CBIVA Sound-off
Winter 1999 Issue

CBI Medical Units Real Unsung Heroes

By Albert O. Wilkat

If you have viewed the Merrill's Marauders video tapes, you obviously were thoroughly moved by their actions under gawd awful conditions but you also have to be Impressed by the outstanding job that the US medical units did In CBI. Several of our readers have been kind enough to share their experiences which are representative of all other CBI Veterans who served In medical units.

Grace K. Coulson of Pennsylvania was a nurse with the 20th General Hospital Unit. She graduated from University of Pennsylvania nursing school In 1940. Dr. Isldor S. Ravdin at the U of Penn hospital, In 1941, was requested to form a hospital unit and the first members assembled as a group on the evening of December 7, 1941, in his hospital office. During the ensuing months, men and women were found to fill administrative posts, pharmacists, brace makers and other technicians. They were augments later by some 400 corpsmen, mostly from a medical battalion of the New Jersey National Guard. The quota of 120 nurses was quickly filled and that was when Grace joined the unit in 1942.

The unit boarded a troop train on May 15, 1942, for Camp Clair-borne, Louisiana. They trained there for almost eight months waiting an overseas assignment. Finally, on January 5, 1943, they began a journey to a staging area at Camp Anza, near Riverside, California. Due to incompetent quartermastering, the nurses were first issued raincoats and overshoes and then had them recalled. The enlisted men carried no spare boots and only one change of cotton uniforms. When the unit boarded the SS Monticello and sailed from Wilmlngton on January 20, 1943, the nurses wore the old-fashioned blue woolen uniforms and black oxford shoes; as poorly equipped as possible for duty in a steaming jungle. Also, aboard the Monticello were two other medical outfits, the 69th and the 73rd, along with a medical battalion, an engineer's regiment, quartermaster, signal corps and other service groups, totalling about 10,000.

Sailing for India

The Monticello sailed unescorted and after 17 days of overcrowding and equatorial heat, they arrived at Wellington, New Zealand. After several hours of shore leave, their voyage continued to Perth, Australia, on February 17, and finally arrived In Bombay, India, on March 3, 43 days after leaving the US.

"After a short stay in Poona, south of Bombay, we traveled across India for five days on an Indian troop train. We ate all of our meals, prepared by our staff, when the train stopped. We were cautioned not to purchase anything, not even oranges, from the vendors who approached the train at every station. We spent two nights and one day on a barge in the wide Brahmaputra River.

"After landing at Pandu, we were taken to Gauhati, Assam Province, where we were housed at a Baptist mission, staffed by female doctors from Central Pennsylvania. Then, onward by narrow gauge railroad for 36 hours to our destination of Margherita. Here we were in Assam Province In the northeastern-most corner of India, just 30 miles from the Burma border.

"Ordinarily, the monsoon season does not begin until late in May, but in 1943, It staged a full scale preview in March when the rains began on the day we arrived. Our quarters were bamboo bashas with mud floors and no electricity. Daylight could be seen through the thatched roofs. Apparently, the sacred cows had just left the basha. The only furnishings were Indian rope beds."

Personnel of the 45th PSH moved to Kamaing on June 23,1944. We set up shelters under tarps
and air-drop parachutes for living tents. Photo by Dr. Paul Theobald

Open for Business

The 20th General opened a hospital on April 3, 1943, with 236 patients. By July, the census was 1,350. There were three small buildings with concrete floors, tin roofs and open fronts. The rest of the hospital patients were housed in bamboo bashas, with dirt floors and walls of coarse woven matting. Each bed required a tarpaulin half-suspended over it to guard against showers and insects. Commonly, wards were no facilities for laundering hospital linens or personal clothing.

Nothing ever dried out. Nurses waiting in mess lines became mired in the mud and walked right out of their low-cut shoes. Water was boiled and distributed hot to Lister bags for chlorinization. Kerosene lanterns were scarce. Sleeping was difficult on the rope beds and jackals howled at night as they prowled the hospital area. Scrawny cows were apt to wander into living quarters and leave their calling cards. One became wedged in the entrance to a latrine which had to be dismantled to release the beast. Large tigers were seen late in the evening heading for the hospital kitchens. On one occasion, an 8-foot cobra invaded the nurses ward.

Eventually, the 20th General area occupied a tract of about 40 acres, stretching for a mile on both sides of the Ledo Road. The 20th eventually had 148 buildings and over 2,000 beds. The mission of the 20th at the start was to provide care for the troops of the Services of Supply engaged in building the Ledo Road into Burma. It also had to care for the Chinese soldiers who were serving as a screen as the road pushed forward. Later, several Chinese military divisions were brought to India for training and combat and then, in February, 1944, the Merrill's Marauders arrived and began their march to Myitkyina. Later, casualties from the Mars Task Force were treated in January of 1945.

At the start, the preponderance of admissions were to medical service primarily for malaria. Later, when troops moved into areas infested with mites, scrub typhus and endemic and the mortality rate was as high as 20 percent. Late, in November, 1943, the first battle casualties were received from the Chinese troops.

The weapons carriers look fairly well torn up. They were always in need of repairs
which were usually done by personnel of the 45th PSH. Photo by Dr. Paul Theobald

In February, 1944, a new airstrip was completed at Ledo to accommodate C-47s and, as a result, casualties arrived at the hospital no later then two days after wounding. The first casualties from Merrill's Marauders came on March 2, 1944, followed by others, especially the 63 exhausted and seriously wounded men who had survived seven days surrounded by the Japs at Nhpum Ga.

Outstanding Record

Eventually, the staff numbered about 700, including 59 medical and administrative officers and 105 nurses. As of August 1, 1945, the hospital had 50,232 admissions, of which 17,043 were surgical and 33,189 medical. On August 9, 1944, the peak patient census was 2,560. During the course of several campaigns, 4,366 battle casualty cases were admitted of which 1,077 were American. A total of 312 sick and wounded Japanese POWs were treated. Under the operating conditions, the hospital did a fantastic job and had an over-all mortality rate of just slightly over one percent in the 28 months of operation, truly an outstanding job by dedicated men and women.

Frederick Banks of Shrewbury, Maine, tells of his experiences at the 20th. In August, 1944, he was taken by ambulance to the 20th. He was semi-conscious and had a very high fever. He was placed in a ward with a lot of other GIs. He was treated with medication and blood samples were taken every few hours as he was initially diagnosed to have malaria. After a few days, his condition improved and it was determined that he did not have malaria but had a fever of unknown origin.

The day he was scheduled to be released, one of the nurses asked him if he would give blood to a wounded GI who has been hit at Myitkyina. He agreed because his blood was type "O" positive which was badly needed. He was wheeled to a soldier lying on a bed and unconscious. A tube was inserted in his arm and attached to the arm of the wounded man. There was some kind of bulb and his blood was pumped into the body of the soldier by direct transfusion. After the transfusion, he was given a cup of champagne by the nurses and sent back to his unit. Banks never knew the results of the transfusion but he sincerely hoped that his blood helped the wounded man to recover. It was this type of medical performance that gave the 20th the caring reputation that it so justly deserved.

Portable Surgical Hospitals

Rough as they had it at the 20th, the medical units near the battlefronts really did an outstanding job of providing excellent field medical service under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions.

Paul G. Theobald, M.D., of Normal, Illinois, was a surgical technician in the 45th Surgical Hospital unit for almost two years. The unit was composed of four officers who were MDs and 33 enlisted men. Their hospital was designed to be carried on their backs to as close to the front lines as they could safely act. When the front advanced to where it was no longer possible for the litter bearers to carry the wounded to them, they would pack up and move closer to the front.

Dr. Theobald arrived at Camp White, Medford, Oregon, in September, 1943, as a T-5 Surgical Technician. He was assigned to the 45th Portable Surgical Hospital Unit. Early in November, the unit left the USA on the Hermitage and arrived in Bombay, India, on December 26, 1943, and Calcutta, five days later. After about a month at Camp Kanchrapara, they were sent to Assam. They spent another month or so waiting to be shipped to China when they were ordered to proceed over the Ledo Road to join in the fighting in Burma.

44th PSH on HMT Rohna Along the Ledo Road, they met the 44th PSH near Kamaing, Burma, where they learned how lucky the 45th had been. It seems that both units had originally been at Camp White, Oregon, and orders were received over the phone for a PSH to ship out to the East Coast. It was intended that the unit would be the 45th. The 44th code number was 9201 V and the 45th code number was 9201 T. The clerk who took the phone message for the shipping orders mistook the T for a V and so the 44th shipped out instead of the 45th. The 44th left Newport News, Virginia, on October 12, 1943, and sailed to Oran, Algeria. There, the unit was transferred to the British troopship, the HMT Rohna. On November 26, 1943, the Rohna was sunk when hit by a German bomb and over 1,000 American military were lost. About half of the personnel of the 44th PSH were lost in the horrible disaster.

At Kamaing, Burma, in early March, 1944, the 45th treated casualties from "Operation Thursday" also known as Broadway. Because the unit was so close to the military action, medical treatment was given to the wounded and sick promptly, resulting in many lives saved. British Chindits and American personnel were treated under the most primitive conditions near the front.

The 45th was moved around where needed and earned four battle stars. One later assignment was Mogaung where many Chinese were also treated from battle action and sickness. Dr. Theobald writes that the 45th personnel had to fend for themselves repairing their own vehicles and making moving, arrangements.

In October, for example, near Mogaung, they tore down the operating room and loaded equipment on freight cars taking them south. The train, of several boxcars, was pulled by a Jeep whose wheels had been replaced by railroad-type wheels. Due to lack of weight in the train-pulling-jeep, it was difficult to get the train moving but once moving, it was a satisfactory way of transportation. On the train were some Chinese soldiers. Because the train ride was very bouncy, gasoline spilled onto the floor from several drums of gasoline being carried. One of the Chinese was smoking a cigarette and dropped it on the floor igniting the gasoline. The Chinese fled the train. Part of the cargo was precious, treated, drinking water for the hospital. Dr. Theobald had to use this water to douse the fire which left him with mixed emotions and frazzled nerves.

The unit operated in places like Warazup, Hopin, and Mogaung until December, 1944, when the unit was transferred to China where they continued to service the sick and wounded in areas where there was much military activity. They spent their first hour at Kunming in a trench waiting for an air raid.

The 45th had no female nurses and their base hospital was very crude. At the front, they operated with wet sterilized towels for table drapes, rubber gloves and face masks with a Coleman lantern for light. They had no sterile gowns, just their daily clothes. Abdominal surgery was done with open drop ether anesthesia. The hospitals consisted of tents and parachute canopies.

Whenever one was available, they used native dwellings and buildings previously occupied by the Japanese. According to Dr. Theobald, the personnel of the Mash television program lived and operated in luxury compared to the conditions encountered by the PSHs in Burma and China. These units received little publicity but the medical services they provided meant that many CBI battle-wounded veterans came back home because of the unsung work that they did. Truly, an outstanding and dedicated service in CBI.

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