in late March of 1952 over to the western sector to be ready for the Chinese troops which were expected to begin an offensive into the vulnerable rice bowl north of Seoul when spring arrived. Orders came through to battalion level only two days before the change-over, but this made little difference since we were always ready to move.
Standing outside my new Quonset hut Rear Aid Station in H&S, I could hear the movement of men below me on the trail. I could hear an occasional order in Korean, and once in a while I could see the quick flash of a light as someone searched for the nearly invisible trail up to the front lines. Shortly, a file of American Marines came down the trail from the lines and silently passed the ROKs taking their places.
More and more men came. Finally the last Korean marched by to the north and a little later the Marines stopped coming south. I had a somewhat uneasy feeling as I realized that there were no longer American Marines between me and the Chinese communists. Up to this point the Korean Army had not exactly distinguished itself. It was not that they weren't potentially capable, but most of them were very poorly trained, for as short a time as six weeks in most cases. Discipline, fire control, and all the other hallmarks of the well-trained infantry couldn't be instilled in a raw recruit in six weeks, no matter how brave he was. Our Army didn't stand unblemished either, and the pall of shameful unordered retreat hung over more than one outfit. But this was past and the future was to see outstanding courage displayed.
Right now, I wished we could get out of there, but orders were to move out in daylight the next day. The other battalion surgeon, Dr. Bob Kimball and I turned in. The night passed slowly. A firefight broke out over in the old How Company sector, now ROK-held, and then died down when the Eleventh Marines pounded the commie line across the way with 155s. The battalion headquarters slept.
Kimball and I awoke to the pounding of entrenching tools on the rafters of the Quonset sick bay. Chief Alexander and his corpsmen were dismantling it and within fifteen minutes the pounding ceased and the Quonset was ready to be loaded onto six-bys.
Meanwhile, I dressed in the frigid air, my breath blowing white as I struggled out of the mummy bag and into the stiff green fatigues and icy thermal boots. For the hundredth time I mumbled a word of praise for the men who had designed the boots in time for the winter of '51-'52, for in the previous winter frostbite had been common. I also laughed for the hundredth time when I remembered the general's order, "There will be no frostbite in the First Marine Division this winter." And so, to prevent men from unwittingly disobeying the order, we battalion surgeons up and down the line evacuated men with frozen fingers and ears--and occasionally toes, using the euphemistic diagnosis of "thermal injury" or "vascular insufficiency." Sounds funny now. It wasn't then.
The tent began to shake. Gentle hint, I thought, and called out, "Hey, you guys. Hold it a second. We're coming right out!" Kimball grabbed my seabag and threw it outside with the grinning comment, "Anything breakable in there, mac?" I went outside and threw it onto the stretcher rack in the back of the jeep ambulance. I squinted into the early morning sun. H&S company was gone. In its place were empty squares of brown earth in the white snow with piles of tents and personal gear tossed in seeming disarray around the area. Corpsmen and Marines were loading the six-bys which were to take us out of the mountains to the plains north of Seoul, where battles awaited us on Bunker Hill, Siberia, Berlin, Reno, Nevada, The Hook, Carson, and Taedok-san.
The Division went in two serials in a long convoy that stretched for miles, leaving the mountains in the bright cold sunlight, gradually dropping hill by hill and ridge by ridge until we were near sea-level and rode along in a soft, misty-cold rain. We went through Seoul about 1800 and I was able to see it for the first time. Before the war it was a city of over a million people. Now only about half that number still lived there. The rest were in the Korean Army or Marines, or were dead, or were living in white-tented refugee camps scattered all over South Korea. It was the worst bombed-out city I had seen. Well over half the buildings were totally destroyed. Virtually every remaining building showed some marks of the bombs, artillery, mortar and small arms fire from the four times that the war had passed through the capital in the first year.
Our convoy burned headlights in the bright sun. We went down one of the main boulevards of six lanes with the right-of-way at all intersections. The streetcars were running again, honking their way through the main streets. The police at the corners were mostly women dressed in blue serge suits, standing on little boxes in the center of the intersections, gesturing vehemently at the opposing traffic.
There were almost no UN troops, the town still strictly "off-limits" to military personnel. But the civilians had turned out to greet the convoy, lining the streets along most of the way. At one point our jeep ambulance was forced to a slow crawl and two Korean women stepped off the curb and came up to the jeep, bowing low, smiling, and saying over and over, "Kum-up-sum-needa." Thank you, they were saying.
Hoping that this was the general feeling, I was greatly pleased. I knew that the Americans had brought to the Koreans many different things--protection from communist aggression, great road projects, some elements of Western ways and culture. But also we had brought devastating mechanized equipment, ruin to towns and villages, loss of great areas of fallow land and irrigation systems that would take years to repair, destruction to forested areas, and also the inevitable exploitation of the Koreans in protean ways that any Army will.
Field Hospital at Yong Dong Po
As it got dark, our convoy rolled on northwest of Seoul and through the village of Yong Dong Po. The roads were muddy and very slippery. The convoy crept along, finally stopped altogether, and then slowly picked up speed again. Lights flashing in the darkness ahead waved each vehicle by a truck which had slipped off the soft shoulder, rolled down a small hill, and completely overturned. The men with the flashlights signaled my jeep ambulance to a stop. "We've got a badly injured man here, doctor. He was riding on top of the truck and was thrown clear when it went over. They're bringing him up the hill now. Will you turn around and we'll load him aboard?" I answered, "Where'll we take him, sergeant? Any hospitals around here?"
He told us that the Army had a field hospital in Yong Dong Po--the little village we just came through. He said, "I'll send a jeep back with you to show you the way. He'll also know how to find our bivouac area in case you have to stay over and the whole convoy has gone through. Actually, you'll probably be able to pick up the end of the convoy and follow us back up north. We're not going very much farther." I replied, "Okay, sarge. Will do."
Sgt. John Gumpert, my jeep ambulance driver, turned the ambulance expertly in the muddy road. We picked up the injured man, who had multiple fractures--including a fractured pelvis, but who was conscious and rational. We then sped off against the convoy as fast as was practical, following closely behind the guide jeep. It took only about ten minutes to find the hospital. Two Marine officers jumped out of the jeep ahead and Bob Kimball and I helped Gump and Chief Alexander unload the stretcher. We felt our way through the mud to the door of the admitting ward and marched in with the patient.
An Army nurse--the first white woman we had seen for many months, sat at a small table reading a paperback book. "What's all this?" she said with an irritated supercilious look on her face. Her face spoke the words her tongue hadn't: "Who the hell are all these dirty crumbs?" We had eaten dirt and little else in the past 24 hours in open jeeps and trucks. Just the day before we had been on the front line in cold, windy tents or in bunkers and open foxholes. None of us had had a full bath for long months on end. We had the accumulated grit of many days ground into our hair, our fingers, our clothes.
All the nurse saw was the mud on the floor which she would have to clean up, and the dirty clothes, and the haggard, unshaven faces that had disturbed her placid evening. To give her her due, she probably felt she had been sent to the end of the line when she was assigned to the Army's 121st Evacuation Hospital at Yong Dong Po. But she was wrong. She was at the very beginning of that line which extended unit by unit up through the dry rice paddies of the erstwhile rice bowl to the battle lines of the United Nations.
She called the doctor on duty. I introduced myself, expecting sympathy or at least some kind of welcome from a fellow physician. He stuck out a dead-fish hand and didn't even bother to give me his name, much less a welcome. I told him what had happened, and then added, "Think we can leave him here with you? We're on our way back up to the front lines."
At this point, I almost hoped the little bastard would say no, and then we could take the injured Marine with us and copter him out in the morning to a hospital ship or to a Medical Company--a forward Marine hospital. I was slightly disappointed when the doctor said he would take care of him. Kimball and I said, "Thanks" simultaneously, then turned on our muddy heels and stalked out. One of the Marine officers bent over the injured man to say a few words and then they, too, walked out.
We felt like lepers. There had always been stories about the condescension with which rear-area Army people viewed the "front-line troopers." But this was such a shock, coming as it had after what we had just been through in the previous three months, and now especially in the last two days. Kimball was nearly beside himself with rage. I wasn't controlling myself much better. After we had ridden in silence for a few moments, Bob said, "That little son of a bitch, that little no good stinking god-damn son of a bitch. I felt like asking him where the hell he was when we took 812 from the Chinese. And where he was when the Gooks piled up dead in front of our lines at the Punchbowl. I'll bet he never even heard of either. I felt like telling him that we weren't really lepers, that we, too, were human beings and that if we lived in a brick building with hot chow and hot showers--not to mention the hot-running nurses, we could look like little gentlemen, too."
We knew that we had been caught in one of the oldest situations known to man. We were envious of the doctor and the nurse. We felt sorry for ourselves! And the doctor and nurse were hostile because they were embarrassed by seeing us the way we were, and felt guilty (at least subconsciously) about their own favored position, and this caused the hostility to be even more noticeable.
I looked at Bob in the shifting light of the convoy truck behind us, and suddenly we saw the ridiculousness of our behavior. I was the first to crack. I started laughing in great shaking paroxysms, hanging on to the stretcher rack in front of me. Bob watched me for a moment, then he, too, grinned, then chuckled, then let out one of the roars of laughter for which he was famous.
Gently Rolling Hill Country
Once we set up on the west coast we were in gently rolling hill country. Only the very summits were free of terraced or flat rice paddies, although none in close proximity to the lines were being farmed. An imaginary line was drawn about ten miles back of the lines past which civilians were not supposed to cross. (Families didn't, but girls did, and hid out in abandoned farm houses.) South of that line Korean life had begun to return to normal as far as farming and farm-related industry was concerned. Our regiment contained the "neutral corridor," a road that led from the railhead at Munsan-ni, 25 miles north of Seoul, where the UN peace negotiators lived in box cars, up to Panmunjom in communist-held territory where the negotiations were actually taking place. One battalion occupied the lines west of the "corridor", and there were two to the east. To the west of the 1st Marine Division were the Korean Marines. To the east of the US Marines was the Commonwealth Division (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turks). Our H&S company was located on an almost barren small hill nearly a half mile behind the front lines. Our Company Commander ordered Kim and me not to go up to the lines like we had been doing on the east coast. Because of the terrain, it was extremely hazardous to cross that half mile and he didn't want us getting killed. We thought that was a good idea, too!!
I was with the battalion from January 2 until the middle of July 1952, and then, as was customary after six months of line duty, I was taken off the line and sent back to Easy Med, which was a medical company. The medical battalion was composed of five hospitals and each of the hospitals was called a company. The only difference between that and the infantry was that the infantry had three companies to a battalion. The medical battalion had five companies. Each of those companies (Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, and Easy) was a full-scale hospital.
Able was the administrative center as well as the hospital for the internists and general practitioners who took care of non-surgical problems and acted as a holding company for wounded men who could be returned to frontline duty when their wounds healed. Baker was never activated in Korea, as far as I know. Charley was behind the right flank of the 1st Marine Division. Dog was behind the Korean Marine Division on the Kimpo Peninsula. Easy was behind the left flank of the 1st Marine Division. Each supported whatever regiment was in position in front of it. All except Able were about four or five miles behind the front lines. Able was about ten miles back. All companies were capable of handling casualties, but Able rarely had to, and then only relatively minor wounds that any doctor could take care of.
A battalion surgeon was assigned directly to an infantry battalion, whereas a staff doctor was assigned to a medical company. I was assigned to Easy Med as a staff doctor. There may have been others I worked with on a short term basis while I was at Easy Med, but the ones I worked with for nine months were Frank Spencer, Bill Ogle, Gordon McKinney, Will Senders, Will Lascheid, Lou Shirley, Jerry Weinberger, Frank Roach, Don Carlyle, Sam Dougherty, Ben Flowe, and Ed Hanson. Ogle was a trained surgeon who had done his boards in general surgery in Memphis. Frank Spencer had just finished his third year of surgical residency at Columbia University in New York City. Senders was a general practitioner (with some surgical training), as was McKinney, Shirley, Weinberger and myself. Lascheid and Dougherty were anesthesiologists. There was one dentist assigned to each Medical Company. Except for the psychiatrist, he was the least busy of the entire company. The dentist at Easy Med was Ed Hanson. Once a month he went back to the regiment in reserve near his company and examined every Marine, sending anyone with problems to his medical company for treatment.
It was necessary for a psychiatrist to examine any suspected neuro-psychiatric case as soon as possible after an alleged infraction. In almost all cases they came to the attention of a platoon lieutenant when a Marine failed to obey an order, usually an order to move out on an offensive mission or dangerous patrol. The psychiatrist had to make the initial decision as to whether the man had deliberately disobeyed an order, was able to differentiate between right and wrong and chose the wrong, in which case he was considered a deserter, subject to court martial. Or had he disobeyed the order because he was unable to differentiate between right and wrong and was not responsible for choosing the wrong, and therefore subject to a Section 8 discharge--an honorable discharge but with the caveat that he was mentally ill. The final decision was decided by another psychiatrist (or psychiatrists) days or even weeks later. They made their own decision, but perforce relied heavily on the medical company psychiatrist's recommendation. Frank Roach was Easy Med's psychiatrist and Don Carlyle was the company's psychologist.
When I was at Easy Med, it was at Munsan-ni--or what was left of the town, and it never moved during the entire time I was there. There were actually only two buildings left intact. One was used as our administrative center. The other served as the commanding officer's office and sleeping quarters on the first floor, with the officer's mess on the second floor. Each medical company was self-sufficient, with its own commanding officer and executive officer, surgeons, staff doctors, corpsmen, technicians, and Marines for security, transport, mess hall, etc. Able's administrative staff was responsible for general supervision of the administrations of each company. Its medical staff's responsibilities were outlined above.
The Freedom Gate Bridge was a couple of miles from the ruins of Munsan-ni, so I lived close to it for nine months. I saw it several times when visitors came to Easy and wanted to see it. Also, from a hill nearby we could see through binoculars the white tents set up in the village of Panmunjom for the peace talk negotiators before permanent structures were built. The bridge was in the Neutral Corridor that ran from the railhead at Munsan-ni (where the negotiators lived in boxcars) to Panmunjom.
There was never a time when there was no fighting along the MLR. We got casualties at Easy every day--sometimes just a few, sometimes many, depending on how big the battle was. We could do much more for the men at Easy Med than at H&S in 3/5. At Easy Med the Marines had definitive treatment. The doctors operated on chests, bellies, legs and what have you, so they wanted at least another four, five or six medical officers—staff doctors, who had had enough training that they could do debridements of wounds and splints and get these patients ready either for surgery there at the medical company or evacuation to a hospital ship. For a belly wound the surgeon would go in and open the patient up, patching him up by sewing up the holes in the bowel. For chest wound victims we put in a chest tube and opened the chest if necessary, although it usually wasn't. Fractures were opened up, cleaned out and debrided. Broken bones were splinted. Marines who received multiple shrapnel that didn't puncture the abdomen or the chest cavity were sent into what we called "minor surgery." The guy might have a hundred shrapnel pieces in him, but it was still "minor surgery" because it could be done under local anesthesia. One doctor was assigned to that patient and he just methodically opened up every single one of those hundred shrapnel wounds and took out what he could easily get. He then packed the wounds with Vaseline gauze with the help of a corpsman. One corpsman was assigned to each doctor all day long or on a shift.
At Easy Med, we received more casualties than we did when I was battalion surgeon at H&S. At H&S we got casualties from one battalion--the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines. But there were three battalions of the 5th Marines--1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions, so there were three full battalions that sent their casualties to one medical company, Easy Med. It stands to reason that we would get three times more casualties at Easy Med than we did at H&S. But we had three times as many doctors, too.
CO of Easy Med
I was made CO of Easy Company around the first of August. I had only been with Easy Med for about one month. I frankly don't know why I was chosen to command the Company. Commander Ayres merely called me back to Able Med where he lived in a tent, and informed me (to my absolutely total surprise) that it was his decision (confirmed by the Division Surgeon) to promote me to Lieutenant Senior Grade and give me the command. I demurred briefly because I had been with Easy for just a few weeks, while all the other doctors had been there for many months--some for nearly a year. Besides, I knew nothing about hospital administration. But he just grinned that big Charles Laughton (who he closely resembled) grin and said that I would learn. Laughton (for those in my reading audience who don't know) was a famous actor, screenwriter, producer and director of the time. Commander Ayres also assured me that I would have Warrant Officer George Depreaux to guide my steps in administration.
I replaced Roy Ledbetter of Birmingham, Alabama. He stuck around for over a week showing me the ropes. As I said, I don't know why Commander Ayres chose me. With no false modesty, I guess I displayed those ethereal "qualities of leadership" that you read about. I frankly don't know what that is. I had held "high offices" in a high school with 1500 students, was fraternity president at med school and president of Wesley Foundation at church. I take absolutely no credit for this. I was a product of my upbringing, my parentage, my genes, whatever, that I had nothing to do with.
CWO Depreaux handled all of the routine administrative duties and problems without my supervision, except for inspections (personal once a week, quarters and kitchens once a month), discipline (captain's mast, as needed), but even there I relied on George's judgment as to the seriousness of the infraction and the magnitude of the punishment), medal-presentation ceremonies, visiting dignitaries, signing orders, and perhaps other things that I can't remember having to do. I presented perhaps a dozen or more awards--a half dozen Letters of Commendation, a like number of Bronze Stars, and one Legion of Merit (to Frank Spencer for his artery grafts in front line hospitals). The Commendations and Bronze Stars were mostly, if not all, awarded to corpsmen for what they had done when with a line platoon.
As to the visiting dignitaries, I guess it depends on what one calls a "dignitary." Generals Pollock and Seldon, commanding officers of the First Marine Division at different times, each came once. Pollock came to pin a Bronze Star on me. Sheldon came on an inspection tour of front line medical units. At my invitation, Captain Ecklund came with half a dozen nurses from the hospital ship Repose after I had met him when I accompanied a wounded Marine to his ship. The famous actress Kate Smith sent a representative for an interview with the CO of Easy Med (me). On two occasions a high ranking Navy surgeon came from the States and spent a week evaluating our work.
I conducted ten or so captain's masts, always for some relatively minor infraction. A captain's mast is a courtroom-like procedure where the captain of the ship listens to the evidence and determines if the party is guilty, and if he/she is, determines the punishment. It derives from the days when the captain of a ship stood with his back to the main mast of the ship and heard the evidence and pronounced the punishment. I was "captain of the ship" and handled minor infractions like a judge in a courtroom without a jury. As far as I know, military justice in a combat zone did not differ from that of a peacetime justice. At Easy Med, the most common infraction was going "over the hill" or AWOL--in this case literally over the hill behind the hospital to visit a girl and not returning in time for scheduled duty. George and I knew most of the corpsmen and Marines were doing this and turned a blind eye to it if they didn't miss a watch. As far as I know, none of the doctors "took advantage" of those girls, but some might have without me knowing about it!
George Depreaux was a mustang. That is, he went up through the ranks from Apprentice Seaman to Chief Warrant Officer, the highest level of non-commissioned officers. There were (maybe still are) five levels, the top being Chief. The next step up is ensign. Most CWO's elect not to be promoted to ensign because they then start again at the bottom of the ladder, whereas as CWO, they usually have very specialized and demanding jobs.
George had been in the Navy almost 20 years. He was absolutely superb in his handling of the company's administrative duties. I couldn't have come close to doing what he did. He had been at Easy for about three months when I got there. He came from out east somewhere--Connecticut, I think. He was married to a nurse stationed at a MASH nearby. They had been married long before they came to Korea, probably as long as 20 years. I allowed him to go to the MASH unit once a month to see her, and on one occasion I accompanied him. I haven't kept in touch with him since leaving Korea.
Battle of Bunker Hill, August 1952 (as seen from Easy Med)
Easy Med, a tent hospital about three miles behind the Marine Division lines, was located just north of the Imjin River in what was left of Munsan-ni. We were on the far left flank of the United Nations’ lines. Only the Korean Marine Corps on the Kimpo Peninsula lay between us and the Yellow Sea. The “Neutral Corridor” ran from the railhead at Munsan through our lines to Panmunjom. The peace treaty people lived in boxcars at the railhead. Their convoy of jeeps filed by Easy Med almost daily. My command post was in one of two decrepit Korean houses left intact in Munsan, so I was able to leave the double squad tent where all the doctors lived together and have some privacy. Actually, I spent most of my leisure time up there with the rest of the guys, just doing my official duties and sleeping in the house.
An hour after dark on August 15, 1952, I was sitting with my feet up on the desk my corpsmen had made out of artillery shell packing cases. I had been CO of Easy Company for about two weeks. A Time magazine on my lap lay open to an account of the war in Korea. Although I was right in the middle of that war, I knew very little about what was really going on. I had to read John Osborne’s editorial about the “waiting, fighting 8th Army” in order to comprehend the total picture (republished in the February 2012 issue of Leatherneck). Suddenly I heard the roaring flap of a Bell helicopter settling onto the landing strip about thirty yards from my sliding paper door. Easy Med was receiving the first casualties of what was to become the historic Battle of Bunker Hill.
Every Wounded Marine
We had no advance warning. We never did. They just started coming in. But it made no difference--we were on high alert at all times. The doctors, corpsmen, technicians and Marines were right there and ready to go to work in minutes.
Another roar filled the sky as a second copter sailed overhead, banked and circled, waiting for corpsmen to race up the little hill back of the security Marines’ tents to mark the four corners of the second strip with flashlights. Then it, too, settled in with the distinctive and all too familiar flapping sound. I resisted the urge to run out and help unload the casualties. There were many eager young Hospitalmen who would look askance at their skipper doing their work. But then, over the purring of the two parked whirlybirds I could hear a third copter circling the hospital. Running feet pounded the paths as doctors and corpsmen headed for the triage tent. I grabbed my cap (there were no helmets back here) and ran after them.
Trotting down the path from the doctors’ tent were Lee Yung-kak and Bill Ogle. I joined them and said, “Looks like no sleep tonight.” “Won’t be the first time,” Bill said, “but it’s been a little dull around here lately.” It was an unfortunate remark and I cringed. I remembered that I had caught myself thinking the same thing nine months before when I first arrived up on the lines. So I bit back the sharp retort that had formed in my mind. Because of his skills in surgery, Ogle hadn’t had the customary tour of duty with a front line outfit, which may have caused him to identify a little less with the wounded men. But for me and the majority of doctors and corpsmen at Easy Med, each wounded Marine was a man who might have been a buddy in the trenches and who knew about cold bunkers, dirty foxholes and fluttering mortars. And about singing bullets and flying steel and white phosphorus. About long convoys and clanking tanks and rumbling trucks. About loneliness and boredom and the infinite patience of the trenches.
Those of us who had been up there shared the knowledge that Death comes to the wary and the unwary alike. That He comes on a long steel bayonet or a flying bullet or multiple fragments from a mortar or grenade or artillery shell. The frontline doctors and corpsmen know these things and do not have to voice them. They know how thin the line is that separates life from death. They know--and look into each other’s eyes with mutual respect and admiration. To hide this emotion from themselves and from each other, they laugh and tell sick jokes and cuss and go back to their jobs with wry grins on their faces.
I pulled Bill Ogle back as the others went on and said softly, “Knock off that kind of talk, Bill. It doesn’t sound too good. I know what you mean, but most of the guys who just came off the lines won’t.” He replied, “Sorry, skipper, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.” “I know, Bill. Forget it.”
Both patients from the first copter were already in the triage ward, a 16x32 squad tent. Their stretchers lay on the double row of foot-high wooden rails that ran the length of the tent on either side. Within a few moments, two more were brought in from the second copter. Dr. Lou Shirley, a general practitioner from Louisiana, got up off his knees where he had been working on one of the wounded men. He turned to Bill Ogle. “Belly wound, Bill. Chunk of omentum poking through. Not much loss of blood, though, ‘cause his pressure and pulse are normal. One for you?” Bill nodded. “Yeah, let’s go, unless the other one’s worse off.” “I don’t think so. Looks good. Multiple small shrapnel wounds but nothing important that I can see.” Two corpsmen picked up the stretcher and gently lifted it until its short bent-steel legs cleared the rails, then slid it forward, the back man stepping carefully over the rails. They carried him down the long ward and turned left into the connecting major operating tent.
I walked over to the other Marine, a giant black man. “Hi, Mac,” I said with a grin. “How’re things going?” “Great, doctor. Got a powerful bellyache though.” I knelt down beside him and pulled his dungaree jacket up and his pants down. Half a dozen ragged holes were scattered over his abdomen and lower chest. “Tell me where it hurts,” I said as I gently prodded the outer edges of his abdomen, then the central area around the navel. He tensed his muscles involuntarily and grunted, “Right there, doctor, real sore right there.” “Looks like one of these fragments might’ve gone into your belly.” I looked at his EMT. “Jesse Carter, [not his real name] eh? Where you from, Jesse?” “Chicago, doctor.” “Hey, I now that town real well. Interned at Cook County Hospital.” His eyes lit up. “You gotta be a good doctor then.” I told him, “Jesse, we may have to take a look inside there later. Right now it doesn’t look too bad. We’ll keep a close eye on you.” I looked up and found HM3 Don Flau standing beside me. “Take Jesse on down to the holding tent. We may have to operate on him later.”
A truck rumbled up outside the tent. A few moments later, in came eleven walking wounded with bandaged arms, heads and legs. “Okay, guys,” I said. “You can sit down over along the wall. Korbis, go rout out the day crew and then make sure all the doctors are on their way. Dr. Lee, you start at one end and I’ll start at the other and we’ll get these men triaged.” Even as I spoke, another copter settled onto the strip near my command post and a jeep ambulance squeaked to a halt outside the tent. In a few moments four more stretchers were brought in and laid on the rails. “Lou,” I barked, “take a look at those fellows, will you? Let me know if you need any help. I’ll try to move these walkers on out as fast as I can.”
While I sorted them out, I was able to piece together what had happened up on the line. All the wounded were from the Seventh Marine Regiment, which held an S-shaped, two-mile-long front that included Siberia, Bunker Hill, Reno and Carson. My former regiment, the Fifth Marines, was on their left flank and the Commonwealth Division on their right. No one knew why the gooks were coming down the road like they wanted those hills very badly. They already had Tae-dok-san, a 775-foot-high hill that dominated the lines in that area.
I continued triaging, sorting the casualties into three groups: those who could be operated on under local anesthesia in the Minor Operating Room, those who needed immediate surgery under general anesthesia in the Major Operating Room, and those who could safely wait for several hours or longer while the more urgent cases were taken care of. There was a fourth group who would wait only for death. There weren’t very many, but in every big fire-fight there were badly wounded men who didn’t die right away. When there were just a few casualties, heroic measures were taken and once in a great while one of these “hopeless” cases could be pulled through. But when casualties flooded the hospital and every doctor and anesthetist was needed for urgent cases that had a good chance for survival, it was an accepted maxim that occasionally you literally had to put some unfortunate men aside and let them go. Nobody talked about those boys. They were usually unconscious or at least deep in shock. They couldn’t even say, “Save me.” There were no relatives present to plead their cases. The doctor would complete his examination, bow his head in thought--or in prayer, and then make his decision.
I was crouched beside just such a case now. A corpsman. He had been down on his knees working on a wounded man when a Chinaman with a burp gun came up behind him and pumped four slugs into his back with one burst. “Buuurrrrp” had gone the gun, and the four bullets stitched themselves across the corpsman’s back, traveling upward through kidneys, stomach, diaphragm, and into the lungs. The corpsman was unconscious, his pulse uncountable, his blood pressure immeasurable. I looked up at Don Flau. “D Ward, Don. No surgery contemplated.” He understood. His face remained mask-like as he said softly, “Aye, aye, sir.”
This is a good place to point out that the number of wounded men who died in Korea after reaching the hands of the medical service was less that two and a half percent. In World War II it was four percent, and in World War I it was eight percent. The primary reason for the decrease in battle deaths was helicopter evacuation directly from the battlefield. But there were other factors: blood, serum, and plasma given early, the plasma often in the field before evacuation; antibiotics; improvement in life-saving techniques utilized by the corpsmen and doctors; and bringing surgical specialists into the Marine medical companies and the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals close to the front lines.
I moved on down the line of stretchers. Don Flau stayed with me while another corpsman, J. P. Holliday, worked just ahead of us cutting off or unwrapping the bandages so I could inspect the wounds. Another corpsman, Hospital man Brandt, followed us and rewrapped them to await definitive surgery. Rarely did we do anything to the wounds during this first exam. But we gave blood to those who needed it, started IVs with normal saline if the patient was headed for major surgery, put down nasal-gastric tubes for belly wounds, gave tetanus toxoid to everyone, and did other necessary procedures to treat shock and ready the men for definitive treatment in the operating tents.
We saw every conceivable type of war wound in the triage ward at Easy Med. Shrapnel and bullets hit randomly, sometimes injuring vital structures and sometimes missing them by fractions of an inch. Here was a man with a broken arm from a rifle bullet; he was sent to the holding ward with his arm splinted to await surgery. The next two cases had multiple shrapnel wounds all over the body, but without major wounds that required general anesthesia; they were sent to the minor surgery tent to await debridement. The next man had the major part of his left thigh torn away by a fragment of an artillery shell; he went to the holding unit to await surgery. The next man had a buttox wound, the frayed handle of a Chinese “potato masher” grenade still sticking out of the jagged hole; he was sent back to minor surgery for its removal.
The hours ticked by rapidly. By 0200 on Saturday the 16th nearly a hundred wounded men had been admitted, and more were on the way. Most of the walking wounded were now waiting outside the admitting and triage tent, having been examined and found not to need urgent surgery.
I went back to the holding ward to check the patients there. Two of those who had been in good shape when I sent them back there were now deteriorating and had to be given immediate priority. Over in D Ward, the corpsman had died moments after I sent him back. On another ward check about 0400 I stopped again to see Jesse Carter, the Marine with the “powerful bellyache.” He was dead. I was shocked, heartsick. I called over the corpsman in charge of the ward. “When did you see this guy last, Frank? He replied, “Fifteen, twenty minutes ago, doctor.” He looked down at Jesse and then looked up at me with real pain showing in his weary eyes. “He’s dead?” He stepped over and flicked an eyelid. Still unbelieving, he put a hand over Jesse’s mouth. “He is, isn’t he?" He put a foot up on the rail and leaned forward on his elbows. “I was just talking to him. He asked when we were gonna get to him. I said real soon now.” Frank wiped the back of his blood-smeared hand across his forehead. He needed to talk this out and I let him. “I asked him if he felt worse. He said no. I didn’t take his blood pressure. He wasn’t sweating or thirsty or cold or anything like he was in shock. God Almighty.”
He looked up at me and the agony I read there made me look away. “What happened, Dr. Dibble?” “Look at his conjunctivae, Frank.” Frank pulled down Jesse’s lower eyelid and exposed the stark white membrane. “He bled to death, didn’t he, doctor? Right here in front of me. God, I’m sorry, doctor.” I told him, “Not your fault, Frank. Mine, if anybody’s. Must have a small hole in his aorta. Only thing I can think of.” Even though I was only four years older than he was, the corpsman needed the comfort of a fatherly hand on his shoulder. I reached out to him and did just that. “Come on now, Frank. Let’s get back to work.” He gripped my arm just above the elbow, smiled weakly with trembling lips and tear-blurred eyes, then moved off slowly, shaking his head. I watched as he started preparing another Marine for surgery. He worked slowly at first, then more and more rapidly, and soon was working at top speed again. But I knew he hadn’t forgotten what had happened. I never would. I can still picture the entire scene as if it were yesterday: The body of Jesse Carter lies on the stretcher, about halfway down the ward on the west side of the tent. On his left is a Marine with his left hand mangled by shrapnel. On his right is a Marine clutching a bandage over his right eye. Frank, the corpsman, stares at Jesse, unbelieving. Jesse’s face hangs before my mind’s eye, his eyes half open, sightless. Dead.
Backlog of Cases
By 0600 the steady flow of wounded men had begun to slow down a little, but there was a backlog of almost fifty un-operated cases. Some of the more serious cases, like belly wounds and compound fractures, were waiting too long for surgery. It had long been Medical Battalion policy not to evacuate men parallel to the lines--that is, from one front-line medical company to another. There were no trained surgeons back at Able Med, nor even a major operating setup. It seemed to me that there was adequate reason to change the policy. I got on the EE-8 field phone to the CO of the First Medical Battalion, Commander Bill Ayres, at Able Med. I could see in my mind’s eye the usually jolly, round Charles Laughton face now blinking the sleep out of his eyes and thinking hard. “Yeah, all right,” he said, finally. I knew he was shouting at the top of his lungs, but I had to strain to hear him. The little black phone line strung by the commo people didn’t have relays and it was ten miles back to Able. It was good news to me as Ayres shouted, “Okay, Dr. Dibble. We’ll take your worst ones out. But not to Dog or Charley Med. I’ll send up some Sikorskis and ship ‘em to the Consolation.” The Navy hospital ship Consolation lay off Inchon. She rotated with two other U. S. Navy ships, the Repose and the Haven, and with the Jutlandia, a converted Danish cruise ship. “Thanks, skipper,” I yelled. It took 15 minutes by Bell helicopter and ten minutes by Sikorski to evacuate patients from Easy Med to the hospital ship.
Hurriedly I re-examined all the serious patients in the holding ward, working down the line of stretchers perched a foot off the floor on their wooden rails. I marked twelve of the most seriously wounded for “copter evac.” It was obvious that Bill Ayres believed in the maxim that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing now. I had just barely finished when a big Sikorski landed on the strip down by my command post and the corpsmen began loading stretchers into it. It could take six at a time. Shortly afterwards another came in and took the rest of the men I had tagged.
About 1000 I decided I had had enough of the triage ward. I had been in there for almost sixteen hours straight with only short breaks for gulps of coffee. I hadn’t slept. No one had. I knew from my experience at Cook County Hospital that I would be okay until about four or five in the afternoon. Then it would hit me. Hard. At County that was fine. I was never on call two nights in a row and could usually get away from the wards by late afternoon. I would have supper, have a beer or a glass of wine, watch some dumb TV show until seven or eight, and collapse. Now, with no one coming on duty to relieve me, I didn’t know what I was going to do if I couldn’t get some sleep sometime during the day. I was to find out.
I had sent Lee Yung-kak and Lou Shirley back to the Minor Surgery tent hours ago and now went back there myself. I asked them if they would like to work Triage for a while and both agreed readily. Then I changed my mind and asked Lee if he would like to stay in Minor for awhile. He agreed to that, too. As their CO I could have ordered them, but there was little of that kind of baloney in the medical corps. Not at our level, anyway, and not with most reserve officers (and we were all reservists at Easy). There was the occasional Regular Navy jerk who was so insecure or gungho that he had to order people around, but usually those guys could also make sure that they didn’t end up in Korea. Back in the States, you knew you had to put up with a certain amount of military garbage.
While Shirley finished the case he was working on, I walked into the small tent which contained the scrub basins and brushes. I soaped my hands and arms, then scrubbed off the dirt and blood and vomitus that had accumulated in my knuckles and under my fingernails. I had washed frequently during the past sixteen hours, but hadn’t had a chance to really scrub. I stood with my eyes closed, half asleep, hands mechanically working with brush and soap, mind jumping from thought to random thought, a surreal stream of consciousness:
Lou Shirley woke me from my reverie. “Okay, skipper. Take over.” “Thanks, Lou.” (Several of the doctors and most of the corpsmen called me "skipper." One of them, Tom Suttles, still does in our frequent exchange of e-mails.) I wiped my hands on the green towel hanging from the wooden rack next to the basin and walked back into the Minor tent. Two corpsmen were lifting a Marine up onto the sawhorses. He lay on his belly with a large dressing over his left buttock. I put on my gloves and started drawing up procaine from a bottle held by the corpsman. The corpsman pulled the dressing off the buttock. I glanced at the wound and was surprised to see a large piece of wood sticking out of it. “My God, man, you still here?” I exclaimed, recognizing the potato-masher handle. “Figured you would have been done hours ago.” “Guess they thought I could wait, doctor.”
The corpsman scrubbed around the wound with liquid green soap. I placed sterile towels around the wound and anesthetized the skin and muscles as well as I could. Several times I hit the wood with the needle as I probed deeper and deeper. That’s great for sterile technique, I thought. Finally I felt that I had numbed it as much as I could. I made an elliptical skin incision around the protruding wood and controlled the bleeding. Then I grasped the grenade handle with a heavy Kocher hemostat and pulled. I pulled harder. It started to move slowly, then faster and faster like a champagne cork, and finally slurped out with a gush of blood. The fragment was nearly four inches long and one and a half inches in diameter, and fragmented on the distal end. The flow of blood was profuse and I placed a gauze sponge deep into the wound and held it there firmly with my fingers. The grenade handle had severed the gluteal artery, but with a figure-of-eight stitch I controlled it. Then I debrided the wound of splinters and other debris and packed it open with Vaseline gauze and fluffed gauze. “All done, Mac,” I said. “Got it sewed up already?” “Oh, no. We never do that here. We leave it wide open to drain for five to ten days. Then any dirt or other junk we might have missed will work its way out. Prevents infection. Somebody back at Able Med or maybe the hospital ship will close this up when it’s ready. Sorry if I hurt you. That thing was really deep. You want it as a souvenir?” He grinned. “Hell, no!” Then he grinned wider. “That hole will be kind of hard to explain to the boys in the locker room, won’t it, doc?” “You can always tell ‘em an old witch stuck her broom up your ass.” With a mischievous smile, incongruous under the circumstances, he said, “Wish there was a coupla young witches around here about now.” I chuckled and went into the scrub tent to wash up.
I was dripping with perspiration and when I stripped off my rubber gloves sweat splattered from them. I poured myself a drink from the five-gallon jerry can on the ground and gulped it thirstily. I remembered then that I hadn’t eaten yet and realized that I was voraciously hungry. None of the others had eaten either. I walked back into the Minor tent. “Dr. Lee, why don’t you and Ben Flow go get some chow. When you get back, Lou and I will go over.”
I watched Lee for a moment, the small brown hands in the small size 6˝ gloves working carefully in the debridement of a nasty shrapnel wound of the face. The Marine he was working on lay with his eyes closed, but opened them as I came up to the stretcher. He asked, “He doin’ a good job, doc?” “The best, Mac, the best,” I said. The Marine closed his eyes again. Yung shot me a grateful glance. His hands had a very faint tremor now as they laid the Vaseline gauze into the wound. I had touched a sensitiveness in Lee that I hadn’t been aware of. After they had carried off the patient, I queried, “Things going okay, Dr. Lee?” “Very fine, Captain. Tak-san number one.” He paused for a split second. Then without looking at me he said, “You did a very good thing to me now.” I replied, “Well, I meant it.” I was glad I had sent Shirley into triage instead of Lee.
I turned to my next case. The corpsman was scrubbing a Marine’s leg which had a dozen or more jagged puncture wounds. “These don’t look too bad, Mac. Probably keep you out of action a month is all.” I talked almost continuously with the Marine as I injected each wound with an ellipse of procaine. Most of the boys liked to talk. There was a release in talking. Whether they had been on line a few days or a year, they had been under constant discipline. Furthermore, the mere fact that they were wounded indicated that they had just recently been under tension in a life and death situation over which they had had practically no control. They were sitting in their bunkers waiting for the rounds to fall, or they were crouching in their foxholes hoping they were concealed from sniper fire, or they were climbing a hill or running a valley, all the time listening for the flutter of a mortar round coming in. And then they felt the blast as it blew them to the ground. They took stock of themselves and tried to determine the extent of their injuries. If they could, they crawled or walked to the forward aid station. If they couldn’t, they called for a corpsman and were carried out on a stretcher.
I cut ellipses of skin from around the shrapnel wounds, then cut similar ellipses of fat and muscle from around the tracts which led to the metal fragments embedded deeper in the leg. Most of the shrapnel I removed easily, along with bits of cloth, dirt, leaves and other debris blown in by the blast or carried into the wound with the metal. There were small fragments of metal that I couldn’t remove easily, so I left them in place. I knew that a few of these would have to be removed at a later date, but most would cause no trouble and it was never worth the time and effort to try to get them all. Deride the wound, stop the bleeding, pack it open, cover it up, ship the patient out. Next man.
72 Hours with No Sleep
Morning eased into afternoon. Saturday night came and we had been up for thirty-six hours without sleep. Night passed. On Sunday morning the 17th came and we had been up for forty-eight hours without sleep. The wounded kept coming in trucks and jeep ambulances and helicopters. There was no sign of a letup. Periodically I called Commander Ayres and soon a flight of Sikorskis would come in and take off with the backlog of serious un-operated cases and stable post-op belly and chest cases.
We now had the post-op cases lying in more or less orderly rows on the hillsides all around the hospital. Some were on stretchers, most on the ground. Ward corpsmen walked along the rows checking dressings, marking the wounded for evacuation by truck, jeep or helicopter, or for holding for a doctor to recheck before evacuation. It was hot lying there in the sun, and we had to be sure the wounded weren’t getting dehydrated. I asked CWO George Depreaux to send a couple of our security Marines around with jerry cans of water.
Commander Ayres sent up a crew of Marines from Able Med to put up five 16x32 squad tents to use as post-op recovery wards. I could hear them laughing and talking and had the urge to run out there and ask them what was so damn funny and didn’t they know there was a war on and would they kindly knock off the noise. Fortunately I recognized that I was getting irrational in my fatigue and that those gyrenesns had every right to be happy. Most, if not all, had been up on the lines themselves, I was sure, and had earned their right to a rear-echelon job.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, clenched my jaws, and kept on cutting. A couple of hours later I was mighty glad that I had controlled my temper because one of those Marines came to the flap of the Minor tent and said, “Sir, we got the tents up and we rolled up the sides and laid out the stretcher racks. Is there anythin’ else we kin do for ya while we’re up here?”
We emptied out our old wards to take the newly-operated cases. And Ayres, God bless him, sent two six-by trucks up from Able and took twenty-five walking wounded back to have their debridements done there. I wish I could have seen the looks of horror on the faces of the internists, pediatricians and other non-surgical types when they were called out of their snug bunks to do surgery.
We were all beginning to show heavy dark circles under our bloodshot eyes. Small drops of tears trickled from the inner corners. We ran out of caps and masks. Those were the days when there were no such things as paper masks and caps. They were all cloth. At first, every time we started a new patient or a new operation we changed masks. Pretty soon that became impossible. We just couldn't do it. When the supply of surgical caps ran out we tied masks onto our foreheads to keep loose hairs and sweat from dripping into the open wounds. Some of the corpsmen wore their green fatigue hats backwards like a baseball catcher’s.
It was steamy hot in those tents and most of us had taken off our fatigue jackets. One of the corpsmen who was just moving patients around had taken off his pants, too. I stopped him dead with, “Three demerits for being out of uniform, Mac.” Startled, he almost came to attention and then saw the laughter on my face. A visitor would have thought it a ludicrous sight to see doctors and corpsmen running around the tents in combat boots, white skivvy shirts, green fatigue pants, and two masks tied to the front of their heads. Nobody was laughing.
Those laughing the least were the doctors and corpsmen in the main operating tent. Theirs was the toughest job of all. It was here that life or death operations were performed. It was here that legs were saved or sawed off. Bellies were opened to stem the flow of blood and liquid feces. Shattered kidneys and spleens were removed. Livers were sutured. Chest drainage tubes were inserted. And through it all, the principles of good surgery had to be observed. Even when sweat poured down your face and stung your eyes. Even when your hands trembled with fatigue. Even when your brain was numb from sleeplessness.
About 1000 on Sunday the 17th, thirty-six hours since the first copters arrived and fifty-two hours since anyone had slept, I took my turn as first assistant in the Major tent. I worked with Bill Ogle. We made a good team. Bill was a good surgeon and I had done enough surgery to be a good assistant. Doctors who don’t ever do surgery make very poor assistants--they don’t know what the surgeon is going to do next. A good assistant anticipates the surgeon’s next move, keeps him out of trouble when his intense concentration causes him to overlook the proximity of another organ, and anticipates the use of special sutures or instruments. The assistant must be all things to all surgeons and, most importantly, must keep his hands out of the way, yet always have them in the right place.
Dr. Sam Dougherty sat in the center of the OR tent between the head ends of two operating tables. With his left hand he was giving a general anesthetic to a patient on one table where Dr. Frank Spencer was working. With his right hand he arranged the medicines and instruments for the induction of the next patient on the other table. Sam was preoccupied, concentrating intensely, his mind working on two entirely separate problems at the same time. Two corpsmen brought in our next patient and lifted him gently off the stretcher onto the table. His battle fatigues had been replaced by dark blue pajama-like pants. His torso was pale white, contrasting with the deep tan of his face and hands--a farmer’s tan, my dad would have called it. He was about nineteen, strong of face and body. He had two small defects: a tiny hole in his abdomen just below the ribs on the right where a bullet had gone in, and a slightly larger hole in his left flank where the bullet had come out. His eyes were slightly glazed from the pain, his cheek muscles bulging from jaws set hard. His respirations were quick and shallow as the rapidly developing peritonitis splinted his belly and diaphragmatic muscles. I hated to think what it looked like between those bullet holes. He groaned a little as he was eased onto the table. “Easy, buddy,” a corpsman cautioned. “We just about got ‘er.” “The IV‘s run sub-q, Joe,” Dr. Dougherty said. “Better start another one.” “Aye, aye, sir.” He straightened out the patient’s right arm and tied a rubber tubing tightly around the upper forearm to fill out the veins below it. “He had any atropine yet, Joe?” asked Dr. Dougherty. “No, sir, just the MS”--morphine sulfate--“about an hour ago.” “Better give him 1/120th when you get the IV going.” “Aye, aye, sir.”
Deftly the corpsman pulled the vein taut with the fingers of his left hand, inserted a long needle into it, then threaded the needle up to the hub. He reached up and pulled out the loop on the rubber tourniquet. The blood flow in the needle adapter reversed and the saline ran in a steady stream. Another corpsman punctured the rubber adapter and injected the carefully measured dose of atropine. During this maneuver, Dr. Dougherty had kept his left hand mechanically squeezing the bag on the anesthesia machine supplying Spencer’s patient with oxygen and gases. We didn't have even the now-primitive mechanical respirators that hospitals in the States had. The anesthesiologist, or designated substitute, sat with the anesthesia machine's bag in his hand, pumping oxygen into the patient's lungs.
Dr. Dougherty now nodded to me to take over the bag. He turned his full attention to the Marine waiting to have his belly opened. He picked up a large syringe filled with yellow sodium pentothal and anectine (succinyl choline chloride) and injected about half of it into the IV tubing where the atropine had just been given. Watching the boy’s face carefully, he saw the muscles go slack and then begin to twitch faintly. Soon most of the heavy muscles of the body were twitching also. When they, too, relaxed, Sam positioned himself at the patient’s head, inserted the laryngoscope deep into the throat, lifted up the epiglottis with the curved tip of the scope, reached blindly for his instrument table with his right hand, found the endotracheal tube and slipped it through the vocal chords into the trachea.
Working quickly now because the patient’s entire muscular system was paralyzed from the anectine, Sam attached the double black rubber, accordion-pleated tubes to the endotracheal tube and pumped pure oxygen into the lungs with a series of forceful squeezes on the black bag. He took the pulse and blood pressure and found them to be okay. He filled the balloon at the end of the endotracheal tube with five cubic centimeters of air from a small syringe to make an airtight system. “All set, Bill, you can scrub,” he said to Ogle as he sat back on his stool. He took both anesthesia bags again, adjusting the valves regulating the rates of flow of the different anesthetic gases. Sweat poured unheeded down his face, neck, and arms. Bill grunted as he and I went out to the scrub tent. “Man, that’s a cool customer we got in there. He’s been sitting right there doing that since ten the night before last. Mechanical man.” “Yeah, a robot. Did you ever try doing two generals at once? One’s enough for me.” “No, never tried it. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
The patient had been scrubbed from nipples to mid-thighs, then painted with bright red merthiolate. A gowned corpsman draped heavy sheets over the patient as Bill and I gowned and gloved ourselves. Bill moved to the patient’s right and I to his left. The corpsman slapped a scalpel into Bill’s hand. The scalpel grooved a long red line from rib margin to groin, a few inches to the right of the midline. Sponges daubed, clamps clicked, catgut flashed into square knots. Scalpel again and the shining white fascia split to show the heavy rectus muscles beneath. The handle of the knife and a finger split the muscles from end to end. Tissue forceps on the peritoneum, scalpel to nick it open, Mayo scissors to widen it. An ugly-looking and foul-smelling mixture of old dark blood, fresh red blood, and brown liquid feces poured onto the drapes as the intestines bulged through the incision onto the field. “Upper abdomen first,” Bill said. With my right hand wielding a cupped Mayo retractor, I lifted the patient’s left rib cage upward. I slipped my left hand into the abdomen and pulled down gently on the colon, exposing the anterior wall of the stomach and the rest of the contents of the upper abdomen. Gently, slowly, Bill explored the entire abdomen while I moved the retractors just ahead of his searching eyes and exploring fingers.
Like most surgeons, he talked his way through the exploration. “Missed the liver somehow. Stomach’s all right. Colon looks okay. The bullet went behind it. Here’s the hole where it went through the gastrocolic ligament. Here’s two holes in the jejunum. Two more in the ileum.” He ran the entire small bowel carefully through his fingers. “Two more holes. Two more. Eight so far. Ten. Saw a guy once with twenty-three holes and never did find the bullet or the other hole. Bullet must have been inside the bowel. Twelve. Guess that’s it. Let’s have some plain catgut, Vern, on an intestinal needle, three-oh.” Vern Toy, the corpsman at the Mayo table, was already poised with the proper suture. He always was. Most of our OR scrubs were every bit as good as their counterparts in civilian hospitals in the States.
One by one, Bill placed “purse-string” sutures around each hole, asked me to tie them down snugly, then inverted them with several sutures of fine black silk. He carefully ran the bowel again to check for any missed perforations. Then the circulating corpsman poured several liters of warm normal saline into the abdomen and we sucked it all back out. I mumbled, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Everyone was too tired to laugh. “Pretty lucky guy at that,” Bill mused. “Nothing vital hit. Not too much spillage. The peritonitis will clear in a few days. He’s gonna be okay. Let’s close.” The operation had taken just under an hour.
Horns of a Dilemma
Another man was brought in from the holding ward. He, too, had only one wound, but a mean one. A large flying fragment from a mortar or artillery shell had ripped through his left leg, tearing off all the muscles on the inner and anterior aspect of the leg from mid-thigh to knee. The bone was intact but laid bare for a distance of almost six inches. All the muscles, as well as the main artery, nerve, and veins, had been blown away. The leg below the knee lay useless on the stretcher, bluish-white in impending gangrene. Bill Ogle studied the wound, his head moving slowly from side to side. I knew what he was thinking. Even if the defect in the artery could be bridged with a vein graft, the lower leg would be flail without nerve supply to the muscles. And, of course, the skin was gone, so nothing was available to cover any blood vessel replacement. True, plastic surgery--a big musculocutaneous flap--could probably cover the wound, but that would take hours. Hours that might be critical for two or three other men lying out there in the holding ward. He would still need a nerve graft in a few months to innervate the lower leg, and it might not be successful. Talk about the horns of a dilemma.
Bill made his decision. He placed his hand on the shoulder of the anxious Marine. “It’s got to come off, Mac. No way to save it. Sorry.” His voice was compassionate and his eyes held fast to the Marine’s. The Marine nodded his head almost imperceptibly, sucked in his breath involuntarily, and said quietly, “Figured that myself, doctor. The battalion surgeon up front said the same thing. It even feels dead. Hardly any pain at all.”
It was a short procedure and Bill had me do it so he could close his eyes for a minute. I think he was as close to sleep as you can get and still stand up. I tied off the retracted and clotted femoral artery and vein. Sharply incised the sciatic nerve. Incised the few remaining muscle bellies. Sawed through the bone. Debrided away some of the muscle and skin that had been devitalized by the tearing action of the shrapnel. Packed the end of the stump with Vaseline gauze and a handful of fluffed gauze. And wrapped the stump with Ace bandages. It may have been a short operation, but it was a mutilating one, distasteful to us both. Patching up holes in the gut was one thing. Chopping off a leg was another. One was constructive, the other destructive. Both had the primary aim of saving life. Both patients would have died without surgery. But the psychological effect on us surgeons was different, to say nothing about the physical and psychological effect on the patients.
The second day ended and the third night began. Fatigue was a grasping specter, a hollow-eyed and blood-smeared devil standing by every man. I could feel its heavy hands pressing my eyelids down, dragging at my shoulders until they ached with dull pain, knotting my stomach so I couldn’t even eat, squeezing my temples with steel-banded fingers, buckling my knees when I relaxed for a fraction of a second. While the doctors worked, the corpsmen stood asleep on their feet, rousing more and more painfully each time. While the corpsmen switched patients, the doctors leaned against the tent posts or sat on a cot and closed their eyes for precious moments. Two of the corpsmen began to hallucinate, reliving experiences they themselves had had on line, and had to be carried unconscious to their tents.
The third night was the worst. The constant flow of men from the lines was lessening, but the aching fatigue in each man resulted in slowing down of reflexes. Minor techniques such as starting an IV became major undertakings. The surgeons’ eyes blurred over, making them stop to close them until the blurring cleared. Even Sam Dougherty, the mechanical anesthetist, was starting to have difficulty getting his patients asleep and then awake. It was a nightmare.
Unnoticed by all, the nightmare was about to end. Sixty-two hours after the casualties began arriving, seventy-four hours since anyone had slept, on the morning of Monday, August 18th, a Sikorski helicopter settled onto the copter pad near my CP. Another circled slowly, waiting for the other to clear its cargo. We heard the copters, of course, but we had been hearing them for days.
The sun rose fiery red on the horizon as the first copter settled in. Two corpsmen trotted in a drunk-like stupor to bring in more seriously wounded men. To their surprise, out climbed a half dozen men in shiny new green fatigues, clean new combat boots, cameras slung around their necks, eyes glancing warily around them as if a Chinaman with a burp gun might be hiding in the bushes.
These men were American Navy doctors and corpsmen sent over from Japan to relieve the men of Easy Med, so it was all over for us for awhile. For Bill Ogle, “Pierre” Lascheid, Sam Dougherty, Gordon McKinley, Ben Flow, Lee Yung-kak, and all the other doctors. For Don Flau, Korbis, J. P. Holliday, and all the other corpsmen. We were able to sleep again, knowing that the wounded men were being taken care of. We would be up again in a few hours if the casualties kept coming and the new men needed help, but now our waking nightmare ended with sleep. Sleep to erase the memories of the mutilation we had just tried to correct, sleep to forget the carnage that man had perpetrated against man in the name of a godless communism. A sleep which was not anesthesia, and a sleep which, unlike Jesse Carter’s, was not death.
We nearly slept the clock around. When we finally awoke early on Tuesday morning, the 19th of August, everything was quiet except for the usual sounds of a military base. An occasional truck rumbled by. The off-duty corpsmen played volleyball on the hillside copter strip. The thin purr of an L-19 hummed in the near distance. Every five minutes the guns of the 11th Marines thundered in volleys of four. The devil in my nightmare still played his hateful tune in my head. Never had I seen such carnage even on the worst nights at Cook County Hospital.
I spent a couple of hours going over the statistics with George Depreaux. We had triaged 1,004 wounded men from Friday night to Monday afternoon. (The VFW Magazine of June/July 1993 listed 313 WIAs for the Battle of Bunker Hill, but that’s way off. I was there. I myself counted them at Easy Med, and we didn’t get everyone who should have been counted and weren’t. There were MIAs and POWs and some who didn’t report minor wounds. There were some who went out through Dog or Charley Med.) We did 142 major operations under general anesthesia- better than two an hour. We evacuated 153 walking wounded to Able Med for minor debridement. We shipped 288 severely wounded men to the Consolation--forty-eight Sikorskis with six stretchers in each. We operated on 397 WIAs in the Minor Surgery tent under local anesthesia. A high percentage of those “minors” were multiple shrapnel wounds. Five, ten, twenty, even thirty wounds in a single body, but none of them breaking bone or penetrating the belly or thorax. Many would have been called “majors” in a stateside hospital. Three men came in Dead on Arrival (DOA). We lost twenty-one men during or after surgery, a two percent mortality rate. The time spent on several of those might have been better spent on others, but sometimes that’s not obvious at first. And, to come up with the understatement of the year, it’s awfully hard for a triage doctor to say, “Take him to D Ward. No surgery contemplated.” When the smoke cleared and my brain started functioning again, I was so proud of all those doctors and corpsmen and Marines that I wanted to recommend every one of them for a Bronze Star with a Combat V.
The crew from Japan stayed with us for three days. They didn’t have much to do, were disappointed, and said so. I heard them talking in the mess hall, a small room on the second floor of the Korean house I used as my command post. Daryl Sims [not his real name], a tall, good-looking young surgeon just a few years older than I, was saying, “Yeah, y’know, I hate this just sitting around. I came over here to work and there’s nothing much to do.” I looked down the long table at him and asked quietly, “What kind of work you looking for, Dr. Sims?” “Why, trauma, of course.” I replied, “Where’s that trauma supposed to come from?” I kept my voice low, but it carried. The mess hall went suddenly still as the others stopped to listen. They could all hear the stridency in my voice. Sims looked hard at me, quizzical at first, then grasped my meaning--but not my thoughts. “Why, from the front lines, of course,” he said. I could feel the tension in the room and wondered why Sims couldn’t. Bill Ogle in particular was mesmerized. He froze with his fork halfway to his mouth, then rested his elbow on the table, the fork still hanging in mid-air. I’m sure he was wondering if I was going to be as gentle with Sims as I had been with him a week earlier. I wasn’t. I said, “Perhaps you’d like to cut off Major Paul Braaten’s leg? He’s the S-5 up in Three-Five, my old battalion. Or how about digging a slug out of John Koon’s belly? He’s one of my corpsmen in Forward Aid up there. Or how about Lieutenant Colonel McLaughlin or Chaplain Bob Fenning or maybe some of the grunts up in the trenches like Buckshot Newman or Ted Kaminski or Ira Jensen or maybe Lieutenant Dopp who got a Bronze Star for action against the gooks one dark winter night. Oh, I could give you the names of a lot of my friends up there that you could get a crack at if only they’d cooperate and get wounded in action. Maybe you’d like to amputate my leg when I step on a land mine for your convenience?” I stood up, looked down at Sims once more, and left. They got the picture real quick and stayed out of my way after that, but I could see them eyeing me across the ward or across the compound. It was a look of mixed wariness and respect.
The corpsmen heard about my little speech and picked up the ball. From then on until the packaged surgical team left, they snapped to attention whenever I came on the ward. They barked out, “Aye, aye, sir” at my slightest command. Without a fuss they wore their fatigue caps square, their fatigue jackets tucked into their pants, their pants folded neatly into their boots. I wished Bill Ayres or Lieutenant General Seldon with his red ascot or even “Iron Mike” O’Daniel would just drop in for a visit. The surgeons went back to Japan with their anesthetists and corpsmen and lab techs. They were really a good bunch of guys, pulled out of comfortable billets at Yokosuka or Sasebo or somewhere. They had enjoyed their brief tour of what they called the front lines, but they were glad to leave.
That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill from a slightly different viewpoint than most people have heard. The Seventh Marines will never forget it. Neither will we, the doctors and corpsmen and Marines who were there on the other end of that pipeline from the bloody hill called Bunker.
Being a surgeon was not always serious business. There were periods of hours or even days when there was little going on. A truckload of casualties would come in, but we had a half dozen or eight doctors to take care of them when they did. We didn’t have any call system, but each personnel knew who had been down there last. When a helicopter came in, we knew who had to take care of the incoming casualties. “Well, I guess it’s my turn, guys.” When we had lots of casualties coming in, everybody was down there for the whole time. As CO I could easily have avoided all except the busiest of times. But for at least two reasons I didn't. One, I seriously believed that the leader of any group, military or civilian, shouldn't ask his people to do anything that he wouldn't do. Secondly, I enjoyed doing surgery and was much happier doing it than sitting on my hands.
Letters, Packages, & Ukuleles
Those times when there was a lull we had our fun, but it was also boring sometimes and we just sat around. Bill Ogle, the surgeon, taught me how to play the ukulele, and Gordon McKinley also knew how to play it. Ogle knew when he left the States that, because he was a trained surgeon, he was going directly to a medical company without first going to a battalion. He flew over. So he just brought his ukulele with him on the plane with the rest of the gear. I got pretty good at playing the ukulele. I played the piano and had a pretty good ear, so I could pick out a lot of songs rather quickly. One of my favorites was the following, which I somehow put on a tape and sent to Edna. I still have it "somewhere". I played it up in the doctors' tent for the most part. The lyrics went something like this:
When we were in reserve we played football in the snow. We played cards and we read books. There was a military library service back in Seoul, so sometimes we sent someone there in a jeep and he brought back a whole bunch of books. We were only 25 miles from Seoul, but it took about a hour because it was not too good a road. Wives, girlfriends, mothers and fathers also sent books over. I got packages from Edna. She sent me chocolate chip cookies and brownies packed in popcorn. She also sent me film, which is something that I asked her to send to me. I had a still camera that I loaded with black and white and Kodachrome ASA12 colored film.
While still with 3/5, my jeep ambulance driver, Sgt. John Gumpert, went a month or more without a letter from his wife and finally got one that ended his marriage. The only thing he said was to the effect that it wasn't surprising. He married again, lost her to cancer after about forty years, married a third time and lost her to cancer after about ten years.
Occasionally there was a non-combat case. While I was back in the medical company I took out a couple of appendices for appendicitis. Also, Captain Bach, our division surgeon, got thrown out of a jeep once and ruptured his bladder, which was a simple matter of putting a catheter in and sewing up the bladder and keeping it in for a week.
There ARE Atheists in Foxholes
We had church services sporadically in the battalion whenever we were in reserve. At Easy we had regular services--Protestant most Sundays, Catholic whenever a priest came up from division. We had a chaplain in H&S, Bob Fenning, who had frequent small group Bible study in his tent. He went up to the trench system once a week or so, crawled along it and popped into each bunker and talked with the men for as long as he sensed they wanted to. He actually had a small, portable, three-octave pump organ that he carried in his jeep for use in reserve. He didn't play, but I did, so we sometimes had some good old-fashioned sing-alongs. I don't know what denomination he belonged to. I doubt if I ever asked; it was inconsequential. No closed communion up there. Protestants, Catholics, agnostics, maybe even atheists, all welcome!!! By the way, you can throw away that old saying, "There aren't any atheists in foxholes." There were many.
Traveling Bottle of Blood
I was not a trained surgeon when I was at Easy Med. I had had two years at Cook County Hospital, 15 months of which had been in various surgical specialties, including general surgery. In surgery the interns did quite a bit of hands-on surgery with supervision. I didn't go through my surgical training until I came back from Korea.
We had about 200 men stationed at Easy Med. There were 150-160 Navy corpsmen, doctors, lab technicians, X-ray techs and such. There were also 40 or 50 Marines who provided security. There was a security perimeter around us all the time and the Marines were on guard. There were also truckers, ambulance drivers, cooks and that type of ancillary personnel. All the Marine officers from captain on up were "old salts", as was I. (I was an enlisted swabby for two and a half years during World War II.) We didn't look down with disdain, nor were we treated any differently than the "new salts." The Navy and Marines had just begun to integrate blacks into service alongside whites, and as far as I could tell it was working fine. I had a black corpsman at one time and he got along very well with everyone. Black Marines weren't plentiful yet, but those that were there shared everything with their white tent and bunker mates with no overt problems.
I don’t remember hearing any of the surgeons at Easy Med ever complaining about needing something and not being able to get it. We actually had a sterilizing department in the hospital and certain corpsmen were assigned to the task of sterile supply. We never had a shortage of blood. We never had to draw it amongst ourselves because we always had plenty. At that time blood came in bottles because it wasn't in bags yet. The bottles were collected by the Red Cross back in the States. Something kind of interesting happened to me while I was at Easy Med. As a public relations attempt to stimulate blood collections in the United States, the singer Kate Smith picked up a bottle of blood given in the States and followed it with a cameraman to Korea. The pint went from Seoul to a doctor at Easy Med. I just happened to be the doctor who received that pint of blood, which was then given to one of our patients. This was recorded on television and played in Springfield, Illinois for Edna to see, except that she didn’t because she kept getting telephone calls from friends telling her, “Look on the television. Your husband’s on television with Kate Smith.” I wasn't actually with Kate; she showed the clip on her program. It was also written up in all the newspapers.
My closest friend in Korea was my Jeep ambulance driver John Gumpert, a 21-year-old sergeant who had transferred from duty as machine gunner in George Company after receiving a third Purple Heart. We were together more or less constantly every day and many nights for six months. I was never closer with my sister, parents, wife, or anyone else. We were even hit with shrapnel from the same Chinese mortar round! We're still in frequent e-mail contact. I've visited him in Davenport twice, both times for turkey hunting.
While I was in Korea I met some friends I had known stateside. I met Bob Marske, a fellow intern at Cook County Hospital, outside the Division Surgeon's tent when we first arrived there on January 2, 1952. I ran into Bob Bjurstrom, a fraternity brother at the University of Illinois, on a dock in Yokosuka, Japan. I met Captain Ecklund, my commanding officer at Great Lakes Naval Station before I went to Korea, in Inchon harbor on the hospital ship Repose, where he was the commanding medical officer. I didn't see much of the facilities aboard the hospital ships. I had no interest in that. I stayed on the ship just long enough to take a hot shower and chat with Captain Ecklund. While I was at Easy Med, I stayed overnight on the Jutlandia once and was treated royally when I told them that my mother was a Danish-born American. My short stay on the Jutlandia was a reminder of the physical amenities of normal living that I lacked at Easy Med. En route home from Korea I met Jim Woulfe, a fellow intern at CCH. I stayed with Bill Morrow, a fraternity brother and fellow intern, when on R&R in Japan.
When I was at Easy Med, I became quite close to Dr. Yung Kak Lee. Dr. Lee was one of the staff doctors when I was transferred there after six months with 3/5. He had been trapped at the Chosin Reservoir (which the Koreans call the Changjin Reservoir) with his army group. He was rescued by the First Marine Division at Hagaru-ri and stayed with them during the retreat. Rather than go back to the army, he chose to stay with the Marines and was seconded to Easy. He and I hit it off from the start. He was well-trained, very competent in minor surgery, and just a very pleasant person to be around. Two or three times I went to Seoul with him and stayed overnight in his mother's home, so I met her and Lee's sister. His father-in-law had been shot by the North Koreans on the steps of the Presbyterian Church. Other than that, I had no direct contact with the Korean people. En route to Seoul I saw the mud and thatch houses that everyone lived in. I saw children working in the rice paddies and playing alongside the roads. I saw the people walking the roads and working the fields, but not knowing the language, there was no reason to stop.
We found a Korean boy that we named Emmett wandering the streets of either Inje or Chorwon. He was an orphan, but I think he lived with family. He was bright and cheerful and knew a little English. He added to his family's income by soliciting for his sisters. Dr. Kimball and I needed someone to do the dirty work for us, like making sure that there was fuel oil for our pot-belly, safe water for drinking, doing our laundry when we could get hot water (which was not very often, I'm afraid), and in general help with "house-keeping" chores. "Mascot" is a poor word to describe what these young Koreans did for us. I worked on English with Emmett. He was a very quick study, picking up words and phrases and remembering them. I taught him how to sing, "Irene, Good Night," which, when Emmett sang it, came out "Ilene", whose disappointed lover jumped in the "liver and dlowned."
Christmas in Korea
I stayed in Korea until April of 1953. I spent two Christmases away from my family. Christmas was a nostalgic time for me, but neither Christmas did we have a Christmas tree. I was aboard ship ten days out of San Diego for the first Christmas and spent one Christmas in Korea. When I first got to Korea I noticed that somebody up on the line had taken some 2x4s, stuck them in the snow bank, and wrapped green branches around them to make a cross. That stayed green for several weeks because it was so cold it was frozen and didn’t lose its chlorophyll. Christmas at Easy Med was exceptionally quiet. Scuttlebutt was that a big attack was planned to ruin our Christian celebration, but instead we had just a few WIAs.
No Ice Cream
We had what we called Baker rations. Able rations were similar to what you could get in a restaurant in the States. Baker rations were in big number ten cans and Charlie rations were in boxes. They canned just about everything in a Baker ration--vegetables, beef, ham, chicken. We ate well at the medical company--no question about that. However, there was never any refrigerated stuff like fresh vegetables or ice cream or milk. We had powdered milk, powdered coffee, and powdered sugar.
The Koreans' main dish was kimchi and I did have kimchi when I went to Seoul with Dr. Kak Lee. We went back to visit his mother two or three times in Seoul and we had kimchi there. I wasn’t too enthralled with it because it was really strong made there. Here in the States I sometimes go to a Korean restaurant and get a little side dish of kimchi. I like it. Most people don’t because it is heavily garliced.
We went to a USO show in February of 1952, but not from Easy Med. We were in the eastern mountains some miles above the 38th parallel. We stayed on line for eight or ten weeks at a time and then we came off the lines in battalion groups and went into battalion reserve in an actual tent camp called Camp Tripoli on the Nam-gang, about 25 miles back of the front lines in an eminently safe place. We didn't even wear helmets. Everyone in the camp--about a thousand Marines, Navy corpsmen and doctors, walked down to the "parade ground," a flat area near the river where a temporary "stage" had been built. I think there might have been some men from other units nearby, but I'm not certain about that.
The hills around the stage provided sort of a natural amphitheater in the open air. There weren't any seats so we stood or sat on the ground. (Yes, in the snow. We had been doing that for months and were used to it!) It was about 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, without much wind, so most of us just wore our wool sweaters with a field jacket. Some of the new men wore their alpaca-lined parkas. All of us wore woolen pants and Mickey Mouse boots.
The actress Betty Hutton was the star of the show, and the USO troupe (Betty and another show girl) was singing and dancing around up there on the stage. One man acted as Master of Ceremonies and told a few jokes. I have no idea now what they sang. They wore pretty skimpy costumes considering the weather, but nothing too "revealing." The music was canned, but hooked up to some sort of loud speaker. I only knew the name "Betty Hutton", otherwise I had never heard of her. Most of the other men had. I had just spent the last two years in a time-consuming internship, and before that an all-consuming four years in medical school, rarely surfacing for air, or listening to the radio, or going to movies very much. I had been out of contact with the outside world, you might say.
The show didn't really impress me much, I think primarily because I had just been in Korea for a couple of months and I was an old married man (26!). But the younger Marines loved it, whistling and cat-calling and clapping, especially those that had been in Korea for a long time. I think it was a great morale builder for all the men, but especially for those who had been there a long time, spending hours and days in underground dugouts and bunkers and risking their lives on a more or less daily basis.
R&R in Japan
I went to Japan for Rest and Recuperation (R&R) in October. Lots of men called it "I & I" (intercourse and intoxication), but I didn't drink and I had a beautiful young wife waiting for me at home. I flew in a DC3--the workhorse of the services then, to Sendai, a Marine air base, then by bus to Tachikawa Air Force Base near Tokyo. I stayed with Bill Morrow, a classmate in medical school and County internship, and his lovely wife, Liz, for the five days. They had a three or four-month old baby. Bill had taken a picture of the infant with a little sign that read, "Made in Japan." Actually, I just used their home as a base. Bill took me to the national sumo wrestling championship in Tokyo. Afterwards we went to the Tokyo officers' club for dinner. I went by bus up to northern Honshu to a national shrine at Nikko, where I saw the original, "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys in bas relief on one of the Buddhist temples.
I got on the bullet train in Tokyo with the idea of going to Hiroshima. Halfway there I had second thoughts. I was in a United States Marine uniform. The bomb had been dropped only six years earlier. I didn't feel guilty about the bomb, but I didn't want to appear ghoulish. So, about halfway there I got off the train, walked across the tracks to the other side, and went back to Tokyo. I learned thirty years later when visiting a US missionary in Nagasaki that it would have been alright for me to go to Hiroshima.
In re-reading Pearl Buck's A Bridge for Passing a few years ago, I discovered that she had had the same experience. A Japanese friend begged her to visit him in Hiroshima a few years after the bomb dropped. She wrote, "I could not promise. I knew I would not go. It was not as if I were needed. The people of Hiroshima have lived through the disaster, they have learned that peace is the most valuable goal in human life, for unless there is peace, there is death. If I should go to Hiroshima it would be as a sightseer and I am not that--not in Hiroshima."
As I mentioned earlier, I had not had any formal surgical training. So there were things that I learned to do from surgeons in Korea who were better trained, or at least further advanced in training I should say, than I was. I perfected my skills in Korea. As a matter of fact, I had originally planned to go into general practice but I found that in the nine months that I was at Easy Med I was doing more and more surgery on my own with a surgeon somewhere close by if I ever ran into trouble or something turned up that I didn’t know what to do. The commanding officer of the medical battalion, Commander Ayres, was out there once and worked along with me several times. He said to me once, “Have you ever thought about going into surgery?” I replied, “No, Sir. I’m going into general practice.” He told me, “If I were you I would think about surgery. You have the manual dexterity." He also said that I had whatever else that he thought a surgeon would need. I got to thinking about it. Edna and I wrote back and forth about this and then I finally decided that yes I would apply and we would let the Lord take care of things. If I was accepted at Cook County then I would go back and start surgical residency. If I wasn’t accepted, I would go into general practice. I was accepted while I was still in Korea, so when I came back a spot at Cook County was waiting for me.
There were no females at either H&S or Easy Med. The Marines and the Navy, and I think rightly so, decided that nurses or other types of female medical personnel were not appropriate for a hospital two miles behind the front lines. When the lines shifted, the hospital shifted with them, and sometimes there was a chance of being overrun. It was bad enough for the guys and would have been worse for the gals. The Army MASH units (Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals) had nurses then, but they were considerably further back from the lines. I think it was a distraction. It would have to be.
The general public sees the Korean War through the eyes of the movie and television series M*A*S*H. I didn’t watch it that much, but I can tell you this. My immediate reaction was horror watching it because it was so disassociated with what actually went on in a hospital situation in a medical company and the MASH units in Korea. The attitudes of the doctors and nurses, the Radar character and who he was, it was all satire. As much as I liked the Hawkeye character, you wouldn’t find any doctor in a MASH or any medical company acting like that. A doctor with H&S or Easy Company in Korea would not have been so blasé about life. It was never that way for me. It was always intense. Once another physician and I were talking about the television series M*A*S*H. He said, “Well, what you have to do is look at it like you would the program Hogan’s Heroes.” I don’t know if you ever saw that or not, but it was about allied POWs in a German prison camp. Was it really like that in a German prison camp? Well, of course not. Was it really like that in a Korean MASH? Of course not. I don’t know if the television show did a service or a disservice. It was certainly a good program and an awful lot of people watched it, but what the general public knows about the Korean War comes from there. It’s what the Europeans know about Americans in Korea - hot and cold running nurses.
At one time--long after the battle for Bunker Hill, the bridge across the Imjin between us and the rail-head was bombed out, so there was no way to get our patients to the hospital train. In our sector US Army trains were at the old Munsan-ni railroad station. Each car had a double row of metal beds along each side, about seven or eight on a side. The trains went from there to Inchon harbor, where they were off-loaded onto Navy landing craft of various kinds and taken out to the hospital ship, where they were hoisted aboard by slings attached to the four handles of the stretcher. When the Imjin river bridge was bombed out, the Navy provided some DUKWs--six, I think, that took six stretcher cases at a time, arranged cross-wise on the gunwales, or a couple dozen walking wounded.
DUKW is not an acronym. The letters stand for terms used by the GMC designers in 1942. D-all vehicles designed in 1942. U-amphibious. K-all-wheel drive. W-two powered rear axles. A DUKW was an amphibious vehicle, 30 feet long and 8 feet wide, with six wheels, a propeller and a watertight hull. Designed and produced by the General Motors Company in 1942, the DUKW was used extensively in Europe, especially for the Normandy invasion on D-Day. It is now used as amusement park vehicles ("Ride the Ducks") in the Wisconsin Dells, Branson, and elsewhere. I rode one of the carriers as a passenger in Korea just to see what happened at the railhead and to take pictures. I also rode one of them for the fun of it at Branson when I was there for a 3/5 reunion in 2009.
The inside of a DUKW was just like a big flat-bottomed boat with a bench running along both sides for passengers to sit on. The operator stood in the front with controls like any truck when it was running on land and separate controls for when it was running in the water. To get into it on land you climbed into it. When in the water, you simply stepped down into it. At Easy, to get stretcher patients into it, there was a convenient elevation of the gravel road into the compound. The DUKW could be positioned so that the corpsmen could actually step onto the gunwales with the stretcher and lay it down crossways. I don't know if the craft was designed that way or if it was just coincidental that its width was exactly the same as the length of a stretcher. We used the DUKWs for a week or so to transport casualties to the trains until the Army engineers could erect a Bailey bridge (a pontoon bridge) across the Imjin.
Re-supplying the hospital at Easy Med was pretty much the same as re-supplying H&S, except vastly more complicated because Easy was an actual hospital with all of its needs. There was one exception. Dr. Frank Spencer came to Easy Med in the fall of 1952. He was a trained surgeon from Columbia University in New York, so he came to us without first going to a battalion. He was one of the few surgeons in the world at that time who was conversant with the technique of artery grafting with actual arteries harvested (I hate that word, but it's the one to be used) from cadavers, which in our case were Marines killed in action.
One night when he and I were amputating the leg of a Marine with a massive artillery shell wound, he told me that with an artery graft he could have saved the leg. I asked him if he could do it there at Easy. He said that he could if he had the arteries. With the permission of Commander Ayres, CO of the First Medical Battalion, he ordered and received from Columbia all the "ingredients" necessary to make up the solution in which the arteries would have to be stored.
Two months later, after what we considered to be a totally unnecessary delay with red tape every step of the way, they arrived. When Spencer had the solution ready, we began to remove all major arteries from KIAs that were dead on arrival at Easy. We stored the arteries in gallon jars at Able Med because we had no refrigeration at Easy. As soon as Spencer made the diagnosis of a case that required an artery graft, I telephoned Commander Ayres, who sent a runner with the graft to the heli-port, which had a pilot and copter on 24/7 alert. Within ten minutes of my call the helicopter landed at Easy with the graft. I don't know how many arms and legs Spencer saved. I don't even know how we could find that out. But it was a major, major advance, and was the first time in the history of warfare that artery grafts were done literally on the battlefield. Frank Spencer's technique quickly spread to other Navy/Marine medical companies and to the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH). Spencer received a Legion of Merit medal for his work, the lowest grade officer (lieutenant) ever to receive that honor.
On the Home Front
Birney and I had been married for two years when he left for Korea. About two and a half months before that, he asked me to join him in California. At the time, I was going to Springfield Junior College taking some classes. I was a registered nurse, but I wasn't working at the time. My mother and dad drove out to California with me and we stayed with some friends of my parents, Frank and Henrietta Sperling, who were formerly from Illinois. When they retired, they had moved to California with their daughter Charlene. My parents stayed with the Sperlings for about a week and then they took the train back to Springfield. The Sperlings lived in San Diego and Charlene was going to school. Because Birney was an officer, he could leave the base every evening. We stayed with the Sperlings and Birney came home almost every night so we could have our time together. He stayed until after breakfast the next morning and then he drove back to the Marine base.
We knew that his sailing date was going to be December 15th, so about a week before his shipping-out date we sent his mother a train ticket so she could come out and be with us in San Diego. She was there with me when he left and we drove back to Illinois together. It was a very difficult time for me. I think I felt sorry for myself. And when I got back to Springfield living with my mother and dad, I was still feeling sorry for myself because something that I dearly loved had been taken away from me and I just didn't know how I was going to cope. As I said, we had been married for two years, and I had gotten used to having him around. All of the sudden he was not going to be there. Finally I sort of worked through this. I realized I was not the only woman whose husband was gone.
I then got busy. I got a job in a surgeon’s office as an office nurse and I started taking classes again at Springfield Junior College. I wrote to Birney every night. I had a friend who lived in my community and worked in the grocery store across the street, and we played golf in the summertime. I just kept busy doing things. That first Christmas was pretty rough because Birney had shipped out on December 15th as scheduled. I was living with my mother and dad, so we did the Christmas thing together. As often as I could, I drove over to Decatur, Illinois, to see Birney's sister and her husband and my two baby nieces. It helped. In a sense I think if I had had children it would have been easier to go up there because I was so envious of Elsie with those two babies, those two one and three year olds or six months and one and a half, whatever they were. But it did help. Then whenever I could, I drove up to Belvedere, Illinois, where his parents were. His father was a minister there. That helped, except I remember that whenever Pop prayed—and his prayers were long, they always included Birney in them. Well then, that would break me up. Mother would say, “Edna you seem to be crying all the time.” I said, "Mom, I try not to." But I think that visiting them was good for them and it was good for me. We had a really good friend still at Cook County Hospital who was just getting ready to go to Korea. He was in the Army. Mother Dibble had him out a couple of times and we got to visit, Bill Johnson and I. That was nice, too. I think that helped a lot because there just weren’t people in Springfield that I could relate to with this Korean business. The Korean War was a very personal war. It certainly was.
Unlike World War II, when the whole country rallied around the boys, they didn't rally around Korean War veterans. I had grown up in Springfield and I had grown up in one particular church where my mother was an active member. When she and I went to church on Sundays, rumors started. “Well, Edna Dibble must be separated from her husband.” Finally someone said to me, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m living here with my parents because my husband’s in Korea.” “Well,” she said, “my niece is with her husband.” When I asked where he was stationed she said, “Oh, he’s in Tokyo.” I told her, “But they’re not at war. Japan isn’t at war. Korea is at war.” They had no concept. There wasn’t a nightly news broadcast with video of what was going on and all of this. Newspapers didn't carry much news about Korea. Occasionally there would be a little blurb, and every once in a while Mr. Truman would have something to say and that would be headlines, but it was not like the stories in newspapers during World War II. I didn’t know anybody else in Springfield whose husband was in Korea. There just weren’t that many of them. And, of course, all of my former girlfriends were married and their husbands were at home. It was a unique situation for me.
After the first year I kept saying to Dr. Schnepp, the surgeon for whom I am working, “Now Dr. Schnepp, my husband’s going to be coming home soon so I’ll just have to tell you when I’m ready to leave.” He would say, “That’s okay, Dib. You just tell me and you can go whenever you think he’s coming home.” He had been in the Second World War and he knew that things didn’t happen like that. I wasn’t going to say on Monday that my husband’s coming home Tuesday and I’m going to be leaving.
About six weeks later I got a message from Birney saying, "Yes, you probably should come on out to California." I got a favorite aunt and she rode out with me to California. She then visited friends of hers and came on back home. That’s when I stayed with Frank Folk’s wife. Frank Folk was the surgeon who replaced Birney in Korea. We had known his family in Chicago. This is when I really quit feeling sorry for myself because Lonnie Folk, Mrs. Folk, had three small children ages about one, three and five. Every night it was, “Is Daddy coming home for supper tonight? Where’s Daddy? Is Daddy going to be here to go to church with us on Sunday?” And I thought, “Edna! For a year and a half you’ve been feeling sorry for yourself!” Lonnie was so busy with the children she didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself.
Then one evening all of the officers’ wives were invited to a party. The wife of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at that time—I can’t remember his name, was the hostess for this party. [Comment by Birney: General Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., 1952-1955. His son, Captain Lemuel Shepherd III, came to 3/5 as a company commander in late spring of 1952. We kept in touch until he died a few years ago.] Talk about a group of sad, sorry females! We all tippled too much and we started the stories. I would be embarrassed if anybody had taken a tape recording about how sorry we were for ourselves. How much we longed for our husbands and how great it was going to be in bed and all this business--you know, what lonely wives talk about after a year and a half. But it was fine. It was a good catharsis for all of us, I think. Nobody had any regrets.
They had a special report every night after the news on the LaJolla television station. That was where I was living at the time. Lonnie and I watched the special every night because it would tell what ships were coming in to harbor the next night. So we waited and we waited and we waited. I was with Lonnie two weeks or three weeks maybe when finally we got the news that Birney's ship was coming in. That was a wonderful, wonderful reunion. That was just great.
My aunt had gone home by then. I had my own car so I drove from LaJolla up to San Francisco by myself. I can still see that ship coming in from under the Golden Gate Bridge and I can still see Birney standing up there. Ohhh! There were other women and little children, some parents, and a band waiting. The band was playing and it was just great. In my mind I was thinking, "Ohh! Ohhh! There he is! There’s that handsome, wonderful…" I had forgotten about all of his freckles. You know, I was so excited about his homecoming that every once in a while when we had to stop the car for gasoline or something I just sat there looking at him. Just looking at him, you know. And we would squeeze each other. We couldn’t believe it. There were a lot of people that were separated a lot longer, I guess, than us. It was just very wonderful.
We drove back home to Illinois, stayed with my folks for a few days, and then went up to Chicago where his folks were living in that area. I noticed a difference in Birney. I thought that he had periods of intensity that I hadn’t felt before. Moments when maybe he was off to himself. I didn’t try to intrude. Before he went to Korea, we had had two years when he was an intern at Cook County and I was working as an RN at Illinois Research. Having been an only child, I was very, very spoiled. I had all of the attention. There were times during his internship when we wouldn’t see each other. Maybe he would be going in that direction off to duty and I’d be going in the other direction to the apartment to sleep and there were times when it was just like this. I remember that one day I was sitting there just feeling so sorry for myself. "Sniff, sniff, sniff. I don’t get to see you. I don’t have time with you." And he said, “Honey, I didn’t even have time to talk to my father when he called on the phone the other day.” I had a lot of growing up to do. I really did. I continued growing for a long, long time. I think I finally reached it. I think so. I know when our little girl was growing up there were times when she and I were just battling and Birney would say, “Which one of you is the child?” So I had a lot of maturing to do. I think I couldn’t have asked for better parents, but when they don't have anybody else to put it on, you get all of the love and attention. I was a spoiled little child, although extremely disciplined because my father would not allow me to be less than disciplined. But I expected all the attention. Finally my daughter Barbie and I got to be good friends. That’s another whole story. I matured and she matured. Birney and I also have a son Eric who will be 45 this year. Our daughter Barbie will be 43.
When Birney came home we didn't talk about Korea. I don’t think either one of us was ready for it at first. We were just so glad to be back together again. It just wasn't something that we talked about immediately. Later we didn't really talk about it either, not specifically. We talked about some of the fellas that I knew. Bill Johnson, his friend in Japan, and Frank Folk, of course. Bill was my friend too from medical school. As mentioned, Frank had been Birney's replacement in Korea. We talked about the people I knew and just the surface things. We never really talked about it in depth.
Birney began his surgical residency and I began working as an RN. We were both at Cook County Hospital. One night about six months after he had been home, I awakened with his hands around my throat. He was just ripping and ripping and ripping. He had already ripped my pajama top, and now he had his hands just in a tight clutch around my neck. I woke up screaming and that awakened him. Well, in his dream he thought someone was trying to choke me and he was trying to get those hands off of my throat. I got scratches and everything and that night I thought, "I’m not sure I want to go back to bed with him." This was definitely a Korea-related thing. This happened two or three nights so he talked to a psychiatrist friend at Cook County and told him what was going on. His friend said, “Oh Birney, this is so common. People go into combat and when they come home they relive that combat. Whoever happens to be near them is the victim.” Birney thought that he was trying to save my life by getting this other man’s hands off of my throat. Thank goodness I did go back to bed with him, because we might not be here today! I don’t know what caused him to stop having the dream. It just happened about three times and then it never happened again. Still to this day, when he hears a helicopter go over, he kind of hunkers down.
We lived on Guam in the early 1980s. We were there for two years when he worked for an HMO out of Long Beach, California that provided medical personnel for the island of Guam. They had a large HMO clinic there, so Birney hired on as one of their surgeons. While we were there we were invited to come back to Korea on one of their first Korea Revisit programs. We went there and once we got to Korea we were the guests of the Korean government. There were several hundred of us. That first night Birney sobbed and he sobbed and he sobbed. I had never seen him cry so hard. That poor man. I didn't have to ask him why he was crying. We communicate. I had heard the other men and knew that Birney was guilt-laden that he was alive and others weren't. It was just a catharsis for him. Finally he said to me, “So many died. Why was I allowed to live?” I said, “Well, Birney. I think the Lord’s got a lot of work left for you to do and you happen to be one of the lucky ones.” It was just hours before he finally….and the next day he was on top of things again. I’ve heard other people say the same thing. This morning John Dickerson said that he had gone over to Korea with five buddies from high school. When he came back, he was the only one that came back alive. I can remember him saying, “Why was I the lucky one?” There is a lot of guilt involved in something like that, but Birney got over it. Being with his old friend Dr. Lee helped a lot, too. And we were treated royally.
That was the only time since he's been back from Korea that I ever saw that kind of emotion in him, although he gets a bit emotional at the Marine reunions. Everybody does, but not that deep, gut-wrenching emotion. We had a memorial day here today for Charles Durham. He was the first man to start all of this and we had a brief memorial for him. Four of his daughters were here with us. Everybody could feel something, but nothing like what going back to Korea does for them.
I really don't see other war wives and know what they went through because most of these men and women weren't married during the Korean War. At that time most of the Marines were teenagers. Colonel Tom Durham, who is 84 years old, and his wife were probably married at the time. They just celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary, so obviously they were married. She’s not very demonstrative and I’m not sure it’s something she would want to talk about. They pretty much stay to themselves. Birney was older than most of the other men when he was in Korea. He was 25 and the others were 18 and 19.
For me, the hardest part of Birney being gone to Korea was just wondering, "Is he going to come back? Is he coming back?" There was one period of time when I went for three weeks without a letter from him. I had grown up in the same home in Springfield, Illinois where I was living with my mother and father when Birney was in Korea. The same mail carrier had watched me grow up, you know. Every day I would be at the mailbox and he would say, “Oh, Edna. I’m so sorry. There isn’t a letter for you today. Maybe tomorrow.” Well! Here was the mail carrier feeling sorry for me!
It was in this period of time that I saw Birney on TV on the Kate Smith program. Oh kai! I was working in the surgeon’s office and I said to Dr. Schnepp, “My husband’s going to be interviewed on the Kate Smith Show. I know what day it’s going to be on and I’m going to run home no matter what.” He said, “Well go. Just go.” So I scurried home and I got there in time. Mother and I turned on the TV and Kate Smith was saying, “And now we are at so and so”, and they panned Easy Med and the hospital station and all of this. All of a sudden there was my dear husband standing there receiving the bottle of blood. Meanwhile, at our home the phone was ringing in the background and Mother was catching it. Our friends were calling to say, “Did you know that Birney’s on?” “Yes, I’m trying to watch it.” “Did you know that your husband’s on?” “Yes, I’m trying to watch it.” And I thought, “Oh, if I could just jump inside that television set and give him a squeeze." I wasn't upset to see him, but I think I cried afterwards. It was just such a thrill to see him live, you know.
I think that evening when I went to bed I probably cried myself to sleep. But then, I did that occasionally. It was just having the sense that he is at war. I had lost two cousins in the Second World War. Well, I lost one totally physically. We lost the other to neuro-psychiatric. He was just never ever normal after he came back from the Second World War. The other was a navigator and was shot down. The third cousin who was a navigator during the Second World War came back essentially normal and is still alive and going full steam in his business. He was in as much combat as the other two. But I think when you’ve lost two family members and you know that it can happen, I prayed a lot. I think the power of prayer helps a lot, but I still believed that there were times when he would be in a combat zone and I just worried. I think that I inherited my mother’s worry wart gene.
I sent him one package every week. I didn’t know he liked sardines, but it was something that I could send in a can so I sent them. I discovered after he came back home that he loved sardines. I made chocolate chip cookies and sent them to Birney. As a joke I sent him a corn cob pipe, although he had never smoked in his life. He also never ever had a drink. His mother didn’t even use liquor in fruit cake. She was a member of the Women’s Temperance organization--the WCTU or whatever it was called by the church. So as a joke I sent him a little corn cob pipe because I knew they had a cigarette ration but he never smoked cigarettes. I just happened to see it on a shelf and thought that this would be something kind of fun to throw in just to lighten things up. Apparently he was also getting tobacco of some kind, and so he learned to smoke a corn cob pipe, thanks to me.
I packed the cookies and brownies that I sent him in popcorn. We had one of those push things that were used at that time to pop popcorn and we hadn’t yet put the lid on. The phone rang so I ran into the next room to answer it and all of the sudden, “Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!” Popcorn was just going all over the place. Being the frugal person I am, I just scooped it up and threw it in the box I was sending to Korea. I also sent him tubs of honey butter. He said that was one of the best things that he ever got, except once when it opened up somehow or another and the honey got all over everything. I sent him a box a week and I wrote him a letter every night. Film was the only thing that he ever asked for. See, their needs weren’t very great. There was no place to do anything. The corn cob pipe, I guess, was the only real treat—surprise. And then the film whenever I could send that.
Birney's letters to me were like a diary. I think I was reassured by getting the letters. That three-week period of time when I didn't hear from him was rough. I thought, "Well, that’s it. That’s it." I thought something had happened to him because he had been so faithful writing. When I finally got a letter, he said that this was the Bunker Hill period of time when there just wasn’t time to write. They couldn’t. It was 24-hour a day surgery. He told me that they were so busy. Of course, at that time I wasn’t quite conscious of what “busy” meant. I knew that he was taking care of wounded and all that, but not how I know now how busy he would have been.
He sent all of his film home and I had the rolls developed in Springfield. I had copies made of some of the things and sent them to his mother and dad. They were all slides. With the exception of a fig leaf picture (which I won't discuss in detail!), the pictures he sent were primarily of other people and, of course, the wounded. I just sort of looked at them and if I thought this was something that his parents would want, I sent them copies. But as I said, his letters were pretty much diary like. Neither he nor his father are extremely demonstrative in their love, so his letters weren’t filled with gush and mush. Every once in a while there would be something that came out when he was really, really lonesome, but if he had been too busy to think about me or anything else, then it was pretty much diary. I kept all of his letters and his parents kept the letters that they received from him. Later Birney sort of culled through them and picked up various parts. That’s how his story came out, and that also helped with a Korean video that he made a few years ago.
[KWE Note: End of Edna's remarks.]
For me personally, the hardest thing about being in Korea was the constant nagging realization that my wife and parents waited daily for that telegram or that phone call telling them that their husband/son was coming home sooner than expected. I was supposed to have gone home at the end of the year, but that didn't happen. There were 16 doctors in the 16th replacement draft. Coincidentally, when I first arrived in Korea and joined the division, I had met a man outside of the division surgeon tent as each individual doctor was going in to be given his assignment to a battalion. I stood around outside the division surgeon tent talking to this guy, so I was the last one to go in of these 16. That meant I was 16th on the list. Well, you know, first come first go, so I was the last of the 16 to be rotated home.
It went on month after month after month after month until they finally sent word, “Okay, Dibble. Your turn to be called, Skipper." (Or Commander or Captain or whatever they called me.) "It’s your turn to go home next month." I then wrote to Edna and told her that I was coming home. But then a draft would come and there wouldn’t be any doctors on it. I found out later that some of the Navy doctors were temporarily sent to Army units because the Army was having more casualties than we were and they were short of doctors. I wasn’t relieved until April. Believe it or not, simply because I stayed outside to talk to that man at the division surgeon tent when I first arrived, I have the distinction of having the longest tour of duty in Korea of any other Navy personnel--doctor or corpsman. I'm a real "celebrity", but nobody knows it.
I had no regrets about leaving Korea. I had done my time. We knew the war was winding down. There were peace talks at Panmunjom and we knew they were progressing after a long stalemate, so I didn’t have any regrets at all. I didn’t feel like I should stay. I was relieved of my duties by another doctor, a friend of mine by the name of Dr. Frank Folk from my Cook County days when I had done my internship with him. I stayed a week after he got to Easy Med before I left him. I was able to literally turn over everything to him and kind of key him in on some of the things that I had learned. He had been with the second battalion of the Seventh Marines for six months, but was new to a medical company.
When it was finally my turn to rotate home, they told me that I could go home by air if I wanted to. Three days before I was due to leave Easy Med to go back to Yong Dong Po to go by air, scuttlebutt brought the news that a C100 carrying 100 troops crashed and all 100 Marines were killed. This was in the early days of transporting them by air. I never saw the manifest, so I don't know the names of anyone on it. At any rate, I chickened out of flying, called the division surgeon, and said, “Can you get me on a boat?”
The ship was the Meigs, in the "general class" of ships, as had been the Wiegel in which I had sailed to Korea. I played bridge with a bunch of Army guys all the way home. I can remember the first time I had a BM on a nice warm toilet seat after a year and a half of squatting in the woods. I can still remember that. I have a mental picture of the bathroom I was in--or the head, as we called it.
When we got to the States, we came underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I still remember looking up at it. What a sight. Alcatraz Island. It was emotional for the other guys and me when we went under it. I knew that Edna was waiting for me. She had driven out from Illinois and stayed with Frank Folk's wife in California until my ship arrived. When I looked down from the ship, I could see that they had a small Marine Corps band there that started playing as the ship kept getting closer and closer to the dock. There were multiple decks on the ship. I was on one of the lower decks, so I could see Edna there waiting for me.
One of the Army guys that I had played bridge with on the ship was met by his wife and they joined Edna and me for a big dinner at the Top of the Mark. This restaurant is on a hill and as we were walking down after dinner I saw a banana split in a shop window and thought, "I've got to have that." I was already stuffed, but I went in there and had that banana split. There had been no bananas, no strawberries, and no ice cream in Korea during the year and a half that I was there. I still remember that banana split. It was wonderful. After that Edna and I went to a hotel and spent the next three days there.
After I arrived back in the States I finished out my enlistment in the Navy on the urology ward at the Naval hospital in Great Lakes. The day I reported for duty the captain in charge of the ward was transferred to another facility for treatment of tuberculosis, leaving a Lieutenant Commander in charge. A couple of weeks later the commander was transferred to the Oriskany, a baby flat-top (ship), leaving me in charge. My official title was Chief of Urology of the Ninth Naval District, which covered the entire Midwest! My official urology experience consisted of ONE month as an intern on the urology ward at Cook County Hospital. Fortunately, I could handle the vast majority of cases and had a general surgeon as a backup for those I couldn't. I was discharged from the Navy on June 30, 1953.
I returned to Cook County Hospital, Chicago, for four years of general and thoracic surgery residency. Edna and I were in hog heaven! I was out of uniform and free to do anything and go anywhere when "off-duty" at the hospital. My parents were an hour away, Edna's parents were three hours away, my sister was half an hour away, and there was no one to say we couldn't go there. I had no trouble at all adjusting to civilian life after leaving the Navy. To be frank, and with no false modesty, I can say that I've never had any trouble adjusting to any of the moves while growing up (three grade schools, two high schools, before college and medical school), nor to joining the Navy at age 17, nor to living in Chicago after growing up in small towns, nor to the Marines, etc., etc.
My "schooling" really wasn't school in the usual sense. There were no classrooms, no reading assignments, no tests. My "studies" were 100 percent on wards and in the operating room, with gradually increasing responsibility, bedside teaching, difficulty of surgical cases both in and out of the OR, culminating in the fourth year when I could do every operation in the book without supervision except for open chest cases and emergency gastric resections. Virtually everyone I dealt with on a daily basis had been in service. Not all in Korea, of course, but subject to the discipline of the uniform. I don't remember ever comparing notes on how other residents' outlook on life differed from my own due to my Korean War experience except on a superficial basis like, "Where were you the last two years?" and "Oh, you were in Korea, too. What outfit?" I could sense a bit of awe on the part of student nurses, but there might have been that anyway.
Doing increasingly difficult trauma surgery under supervision at Easy Med in Korea had given me a lot of experience in that field, but was of no help in the usual day-to-day civilian cases, except, of course, that I had developed my general facilities for handling scalpel, forceps, etc. Although I had received my MD upon graduation from med school in 1949, I was unable to practice until I had finished internship and passed state board exams. When I finished at CCH, I went north to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I still live, and went into the private practice of surgery. So I never really had a "job." In fact, I like to say that once I finished working my way through school, I never had to work a day in my life!
My wife and I applied for full-time mission service with the Methodist Episcopal Board of Foreign Missions. But they turned us down because my wife did not have a college degree. Very short-sighted of them--and it’s been recognized since, but at that time that’s what they wanted. So we figured the Lord was directing us somewhere else and as it turned out, that’s what happened.
Edna and I began our mission hospital service in 1962. We served at Kiomboi Lutheran Hospital in Tanzania twice totaling three years, 1962-63 and 1967-68. We were at the Church of the Brethren Hospital, Lassa, Nigeria, for three months in 1977 and at Curran Lutheran Hospital, Zorzor, Liberia, for three months in 1986. We also completed four months mission service from 1987 to 1988 in Belmopan Hospital, Belize (Youth With a Mission). In 1989 I worked part-time back at Curran Lutheran Hospital for one month in 1989. We spent one month each in 1990 at Puerto Lempira Hospital, Honduras (YWAM) and Belmopan Hospital, Belize (YWAM). Our mission work also took us to the Sudan Interior Mission Hospital, Galmi, Niger for three months in 1990-91 and two months in 1992. Finally, we worked at the Hospital Vozandes del Oriente (HCJB), Shell, Ecuador, four times totaling 12 months in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1997.
Most places where we lived were much more backward and primitive, I guess the word is, than the Korean people were when I was in Korea in 1950-53. At Kiomboi, Tanganyika/Tanzania, we lived on the southern edge of the Serengeti Plains for three years in "Wisconsin-June" weather the year round, doing very tough surgery daily. We took time off to hunt for all of our meat and to visit other mission stations, as well as the Ngorongoro Crater, Manyara, Masai-Mara, Tsavo, Kilimanjaro, Uganda, etc. All the other short-term missions were memorable in their own way and cannot be summarized adequately in this memoir. A few years ago I put each of the slide shows I'd made for each of the mission stations where we had served onto DVDs, all still available for anyone interested.
My wife Edna got sick the summer after I did the interview that led to this memoir. She had surgery, then chemo, and never really came back to normal living before the final days. She had a particularly virulent form of ovarian cancer that had spread by the time it was diagnosed and was never really considered curable, though we had occasional glimmers of hope. We were married for 52 years.
About a year after Edna's death, Margaret Ann Wells Michealson, whom I had known casually at church for many years, was in a Bible study with me. We sat next to each other and just seemed to click. After a few months it just seemed natural to get married (to make an honest woman of her!)--so we did. Now in 2011, she is 82 (to my 85), so we're of an age, and fortunately both in very good mental and physical health.
I retired on January 1, 2000 after returning from three months doing surgery in Ecuador at a mission hospital. In my retirement I play racket-ball three times a week with an 84-year-old friend. Both of us are still able to beat most comers except the very young. Except in the heat of summer, I cut and split dead oaks off my own property for a couple of hours a day on days that I don't play rackets. The oaks are used in the fireplace which we light every night except in the heat of summer. I work on a jigsaw puzzle for an hour or so at noon. I lead a Sunday School class for adults, which takes a bit of preparation. I hold my own personal "quiet time" for 30-60 minutes every morning before breakfast, usually an in-depth study of the Bible, using various commentaries--usually the New Interpreters' Bible, a 20-volume commentary borrowed from our church library. Evenings are for reading--usually mysteries, but an occasional biography. Sometimes we watch an old movie from TCM.
When I was in Korea, I had a Leica camera--a German make, one of the first to have a focal plane shutter that opened and closed by sliding across the aperture behind the lens rather than one that opened radially. I took pictures of everything I could in Korea, especially when I was with the battalion and when I had the rare opportunity to photograph Korean life in the city and country. There was no restriction whatsoever on taking pictures. I kept a record of every picture--who or what was in it, and sent the film home to Edna, who had it developed and put the caption list carefully with each batch of film as it came back. I didn't see any of the pictures until I got home. What fun that was! The film was Kodachrome, still being developed by Kodak at the time, and having an ASA of 10 or 12. I had no flash, so I was unable to take pictures in poor light, such as inside buildings or bunkers. How many thousand times I wished I could have! Life in a bunker. Life in my Korean command post/house at Easy. Medical work in the tents, in Rear Aid and at Easy. But even without those photographs that would have captured on film my time in Korea, I still remember.
A quote from my novel, The Taking of Hill 1052, reflects my strongest memories of Korea:
I think I can speak for 99.9 percent of the men who served in Korea in saying that we never once questioned that Korea was worth fighting for. I don’t think there’s any question that the United States should have been in Korea. As little respect as I have for the current chief executive/commandant of the armed forces [Bill Clinton], he did say one thing that I think was significant at the dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Washington--which you should see if you haven’t. I wondered what kind of reception he would get from all of the Marines because of his military history, or lack of it. I was a little leery. But they welcomed him as their President and as their Commandant--if not warmly, at least with sincerity. What he said was that in retrospect the war in Korea was the first shot fired in the Cold War. I think that he was right. I think it was. It was the first time that the Communists had actually been stopped. I mean, they expanded to China, expanded to Malaysia, expanded outward from the original Russia to all of the surrounding states and smaller countries, especially down in the southern part. Kazakhstan and whatever all those smaller "stans" are. So I think that was important in that sense. We tried it again in Vietnam and it didn’t work quite as well, but at least there was this feeling by the Communists that the non-Communist countries were not going to let them just run all over the world. So it was the first shot, and I feel that it was worthwhile. As to whether I am personally resentful of North Koreans and Chinese because of my experience in the Korean War, my guiding light in this conundrum is, "Forgive even if you can't forget."
I have never addressed the question of whether going to Korea changed me. I’m sure it had to. It gave me a look at the military in action at war. I know that my mother thought I had changed, because every once in a while I would say something—not anything really bad, but she would say, “Oh Birney. You’ve been with the men too long.” I probably said something that was, to her, just a little off color, but compared to what people can say nowadays in public, it was nothing. Going to Korea and the medical practice that I had in Korea sharpened my skills, although not a whole lot because I wasn’t able to do any of the major surgeries. But there isn't any question that I got better and better at doing the minor stuff--minor debriding. I also did some leg amputations and other things. After Korea I had a couple of Marines come up to me and say, “I remember you took care of me,” but that was just a couple of times.
I went back to Korea with Edna in 1981. We saw Seoul and Inchon, Munsan-ni and Chorwon. We crossed the Han River on a new bridge which replaced the temporary bridge built in 1950 or 1951 to bypass the bombed-out Freedom Gate Bridge and went up to Panmunjom along the old "neutral corridor." I well remember the emotional breakdown that I had on our first evening in Korea. I had what was almost a hallucination that pictured in my mind the faces of Marine after Marine who I had seen die. I saw clearly the face of the corpsman who had died literally in my arms on a cold dark night in North Korea. I guess I needed that catharsis because I was completely okay the next day and for the rest of the week.
A couple of things surprised me about Korea in 1981--one physical and one mental. Physically, the grass roofs were gone. The thatched roof was gone. As a matter of fact, they had a model village outside of Seoul that showed the village as we knew it in 1950-53. In 1981 I don’t think we saw a grass roof on a house. We saw a couple of out-buildings that had thatch on them, but all the rest were corrugated steel or tile. Mentally, I was really surprised and gratified at the reception that we got from the Koreans--not just the elderly Koreans, but the young ones as well, especially the week that we spent on a Korean tour bus. We would go into a area, park, or a tourist destination. In one place it was a college and in other places it was teenagers and so forth. Some of them knew English and they would come up and want to talk to us. I showed them a card that Dr. Lee gave me. I don’t know exactly what it said other than that I was a member of the 1st Marine Division and that I was instrumental in the 1st Marine Division which had helped stop Communists from coming. The South Koreans know what it’s like in North Korea now, and they know that they would be just like that now if the United Nations, which to most of us translates into the United States, hadn’t been there. Now I think that the United States should get out of Korea. The South Koreans are fully capable of taking care of themselves. Furthermore, North Korea will never even talk about reunification while U.S. troops are on the peninsula.
I revisited Korea again in 2001 with my son Eric, eight months after Edna died. We visited Munsan-ni (where Easy Med had been located), Panmunjom, the Punchbowl, Inje, Chorwon, the locale of our reserve area on the Nam-gang (Camp Tripoli), and Inchon Harbor. How did I feel? No deep nostalgia, just a sense of awe that we had actually lived there in those hills or by that river, had passed through those towns, and had dodged bullets and mortars in that peaceful countryside.
In 1995 Edna and I went to see the dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. I just wanted to go there and see it. We were back in the States from our mission work and decided we would just go out there. That was great. I thought the memorial was very well done and did us justice. I liked the fact that they included soldiers and Marines, as well as a corpsman from the Navy. I'm sorry that they had everyone dressed in ponchos because I never saw a Marine or a corpsman wearing one in the over a year that I was in Korea.
There were many dinners and celebratory events during the dedication of the Korean War Memorial. There was an expensive dinner at some famous hotel that we didn't go to. The Marines were invited by the local Korean people to a dinner-dance, but unfortunately it turned out to be sort of a farce. We all dressed up in our best suits and dresses and went in three buses, but found no Koreans there for the first hour. The doors to the place were open and we saw un-cut watermelons in tubs and sandwiches on the tables. Our busload stayed because the bus driver had taken off, but the other two busloads filed off the buses, took one look, filed back on and left. A few Koreans finally came and there were some Korean dancers and a drummer. We stayed a couple of hours, thanked our hosts, and left. Very disappointing for all.
Result of War
I think the important thing that happened as a result of the Korean War is that, with all the troubles that South Korea has had, it’s still been a progressive, democratic country and its people were able to develop their farms. On a physical basis, just the mere fact that they could replace all of their thatched roofs, which had to be redone and burned usually, with good roofs and better houses. The towns, they’re productive. They’re prosperous. This is all relative, of course, compared to what it would be like if we hadn’t been there. So that’s what should be remembered about the Korean War. Just what the President said. It was the first step in stopping the Communists and this horrible, almost amounting to a religion, that the hard core Communists have that suppresses individual initiative. Not that all the individual initiative that we see in the democracies is good. You see greed and you see lots of other things that pop up. At least with controlled initiative an individual can see that there is something to look forward to when he or she grows up; whereas from what we know of North Korea--and this is stereotyping I guess, its people are starving to death. This just can’t happen in South Korea.
I think that the United States has done more than enough in its efforts to locate and returning Missing in Action personnel from the Korean War to the United States. My own personal belief is that any time or money spent in bringing back to the States the remains of anyone who died overseas is a waste of time, energy and money. To me, that body (often just bones) is not the person who died; it is merely the earthly habitation of that person, and where it is buried is of no consequence. Having said that, I respect and honor those who believe that it is important, and would not stand in the way of their efforts to recover remains. Nor have I ever spoken out against it until this very moment.
About 1990 I saw a short squib in The Leatherneck about a reunion of George Company of 3/5. I contacted Tex Downes and he courteously invited me to attend. I couldn't that first year, but did the next year when they had expanded it to the entire battalion. It was held in Reno. I walked into the reception room and was greeted by a big guy by the name of Charlie "Bull" Durham. He was somewhat taken aback when I told him I was a battalion surgeon, not a Marine, but he welcomed me very warmly and introduced me around to the guys. There were almost a hundred Marines at that reunion, most of them with their wives. (At our last reunion in Branson in 2009, there were twenty, and half of them were there without their wives.) I've attended all but two reunions, which would be about twenty of them. Why do I go? There's a confraternity of men there who have experienced the same things that I did; we don't have to explain anything or try to set the scene before we tell a story or remember an incident. Actually, we rarely talk of the Korean War once we've established when they were there and what company/platoon they served in.
Tom Suttles, a corpsman who was on my enlisted staff at Easy Med, recently sent me a blurb written about why former combatants attend reunions:
I am a writer. I was casting around for something to start working on after I finished my previous book one year. I had started coming to Marine reunions and that sort of triggered it. Edna still had all of the letters that I had sent to her from Korea and I started reading through them. I had planned to write something about the Korean War someday, so I decided to write a novel entitled, "The Taking of Hill 1052." I had to make a choice between writing a non-fiction thing, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds. I decided to novelize it and use this particular assault on Hill 1052 as the basis to show what the corpsmen and the doctors were doing in the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War because this story has not been told very much or very well. Even though it is a novel, it is based on reality. Almost all of it is my own experience. It’s told in the third person, but the third person is me.
I also did a video based on my experiences, but it’s more than that. I was asked by the national organization of Korean War veterans to present a 20-minute slide talk on evacuation procedures in the Marine Corps in Korea. An Army doctor was going to do the same thing with the Army evacuation procedure. They turned out be quite similar, although there were some minor differences. I decided, well gee, it might be interesting to the Marines here in the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines—the veterans. So I brought it to a Marine reunion because they wanted to see it. They said it was great. Several people came to me and said, “You ought to expand that a little bit and show the origins of the war. Maybe even a little bit of the history of the war before you got there.” And then I got an idea myself. I had a lot of pictures of Korean people and the landscape and so forth, so I put a little bit, five minutes, maybe six or seven, about the Korean people the way they were in 1950 before the war, the early parts. I put that all together in a slide show and showed it two or three times. It was well received. They just wanted to see it. They were greedy for this different look at the Korean War. And their wives came to me and said, “Why don’t you put this on video so we can take it home and show it to our kids, our grandchildren, our friends and our relatives--our brothers and sisters.” And so I eventually did. Edna helped me pick Korean music for the background and a professional video guy helped me put it together. He really did a nice professional job of merging the pictures one after another without any noise so you don’t hear the click, click, click. A lot of people call it a movie because it was done so well by this young man. I guess I did it for myself to get it on a tape and also for the guys in the Marine Division who were there.
About twenty years ago I began a search for several men I served with in Korea. I found Marine sergeant John Gumpert, my Jeep ambulance driver, as well as corpsmen Don Flau, Don Barker, Tom Suttles, Bob Smith, and Art Motz. In addition, I located doctors Bill Latham, Bob Kimball, and Frank Folk (the "Marine" pictured on the home page of the Korean War Educator). Dr. Lee and I kept in touch up until just a few years ago. I suspect he has died because the last time I saw him (in 2001) he was even then in poor health. In 1954 he asked me to recommend him for a surgical residency at the University of Colorado, which I was happy to do. He went back to Korea and became one of the preeminent surgeons in the country. He did the first kidney transplant in Korea.
I have a son and daughter, but I didn't tell them very much about Korea. It's not something that you can really relate to children. As they have become adults, it’s getting easier now. They had a lot of questions when they got this tape and saw it. I think about the only way that you can relate to children about the Korean War would be in schools. For some years now I have gone twice a year to a local high school on the day after their teachers have shown my video, which is now on DVD. It's an exciting time for these kids, to judge by their reactions and questions. A real live "hero" of a real war! It is, of course, ancient history to them, but invariably there are still hands in the air when the bell rings to terminate the session. There are four or five classes of 25-30 students each year.
Some journalist thought he was being clever by nicknaming the Korean War, "The Forgotten War." It is not a forgotten war. It is the never-known war. It was unknown even while it was being fought. In 1950 Americans were sick of war and only concerned themselves with Korea if they had relatives or friends actually in it--and I didn't (don't) blame them at all. My time in Korea was sometimes exciting, often boring, usually safe, and frequently dangerous. I experienced months of numbing cold with no way to get warm, months of steaming heat with no way to get cool, and days or weeks of unpleasant lack of hygiene. Yet through it all, I had a persistent sense (never voiced) of doing one's duty in an unforced way. I've never felt that World War II veterans are treated with more respect and appreciation than Korean War veterans. When a person or a group is informed of my service in Korea with the Marines, I get all the respect and appreciation that I want or need. I suspect that I am much more aware of military affairs now than I would be if I hadn't served. I am much more attuned to nuances of civilian attitudes such as those evinced by the ACLU. But I don't think my daily life is changed much, if any, because I served in the Navy and with Marines.
Addendum - Personal Awards & Citations
I received a letter of commendation with V device for actions with 3/5. The citation sounds like it was for a five-month period, but the executive officer, Major Paul Braaten, told me personally that it was specifically for the time described in the commendation as "a night-long engagement." We were under fire overnight and somebody put me up for a Silver Star primarily for the work I did in evacuating and treating the wounded under somewhat hectic conditions. We were on the side of the hill where the Marines were surrounded by the Chinese. I was just doing what I had to do and the executive officer of the battalion happened to observe what was going on and thought it deserved an award, whether it did or not. It was one of those things that he saw what I was doing. There were other things that other guys did that nobody really saw. There were guys who did much, much more than I ever did, but were never cited for it.
The citation for the Commendation is as follows:
I got a Bronze Star for my direction of the hospital during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although the citation reads like it was for a seven-month period, Commander Ayres told me that it was actually for the three and a half days of the Bunker Hill battle.
The citation for the Bronze Star is as follows:
General Edwin Pollock, commanding officer of the U.S. forces in Korea, pinned the Bronze Star medal on me. I talked briefly with him before and after the ceremony.
I'm proud of the Bronze Star, but it really wasn't fair. Yes, I deserved it for what I did during the Battle of Bunker Hill, but I got it primarily because I was the commanding officer at the time. Granted, I made the big decisions about "D ward," and when to call a helicopter, and who should work where. But everyone in that hospital performed above and beyond the call of duty. There's no question in my mind that, with a couple of exceptions, every doctor there could have done just as well as I did. Well, so be it. It was a humbling rather than an ego-building experience.
I'm actually prouder of the Letter of Commendation, though it's a lesser award, because it was awarded for the performance of my duties forward of the Main Line of Resistance, under very hazardous conditions; many hours in the cold and dark, with automatic rifle fire, mortars, and occasionally artillery all around us--and sometimes amongst us.
Addendum - Writings of J. Birney Dibble
The published writings of J. Birney Dibble, M.D. include the following:
Tale-twister (surprise ending):
Articles and Essays:
Dr. Yong Kak Lee at the Chosin Reservoir
By Dr. Lee
(Click a picture for a larger view)