MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea>

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Otto F. Apel Jr., M.D.

MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea
Published in 1998

When the war broke out in Korea on June 25, 1950, there were only two hundred doctors in the entire Far East Command, or the U.S. military in Japan, Guam, the Philip pines, and Korea. In order to boost necessary medical services in the combat area, the U.S. Congress quickly passed the Doc tors Draft Act, requiring all medical doctors under the age of fifty-one to register for military service. Otto F. Apel Jr. was twenty-eight years old and recently out of medical school when he received his draft notice.

Apel was shipped to Korea in the summer of 1951. He was assigned to the 8076th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), supporting the Second, Seventh, and Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry divisions and the Second and Sixth Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) divisions, along with elements of other divisions near Chunchon, which is near the 38th paral lel, the dividing line between North and South Korea and the scene of heavy fighting. What he found when he got there was beyond any of his worst expectations.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea:

  • The first MASH unit was created by the army in 1948 as a sixty-bed unit, fully equipped for surgery, that could be moved around with army units. Each unit was to have fourteen doctors, twelve nurses, two medical service corps officers, one warrant officer, and ninety-three enlisted personnel.
  • There were no MASH units available in the Far East when the Korean War broke out. By the end of the war, there were six U.S., two South Korean, and one Norwegian MASH units in Korea.
  • When a soldier was wounded at the battlefront, he was first attended on the spot by medics and doctors attached to his unit. If the wound was serious, he was evacuated (removed) to a MASH unit for surgery. After surgery and recovery, the soldier was evacuated to a larger hospital unit and if the wound was very serious, sent home from there.
  • The use of emergency helicopter evacuation became an important part of the medical program in the Korean War for the first time.
  • Casualties (the killed, wounded, missing, and captured) were so high in Korea that the MASH units, though under-staffed, were made over from sixty-bed units to two-hundred-bed units within the first six months of the war.

Excerpt from MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea

I had never seen a MASH before. I thought I had an idea of what to expect, but even in the glaring midday sun I never would have recognized as a medical facility the conglomeration of dark brown tents, the sides down and tied, that appeared quickly in the field away from the dusty dirt road. I could hear in the distance an artillery battery limbering up….

[Although he had just traveled from Japan, Apel was shown directly into the surgical tent without a chance to see his quarters or wash up first.]

The chief of surgery of the 8076th MASH was Maj. John Coleman, who had trained at the University of Louisville. He looked up from the operating table. Two nurses and another doctor surrounded a young American on a litter. They had attached an intravenous to his arm and covered him with a white sheet. One naked light bulb hung over the table. My first sensation upon entering the surgical tent was not the darkness or the smell of dirt and dust mixed with rubbing alcohol and soap. The sensation that crawled all over you was the stifling heat.

"Scrub up," Major Coleman barked.

He pointed with a scalpel toward the door, and I turned. A young African American private who served as an orderly took my coat and hat and said, "Follow me, Doctor."

He took several steps to a five-gallon bucket that I had not seen when I entered. It was in a corner, and it was dark even in midday. No light entered the tent from the outside.

"Scrub up here. When you're ready to rinse, I'll pour the water through that bucket."

For the first time I noticed a second bucket hanging from a tent pole. It had holes punched in the bottom of it so that water could run through. I scrubbed, and the private poured the water, and I rinsed and put on a white surgical coat and hung the mask over my head.

The injured were brought in through one end of the surgery tent from a preparation area in the pre-op tent. They were brought on litters and placed on one of the three metal tube tables lined in the surgery tent. Each table had two doctors and two or three nurses clustered around it. Several enlisted personnel assisted the surgery by bringing supplies and necessities. Each of the wounded had been examined before he came in, and the nurse who brought him briefed us on the injuries.

The nurse knew her stuff. She wore olive drab army fatigue pants, boots bloused, and a white T-shirt. A surgical mask covered her face. She looked me over carefully.

"We're glad to have you aboard, Doctor," she said.

I nodded.

"We're way short of doctors."

A second nurse joined us, and we examined a young white soldier with a nasty sucking chest wound. My first thought was that he was younger than my younger brother. His close buzz cut made him look even younger. His eyes were closed and his face turned to the side as if he was peacefully asleep. His gasping chest heaved regularly, then sputtered. I probed momentarily and looked away to prepare for surgery.

"Get used to this," she said. "There's a lot more where he came from…."

[Apel worked throughout the night and through the next morning, suffering badly from swollen ankles and feet, a sore back, and the stifling heat. Patient after patient was brought in.]

At noon the mess hall sent lunch to the five-gallon can. I do not remember what it was, but by that time it made no difference. We slugged it down and wished for more. None of us had showered, so we all smelled like billy goats. I could hardly keep my eyes open.

"Drink more coffee," Major Coleman said.

"When's our shift over?" I asked.

He smiled. "When the last litter comes through that tent flap back there."

I glanced at the tent flap that led to the pre-op tent.

He patted my shoulder. "That could be days from now."

"Are we it?"

"We're it," he said. "There are three surgeons here, and you see every one of them in this tent."

"We don't take a break?" I asked.

"If you need it," he said. "Sit down here by the five-gallon can. But remember, while you're napping there are men dying out there on litters waiting for you to get up from your nap."…

Eighty hours after my arrival at MASH 8076, Major Coleman came to my operating table. He was as worn as I was.

"That's it for now," he said. "Go get some sleep. Choi, the Korean boy, is outside, and he will take you to the officers' tent."

"What time is it?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't wear a watch in surgery. The sweat ruins it."

"Is it day or night outside?"

"I don't know that either. It doesn't make any difference."

Both of us turned to go to the five-gallon can. As we stepped forward, we bumped into each other. Suddenly, we laughed.

"After you get some sleep, come to the headquarters tent. We have to get you in-processed."

The private took me by the arm and pulled me toward the five-gallon can. I could not have made it without him.

As I stepped through the tent flap, John Coleman said to me, "Welcome to the 8076th, Doctor." (Apel, pp. 21–23, 33, 42)

What happened next…

Apel served out his one-year term in the Korean War and returned home to his wife and three children. He was a surgeon in private practice for forty-four years.

By late 1951, the Korean War stopped moving: the battlefront remained at nearly the same spot until the war was over in the summer of 1953. There was no longer any need for the hospitals at the front to be mobile. The medical units were no longer technically "MASH" units, but everyone continued to use the term.

MASH units and the helicopter evacuations that had developed during the Korean War were to become a standard part of the medical operations in the war in Vietnam (1954–75).

At the turn of the twenty-first century, there was only one MASH unit left in the world, in Albania. The MASH unit that inspired the novel, movie, and TV show M*A*S*H was deactivated (shut down) in 2001. Replacing MASH units are smaller, more efficient medical units called "Forward Surgical Teams."

Did you know…

  • The man who wrote the novel MASH: A Novel about Three Doctors under the pseudonym Richard Hooker was Captain H. Richard Hornberger, a doctor who served in the 8055th MASH. The novel was the basis of a later movie and the very popular TV show.

Where to Learn More

Apel, Otto F. Jr., M.D., and Pat Apel. MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

Cowdrey, Albert E. United States Army in the Korean War: Medic's War. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, September 1987.

Hooker, Richard. MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors. New York: William Morrow, 1968.