Part 4 – Burma Journal – December 25, 1944 to March 31, 1945
December 25, 1944
Here we are at the 335th Station Hospital in Tagap Burma. The hospital is up and running with 100 beds. The location in the middle of the jungle required several months of hard work spent clearing the land and repairing or replacing the dilapidated buildings. Our compound is made up of a medical laboratory, pharmacy, operating rooms, patient rooms, and mess hall and living quarters. We have a water system that carries water from high in the mountains to the hospital and there is a drainage system to help manage the flooding that occurs during the rainy season. The surgical buildings have concrete foundations and are powered by generators.
Our Bashas (makeshift shelters) are set up with two to a room divided by a bamboo wall to separate us from the nurses sharing the other room. The windows are made of Bamboo and we can open and close them which is important during the strong winds and rain. The floors are covered with bamboo mats and colorful camel hair rugs. The rugs make it feel homier.
Homesickness has not been much of a problem, but I am feeling extremely homesick at the moment. Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. Memories of Christmas past at home with my family make me nostalgic. I have good reason to be homesick, I haven’t seen my folks since June 1st and that was only for a ten-day leave. Ten days goes by so quickly, especially when I knew that I would soon be posted overseas. Arizona is a long way from home, but I was pretty sure the next stop for me would likely be somewhere on
the other side of the world, and here I am, in the Himalayan Mountains of Burma. One requirement to survival in the Army is the ability to adapt, and I have learned to be good at that.
The weather here is cold, with biting winds and heavy wet fog. But the nasty weather has not dampened our holiday spirits. Thanks to the Special Services unit, we have trees and decorations for our makeshift club. All of us have been busy making our own decorations. It turns out that empty Plasma cans can be made into lovely stars for the tree. Our club is one of the original buildings that still needs to be renovated, but today it looks almost like a Christmas scene from home. Soldiers from the nearby Ordinance and Engineering units are coming to celebrate with us. The buffet table is filled with rations from the PX and the special treats from home that everyone brought to share.
Our meals are served in the mess hall. There is plenty of food, but it gets very monotonous. Sometimes the mess officers travel more than 200 miles in a day to bring back enough food for several days. Their trips often result in meals that include things like fresh vegetables, eggs, chicken and fish, which are greatly appreciated by all of us. We have plenty of money and no place to spend it, so we pool our resources to make things more comfortable in what can be less than a comfortable place.
Our staff consists of 16 physicians and 16 nurses. Our patient load consists of Negro and white Americans, as well as Indian and Burmese laborers. Routine daily care usually includes treatment for colds, Malaria, pneumonia, broken bones, and sprained backs. Our patients stay with us until they are able to return to duty or are stable enough to be evacuated to a general hospital. During the month of December, we had 50 cases of malaria, one case of typhus and the rest were traumatic injuries resulting from jeep and truck accidents along Ledo Road.
The light patient census at the beginning has made it possible for our nurses to work short six-hour shifts except for the days when storms wash out the roads to our quarters which can result in a 24-hour shift. Currently, there is no need for night nurses. The light schedule allows all the personnel to take advantage of the courses offered by the Armed Forces Institute. Both enlisted and officers are taking part in the classes. Typing is the most popular class for the nurses. My roommate and I are competing to see who gets the fastest typing speed. While we have the time, we are making some of the surgical supplies that are needed. We sew things like caps, surgical masks, and sheets. Since I am not handy with a needle, I am painting the cabinets for the wards. Everyone is helping in whatever way they can.
The construction of the Ledo Road and the casualties resulting from that 1000-mile project has resulted in a greatly increased patient load. The 335th Station Hospital is the treatment center for all personnel building the road. The injuries that occur with soldiers using heavy equipment in treacherous weather conditions create the major portion of our patient census. The proudest moment for all of us on the medical staff was Dr. Strickland’s refusal to segregate the hospital and reserve beds for white soldiers. Dr. Strickland cited his belief that all soldiers equally shared pain, suffering, and hope throughout their time engineering a difficult military route, and thus, all deserve equal care and medical attention regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
Our patient census has now increased enough to require three eight-hour shifts. The night nurses work two-week assignments. When corpsmen are available, they assist us by treating routine cases, which frees the rest of us to treat patients with more serious issues. In addition to the Ledo Road patients, we have had a very busy four-week period where we treated Chinese troops who were fighting in Burma. These soldiers had so many wounds, some from artillery, tank, and land mines. With only 16 nurses to treat patients, it quickly became clear that we all have to step up to assume greater responsibility. We are quickly learning the signs and symptoms required to identify different tropical diseases. The surgical nurses are dressing wounds without the presence of the doctors and the medical nurses are instituting intravenous fluids and routine courses of medication on our own.
Penicillin is a new drug that we are using for the first time. We have to account for every drop used. It is used as a very effective treatment for syphilis, but it certainly has been life saving for serious wounds. Here we are using the newest in medicine, but at the same time, we are finding ways to combat the ever-present mold and mildew. We have been using the metal cans that our butter comes in to store our surgical supplies. Although not very fancy, the cans get the job done. As a group, we have stayed pretty healthy in spite of all we deal with. We make sure to take our Atabrine to protect us from malaria. The only side effect of the medicine is that it makes your skin look yellow. One of the nurses even used it to dye the curtains in her Basha. They are a lovely shade of Canary yellow.
A severe storm came through last night and demolished our movie theatre and tore the roofs off most of the other buildings. By the time the storm was over, things looked worse than they did when we first arrived. Once again, the Army units responsible for the site worked night and day to put the place back together. The wards and living quarters have been rebuilt and now are more convenient, as well as being larger and more airy. Our new theatre was designed by our Special Service officers and built by the enlisted men. All the nurses are using spare time to make new curtains and the Indian and Burmese laborers are doing the painting. The building has a stage with dressing rooms below. There is a large screen with a wooden (not bamboo) roof over the seating area. During construction of the new theatre, the Recreation Committee set up a screen next to the dental building so we didn’t have to miss our regular schedule of three shows a week. The Indian Mahuts, (Mahuts are the Indian Elephant workers who are helping with construction of Ledo Road) always come to the movies, they usually arrive riding their elephants – a sight I will never forget.
Recently, the more moderate temperatures make it possible to continue with construction of buildings that weren’t considered a priority at opening. Our makeshift club has a fresh coat of paint, a bar has been added and there is now a library which also serves as a game and reading room. We are isolated here in the mountains, but thanks to the Recreation Committee we have many activities. There is volleyball, tennis, ping-pong, horse shoes, basketball, and baseball. We even get to travel to softball and basketball games, even though some of them are a hundred miles away. Twice a month, we have Saturday evening dances in the officer’s club. The Recreation Committee events and the shows from USO and GI programs really help keep morale high for all the staff at the 335th. We have had a few mild days and it has been nice to be able to wear our seersucker uniforms, but we still wear slacks under them, as part of the malaria protection protocol. Six of our nurses are on rest leave in India for 15 days and when they return the rest of us, in groups of two or four, will be going on rest leave as well. I am really looking forward to someplace warm and sunny.
Dec 1944 – Double Victory, Cheryl Mullenbach, pg. 133–135, G.I. Nightingales, the Army Nurse Corps in World War II, Barbara Brooks Tomblin, pg. 163
Jan 1945 – G.I. Nightingales, the Army Nurse Corps in World War II, Barbara Brooks Tomblin, pg. 163-164
Feb 1945 – No Time for Fear, Diane Burke Fessler, pg. 56, 58, 106, 108, G.I. Nightingales, the Army Nurse Corps in World War II, Barbara Brooks Tomblin, pg. 168
A History of US Army Nurse Corps, by Mary T. Sarnecky, Univ of PA Press (1999) pg. 209
Mar 1945 – Historical Report, Army Nurse Corps, 30 July 1945, Lt. Daryle Foister, 383rd & 335th Station Hospital, Tagap, Burma pgs. 1 – 8