Duluth doctor remembers his service in a MASHby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Longtime Duluth surgeon Dr. John Sanford began his medical career in the late 1940s. But like many other young men of his era, Sanford's career was interrupted by war. On June 25, 1950, forces from North Korea invaded South Korea across the 38th parallel, and American troops were soon in the thick of it.
John Sanford arrived in Korea two years later, at a time when the war had settled into a stalemate near the parallel where it had begun. He was assigned to the 8063rd MASH, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, just south of the battle lines.
Duluth, Minn. — (Transcribed from a conversation with John Sanford)
I graduated from medical school in '48; interned up here at St. Mary's Hospital '48-'49. I was just a kid and didn't know what I was going to do, and I got a job at the Duluth Clinic as a surgery resident. Come June of 1950, and the war began, and, yes, a doctors' draft.
Meanwhile, I volunteered in the Army. By that time the Korean War was really rolling. And in the end of April (1952) I was sent up to this MASH -- that's a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital -- and it was a remarkable experience.
This was a hospital set up to do surgery, and to move around, so that if the troops advanced, the MASH would come along after them. It had all the facilities, you know, everything, including nurses.
The old surgical teams, they'd have technicians, but we had female nurses, and of course that's where a lot of story material comes as far as the M*A*S*H TV program is concerned.
But they had their job to do, and they were very professional, and it was just part of having a full-fledged hospital.
We were about 10 miles back from the front, so that you could get people there very quickly by helicopter -- the ones that had, like, the head injuries. And we had a neurosurgical unit. They'd come into this receiving tent. That's where I worked, for the most part.
It was an interesting thing about that holding tent -- I get a little emotional [about this] -- we never heard any screaming or yelling. And, oh my gosh, it just was silent. They knew that they were getting care. They were going to be OK, as much as we could do for them. And they were hurting like heck, but we just almost never got any of that sort of reaction from them.
Now, I've got a photo I took. This fellow was one of our heros. He was a pilot, but he was in charge of our helicopter unit. We had about three or four choppers.
He'd go up there to get wounded at night. You know, it was totally dark, and he knew his way. And just as he'd get close, at the battalion aid station, they'd turn on the lights. He'd come in, land, they'd strap the patients on. They'd take off, and then in comes the mortar fire. He was never injured. He was decorated. Boy, did we admire him. He was just the greatest.
There were times when we didn't have toilet paper. But we always had medical supplies, and we always had booze (laughs) for the officer's club. There was a British agent, or something, who worked out of Inchon, which was the harbor for Seoul. And, he was very good. And he had his own distribution. But he was able to supply the refreshment needs.
You always think of MASH as sort of a partying thing, because of the television program, and there was certainly a lot of truth behind that. We weren't busy all the time. I'd say there was scarcely a day went by when we didn't get some casualties. And then there were times when it was overwhelming.
We had one sergeant -- this came in the evening. They'd been on patrol, and the Chinese had ambushed them. So they made their way back this trail, and, you know, the ground was so irregular they could go behind rocks, and so forth.
But they got back to this place, and the sergeant thought he had everybody there with him, and he could hear footsteps coming. And so he took the pin out of his white phosphorous grenade, and around the corner come two of his guys. So, he bent over and took the explosion himself. And it didn't kill him.
He came back to us. I'll just never forget it. He was just totally burned, and deep burns. And the thing that we could do was to neutralize the phosphorous, and we did that. So we got him stabilized and then shipped him down to Seoul by the helicopter so that he could be flown to Japan, where they had total facilities.
Oh my, but that was extraordinary.
In October we had our worst work. And it started, I think, on a Sunday night, or early Monday morning. The 7th Division, which was getting ready to leave, was attacking a ridge. There were three solid days of terrible fighting, and I think they said 2,000 dead trying to take this ridge. And we never did take it.
A couple of weeks later the 7th Division pulled out. But all those kids that were killed and maimed, trying to take that hill. And in the backs of our minds we figured, 'this commanding general in 7th wants to have a big item to brag about later on.'
I don't think if they'd taken that hill it would have made any difference because there was another one right beyond it. And, then we were upset about that.
- Morning Edition, 05/26/2008, 6:50 a.m.