‘M*A*S*H’ legacy lives on in Korea-based unit

An intensive care unit in 121st Combat Support Hospital put up this month at Camp Humphreys in South Korea during a peninsula-wide exercise earlier this month.


By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 29, 2009

UIJEONGBU, South Korea — Tucked away at a Republic of Korea Army base here — in the city that was home to the mythical 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital — are a few of the last remnants of the real-life unit that inspired the popular “M*A*S*H” book, movie and TV series.

On base, there is a Quonset hut that served as an operating room for the MASH unit.

Just off base is another small building that was once home to the real Rosie’s Bar, which also found a place in the fictional works.

And across the road from the base is a small hill with a path leading up to a helicopter pad that was depicted in the openings of both the movie and TV series.

H. Richard Hornberger based his 1968 book “MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” on his Korean War experiences as a surgeon with the 8055th MASH. That book was the basis for the movie and series which, like it or not, largely shaped how a couple of generations have perceived war-zone medical treatment.

Those who would staff the modern-day equivalent of the MASH units — if hostilities resumed on the peninsula — said that while they don’t really mind being thought of as the Hawkeyes, Trappers and Radars of their era, a lot has changed in the treatment of battlefield injuries since Korean War days.

“It has definitely improved,” said Capt. Alecia Williams, head Intensive Care Unit nurse with the 121st Combat Support Hospital at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. “The equipment is different. The tents are different. The facilities that we use are more advanced now.”

And while the doctors and nurses of “M*A*S*H” were depicted as highly dedicated, they did seem to spend a lot of their time cavorting, canoodling, boozing and carousing, which is not quite the way it is these days, according to one Army nurse.

“As far as the show goes, it’s for entertainment,” said 1st Lt. Meggan McKenna, a 121st staff nurse. “Some stereotypes might be slightly true, but it’s obviously not real life.

“I don’t think it bothers me, because anyone who has come into contact with military nurses quickly understands that … the doctor, patient and nurse relationships are always professional and we know our jobs,” she said.

Hornberger, who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, was widely credited with being true to the trappings of an actual Korean War MASH unit in his book, and that spirit was carried forward in the 1970 movie and the TV show that originally ran from 1972 to 1983 and has been in reruns on cable TV since.

According to Stripes archives, the 8055th moved to more than 20 locations on the peninsula during the Korean War. It was re-designated the 43rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in 1952, and moved several more times after the 1953 armistice that ended hostilities was signed, before settling at Camp Humphreys, where it operated until it was deactivated in 1997.

The last MASH unit worldwide was deactivated in 2006 in a nod to the increased capabilities of combat support hospitals. Those capabilities were on display earlier this month when the 121st traveled to Camp Humphreys to get an 84-bed hospital up and running in 72 hours as part of a Korea-wide military exercise.

Second Lt. Peter Samuel of the 121st explained that while the standard combat support hospital is larger and has more capabilities than the MASH units of the past, their roles are similar — to serve as a “bridge” between battalion aid stations at the front and fixed hospital facilities outside of the hostile area.

The primary mission is to provide hospitalization, stabilization and evacuation, and also to return injured soldiers to duty in a timely manner, Samuel said.

“We practice for the real thing,” he said.

Examples of modern medical technology and care are abundant in the combat support hospital.

Sgt. Maj. Nick Carey said the today’s combat support hospital provides a lot more services than the MASH of the past, including OB/GYN care and CT scans.

“Anything you can provide in a fixed facility, we can provide in the mobile hospital that we have,” he said. “We can do premier care. When people think of ‘M*A*S*H,’ they think of jokes and funning, but we’re serious professionals.”

Orthopedic surgeon Maj. Syed Ahmed said the system for getting the injured from the battlefield to the battalion aid station, and to the combat support hospital and on to a fixed hospital is much faster due to advances in burn treatment, wound care and fracture stabilization.

“In that sense, we are able to take care of patients a lot quicker and avoid some of the complications that you might have seen in previous wars,” he said.

Hospital commander Col. Ronald Smith said his physicians “try to provide care at the same quality level that we provide in our fixed-facility hospitals, because we know that we’re going to be held to that standard, even downrange believe it or not.”

One area where art imitates life fairly accurately, Ahmed said, is in how the movie and TV show portrayed the banter among doctors and nurses in the operating room.

“I think we all joke around in the operating room,” he said. “There is a great deal of camaraderie that develops because you are living in a confined area for extended periods of time, and you … have experiences that are somewhat traumatic as well as rewarding.”

Pfc. Bobby Owens, left, an operating room technician, and Co. Hyun Sim, an anesthesiologist, demonstrate how they would tend to a patient at a combat support hospital erected at Camp Humphreys in South Korea earlier this month.

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