West Virginia nurse recalls duty with Army MASH unit in Korea
By HEATHER ZIEGLER | The Intelligencer | Published: December 1, 2018
WHEELING, W.Va. — It was a U.S. Army recruiter on campus at WVU who convinced the Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy alumnae she could see an exciting world if she joined the military.
"I always wanted to see California, so I said 'why not' and joined the Army," said Helen Faso, now 80 and a new resident at Elmhurst, House of Friendship, in Wheeling.
The Army held fast its promise to the young nurse and off to San Francisco she went. After basic training, where she learned to handle a rifle as well as surgical instruments, she worked in the neurology department at a San Francisco hospital. But a short six months into her military nursing career, she was ordered to Korea where she would work in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, commonly known as a M.A.S.H. unit.
These were portable medical facilities that moved closer to the action to serve the wounded. They were developed in 1945 by a World War II surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey.
"I went over to Korea . . . it was the 1960s and most of my friends were going to Vietnam," Faso said. "We practiced a lot in case we had to take down the unit, but it didn't happen very often."
Faso achieved the rank of captain and was the head nurse of the M.A.S.H. 4077, where young surgeons were getting their feet wet. She said the M.A.S.H. units provided medical care to prepare the wounded American GIs for transport home. However, the barely-out-of-medical school surgeons would "practice" their trade more indepth on injured Koreans, Faso said.
"They took care of a lot Koreans," she said. "It was how they learned."
The war between North and South Korea began in June 1950. According to the History Channel, the Korean War was relatively brief but exceptionally bloody. Nearly 5 million people died. More than half of these — about 10 percent of Korea's prewar population — were civilians. This rate of civilian casualties was higher than World War II's and Vietnam's. Almost 40,000 Americans died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.
Faso said conditions in Korea were not as brutal as depicted in the famed "M.A.S.H." TV show. She said they experienced the seasons much like those in West Virginia, so she knew how to cope with cold winters and hot summers. In her leadership role, she directed the care of patients while corpsmen did the hands-on treatment.
"The worst part was officers were not allowed to drive, so I had to have someone take me wherever I needed to go," she said. "We liked to go into Seoul whenever we could. It wasn't real exciting, a lot of basic training stuff."
She said Rosie's Bar & Grill, shown in the TV show, was an actual place and a popular watering hole for the military.
After 18 months in Korea, Faso married and had a daughter, Aimee. Later divorced, Faso continued her nursing career and her medical surgical training along the way. She earned a master's degree in nursing from the Medical College of Georgia and her PhD from the University of Texas.
She moved back to Wheeling where she began teaching at Wheeling Jesuit University, a job she loved almost as much as nursing. Faso retired at age 75 but never regretted saying "yes" to an Army recruiter many years ago.
"We were close in Korea but once we went home, we all kind of went our own ways . . . we had some good times, good memories," she said.
Information from: The Intelligencer