Mending broken spirits, shattered bodies in Korea
Korean War nurse Cecilia Ann Sulkowski at Country Meadows retirement home in Upper Macungie Township in June 2002. (Morning Call file photo)
She left the Army for two yers but returned in 1948. When war broke out in Korea, she was working at a hospital in Japan, where two surgical units were hastily formed and put to sea. On July 6, 1950, they arrived at the South Korean port city of Pusan and the 29- year-old first lieutenant from Fayette County came ashore.
Fifty-two years later, Sulkowski, now of Upper Macungie Township, talks about her experience with a mobile Army surgical hospital, or MASH, during the first six months of the Korean War.
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The war had just been on for a week and a half when we got to Pusan. I was with the 8054th MASH. We set up in a school, because schools were the only substantial buildings of any size in Korea. Everybody pitched in and scrubbed down the place. There was no flooring, just ground. In the operating room, our tables were not farther than 2 or 3 feet apart, so you could barely get people on either side of a table without touching.
My most traumatic experience in the military was seeing our first patients. It still leaves me teary, still affects me with the most sadness. They were seasoned soldiers, not rookies. Some of them were old enough to be my father. Physically, they weren't hurt, but they were completely broken down mentally. Their spirits were broken.
These men would cry, they had seen their buddies falling, and to see a man cry anytime is hard. They'd reach out to you. From the timbre of their voice, the way they were sitting, very dejected, you knew they wanted and needed to talk to somebody. You'd sit on their cot, or squat by it, and hold their hand. You mostly listened. Let them talk, let them get it out of their system, and tell them that you understand what has happened to them, why they're feeling the way they are. It was a female presence, a softer voice and gentler touch.
They said, "They shoved us up there and didn't give us any ammunition, and those little devils came at us. They were like swarms of locusts, descending on us every which way." One of the enemy would get shot, and the others would just step over him and keep advancing. They wouldn't stop to see if they could help. Life didn't seem to be as precious to them as it is in our culture.
You could tell by the time you had to leave these men that they had gotten some relief. How long it lasted, I don't know, because you went on to the next one. You'd glance over once in a while and see how they were doing.
That was the hard part, not being able to give each one as much time as they really needed. You had to move on. But no matter how busy you were, you always found time to stop, and when you felt that somebody needed to talk, you felt you had to give him that time. And you thought that the other patients understood this.
We didn't keep them in our hospital very long. We had to evacuate them to Japan for further treatment, and make space for the other ones coming.
After that, there was an unending procession of wounded. You never knew whether it was ever going to stop, or whether you'd catch up. We worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off. If you had to go to the bathroom, someone would come in and relieve you for a few minutes, but otherwise you worked until it was time for a meal. Another shift was eight hours on, eight off. We tried different times so we wouldn't get exhausted, because the patients just kept coming and coming and coming. But when you're young, you can do these things. A couple hours of rest and you can go right in again.
The North Koreans had gotten past Seoul and Inchon, and they were about three-quarters of the way toward Pusan. You could see the firelight and hear the boom, boom, boom of the large artillery. We could sit outside and see the flashes from our ships firing. That's when it got scary for us, and especially for me, because I had not been close to combat before.
Humor relieved the strain
Earlier, we had been living a country club life in Japan, where I'd been stationed for a year. When the war started June 25, everything was done in a hurry. All of the equipment for our two MASH units was piled into one ship. A lot of us didn't even have uniforms. They had to issue the nurses battle fatigues. On my trousers, the crotch was down around my ankles.
At the school in Pusan, the nurses' quarters were on the second floor. We had 12 beds lined up. A cat came to live with us, and we called him Bugger. I didn't care for cats, and you know, that Bugger came on my bed more often than anybody else's. And he'd always rub up against my legs when I came into a room. I'd say, "Get away from me, Bugger!"
One evening a bullet came up through our floor, and fortunately it didn't hit anybody. One of the doctors was cleaning a gun, and they're not combat-type people. I guess he didn't know there was a bullet in there.
When the doctors were in their rooms sleeping, they kept their wallets and glasses under their pillows. A couple of Korean "slickies," or crooks, came in and robbed the doctors blind, and I mean blind. One of our surgeons had only one pair of glasses, and they were stolen from under his pillow. He couldn't do surgery for a week until they got him new glasses from Japan. The slickies were very slick.
We ran four tables in the operating room at one time. Outside we had a helipad, a recovery tent, and a fairly large tent for triage. Patients came in by ambulance, helicopter and ship. There was at least one doctor in triage deciding who goes to the operating room first. The worst casualties, the ones you didn't have any hope for at all, were taken last.