A Field Hospital in North Africa


I recently experienced a book collector’s delight when I found a second copy of Ernie Pyle’s book This is Your War. I was able to pass it on to another historian of my acquaintance who I hope will enjoy it.

Reading Cornelia Hancock’s account of tending the wounded at Gettysburg, and her remark that she never felt better in her life, I was reminded of a field hospital Ernie visited many times in Algeria.

A hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, had been transported lock, stock and barrel to Africa and set up in an oat field. Everything was in tents that could be struck and set up again in three days.

“They were like a giant medical Ringling Brothers,” Ernie writes. “Everybody worked like a slave. Doctors helped dig ditches. Nurses helped unload trucks.”

“One amateur electrician among the enlisted men started wiring the office tents for lights. A couple of carpenters-by-trade made themselves known, and went to work. A professional sign painter turned up among the first patients , and painted the street signs that helped to give the hospital a civilized touch.”

Reading Ernie Pyle is a lot like being there, and what strikes Ernie, and the reader, is how great these people feel because they’re making such a big difference for so many people.

The chief surgeon tells him, “I never go into town. I feel better out here than I’ve ever felt in my life. We were all prima donnas back home. We had every comfort that money could buy. We would have been shocked at the idea of living like this. But we love it. We all do. I suppose we’ll be making our families live in tents when we get home.”

The chief medical officer tells him, “We have only a quart of water a day to wash, shave and wash clothes in, so we don’t take many baths. Maybe we don’t smell so good, but when we’re all in the same boat we don’t notice it. And it sure feels good living out like this.”

“At the far end of the hospital, behind an evil-looking barricade of barbed wire, was what Colonel [Rollin] Bauchspies called ‘Cassanova Park.’ Back there were a hundred and fifty soldiers with venereal disease.”

“What’s the barbed wire for?” Ernie asked. “They wouldn’t try to get out anyhow.”

“It’s just to make them feel like heels,” the colonel said. “There’s no damned excuse for a soldier getting caught nowadays unless he just doesn’t care. When he gets a venereal he’s no good to his country and somebody else has to do his work. So I want him to feel ashamed, even though at the same time he does get the finest medical treatment.”