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Interviews and Reminiscences: COL Edwin L. Overholt, Medical Corps, Task Force Smith
THE ARMY MEDICAL DEPARTMENT IN THE KOREAN WAR: INTERVIEWS AND REMINISCENCES
COLONEL EDWIN L. OVERHOLT, MEDICAL CORPS
TASK FORCE SMITH
During the 1960s, the former Historical Unit, Army Medical Department, conducted a large number of interviews and requested reminiscences from AMEDD personnel who served during the Korean War period, whether they were stationed in Korea itself or elsewhere. The materials collected during this project are today stored in the archival collections of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA.
The reminiscence presented here is drawn from a letter of 28 January 1966 that COL Edwin L. Overholt, Medical Corps, then Chief of the Department of Medicine at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, CO, wrote to the Historical Unit. In it he discusses his experience as the medical officer with Task Force Smith of the 21th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, in early July 1950 and his observations on the functioning of the medical company in combat in Korea.
Edwin L. Overholt
This is a belated reply to your letter of 29 June 1965. I hope this additional information will be of use to you.
One of your first questions was: Where were you stationed on 30 June? In 1950, there was a critical shortage of Medical Corps officers. The last group of physicians who had pay back time for the Army training in medical school during World War II were completing their obligation in the spring of 1950. The doctor draft law had been discontinued, and there was an acute shortage of physicians. Accordingly, the Surgeon General hit upon the idea of picking from his teaching hospitals young residents in different specialties and in varying stages of their training for a 90-day TDY. Some 40 of us were sent to Japan. I remember very vividly walking into the Division Surgeon’s Office of the 24th Division at Kokura, the island of Kyushu, Japan. There were three of us, all Captains, two internists and one surgeon. Since we were only going to be there for 90 days, we drew straws for the jobs. One physician was assigned to the regiment at Beppu, another at Sasebo, and I to the headquarters dispensary in Kokura. In this position, I was the spare tire and went to whatever regiment that on maneuvers to cover the dependents. In the interim period, I was a dispensary physician at Division Headquarters, Kokura. It became my responsibility when the evacuees from Korea began to hit Japan to set up a medical clearing station at Fukuoka for medical assistance to the dependents, etc. Just after completing this task which took about a week, I was called at about midnight and given the order to report to the Itazuke Air Force Base by 0600, 1 July 1950--and to be in full field equipment. Since I was in Japan on TDY, I had not been given full field equipment. I spent the reminder of the night in a strange base with the aid of a Captain [Douglas R.] Anderson, MSC officer, who was later captured and subsequently died in a prison camp, obtaining the necessary field equipment. I inherited my aid station on the plane. I knew none of the corpsmen and received no briefing whatsoever in regard to the medical problems. In this regard, my background was that of the usual medical student who took an Army internship and then immediately went into a residency. I had no prior field experience or any type of course at Fort Sam Houston.
The composition of Task Force Smith, etc., is much as was stated by Lt Colonel Raymond Adams. We landed in the rain and mud at Pusan, Korea. As we walked through the streets to the railroad station, two companies, with only limited fire power capability, that we could carry, it was self-evident that no such a unit could withstand any assault. We took a train to Taejon and, as you can see from Lt Colonel Adams’ report, the 1st Battalion was split in half, one company at Pyongtaek and one at Ansong. He went with the company to Ansong and I remained at Pyongtaek. There was no medical facility at Taejon at that time. I did have communication with as MSC officer, a Lt Colonel whose name I have forgotten, and we did set up a system whereby casualties would be evacuated from Pyongtaek by a self-propelled rail car which was called the "doodle-bug" The subsequent circumstances never permitted this chain of evacuation to come into existence.
Prior to the 5th of July, there were very few medical casualties, a few fractures, etc., and the traffic of South Koreans going south was intense. I would put the appropriate identification on a GI and stick him on a South Korean truck, knowing full well that he would get as far south as a South Korean could go, probably Pusan. The paradox, I must emphasize, at this stage was overwhelming. A few hundred American troops, poorly equipped without organic transportation going north and literally thousands of much better equipped South Koreans going south. Of great fear to the South Koreans were the tanks which they had little capability to stop. I found out that we didn't either, but more of that later.
The division of the two companies and the absence of Lt Adams who knew the men and had been on training with them on several occasions presented very definite problems for me which will become apparent later. I was beginning to get to know the men but the opportunity to assess how good they were had not presented itself. We remained in Pyongtaek until the evening of 4 July. On the previous day, Lt Colonel Smith took his staff on patrol to select an area to make the first stand against the North Koreans. The site chosen has been described by Lt Colonel Adams. I chose to put the aid station on the back slope of the same hilly area where the troops would be on the forward slope. I carefully marked out where to put the aid station and discussed it in some detail with the Battalion Commander, Lt Colonel Smith, who agreed with its position. It was not placed on the roadside because it would have been at least two to three miles from the forward position of the companies. This is too far to litter carry a man who needs help, also too far to carry a man even if one had plenty of men which we did not. It was known that the North Koreans had tanks and, should they get through the road blocks, the aid station would be in direct view and be rendered ineffective if it were near the road. Also at this point, we had no organic transportation to get wounded men down the road. It was for these reasons that the aid station was close to the front lines
and off the only available road. In lieu of this, I took two old South Korean trucks that we had commandeered and put them at the closest point on the road to the aid station. They were to be used for evacuation to Pyongtaek and to the "doodle-bug" which should be waiting for casualties to take them to Taejon.
I remember before going into position at Osan 5 July that a Brigadier General showed up and spoke to the troops. It was admitted that as a token force we were a demonstration of American intent to halt the aggressive and invading forces of North Korea. Too many assumed that this show of force would halt the war, that the North Koreans would not take on an adversary with our ultimate potential. I had no such delusions.
We moved out under blackout the late hours of 4 July. As is customary, the medical component was the last vehicle in the convoy. We had great difficulty in keeping our vehicle running because of a very poor radiator and had to frequently fill the radiator from the ever present water which was abundantly available by virtue of drenching rain. The muddy roads were nearly impassable. Ultimately we did arrive at the bend in the road where I placed the two trucks to be used for evacuation. It was pitch-black and I was indeed glad that I had left markers indicating how to get into the position. The troops had already moved out and into position. However, my medics were reluctant to move into position because of a fear of walking into a North Korean trap. In spite of direct command, they refused. I went forward alone turning around occasionally and indicating that I was still intact by using the appropriate language well recognized by GI's. It took me something like two and one-half hours to get the medics into position at the aid station. The rain was a real downpour and everybody was soaking wet. While still dark, the medical kits were placed under a lean-to with canvas cover, and the medics were directed to dig foxholes. Early in the morning, Lt Adams joined us. As you recall, he was with the other company, so all that had transpired prior to this time was without his benefit, an officer they knew and had been on maneuvers with!
Illustration 1: Position of Task
Force Smith on Osan-Suwon Road, f rom Roy Appleman, South to the Naktong,
North to the Yalu (June-November 1950)(US Army, Office of the Chief
of Military History, 1961), p. 64.
The events described by Lt Colonel Adams are essentially correct during the 5th and 6th of July. The Russian tanks rapidly went down the road through our position and obviously eliminated this route of evacuation. During the period of intense combat, I don't know the number of hours that transpired because I was extremely busy. I know that Lt Adams carefully checked the medical support; that is, the medical aid men and litter-bearers behind the companies and made certain that they knew exactly where the aid station was. I also know that the closeness of the aid station under the trying situation without adequate litter-bearers was absolutely essential and a wise move. All the casualties readily found the aid station. I was occupied by the usual types of battle wounds. First aid was rendered, that is, splint the part, stop the bleeding, and give the patient reassurance, morphine if indicated, appropriate tags, etc. These simple procedures were
Lt Colonel Adams indicates that he was informed of the withdrawal and a decision by Lt Colonel Smith that Max Myers and "Frenchy" Fortuna, two medics, volunteered to remain behind. Both of these decisions were not made known to me. The chaplain, who was of great assistance, and several medics with me continued to be occupied in the care of the wounded when a 2nd Lt came running over the hill, stopped dead in his tracks, and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?" It was at this point that we found out that the two companies had withdrawn. I directed the medics to put the wounded men on their backs and try to carry the more seriously ill by litter. At this moment, there was a great deal of firing into our position with some of the wounded and medics becoming casualties. The cause for this was the appearance of North Koreans less than three to four blocks from us. Although we were well marked with Red Cross arm bands and helmets, obviously carrying casualties, and medics also do not have any weapons, they opened fire on the group. Prior to this event, the chaplain and I had decided to remain but, at this point, it seemed to be a hopeless gesture. I remember a man with a belly wound looking up and telling me to get the hell out of there. The action of the North Koreans indicated that they were not interested in respecting medics or casualties. The situation seemed hopeless, so the chaplain and I did just what the wounded man urged us to do--get the hell out of there. It turned out that I did end up in the group with Lt Adams and, during the long forced march, rendered first aid and, equally important, encouragement to those who wanted to give up because of their extreme fatigue. A remarkable number of men made it back under most trying circumstances.
This, then, gives you a bird's eye view of my recollection of the first combat and the medical support of the Korean Campaign. I have also included comments by Lt Colonel Hinrichs, who was an MSC officer of the 21st Infantry Regiment during the early part of the campaign. Finally, I have inclosed a talk on "The Medical Company in Combat in Korea" which I gave six months after my return to my residency from Korea. I have not looked at it for 15 years but found it in my file. It my be of some interest to you. If there are other aspects of medical care during the later battles of the first six months of the Korean Campaign that you would like to know about, I may be of some help. . . .
THE MEDICAL COMPANY IN COMBAT IN KOREA
To the many who have had experiences under combat, the only unique feature of any war is the unfortunate fact that you have been a part of it. The Korean Campaign has differed little from any other initial campaign we have engaged in. Its philosophical and political background was different, the stage varied, but its filth, heartbreaks, sorrow, suffering, and death are no better or worse than others. The emphasis shall be placed on the experiences encountered as a battalion and regimental surgeon of the first group of fighting men in Korea and the subsequent six months. The men were poorly equipped, trained, and neither physically or psychologically prepared for the rugged campaign. At most, each unit was up to two-thirds strength, using old equipment, and, if adequate, not in sufficient quantities.
The fighting was to be in mountainous country, rugged terrain, with intervening rice paddies, with few roads which were never built to bear the brunt of the heavy transportation of a mechanized army. The climate, in itself, produced considerable problem; from the extreme heat of 110o to the sub-zero weather, it offered a problem in existence. In the summer heat, exhaustion, salt depletion, the maceration of skin, dermatitis, to the frostbite in winter. To be taken into consideration obviously are the local diseases, such as the ever preset diarrheas, malaria, and encephalitis. The adversary was ruthless, outnumbered, outgunned, outflanked, and overran us, necessitating innumerable withdrawals with the ever relentless loss of men to an already too few number. Our greatest problem was instilling minimal morale.
The medical company has approximately 208 men, 5 MC officers, one regimental surgeon, and 8 MSC. There are 195 enlisted men when the unit is at full strength.
Supporting each of the three battalions of the regiment is a medical aid station, commanded by a battalion surgeon who is responsible for the care of the wounded and sick, including the evacuation from the line to his aid station. He must be aware of the tactical situation and the positions of the companies on the line. His aid station is located within a few hundred yards, if feasible, but, by necessity must always be in an area where it can function. An aid station sticking out in the middle and easy prey to direct fire is worse than none.
The initial problem in Korea and a still ever present one is the problem
of getting the wounded men from a mountain top to the aid station.
Because of the necessity of covering a wide area, a company of riflemen
may be spread out as much as two miles. To care for such a situation,
it would be physically impossible to centralize medical support. Transportation
was by litter jeep, a very rugged unit, which the North Koreans used to take
great delight in taking pot-shots at. In respect to litter-bearers,
it takes at least four men to carry a wounded an for any significant distance
and, under the terrain problem, this became a backbreaking and almost impossible
task. This was solved by going out and commandeering South Koreans
and forcing them into our service.
Because of the wide deployment of men, as I mentioned previously, it was impossible for a battalion aid station to function in one location. Therefore, we set up what we called forward shock treatment units in which a skilled technician and his men were placed near the front lines and carried on similar
functions as a battalion aid station. These then were channeled through as quickly as possible to the aid station and rechecked.
What is a doctor doing at the aid station? I know that in the bitter era of the Korean Campaign, many of the doctors felt that there was no necessity for having them at such a level. A skilled technician or MSC officer could perform all of the first aid procedures that a doctor is capable of; however, they are incapable of evaluating the non-combat problems, the malingerer, psychogenic problems, the many petty foot problems, etc. It is well to remember that each echelon through which a man is evacuated, not only has he lost considerable period of fighting days, but he is that much more difficult to get back to the front. Finally, psychologically a surgeon in the immediate vicinity of a combat troop is of paramount importance to morale.
I don't intend to discuss the type of wounds or the problems that they present; they were no different than any of the general wound that we received in World War II. Of utmost importance is stopping the bleeding, preferably by pressure, if necessary by tourniquet well marked and released every 15-20 minutes for a matter of seconds, immobilizing the extremity, giving plasma at forward levels to prevent irreversible shock, and starting penicillin, streptomycin, and tetanus antitoxin. Speedy evacuation is the one key factor paramount to all wounds. If at all possible, all men were evacuated by ambulance from the battalion level inasmuch as all available litter jeeps were used forward of the battalion aid station, as close the company as possible to cut down on the terrifically back-breaking litter-bearer's job.
The battalion surgeon had to practice preventive medicine, i.e., the proper preparation of water, the getting taking of water and salt tablets to the men, the taking of chloroquine, the care of feet, and the problems of personal hygiene had to be constantly preached. It is not enough to go forward to a company
commander and inform him of this, but you have failed in your job if you have not talked to his men and instilled in them and exemplified through your own men who are at their level the personal pride of a good soldier.
The collecting station was localized as centrally as possible and had many of the similar problems as a battalion aid station. It is probably in somewhat more comfortable confines but is within firing range of the enemy. At this level, men can be kept for approximately a three-day period of time, providing the situation is fairly stable. It is impossible to pile up 50-60 men with severe foot problems, diarrheas, and fevers when your front line is not stable and you are being outflanked, or, later, when we broke through the Naektong [Naktong] rim to push north and moving 50-60 miles a day. If at all possible, such problems should be kept at this forward echelon and not be lost to the rear. These men are very promptly evacuated via ambulances to the clearing station which is a matter of a few miles down the road. Later on, the severely wounded were frequently evacuated by helicopter from collecting level and, on occasions, even at a battalion level, providing that station as not in too vulnerable a spot, because of the easy prey a helicopter is to enemy fire. This evacuation requires a well integrated team which is immediate and ever present liaison with whatever unit of the infantry it is supporting. It obviously implies excellent maintenance of all forms of vehicles used in transportation, as well as the finding and marking of available roads. Because of infiltration and outflanking, these routes of evacuation were frequently interrupted. The regimental surgeon is responsible to direct and support the men from the company aid down to the collecting station level. I thought of him as a director of a taxicab service. His job is to assure rapid evacuation of the wounded through the various channels as I have mentioned. This chain of evacuation is no better than any part of it. It starts with the most important man, the fellow aptly known by his fellow riflemen as "Doc," the company aid man.
It is also the regimental Surgeon’s job to see that his men are properly trained, equipped, and led. He must guard against the actual dissemination of the fighting troops through medical channels. By necessity, in the initial part of the war, many men were sent back to the front in our outfit who could easily have been evacuated under conditions which existed later on. Our motto is to preserve the fighting strength, not to evacuate it. In the initial period of six months, for those who initially went in with great expectations and then to see it drop to an impossible low, and to the few that remained to see a well integrated, well equipped, and hard striking army, with adequate and proper medical support; this was a lesson in the resourcefulness of this country.