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War is hell. This book offers the point of view of the nurses who risked their lives to
care for the military in Korea.
It’s 1950. Mary Belanger, a Reserve Army operating room nurse is called up and
must leave behind a philandering husband and the baby of his runaway sister. All
too soon, Mary is thrust into combat surgeries dealing with unimaginable wounds
and forced to grow in ways she never imagined. She and the other nurses do the
impossible every day saving the lives of American servicemen. When the war
reaches a stage there is hope for victory, their fate is dealt a cruel blow.
At a time when US Army regulations prohibited men from serving as nurses, the
actual experiences of the MASH Nurses operating close to combat is told in this
Mary Belanger was living her life in Manchester, New Hampshire, as a non-
practicing nurse when the Korean war began. She’d agreed to take care of her
husband’s niece when her sister-in-law disappeared and no one was available to
take care of little Cindy. Her husband Rob, who had difficulty holding a job, was
having an affair, and Mary and her mother were sharing child-care responsibilities
for Cindy while Rob ran around. Rob himself was barely contributing to his niece’s
Mary’s mother suggested that Mary join the Army Reserves so that she could earn
a little extra money, never expecting that Mary would be called up to active duty.
But that’s exactly what happened. After a whirlwind notice from the Army, Mary
left the protection of New Hampshire to train to become an Army nurse and head
to Korea to work in a MASH unit. She had questionable “experience” working in
an operating room, but the Army was so desperate for trauma nurses, it was
willing to take any nurse with even peripheral experience.
Mary tried to get an exemption from service by bringing up the situation with
Cindy, but since Cindy was not her biological child, the Army wasn’t buying the
The novel follows Mary’s harrowing journey through training, her deteriorating
relationship with Rob, complications with Cindy, the death of Rob’s sister, combat
nursing, gruesome surgeries, even racism in the military. The formerly insecure
Mary experiences an overview of the world through the lens of a once-sheltered
New Englander to realize how fortunate she has been in life. She also opens the
possibilities of new relationships instead of Rob.
The author is skilled at describing the horrors of war with accurate, poignant,
heartbreaking details. These depictions are especially important, in this reviewer’s
opinion, as today’s world is engulfed in wars on many fronts. The reality of war is
brought to life through Mary’s eyes. Her observations of the poverty of the
Korean people–especially mothers and children–demonstrate the effects of war
on everyday lives while war rages around people who are simply trying to live.
Mary’s values of humanitarianism and empathy are what are lacking as wars
continue to erupt in the 21st century. In reading Mary’s experiences, I have to
ask: have we learned nothing from the repeated failures of war? War,
destruction, wanton killing, deprivation, and chaos solve no problems; instead,
they create more calamity than they solve.
In my opinion, this is an important historical novel, because not enough people
know enough about the Korean War and its impact on the history of not only the
United States but also on the world. I highly recommend this book.
Wanda Adams Fischer
Saluting military nurses of the Korean War, and the progress they made
SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES • April 18, 2023
Lt. Helen Maystrovich treats a soldier wounded in Korea at the Tokyo Army Hospital Jan 12, 1951. (U.S. Army)
“The nurses could not do enough for us. We knew they truly cared about us. They gave us the best treatment possible, and I saw them cry when a patient died.”
This is one of many powerful comments from wounded servicemen in the book “Quiet Heroes, Navy Nurses of the Korean War 1950-1953, Far East Command.” Whether it was a wounded GI helicoptered into a M-A-S-H unit, the life-saving surgery aboard a Navy hospital ship, or emergency procedures at 30,000 feet from an Air Force nurse during an evacuation flight, the courageous service by women awaited men during the worst moment of their lives. Keep in mind, in 1950, there were no male nurses. Life and death responsibility, in one of the worst wars this country ever fought, fell to women.
The history of female nursing in war goes back to Gen. George Washington’s troops in the Revolutionary War. Although not a formal part of the Continental Army, women stepped in and nursed those in need. Things evolved to the United States contracting for nurses in the Spanish-American War. That led to the first nurses being brought formally into the Army in 1901 and the Navy in 1908. When the Air Force separated into its own service at the end of World War II, nursing was an important function of this new branch of the military.
In June 1950, the North Korean army streamed across the 38th parallel. Two hundred American soldiers, supported by one nurse, stood in harm’s way. With the collapse of South Korean forces, it was a race to move Eighth Army troops and support services to prevent a total loss of the Korean Peninsula. Into that bloodbath, the first M-A-S-H nurses from Japan were soon scrubbing an abandoned schoolhouse in Taegu (now Daegu) for 24 hours straight to prepare for the hundreds of emergency surgeries that followed. Navy nurses scrambled to the hospital ship Consolation, rushing to the Far East where 72 hours straight of surgery greeted their arrival. And immediately, emergency care on crowded Air Force evacuation flights brought the servicemen to full care in Japan.
During the next three years, nurses not only took care of the wounded but often helped pioneer new life-saving measures. Lt. Mattie Donald is but one example. She helped put in place the first generation of artificial kidney machines that saved men suffering acute renal failure because of loss of blood.
Sixteen nurses lost their lives during that war. While none were killed in combat, three separate plane crashes claimed their young lives. Over 3,000 Army nurses, 4,000 Navy nurses and hundreds of Air Force nurses quietly saw action in that soon forgotten war. But the ones who will never forget are the men those nurses cared for.
Another wounded serviceman recounted in the Navy nurse book, “One day, while doing her job, she stopped in the midst of several bunks and took my hand. While tears ran down her face, she said to all of us patients around her, ‘I don’t know how you boys do what you do in combat. I will never forget you.’ And I have never forgotten her.”
The Nurses of MASH — Meet the Real Women Behind Those Seen on
the Iconic Korean War TV Series
“Whether running the triage for incoming wounded, scrubbing up for the
OR, holding the hand of a dying GI, or even rolling up their own sleves
when blood supplies were short, their workloads never lightened.”
By Mike Weedall
It was an early summer day in 1950 when North Korean troops streamed
across the 38 th Parallel in the south. Local forces, along with a few hundred
American troops, fell back before the onslaught.
President Truman immediately declared a national emergency and rushed
troops from in from the five-year-old occupation of Japan. Slowly, U.S.
military forces and equipment were deployed along the Pusan Perimeter to
stop the North Korean onslaught. It was just in time – the communists were
just 50 miles short of capturing the entire Korean Peninsula. A grinding war
of attrition ensued, and casualties began to pile up.
Fortunately for the American forces, valuable lessons in treating the
wounded that had been learned in the previous war were paying off.
In the last six months of fighting in the European theater, an American army
surgeon by the name of Dr. Michael DeBakey was part of the effort to place
emergency surgical units as close to the front lines as possible. Treating
casualties within minutes of their evacuation from the battlefield had been
demonstrated as crucial to saving lives. This was the birth of MASH
(‘Mobile Auxiliary Surgical Hospitals’ or ‘Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals’).
The results were immediate and dramatic—a 30 per cent reduction in
However, after years of peace and post-WWII demobilization, the U.S.
Army had few medical units or experienced staff to run them. Those who
were available suddenly found themselves on the frontlines in Korea
treating wave after wave of shot up casualties, often under the most
primitive of conditions.
Joining the surgeons and corpsmen in these early harrowing months were
a brigade of U.S. Army nurses.
It’s widely believed that women were barred from the battlefield until fairly
recently. This is untrue. In Korea in 1950, female nurses served right on the
frontlines with the men, where they tended to the wounded and helped
evacuate casualties. In fact, until U.S. Army regulations changed in 1956
enabling men to perform nursing duties, American military nurses were all
women. And the work was as gruelling as it was dangerous.
Amid the seemingly never-ending streams of casualties, it was not unusual
for surgical teams to work 24-hour shifts, with individual operations
averaging about 20 minutes. This was the real MASH.
When thinking about Korean War field hospitals today, it seems almost
impossible not to imagine the doctors and nurses of the 4077 trading quips
in the OR. Indeed the famous television sitcom MASH, which ran in
primetime almost four times longer than the Korean War itself and has lived
on in re-runs for 50 years, has become a cultural touchstone.
Of course, war is no sitcom. Yet the series often sought to portray the
realities faced by the staff of real-life MASH units. But in those actual
wartime hospitals, in the mud, operating under hand lanterns in
temperatures that might dip to 30 degrees below zero, any humour would
have been gallows humor.
In a typical 90-person MASH unit, 18 nurses performed the gamut of
medical duties short of actual surgery. Whether running the triage for
incoming wounded, scrubbing up for the OR, holding the hand of a dying
GI, or even rolling up their own selves when blood supplies were short,
their workloads never lightened.
Nurses could also expect to take on even more vital roles in emergencies,
too. For example, one might stand in as an anesthesiologist in a pinch or
suture a patient closed after surgery to free up a doctor to take the next
Between onslaughts and when off duty, she might grab some sleep back in
her dirt floor tent, write home by the light of a kerosene lamp or dream of an
actual hot shower. Often nurses would opt to wash their blood-splattered
fatigues in their helmet to save precious water for the patients.
More than 1,500 nurses served in Korea, most often in extreme conditions.
Facing the worst war had to offer, these women performed without fanfare.
Forced to take on duties normally reserved for doctors, they helped modern
They redefined not only what the U.S. Army Medical Corps could expect
from frontline nurses but the wider medical profession itself. Classifications
like Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are a direct result of what
those women pioneered.
The series MASH offered America a glimpse, albeit a fictional one, into the
extremes experienced by U.S. Army military medical units in the Korean
War. On television as in real life, it was the nurses who helped field
hospitals save lives. For the women who served in these roles, what they
courageously and selflessly accomplished has never been adequately
Mike Weedall is the author of War Angel: Korea 1950, a novel about
army nurses during the Korean War. For more information visit