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M*A*S*H In Real Life - Nurse Recalls Korea, ‘The Forgotten War'

Intelligencer Journal - May 25, 2009

By LORI VAN INGEN, Staff Writer

When nurse Marie Cottrell tried to enlist in the Army during World War II, her 5-foot-7 1/2-inch, 120-pound frame was deemed "too thin," and she was turned away.

A few years later, the Korean War began. Cottrell's weight hadn't changed, but this time the military welcomed the Long Island native. It had become apparent that more surgical nurses were going to be needed to help the large numbers of wounded soldiers.

At so in April 1951, at age 30, Cottrell began basic training at the San Antonio Hospital.

She was sent to Fort Leonard and Fort Dix before heading overseas to Osaka, Japan, in January 1952. Six months later, she was transferred to Korea, where she spent the next 14 months as a first lieutenant with the 121st Evac Unit, near Seoul.

"We had quite a large unit," the Manheim Township resident said. "We were lucky. Our hospital was a burned-out school building."
They had a lot of work, treating an average of 100 patients every day. More than 40,000 soldiers came through the evac unit during the time Cottrell was stationed there, she said.

Cottrell was an operating room supervisor, tasked with seeing that the tables were set and ready to go for each surgery. "We had 10 tables in a big room, and we kept moving them in and out for minor surgeries. We also had two rooms that were private for major surgery."

Cottrell was in charge of the 12 nurses in surgery and the GI medics.

"The (severely wounded) patients were brought in by helicopter. We'd hear choppers and made a beeline to surgery," Cottrell said. Those with less severe injuries came in by train.

She recalled one young man who had a trip flare go off in his abdomen. "It was lying on the ground and he stepped on it. He had third-degree burns from his chest to his ankles," she said. She was there for 12 of the 18 hours he spent in surgery.

Later, the 8th Army Headquarters wanted the bandages removed. The evac unit's doctors didn't want them removed for fear he would go into kidney failure.

The orders from headquarters were finally carried out, and the doctors were right — the soldier did go into kidney failure. There was only one dialysis machine, at a unit north of them, so he was shipped there.

Besides her work at the evac unit, Cottrell was sent to set up a M*A*S*H unit at the front lines near the 38th parallel. "We had to have it set up in 12 hours to receive patients. We made it. We were to be ready for patients in case they came, and they came," Cottrell said.

Conditions were primitive.

"It was brutally hot in Korea, and we spent six weeks without showers. That was not good," she said.

Cottrell said she thought their nine-hole latrine would be the end of her. "I can't go in public places, but I learned."

Medical personnel lived in quonset huts. "In the front was the sitting room. A bar was in the sitting room, and we partied. ... It was just party, party, party, like they did in the 'M*A*S*H' TV show."

She recalled that cigarettes were 20 cents a pack and booze was $2 a bottle, which they bought at the officer's club.
The bulletin board, she said, was where they "found out all the dirt, the scoop."

"We had a radio, and the G.I. station played the most beautiful music — Mantovani. It was so peaceful, it felt like being in heaven. I went to see him at Carnegie Hall when I got home," Cottrell said.

Cottrell also recalled "Bed Check Charlie," a single plane that made regular night-time nuisance bombing runs. "At 10 p.m., the North Korean Communists flew over us. They blew up an oil tank near us one night, but most nights nothing, just fly over us to scare us," she said.

Cottrell thought the "M*A*S*H" television series captured the essence of her experience.

"They had sad times and happy times. We had had sad times and happy times. If there were not too many casualties or we were successful at saving them, we were happy. Otherwise, it was depressing."

She didn't care for the "M*A*S*H" movie, however. "It was terrible with all the sex and drugs, but there were no drugs in Korea," she said. "The sex I don't know — I didn't."

Just as in the TV show and movie, Cottrell's unit had a "wonderful commanding officer and a wonderful chaplain."
"Morale was very good," Cottrell said.

Unfortunately, that didn't last. "After the CO went home, we had a different CO, and the morale went down the tubes. We had a couple of suicides then. The chaplain was sent to Japan. It was very depressing."

When the war ended in summer 1953 and the soldiers began coming home, Cottrell said it always made her sad that they received so little recognition. "That's why it's called, 'The Forgotten War,' " she said. "They were not greeted, period. We lost 40,000 GIs in that battle."

Cottrell's tour of duty continued a while longer. In January 1954, she was discharged.
Cottrell said she feels bad every Memorial Day because the stores are always open and few people take the time to remember the veterans who are gone.

"What does it take to give up one day?" Cottrell wondered.

Cottrell, now 89, said she used to take flowers to the cemetery for her brother, Robert "Kippy" Cottrell, who died in World War II.

"It would be nice if people would take a couple of geranium plants and put them on one grave," she said.

She's proud of the wreath with red, white and blue ribbons that a friend made for her and which now hangs on her door "until the last one of our boys comes home from Iraq. I don't know if I'll ever see that day, but I hope so," Cottrell said.

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