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Veterans of the 160th General Hospital paid Bedford a visit over the weekend.
There were only two of them. That’s because there are only three living veterans who are still able to travel and one, Bernice Kneller, was unable to make the trip.
The 160th General Hospital was established in Gloucestershire, England, to treat severely wounded soldiers. Its job was to treat thoracic wounds — wounds to the chest.
The men and women of the 160th were determined to do whatever they could to make sure these men survived. In the process they performed procedures that had never been done before.
Phyllis Creamer recalls Dr. Dwight Harken, a surgeon at the 160th. He took shrapnel out of hearts.
“It was the first open heart surgery,” she said.
According to a Wikipedia article, Dr. Harken removed shrapnel from the hearts of 130 men. All of them survived. This was lifesaving surgery as none of these men would have survived without it. According to the U. S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History, the 160th only got patients with serious surgical problems.
The two veterans visiting Bedford ended up at the hospital by different routes.
Creamer was only nine months out of nursing school — she described nursing school as like being in a convent — when she volunteered to be an Army nurse.
“When I told my parents I was going in the service, my parents didn’t want me to go,” she said.
She found a way to change their minds, using the fact that her brother was in the Army Air Corps. Creamer asked them if they would want him to have a nurse if he was hurt. They agreed.
Farrell was drafted. The Army put him through tests and then, after basic training, he was sent to a school for field medics, followed by two medical records clerk schools. Then he was sent to a medical technician school.
Farrell remembered his first night in England. He and the other guys heard a “boom, boom” sound outside and went out to see what was happening. There was an air raid in progress on an industrial area some distance from the hospital and the sound was from anti-aircraft guns. It was all close enough that they could see flashes in the sky as the anti-aircraft shells exploded. Then, a burning German bomber flew over them and crashed in a nearby field. That’s when it really hit them: “This is war,” he realized.
Farrell nearly ended up in the infantry. In late 1944, an officer arrived at the hospital with a list of names of male members of the hospital staff who were to be sent to the infantry. Col. Charles Kendall was in charge of the hospital at that time. Farrell said that Col. Kendall, who had been in the Army for 33 years at that time, began crossing names off the list. When he was told he couldn’t do that, he replied that he had orders to run a hospital and he couldn’t do that without these men. Col. Kendall got his way.
The hospital was a spartan affair. It consisted of Nissen huts — prefabricated structures made of a half cylindrical skin of corrugated steel. Farrell said that the interiors were lined with asbestos board. They had a pot-bellied stove in the center for heat. The nurses lived in shepherds’ huts. These were simple affairs with a heating stove and no indoor plumbing. The hospital had beds for 1,000 men with 49 patients in each ward. Each ward consisted of a Nissen hut.
The nurses typically worked 12-hour shifts, but they spent even longer hours in the aftermath of D-Day. Like the doctors, the nurses did what they had to do to make sure the wounded men lived. Everybody donated blood and Creamer remembers times when blood was transfused directly from one person to a wounded soldier.
Bernice Kneller, who was not able to travel to Bedford for the reunion, chatted with a gathering at the Bedford County home of Lisa Saunders. Kneller was head nurse for central supply at the hospital. This is where surgical trays were prepared. They also reconstituted penicillin, from a dehydrated form, and sent it to the wards.
“After D-Day the hospital was so full that they set up tents behind some wards for more ambulatory patients,” she recalled.
This expanded the hospital’s capacity by 500.
“We had a lot of responsibility for our ages,” Kneller said. Kneller was 23 at the time.
The two old veterans have a local connection. Cephas Saunders, the father of Hugh Saunders and Lisa Saunders, was in their unit. Saunders was originally in the 182nd General Hospital.
According to Lisa, her father told her that one of his most frustrating moments came during that time. He told her that an ammunition dump near the hospital blew up and hospital personnel rushed to the site to help with the rescue effort. Then, at 4 p.m. all the British rescue workers left the site for high tea, even though there were still live people trapped in the rubble. She said her father was still upset when he told her about it decades later.
Christmas was a tough time for the men. Lisa said her father told her he would get emotional when he heard the songs “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas.”
There were also German prisoners of war in the hospital.
Hugh Saunders has the ash tray that one of the POWs made for Cephas. It’s made from the base of a British 25-pounder shell casing, and expended .50 caliber and .30 caliber brass.
The German beat four pennies flat, then worked them into notches in the ash tray to hold cigarettes. It’s heavy. Hugh said he dropped it on his foot when he was a small child and ended up with a broken foot.