Lt. Helen Maystrovich treats a soldier wounded in Korea at the Tokyo Army Hospital Jan 12, 1951.

Lt. Helen Maystrovich treats a soldier wounded in Korea at the Tokyo Army Hospital Jan 12, 1951. (U.S. Army)

“The nurses could not do enough for us. We knew they truly cared about us. They gave us the best treatment possible, and I saw them cry when a patient died.”

This is one of many powerful comments from wounded servicemen in the book “Quiet Heroes, Navy Nurses of the Korean War 1950-1953, Far East Command.” Whether it was a wounded GI helicoptered into a M-A-S-H unit, the life-saving surgery aboard a Navy hospital ship, or emergency procedures at 30,000 feet from an Air Force nurse during an evacuation flight, the courageous service by women awaited men during the worst moment of their lives. Keep in mind, in 1950, there were no male nurses. Life and death responsibility, in one of the worst wars this country ever fought, fell to women.

The history of female nursing in war goes back to Gen. George Washington’s troops in the Revolutionary War. Although not a formal part of the Continental Army, women stepped in and nursed those in need. Things evolved to the United States contracting for nurses in the Spanish-American War. That led to the first nurses being brought formally into the Army in 1901 and the Navy in 1908. When the Air Force separated into its own service at the end of World War II, nursing was an important function of this new branch of the military.

In June 1950, the North Korean army streamed across the 38th parallel. Two hundred American soldiers, supported by one nurse, stood in harm’s way. With the collapse of South Korean forces, it was a race to move Eighth Army troops and support services to prevent a total loss of the Korean Peninsula. Into that bloodbath, the first M-A-S-H nurses from Japan were soon scrubbing an abandoned schoolhouse in Taegu (now Daegu) for 24 hours straight to prepare for the hundreds of emergency surgeries that followed. Navy nurses scrambled to the hospital ship Consolation, rushing to the Far East where 72 hours straight of surgery greeted their arrival. And immediately, emergency care on crowded Air Force evacuation flights brought the servicemen to full care in Japan.

During the next three years, nurses not only took care of the wounded but often helped pioneer new life-saving measures. Lt. Mattie Donald is but one example. She helped put in place the first generation of artificial kidney machines that saved men suffering acute renal failure because of loss of blood.

Sixteen nurses lost their lives during that war. While none were killed in combat, three separate plane crashes claimed their young lives. Over 3,000 Army nurses, 4,000 Navy nurses and hundreds of Air Force nurses quietly saw action in that soon forgotten war. But the ones who will never forget are the men those nurses cared for.

Another wounded serviceman recounted in the Navy nurse book, “One day, while doing her job, she stopped in the midst of several bunks and took my hand. While tears ran down her face, she said to all of us patients around her, ‘I don’t know how you boys do what you do in combat. I will never forget you.’ And I have never forgotten her.”

Mike Weedall is an author living in Portland, Ore. His new historical novel “War Angel: Korea 1950” will be released this summer.

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