Most of us have watched the TV series M*A*S*H (1972-1983); some have seen the 1970 film of the same title. A few of us have read Dr. H. Richard Homberger’s (pen name Richard Hooker) dark satire on which the two were based.
Dr. Hornberger was a physician in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, and retired attorney Ben Hiser, a medic in the Korean War, can validate that M*A*S*H is realistic.
Hiser served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to 1950, and because he was a reservist following that service, he couldn’t get a job in his hometown of Piqua, Ohio.
He was advised to get a discharge and re-enlist . It was on to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for reassignment, and part of that involved, as Hiser indicates, “Sitting on the back of a garbage truck with a 12-gauge, sawed-off shot gun monitoring GIs who had been court martialed and were assigned garbage detail on the base.”
From Fort Knox, he received orders to go to the Far East via Fort Lewis, Washington, where he was issued an M-1 carbine, semi-automatic rifle, given a tag and told to write his name and address on it and put all of his belongings, except his field uniform, in a duffel bag for shipping back to Piqua.
His next stop was McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington., where he boarded a Canadian Air Force C-54 headed north over the Canadian islands. That hop was short as a flight engineer left his seat and told the men , “Keep your eye out for oil. I think one of the engines is losing oil.” It was, so that engine was shut off, and they landed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, to have the engine replaced.
The next stop was Shemya for refueling and to take on provisions, and they finally arrived at Camp Drake in Tokyo, a former Japanese army training center and then a replacement depot for the Far East Command with soldiers going to and returning from Korea.
There Hiser was a part of a medical unit dispensary that was adjacent to a fire station manned by Japanese. The barracks at the camp were two-story, made of
wood, and a fire hazard. He was an ambulance driver, and one of his jobs was to follow the fire truck over narrow roads with ditches on either side when there was a fire and get the seriously injured to Yokohama to 361st Station Hospital or to Tokyo Army Hospital.
Hiser says, “We gave first aid that was primitive by any standard. We tried to stop bleeding, splint fractures, transport the patients without doing further damage, and get them to the closest medical facility. Life can be really boring when you are waiting to be needed, and there was an excellent and popular rifle range at Drake that had been built by American POWs. We’d go out there and wait for someone to shoot himself or someone else. It was going to happen, and it was just a matter of when.
“At the dispensary when college boys were rotated in, the lieutenant colonel in charge was promoting them over us, and I got pretty irritated and told him, ‘I want to go to Korea.’”
I few day later Hiser was on a train going 600 miles to Sasebo and then on a freighter to Pusan. At Pusan, he boarded a train for Wonju to the Eleventh Evacuation Hospital where his new title was surgical technician.
He laughs and says, “What did I do as a surgical tech? How had I been trained? According to the Army, Hit don’t make no never mind. I carried patients in and out, cleaned up after them, cleaned syringes which we reused, and was a member of the penicillin team to go to the wards and administer this scarce commodity to the patients.
“Then I learned my brother, Harold Louis, also a medic, had been drafted and sent to Korea as a member of the 40th Infantry Division, 160 Regiment 81 mm mortar platoon at Sniper Ridge.
Arriving at the 40th Hiser says,, “It was like a scene out of ‘Apocalypse Now.’ I tried to tell the personnel officer that I didn’t want to be a medic, but I might as well have been talking to the coal oil lamp hanging over our heads. He assigned me as a medic to Nine 81st Field Artillery Regiment Aid Station, a tent the size of a two-car garage. I arrived, saluted the commanding officer and said, ‘Corporal Hiser reporting for duty.’ He never looked up and said, ‘Do you play bridge?’”
When Hiser told him he didn’t, Hiser was sent to Battery A where Americans were shooting 155-millimeter guns at thousands of Chinese and North Koreans.
He pauses, “ Remember those helicopters delivering the wounded to the M*A*S*H doctors? That’s the way it was, doing our best to get the seriously wounded to a doctor to stabilize them and trying to get the guys living in holes in the ground to not urinate and defecate in those holes and cause sanitation problems. I did very well with some cases, and some I wish I had done a lot better. I had never been to any school.”
At sick call, Hiser had elixir of Terpene Hygrade, Codeine, APC (a pill of aspirin, pheniticin and caffeine), paregoric for GI issues, and DDT for body lice which some of the men brought back after their escapades during R and R.
Hiser says, “One day my commanding officer approached me and said that I had 36 points and could rotate home.”
From there Hiser exited the war, took a Korean train to Chunchon and another to Inchon where he boarded an old Victory ship to Sasebo where he was deloused and issued clean clothing. He boarded a troop ship the General Collins and sailed to Oakland, California. At the dock he was greeted by a 15-piece band and a girl singing “My Hero” from The Chocolate Soldier.
Of M*A*S*H, Hiser says, “That son of a gun (Dr. Homberger) was there. He knew.”
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