MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors
Most of the doctors who worked in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals during the Korean War were very young, perhaps too young, to be doing what they were doing. They performed the definitive surgery on all the major casualties incurred by the 8th Army, the Republic of Korea Army, the Commonwealth Division and other United Nations forces. Helped by blood, antibiotics, helicopters, the tactical peculiarities of the Korean War and the youth and accompanying resiliency of their patients, they achieved the best results up to that time in the history of military surgery.
The surgeons in the MASH hospitals were exposed to extremes of hard work, leisure, tension, boredom, heat, cold, satisfaction and frustration that most of them had never faced before. Their reaction, individually and collectively, was to cope with the situation and get the job done. The various stresses, however, produced behavior in many of them that, superficially at least, seemed inconsistent with their earlier, civilian behavior patterns. A few flipped their lids, but most of them just raised hell, in a variety of ways and degrees. This is a story of some of the ways and degrees. It’s also a story of some of the work.
The characters in this book are composites of people I knew, met casually, worked with, or heard about. No one in the book bears more than a coincidental resemblance to an actual person.
When Radar O’reilly, just out of high school, left Ottumwa, Iowa, and enlisted in the United States Army it was with the express purpose of making a career of the Signal Corps. Radar O’Reilly was only five feet three inches tall, but he had a long, thin neck and large ears that left his head at perfect right angles. Furthermore, under certain atmospheric, as well as metabolic, conditions, and by enforcing complete concentration and invoking unique extra-sensory powers, he was able to receive messages and monitor conversations far beyond the usual range of human hearing.
With this to his advantage it seemed to Radar O’Reilly that he was a natural for the communications branch of the service, and so, following graduation, he turned down various highly attractive business opportunities, some of them legitimate, and decided to serve his country. Before his enlistment, in fact, he used to fall asleep at night watching a whole succession of, first, sleeve stripes, and then shoulder insignia, floating by until he would see himself, with four stars on his shoulders, conducting high-level Pentagon briefings, attending White House dinner parties and striding imperiously to ringside tables in New York night clubs.
In the middle of November of the year 1951 a.d., Radar O’Reilly, a corporal in the United States Army Medical Corps, was sitting in the Painless Polish Poker and Dental Clinic of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital astride the 35th Parallel in South Korea, ostensibly trying to fill a straight flush. Having received the message that the odds against such a fortuitous occurrence open at 72,192 to 1, what he was actually doing was monitoring a telephone conversation. The conversation was being conducted, over a precarious connection, between Brigadier General Hamilton Hartington Hammond, the Big Medical General forty-five miles to the south in Seoul, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake, in the office of the commanding officer of the 4077th MASH, just forty-five yards to Radar O’Reilly’s east.
“Listen,” Radar O’Reilly said, his head turning slowly back and forth in the familiar scanning action.
“Listen to what?” Captain Walter Koskiusko Waldowski, the Dental Officer and Painless Pole, asked.
“Henry,” Radar O’Reilly said, “is trying for two new cutters.”
“I gotta have two more men,” Colonel Blake was shouting into the phone, and Radar could hear it.
“What do you think you’re running up there?” General Hammond was shouting back, and Radar could hear that, too. “Walter Reed Hospital?”
“Now you listen to me …” Colonel Blake was saying.
“Just take it easy, Henry,” General Hammond was saying.
“I won’t take it easy,” Colonel Blake shouted. “If I don’t get two …”
“All right! All right!” General Hammond shouted. “So I’ll send you the two best men I have.”
“They better be good,” Radar heard Colonel Blake answer, “or I’ll …”
“I said they’ll be the two best men I’ve got,” Radar heard General Hammond say.
“Good!” Radar heard Colonel Blake say. “And get ’em here quick.”
“Henry,” Radar said, his ears aglow now from the activity, “has just got us two new cutters.”
“Tell ’em not to spend it all before they get here,” Captain Waldowski said. “You want another card?”
Thus it was that the personnel of the 4077th MASH learned that their number, and perhaps even their efficiency, would shortly be augmented. Thus it was that, on a gray, raw morning ten days later at the 325th Evacuation Hospital in Yong-Dong-Po, across the Han River from Seoul, Captains Augustus Bedford Forrest and Benjamin Franklin Pierce, emerging from opposite ends of the Transient Officers’ Quarters, dragged themselves, each hauling a Valpac and trailing a barracks bag, toward a jeep deposited there for their use.
Captain Pierce was twenty-eight years old, slightly over six feet tall and slightly stoop-shouldered. He wore glasses, and his brown-blond hair needed cutting. Captain Forrest was a year older, slightly under six feet tall, and more solid. He had brush-cut red hair, pale blue eyes and a nose that had not quite been restored to its natural state after contact with something more resistant than itself.
“You the guy going to the 4077th?” Captain Pierce said to Captain Forrest as they confronted each other at the jeep.
“I believe so,” Captain Forrest said.
“Then get in,” Captain Pierce said.
“Who drives?” Captain Forrest said.
“Let’s choose,” Captain Pierce said. He opened his barracks bag, felt around in it and extracted a Stan Hack model Louisville Slugger. He handed the bat to Captain Forrest.
“Toss,” he said.
Captain Forrest tossed the bat vertically into the air. As it came down Captain Pierce expertly grabbed it at the tape with his left hand. Captain Forrest placed his left hand above Captain Pierce’s. Captain Pierce placed his right hand, and Captain Forrest was left with his right hand waving in the air with nothing to grab.
“Sorry,” Captain Pierce said. “Always use your own bat.”
That was all he said. They got into the jeep and for the first five miles they did not speak again, until Captain Forrest broke the silence.
“What are y’all anyway?” Captain Forrest asked. “A nut?”
“It’s likely,” Captain Pierce said.
“My name’s Duke Forrest. Who are y’all?”
“Hawkeye Pierce?” Captain Forrest said. “What the hell kind of a name is that?”
“The only book my old man ever read was The Last of the Mohicans,” Captain Pierce explained.
“Oh,” Captain Forrest said, and then: “Where y’all from?”
“Where in hell is that?”
“Maine,” Hawkeye said. “Where you from?” “Forrest City.”
“Where in hell is that?”
“Georgia,” Duke said.
“Jesus,” Hawkeye said. “I need a drink.”
“I got some,” Duke said.
“Make it yourself, or is it real?” Hawkeye asked.
“Where I come from it’s real if you make it yourself,” Duke Forrest said, “but I bought this from the Yankee government.”
“Then I’ll try it.”
Captain Pierce pulled to the side of the road and stopped the jeep. Captain Forrest found the pint in his barracks bag and opened it. As they sat there, looking down the road, flanked by the rice paddies skimmed now with November ice, they passed the bottle back and forth and talked.
Duke Forrest learned that Hawkeye Pierce was married and the father of two young sons, and Captain Pierce found out that Captain Forrest was married and the father of two young girls. They discovered that their training and experience had been remarkably similar and each detected, with much relief, that the other did not think of himself as a Great Surgeon.