The Korean War (1950-1953) was a brutal conflict that claimed millions of lives and left a lasting scar on the divided peninsula. But it also saw some remarkable medical innovations that helped reduce the death toll among the wounded soldiers.
One of these innovations was the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), a fully functional hospital in combat areas that could perform emergency surgery and provide basic care for the injured. MASH units were first established by the US Army in 1945, but they were deployed and expanded during the Korean War and later conflicts.
MASH units were designed to be close to the frontlines, often within range of enemy fire, to reduce the transportation time for the wounded. This was crucial for saving lives, as the first hour after an injury is known as the “golden hour” in trauma medicine, when prompt treatment can make a big difference.
Each MASH unit had 60 beds, 14 doctors, 12 nurses and other staff available at all times. They were equipped with surgical instruments, blood transfusion equipment, X-ray machines and other essentials. They could also be moved around with army units, as they were packed in tents and trucks.
The MASH units faced many challenges and dangers in Korea. They had to cope with harsh weather conditions, frequent power outages, limited supplies and constant threat of attack. They also had to deal with a huge influx of casualties, especially during major offensives or retreats. Sometimes they had to operate on hundreds of patients a day, often working around the clock.
Despite these difficulties, the MASH units achieved remarkable results. They had a low mortality rate compared to other medical facilities, as they could stabilize and evacuate the wounded quickly and efficiently. They also introduced new techniques and procedures, such as using helicopters for evacuation, administering antibiotics and plasma, and performing vascular surgery and chest surgery.
The MASH units also became famous for their human stories, as they showed courage, compassion and humour in the face of war. They inspired a novel, a movie and a television series that depicted a fictional MASH unit. The TV show MAS*H was especially popular and influential, as it mixed comedy and drama to portray the realities and absurdities of war.
The US Army deactivated the last MASH unit in 2006, replacing them with combat support hospitals. But the legacy of MASH units lives on, as they are remembered as a symbol of medical excellence and humanitarian service in war zones.