Fr. F. J. P. Mulcahy,
4077th MASH Unit,
Thank you for your last letter, which caught up with me yesterday. Yes, I have finally reached my latest home-from-home, though that doesn’t mean I won’t still be on the move. MASH 4077, after all, is one of the new Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals—and the word “Mobile” in the name means just what you think it means. I fear this will mean a peripatetic existence as we pick up and follow the fighting. How frequently, I don’t know yet. Time will tell.
Our commanding officer—or should I say “their”? Yours and mine is, of course, our Lord above. Well, my commanding officer here on earth, for the duration of my stay at the 4077th, is Lt-Col. Henry Blake. I’m not sure quite what to make of him. When I reported on arrival, I don’t think he quite registered at first just who I was. He seemed very friendly, shook my hand, and told me he hoped I had a pleasant stay! I think he thought I was just visiting the hospital. It was the young clerk, Cpl. O’Reilly, who leaned in and whispered (quite audibly, I’m afraid) that I was the new chaplain. However, I’m sure it is simply that Col. Blake is far too busy to deal with minor matters such as new transfers, especially when you consider that he is also one of the surgeons at the hospital. At least, in the operating theatre he doesn’t wear that most disreputable old hat with fishing flies stuck all round the brim.
Within an hour of my arrival, I found myself right in the thick of things. Col. Blake was in the middle of telling me a bit about the men under his command (and women, too, for—being a hospital—the 4077th has several nurses assigned to it), when the clerk suddenly turned and gazed away into the distance. Then he said, almost to himself, “Choppers.” Immediately, the colonel turned to him and said, “Are you sure, Radar?” Instead of answering, the lad rushed to a microphone (attached to the loudspeaker system in the camp), and announced, “Attention, all personnel. Incoming wounded.” After which, there was a flurry of activity.
I fear I shall become all too accustomed to hearing those words, “incoming wounded”. In just the time I’ve been here, there have been casualties almost every day, coming in from a battle to the north of us. That, after all, is the reason for our presence here. Yet it is a sorry reflection on the world around us, that so many people have come so far, simply in order to kill one another. Of course, looking on the bright side, men (and women, too) from seventeen countries have come together under the United Nations in the cause of protecting freedom. But it is still a war, and people die. Not just the soldiers, either. In just a week, the doctors here have treated many Korean civilians—an old man, four women and two young children, even a tiny babe. The bullet passed right through him and killed his mother as he lay in her arms. A most piteous sight.
Most of the surgeons here make no distinction when they treat the wounded. An American G.I. Joe or a farmer injured by a mine going off while he tries to plow a field, both are given equal care and skill. The Chief of Surgery is a man named Hawkeye Pierce. An unusual name, I thought. It was two days before I got around to checking the personnel records and learned that his Christian name is actually “Benjamin Franklin”. Curiously, he is only a captain, yet he has been made the chief of surgery even though there is another doctor who outranks him, Major Frank Burns. Maj. Burns is also a far more military man, in his dress and bearing and speech. There is no polite way to describe Hawkeye Pierce in military terms! He obviously loathes being in Korea, hates the army, and does everything in his power to act as though his life were still under his own command—for which, I must admit, I do rather admire the man. From what I have seen (in so few days here!), his morals are deplorable, but he is clearly an excellent surgeon who cares for his patients. Indeed, he goes to great lengths to save even those most desperately injured. I saw his face when he lost a man on the operating table. (I, too, have my role here, you see; and it is not merely tending to the souls of my flock among the staff of the 4077th.)
Both Maj. Burns and Capt. Pierce share a large tent with several other doctors, just as the nurses share a tent, and so do the orderlies. Well, most of them. There is one orderly named Klinger (whose first name I have yet to learn) who is trying the most desperate means to get out of the army. So much so that none of the other men is willing to share a tent with him lest they be tarred with the same brush. I may say more about this in a later letter. At the moment, I have not yet had a chance to talk with the man. Perhaps a guiding hand is all he needs. Col. Blake is very easy-going—that is all I can say for now, and perhaps that is the kindest way to put it. However, I should add that the men do seem quite fond of their commanding officer, in their own way, and not without respect for him. As for Cpl. Klinger, several of the doctors seem to treat him almost as a mascot—perhaps because they too feel out of place in army life. In truth, many of them were civilians only months ago, and remain civilians at heart. Seeing the ravages of war all about them and treating its casualties, it is not surprising that their dearest wish is to leave Korea behind them and go home.
The doctors’ tent is nicknamed “The Swamp”, for reasons which are obvious as soon as you enter. They employ a young Korean lad as houseboy, which is no doubt a valuable source of income for his family. (The war is so very disruptive of daily life for the civilian population.) However, they use him more to fetch and carry, and the state of “The Swamp” leaves a great deal to be desired. Ah, men on their own! I would say they all need wives to keep them in order, if it weren’t for the fact that several of them are, in fact, married with wives and children back home. Among these are Maj. Burns and Capt. McIntyre—“Trapper John” McIntyre, he is called for some reason. (As you can see, armed forces personnel are very fond of calling each other by nicknames.) I’m sorry to have to say that Pierce and McIntyre are quite inseparable in their bad habits—drinking, gambling, and chasing the nurses. Pierce, at least, is a bachelor.
Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and I have no reason to believe any of the nurses does more than flirt with the doctors. Indeed, they have little opportunity! They are kept firmly in line by the Head Nurse, Maj. Houlihan. Her career is the army, and it shows. I would say that she and Maj. Burns are the only officers here whose appearance is truly a credit to our forces. However, you can’t tell a book by its cover. The truth is, I have been here only a week.
Tomorrow is Sunday, and I preach my first sermon. I have no idea how many will turn up. Given Col. Blake’s easy ways, I’m sure attendance is not compulsory at any service.
I am still mulling over what to say. Once I have been here a while, I will have a better understanding of the...the nuances of life at the 4077th. At the moment, I fear I am in danger of putting a foot wrong, punching the wrong opponent, and landing on the mat (if I’m not mixing a metaphor in there somehow). Perhaps the safest topic is simply endurance in the face of duty. It has been a very tiring week.
Your loving brother,