The Nurses Corps was involved in many combat situations during which they exhibited an undaunted spirit of dedication and bravery to our troops while assisting in the MASH units. Their bravery and courage under fire was unlimited ... On behalf of a grateful nation, we thank them for their sacrifices. May God bless those who served.... (A portion of a plaque dedicated to the nurses who served in the Korean War at the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia, PA)
From 1910 until 1945, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, the victorious Allied forces divided the country along the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union overseeing North Korea and the United States controlling South Korea. Both the US and the Soviet Union withdrew their forces by 1949. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA), with Soviet backing, launched a full scale military invasion of South Korea. Within three days the Northern forces captured the South Korean capital city of Soeul. On July 4th, 1950, President Truman sent US ground forces into South Korea.
The 24th Infantry Division landed in Korea on July 5th, 1950 and was quickly routed by the NKPA . On July 6, 1950 fifty-seven US Army nurses arrived in Pusan, South Korea to establish a hospital for the wounded. Two days later, on July 8, 12 Army nurses volunteered to move forward with the 8055 MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) to Taejon to meet and provide care to the retreating injured soldiers the 24th Infantry Division. (http://www.sptimes.com/2003/webspecials03/koreanwar/timeline.shtml)
One of these twelve nurses was Julia Choate Baxter from North Carolina. Baxter, born in Raleigh, NC on August 29, 1920, entered nursing school through the US Army Cadet Nursing Corps on September 20, 1943. Upon graduation she entered the US Army Nurse Corps from Asheboro, NC in April 1945as a Second Lieutenant. Before Korea, her assignments included hospital operating rooms in the US, Germany and Japan. Baxter entered Korea as a First Lieutenant and was later promoted to Captain.
The 12 US Army Nurse Corps officers traveled on a "flea and filth ridden train to Taejon" where they set up the first MASH unit in Korea. Within a month they had to retreat from Taejon to Taegu and back to their starting point of Pusan often within hearing distance of enemy fire. The nurses were "Constantly on the move in a variety of filthy, flea-ridden conveyances as the line advanced and retreated, the nurses improvised and functioned in an array of expedient shelters such as tents, barns, schoolhouses, rice mills and churches". (Quote from: http://koreanwar.defense.gov/factsheetarmynurses.html)
The month of July was a military disaster for American, South Korean, and United Nation's troops who retreated numerous times in the face of a superior NKPA armed with sophisticated Soviet weaponry. At least 3,000 American soldiers were listed as dead, wounded, or missing in action. As July ended American forces and their allies had retreated to the southern city of Pusan.
Baxter remembered her days in Korea this way: "We worked eight hours on and eight hours off for about a month before we went to twelve hours on and twelve hours off, but it didn't make a difference, we were on call 24 hours a day. I don't think we can imagine it, there might be a thousand wounded laying in the yard. But we were young and happy. We just accepted what came along. We worked as much as we could." (http://www.nps.gov/nama/parknews/upload/July-10-small.pdf)
In another interview she recalled: "When I first went to Korea each soldier that came in the operating room seemed like my brother.(who had been killed fighting in the Phillippines in 1945) It took a little while to get over that. We did a little crying and then we got back to work." (http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=45745)
Baxter and the other brave Army Nurse volunteers worked under difficult and challenging conditions. MASH unit nurses were close to the ever fluid battle lines with the constant threat of coming under enemy fire or being captured. Bathing and sewage facilities were makeshift at best. Brutally cold winters, excessive rain and mud and scorching hot summers presented many health problems unrelated to the war itself. Language and cultural misunderstandings between US military personnel and Koreans were a common occurrence. In addition, only 504 nurses served on the ground in Korea during the three years of the war. Those serving were often overwhelmed by the number of casualties they cared for. Sarnecky (2001) describes the work of the early MASH unit nurses in Korea this way
Army nurses independently triaged casualties, started blood transfusions, initiated penicillin therapy and sutured wounds ... They often cared for 200 or more critically wounded soldiers in a standard 60 bed MASH; off duty they provided food and nursing care to the local populace. (Sarnecky, M. T. (2001) Army nurses in "the forgotten war". American journal of nursing 101(11) November pg 45-49)
US Army nurses stationed in the Korean served six month rotations. Baxter moved from Korea to the Tokyo Army Hospital in Japan in the winter of 1950-51. For the remainder of the war she worked in an operating room on soldiers needing more extensive surgery that could be provided in Korea.
Her next posting was Iran. There Baxter met and married her husband, Daryle Baxter, another Army officer. Due to her pregnancy the following year, Baxter was discharged from the military as pregnant nurses were not allowed to serve.
Baxter and the other 11 nurses who volunteered for the dangerous assignment of setting up the first MASH unit in Korea, wherever they met the first retreating US Army soldiers to render aid and comfort earned respect and gratitude from a thankful nation that continues to this day.
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