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Coming Home After 52 Years

Coming Home After 52 Years
Coming Home After 52 Years


Duke Health News Duke Health News

Stray drops of rain flecked the veterans' military-style
hats, which were adorned with the American flag, a drawing of a
Blue Devil lunging forward carrying a giant syringe instead of
a gun, and the simple words: "Duke's 65th GH, U.S. Army."

Asst. 1st Sgt. Frank Holt stepped forward from the ranks and
barked an order: "65th General Hospital, ten-hut! Present
arms!" 52 years melted away as members of the group
automatically placed their hands over their hearts. A lone
trumpet played "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the American flag
was ceremoniously lowered by four members of Hillside High
School's ROTC unit.

For its 52nd annual reunion, the 65th General Hospital had
come home, returning to the campus where the unit was born in
October 1940.

A Duke Army Hospital

The 65th was the brainchild of Wilburt C. Davison, then dean
of the Duke School of Medicine. The Army reserve unit's
original core consisted of doctors and nurses who all had some
connection to Duke, creating a mix of faculty, medical and
nursing school graduates, and current or former house staff. In
July 1942, the 65th was placed on active duty and headed to
Fort Bragg, where the unit underwent basic training and had its
ranks swelled by additional Army nurses and about 500 enlisted
men, who would serve in roles as diverse as operating room
technicians, pharmacists, and payroll clerks.

Immediately after its arrival in England in October 1943,
the 65th equipped and furnished two new hospitals in Malvern,
Worcestershire. But the grueling nature of the task that lay
ahead became more apparent when the unit was sent to Botesdale,
Suffolk, in East Anglia, in February 1944 to expand the
hospital that had been serving the Eighth Air Force. Unlike
most general hospitals, which received casualties that had been
evacuated backward from the front lines through a series of
medical corpsmen, first aid stations, field and evacuation
hospitals, the 65th treated freshly-and often severely-wounded
airmen returning directly from bombing runs over Germany in
bullet- and shrapnel-riddled airplanes.

Flak Time

"We called 4 p.m. every day-when the bombers came back from
their missions-'flak time,'" says Dr. Ivan Brown, a 1940
graduate of Duke's medical school and former James B. Duke
Professor of Surgery. "We'd prepare all afternoon for

Warren Messner, an operating room technician in the 65th who
assisted all the Duke-affiliated doctors there at one time or
another, adds, "When we watched the bombers come back, we'd
look to see the holes in the planes-how much they were
damaged-and that's how we'd know how many casualties to

While the majority of other Army general hospitals remained
comparatively idle during the build-up to the D-Day invasion,
the 65th handled a constant stream of casualties from heavy
bomber crews, as well as all of the acute diseases and
emergency cases from the surrounding air bases. It was also a
designated specialty center for neurosurgery, thoracic and
plastic surgery, burns, and hand injuries from hospitals
throughout eastern England.

The complex of 35 Nissen huts that made up the 65th's
Botesdale compound was supplemented by tents, enabling it to
handle more patients. "Our bed capacity was 1,456, and we
stayed full," says Brown. "At times, we would get trainloads of
600-700 patients at once from the front."

In all, the unit treated more than 17,250 patients during
its time in England. "But the amazing statistic was that the
mortality rate was less than four-tenths of one percent," notes
Brown. "If they came in breathing, if they were alive, they had
a 99 and six-tenths percent chance of making it. That's a
better rate than the average civilian hospital for trauma
cases." The 65th quickly earned a stellar reputation among
general hospital units in the European Theater of Operations
(ETO), and members of the medical staff often helped train
doctors and nurses in other units. "They called upon us as a
medical pool," Brown says. "Our people went in on the landing
craft on D-Day to pick up the wounded and bring them back."

Emma Schutz, a 1942 graduate of Duke's nursing school who
served in the 65th, says the Normandy invasion was her most
vivid memory of the war. "I remember the drone of
planes-thousands of them-over England. We knew that something
really big was happening, but we didn't know it was D-Day, and
we were wondering how many patients were going to be coming

"We worked for 16 straight hours right after D-Day," she

Dorothy Salerno, a 1940 Duke School of Nursing graduate,
oversaw an orthopaedic ward and covered the 65th's shock ward
many nights. "We worked very, very hard. After the second
Christmas there, we sometimes felt the war was never going to

Demanding Environment, Lasting Friends

Schutz credits her instruction at Duke with helping her to
cope with an often overwhelming situation. "We had a good
experience at Duke, an excellent training experience."

Despite the difficult working conditions, more often than
not, the 65th's doctors rose to the occasion with a mixture of
innovative and improvised techniques. Lt. Col. Clarence
Gardner, the unit's chief of surgery and later chair of surgery
at Duke, helped develop a method for removing shell fragments
from a patient's still-beating heart-by probing the heart's
chambers with his finger through a circular, purse-string
suture. The 65th established one of the first blood banks among
American hospitals in the ETO. Maj. William Bridgers,
neurosurgeon for the unit, traveled to London and learned from
silversmiths there how to manipulate large plates of metal. In
one case, he constructed and attached an entire prosthetic
forehead from tantalum, a special inert metal, to the skull of
a wounded B-17 pilot, sewing the scalp back in place to leave
the patient looking almost the same as he had before the flak

Even amid the strain of the 65th's demanding environment-or
perhaps because of it-a positive element emerged: friendships
that have lasted for more than half a century.

"We were all buddies: the nurses and doctors and all of us,"
Messner observes. "The doctors were just as friendly as your
bunk partners."

"From the time we went on active duty, six months after
Pearl Harbor," Brown observes, "this unit developed a terrific
sense of camaraderie that has continued to the present time.
It's very unusual. I don't know of any other Army hospital unit
that has met for 52 consecutive years."

Adds Schutz, "I got a great deal of personal satisfaction,
of having served my country and saved a lot of lives.

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