To Kunuri and Back

To Kunuri and Back

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

To Kunuri and Back

To do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in, and scramble through as well as we can.

Sydney Smith

It was November 15, 1950, when Mary and I stepped out of the army ambulance that had brought us from Pyongyang to Sunchon, North Korea, to join the 8076 MASH unit. We were the first nurse replacements for two burned-out nurses who would be sent back to Japan. The commanding officer greeted us with, “Are we glad to see you! What took you so long?”

We voiced our concern about both sides of the road being lined with southbound refugees. “What is going on? Are those Communist Chinese up to something?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he responded, “General McArthur assures us we’ll all be home for Christmas.”

The chief nurse showed us to our quarters. A light bulb hanging from the middle of the tent provided a dim light, the only light. Olive-colored long johns, underwear, socks, and fatigues hung on a clothesline strung the length of the tent. The tent sagged so much, we could stand upright only down the middle, alongside the laundry.My cot sat next to a blood-spattered wall. I spread out my mummy bag.

Casualties were light the next ten days at Sunchon. On the day before Thanksgiving, we moved north to Kunuri, twenty miles from the Manchurian border. All the nurses rode in the ambulances in the long convoy of trucks. They had even loaded the piano on a truck. Getting a new hospital set up was a new experience for Mary and me. The staff slept in an old, shot-up schoolhouse; my cot next to a blood-covered wall.

A short time later, a cowbell rang outside the tent. “Formatin’ time. Formatin’ time,” the colonel yelled.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“A formation is a party. He wants everyone to celebrate our new nurses,” Captain Henry told me. She was the nurse I was replacing, an older nurse whose husband had been killed in World War II.

There was a record player and a piano in the officers’ club tent. We each brought our mess gear cup and it was filled with the usual party drink, a mixture of grapefruit juice and medical alcohol. It burned all the way down. Everyone jitterbugged to some jivey music, combat boots flying on the canvas floor.

News of the party for the new nurses traveled to other outfits, and soon the tent was crowded and the party was getting rowdier. Men bragged to each other about their poker-playing winnings as they downed their grapefruit-juice cocktails. Two men vying for my attention got in a fistfight. The party was getting wilder. It was time to crawl into my mummy bag.

The day before Thanksgiving, it was bitter cold in our living quarters. The weather was freezing and the oil heater in the middle of the room was quite inefficient.

We nurses headed up, mess gear in hand, to stand in the long line for Thanksgiving dinner, expecting the usual canned pork or beef and gravy, canned vegetables, biscuits, and fruit cocktail. To our surprise cans of sliced turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, dried mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, and red Jell-O with raw apples were served. Outside a broken window behind the kitchen, a Korean woman with a baby on her back was loading up the empty beef and gravy cans into her apron. The scrapings would be dinner for her family.

After we washed our mess gear, another nurse and I headed for the pre-op tent to start our twelve-hour night shift at 1900. Since we were expecting a quiet night, only fifty army cots were set up. We couldn’t hear much artillery. But by nine o’clock litters were pouring in. Wounded soldiers, freezing cold and in shock, quickly filled up the fifty cots. By midnight the ground outside was covered with casualties waiting while additional tents were quickly set up. An extra supply of blankets covered the hypothermic, shot-up soldiers on the icy ground. The little oil heaters in the OR tents weren’t much help, even when they worked. We nurses wore heavy jackets over layers of warm clothes, but couldn’t wear gloves on our cold hands.

Before the night was over, the fifty anticipated wounded turned out to be over six hundred. Every available doctor, nurse, and corpsman worked feverishly, crawling around on the frozen tent floor, cutting off six or seven layers of sleeves and pant legs in order to take blood pressures and get blood transfusions started. There was no such thing as a type and cross match. Icy cold blood in glass containers infused in everyone. Sometimes four transfusions at once were pumped into the shocky patients. As soon as they had a pulse and blood pressure, off they went to the operating room, where their litter was the operating room table.

“This transfusion won’t run. I’m sure it’s in the vein.Will you try?”

“No use. He’s gone.”

The electric lights went out from time to time and the doctors had to use flashlights to complete the operation.

Wounded Communist Chinese prisoners started showing up, and we knew that what had been a fear was now a reality: the Chinese had hit.

By 0500 we heard our tanks were moving back, leaving us unprotected. I was too naive—and too busy—to be scared.

At 0700 I went off duty as I heard the colonel yelling into the inadequate telephone, “This is Red Hot Six. This is Red Hot Six,” but I was too exhausted to be alarmed. I broke the ice on some water in my mess cup and brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas, crawled into my freezing mummy bag, pulled the blankets over my head, and fell asleep. At 0900, a nurse shook me and yelled, “Get dressed, pack up, and go back on duty so the day nurses can get packed. We’re moving out.”

The stench of gangrene greeted me as I walked into an isolation room. Some American prisoners had been rescued from the North Korean camp. Their feet were badly frozen, black, and gangrenous. They undoubtedly would have to be amputated later. As each new bunch of casualties came in, I asked them where they had been hit. One group said, “We were ambushed between Kunuri and Sunchon,” which meant we were nearly surrounded. We certainly couldn’t escape the way we had arrived, but had to take a much longer route in order to get to Pyongyang.

Nurses usually rode in ambulances when we moved, but this time all the ambulances were needed to evacuate the patients to a small, nearby airstrip where C-47s flew all the patients out. So we nurses rode in the back of an army truck, our knees crowded against the generator, which took up the center space. I kept my eyes on the mountainous horizon, thinking any minute the Chinese in their off-white quilted cotton uniforms would come swarming like ants to devour us. Travel was very slow on the clogged, bumpy dirt roads. It seemed we were always being delayed. At one point, the colonel chose to take the right fork in the road. We heard later that troops and convoys who took the left fork were trapped at a Communist roadblock, nearly all of them killed or taken prisoner.

We stopped briefly at the 8063 MASH for dinner. They were relieved that we hadn’t been captured.We continued on during the long cold night, all of us uncomfortably cramped in the truck, wondering if we’d make it out alive.

We finally arrived at the 171st Evacuation Hospital in Pyongyang at 0300. The next day we moved and set up our evacuation hospital in South Korea.

We arrived there at lunchtime and, while eating in their mess hall, overheard the conversation at the next table.

“Isn’t it terrible! All the nurses in the 8076 MASH were taken prisoner!”

“Are you sure? I heard they were all killed.”

Mary and I turned to face them. “We’re nurses from the 8076 MASH and we’re very much alive.”

Jean Kirnak

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