KU Medical Center doctors and nurses formed the backbone of one of World War II’s first mobile hospital units.
By Joel Francis
On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, the War Department approved a plan to form mobile military hospital units to serve in a national emergency. Under the plan, certain units would be affiliated with outstanding medical civil institutions. U.S. Army Surgeon General James C. Magee wrote to Dr. H.R. Wahl, dean of medicine and administrator of the University of Kansas Hospitals, as KU Medical Center was known at the time. Would KU Hospitals accept the affiliation of the 77th Evacuation Hospital?
The medical center responded. KU faculty and staff joined with School of Medicine alumni and area physicians, dentists and nurses to form the unit. Activated in May 1942, the 77th Evac was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 7th Army during the North African Campaign and treated troops in the European Theater, moving to the point of greatest need over a three-year period.
In November 2008, KU Medical Center celebrated the 77th Evac with the release of a newly edited book and a documentary film. For this issue of KU Giving, three members of the unit shared snapshots from their experiences: Dr. James McConchie of Independence, Mo., the sole surviving physician from the original unit; Dr. John Shellito of Wichita, who joined later; and Louise Gilliland of Vero Beach, Fla., who served as a nurse.
In the spring of 1942, with just weeks to go in his rotating internship, KU medical resident James McConchie knew he would soon enter World War II. Where he would end up was in question. He had just learned that the 77th Evac, one of the first hospital units to be activated, had two openings. They invited him to join.
“They had openings in internal medicine and radiology. I don’t know how they picked me, but they did,” McConchie said. He talked to physicians who had served in World War I about his options. “They said if I took internal medicine I’d see a lot of shell shock and pneumonia. In radiology I’d be learning something new. I agreed and chose radiology, because no matter what I chose after the war, radiology would be part of it.”
Finally, McConchie’s orders arrived from the Army. It was official: He was to meet up with the rest of the unit at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. With only a month of radiology training under his belt, McConchie departed for basic training and a crash course in radiology.
“Our unit was the best thing the Army had as far as our function,” he said. “We had the talent, the organization and the fraternization. Everyone knew everybody they were working with. We knew what someone could and couldn’t do.”
That knowledge and intimacy was based in the unit’s development and growth together at KU Hospitals. Before they worked near the front lines together, the core of the unit trained and worked side-by-side as Jayhawks at Bell Memorial Hospital in what is now Murphy Hall at the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
Shock tubes and mud
After landing in Liverpool, England, that summer, the 77th Evac was sent to Oran, Algeria, to treat soldiers injured in the British and American invasion of Northern Africa. They were stationed there from November 1942 through January 1943 and spent the first few weeks in a hospital in the city.
“We had to use an old, non-shockproof X-ray machine that consisted of the X-ray tube and then several cables you pulled down from the ceiling and attached to the tube,” McConchie said. “These were bare wires. If you got close – about a foot away – the electricity could knock you across the room. We called it an electrocution device slightly modified for taking X-rays.”
In early December, the unit left the hospital as the Allied troops continued to advance. They moved to “Mud Flats,” a field south of Oran and closer to the front line, and set began shortly before the move, and sometimes the doctors and nurses were up to their knees in water and mud.
“We called that mud the ‘Oran Ooze,'” said Louise Gilliland, a nurse in the surgery ward. She had joined the 77th in New York and remained with the unit until the end of the war. “I remember on Christmas Eve I was going on duty, and a doctor had a record of ‘White Christmas’ he wanted to play. When I left to get it for him, I slipped and fell in the mud. I had to clean up again and change my uniform.”
Hospital ships transported the wounded across Oran Harbor to the evac hospital. For the soldiers who needed it, radiology was an early stop after going through admissions.
“When we were real busy, seeing up to 2,000 patients a day, John Bowser and I would work in shifts,” McConchie said. “We were the only two radiologists in the 77th. There were two X-ray machines with a full staff of technicians on each one. Then we had the Mole developing film.”
“The Mole” was Giovanni D’Amico, an Italian volunteer who spoke little English. He earned his nickname by reporting to the X-ray film-developing tent before sunrise and leaving after dark.
The doctors used what they had on hand to keep the mud away and to keep the film tent dark enough to develop the X-rays.
“The operating rooms draped sheets everywhere – that is, when they had them – to keep them sterile,” McConchie said. “When you went from tent to tent, you had to duck to go in through the flaps. When you got to our tent, you had to duck twice, because we were in a tent inside a tent.”
In July 1944, McConchie’s field experience was put to the test when the 77th arrived at Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five beaches designated for the D-Day invasion, 30 days after battle.
“We had to wait that long because it took them that long to get a big enough area cleared for us to set up our hospital,” McConchie said. “In the meantime, we were in England training, staying in contact with the local radiologists and studying.”
Although the heavy fighting was over when the 77th arrived, the area was riddled with reminders. German concrete pillboxes jutted out of the sand, houses and roads were pocked with shell marks, signs warned of grounds littered with land mines, and machine gunners sat tensely, alert for hostile aircraft.
“The lucky ones would walk in from the battlefield. We just took care of what came in,” McConchie said. “The triage docs would go over the patients as they came in. They’d divide who went where. The extremely bad cases would be set aside so we could get back to the others.”
John Shellito joined the 77th Evac shortly before the unit left England for Utah Beach.
“It was the most wonderful hospital. I couldn’t imagine such a place,” Shellito said. “They’d been through it all and knew exactly what to do. The reason I got on with such a wonderful outfit was that they needed an anesthesiologist. I wanted to be a surgeon; they wanted an anesthesiologist.”
The hospital was run in two 12- hour, 7 o’clock-to-7 o’clock shifts. Because the other anesthesiologist had two weeks of seniority and first pick, Shellito got the night shift. But he got up during the day to monitor use of the tracheotomy tube.
“The secret to good anesthesia is keeping an open airway,” Shellito said. “The best way to do this is to put a tube in the trachea and hook it up to an anesthesia machine or oxygen or whatever else you want to give them. This tube wasn’t something you could just go to the store and ask for. So I made do.”
He made the tube by placing a catheter alongside a larger tube and using half of a condom as an inflatable balloon to seal off leaks.
“I made another one of these a few years ago and sent it to a fellow at KU so he’d know,” Shellito said. “We guarded these very carefully. I didn’t want to have to make any more.”
In Verviers, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, the 77th set up inside a schoolhouse. On the day before the hospital was scheduled to open in October 1944, German planes strafed the building and bombed the urology ward. Although no one was hurt that night, the bombing became a familiar occurrence.
“You could be a little afraid when the bombers went over,” McConchie said. “When I went to sleep, I always had my helmet right beside me. When I heard the bombers, I’d put my helmet on and hope. It was a rough way to sleep, but you kind of got used to it. There was nothing you could do about it, anyway.”
It was in Verviers that the 77th suffered its only fatality. Anne Kathleen Cullen, a Red Cross volunteer, was recovering from the flu on the third floor of the converted school. She went to the fourth floor – the top floor – to use the restroom. The moment she entered the doorway, a shell struck, and the room collapsed on top of her.
Louise Gilliland lived on the fourth floor. As luck would have it, she was on another part of it when the shell hit.
“I had my sleeping bag there with everybody else,” she said. “That night when I went to go to bed, I turned my bag open and found a large piece of shrapnel. If I had been sleeping in my normal position, it would have got me in the kidney.”
The hospital in Verviers was set up for 1,000 patients, but the staff soon was caring for 1,400. The battle was only a couple of hills away, and the wounded were shipped straight from the front line. If the staff was overwhelmed, they had been treating above capacity for most of the war anyway. At least they were working from a bricks-and-mortar structure.
“The way we were set up, there were rows of cots, and we had a desk with a box where we kept medications,” said Gilliland. “Patients came in with their EMT [emergency medical tags] and an envelope containing their records. We would feed and care for them, change their dressings and wash them if possible.”
Cease-fire orders came in 1945. Back home, James McConchie and John Bowser, his fellow radiologist in the unit, opened a practice together. John Shellito switched specialties from anesthesiology to surgery. From 1973 to 1985, he was an associate professor at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita. Louise Gilliland continued her nursing career in Pennsylvania and Florida.
Members of the 77th held regular reunions from 1945 until 2004. Robert Gerlach, an enlisted man who won a bronze star for streamlining the discharge process, planned many of the reunions. Surviving members met once more this past November.
“The 77th has become like family to many of us,” Gilliland said. “I felt a kinship with this group and the good work we did. Even though there’s not as many of us around today, I’m happy to be there and see who shows up.”