This blog post was written by Graduate Student Assistant B.J. Thome. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature in his second year at The Texas Collection. This post is the first in a series about the 56th Evacuation Hospital, an Army medical unit with close ties to the Baylor University College of Medicine, which was active during World War II.
During World War II, the United States Army formed several medical units drawing on personnel from medical schools and hospitals. One such unit was the 56th Evacuation Hospital, comprised primarily of doctors and nurses from Baylor University College of Medicine based in Dallas, Texas. Evacuation Hospitals were the predecessors of the more well-known MASH units, setting up near battle lines to stabilize wounded soldiers for transportation to General Hospitals for long-term treatment and recovery. The 56th Evac served from 1942 to 1945, treating more than 73,000 wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians in North Africa and Italy. The Texas Collection wishes to honor the service of the doctors and nurses of the Baylor Unit by sharing some of their experiences as seen in the letters, photographs, scrapbooks, and other materials housed in our archives.
Lawrence Dudgeon Collins, a doctor on the faculty of Baylor University College of Medicine, enlisted in the Army as a member of the 56th Evacuation Hospital. While serving in Africa and Italy, he wrote his wife almost daily. His letters describe his experiences as a junior medical officer, complaining of his frustration with the politics and red tape of Army procedures, discussing the various books he read and films he saw (often with the suggestion of whether his wife should read or see them), describing the landscapes he saw and cities he visited, describing his medical work, and walking the fine line of sharing his war experiences without worrying his family back home.
Perhaps the most intense experience was the time the 56th Hospital spent on the beachhead of Anzio, Italy, as part of the Army’s push towards Rome in the early months of 1944. During these months, Collins’s letters home became more infrequent as the hospital received a stream of patients, keeping the doctors and nurses working constantly. The personnel were stretched so thin that for several weeks Collins was placed in charge of an entire ward focused on treating gas gangrene patients, who were quarantined in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading.
Adding to the stress of the constant influx of wounded soldiers, the hospital’s location on the beach of Anzio placed them between the firing lines of German and Allied artillery. Thus, while treating patients from dawn to dusk, they constantly heard the massive artillery guns firing at each other over their heads. Another frequent source of terror was the air raids conducted on military targets near the hospital—air raids that periodically dropped bombs on the hospital as well. In a letter initially dated April 13, Collins describes the terrifying experience of hearing those dropping at night: “When he is flying toward you in the distance you hear a burrrUMP!, burrUMP, burrrUMP closer and louder each time, the ground quaking, and you feel a terrible monster is taking slow, relentless steps toward you.”
The combination of terror from air raids and fatigue from treating patients during every waking moment, however, led to one darkly humorous incident. When air raids happened during the night, some medical officers would scramble for foxholes; others, too tired from their work, would simply roll over onto the floor and try to go back to sleep. One night, Collins was so exhausted that he slept through several air raids, despite his tentmate’s attempts to rouse him. Finally, during the eighth or ninth air raid of the night, the tentmate successfully woke Collins up. The tentmate then ran to his foxhole while Collins remained in his sleeping bag on his cot until the sound of a falling plane scared him enough “to hit the ground, sleeping bag and all.” Because of his exhaustion, he quickly fell back asleep, not noticing that his sleeping bag ended up resting against the warming stove and caught fire. Collins, however, was so exhausted he didn’t notice the fire until his tentmate returned. As Collins writes, “When he got back and waked me up again it was too late to do anything about the bag except get it out of the tent and let it go.” After that experience, Collins dug out the ground under his cot so that he could sleep below ground level and didn’t use a sleeping bag again until December.
Despite his own fear, Collins was more concerned with his wife and family’s fears. His letters from Anzio repeatedly assure his wife that the papers were overexaggerating the dangers and bombings. He also delayed writing about his Anzio experiences in detail until after the 56th moved to a more secure location. And even after writing the letter in April, he didn’t send it until May, not wanting to add to his wife and family’s worry about his safety.