65 years later, a M*A*S*H* surgeon recalls the Forgotten War

This Thursday, June 25th, marked the 65th anniversary of the Korean War, commonly known as “The Forgotten War.” Even some major documentary films on American wars skip the Korean War entirely as if it had never happened, though it cost America more than $3 billion and 54,000 American lives.

Overland Park resident and physician Gerhard Schottman, 92, didn’t forget the Korean War even after more than six decades. Schottman served eight months in Korea as a radiologist at the 8225 MASH (United States Mobile Army Surgery Hospital) Unit in 1952 and 1953. With remarkable clarity of the mind, he shared with me his long-ago memories in his apartment in an assisted living facility, with his wife, Joanne, next to him. The couple celebrated their 68th anniversary on Monday.

In September 1952, Lt. Schottman arrived in Korea through Japan. Leaving his wife of five years and their 6-month-old daughter, Debra, back home in Iowa was the most difficult thing he had done in his 29 years. The peace talks between the U.N. delegates and Chinese leaders had begun a year earlier and were still lingering, while combat between the U.N. troops and the Chinese volunteer corps continued daily, mostly along the 38th Parallel, using real killing machines. But hopes and anticipation that the war would end sooner or later was in every American soldier’s mind.

His first assignment was at the 8225 MASH hospital. He and another doctor were in charge of the admitting tent where they examined the extent of the soldiers’ injuries and treated patients in shock with blood transfusions. Then every patient was X-rayed from head to toe to determine which patients needed immediate surgery. One of the nine doctors in the unit was cardiologist Bobby Brown, who balanced his two passions during his lifetime: medicine and baseball.

While attending Tulane University School of Medicine, Brown made his debut with the Yankees in 1946 and played eight seasons and won four World Series with the New York Yankees (1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951). Brown later practiced cardiology in Fort Worth, Texas, for more than 25 years and between 1984 to 1994, he served as president of the American League.

The two doctors — Schottman and Brown — remained friends over the years. Schottman said that most Americans think of the TV series “M*A*S*H” when they think of the Korean War, but what he and the medical doctors did in the 8225 MASH unit was far from what the show presented. (The TV series that ran from 1972 to 1983 was an adaptation of the novel “Three Army Doctors” written by H. Richard Hornberger, who served in the 8055 MASH unit in Korea for 15 months.)

As a Korean-American, I frankly admitted that I never enjoyed watching the show because the American doctors and nurses in it lacked the dignity as a medical team whose job was saving lives. “They were drinking alcohol, spoke indecent language, including sexual jokes, and mostly looking down on Korean people and their culture,” I said. “We Koreans were dirt poor and most of the adults were uneducated because of our long slavery to Japanese, but because of Confucian teachings, we valued human virtues. As a U.S. citizen now, I can say that the show misrepresented the war and why Americans were fighting there and mostly mocked the United States government for sending troops to foreign wars.”

Schottman nodded in agreement. “In truth, we were too busy to sit around and drink or leisurely chat with one another. Normally, each MASH unit had 14 doctors but our unit had only nine, so everyone was extremely busy handling injured men, many of whom were brought in on helicopters. Each one of us understood the gravity of the war and the importance of our care and expertise that could save injured men lying before us, bleeding. In short, we were their human saviors. How could we think about joking and drinking?” Near the end of his Korean tour in the spring of 1953, Schottman was assigned to the 121st Evacuation Hospital near the Kimpo Airport, nine miles west of the Central District of Seoul. While there, the staff at the hospital received a special patient: the 76-year-old South Korean president, Syngman Rhee. Schottman cannot remember the symptoms the president had at the time but after head-to-toe X-rays, nothing positive showed up and they sent him home. 

After completing his tour in Korea in May that year, he was assigned to the Tokyo Army Hospital, which was the main U.S. military hospital in the Far East. There, he was promoted to captain and was joined by his wife and daughter.

Joanne Schottman moved in with her parents in Iowa with her baby daughter after her husband left for Korea. “Staying with our parents was the best thing for us,” she said, “because my mom and dad adored Debra and also gave me loving support I desperately needed. They were heart-broken when we left for Tokyo to join ‘Daddy’ when Debra was a year and two months old. But it was wonderful for us, in Tokyo, going places together when Daddy wasn’t working!”

After retiring from the Army in 1954, Schottman moved to Kansas City, where he was the director of the radiology department at St. Luke’s Hospital near the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City for 38 years. He retired 23 years ago.

Before we parted, Shottman said he was glad that Americans helped South Korea when it couldn’t defend itself against the Communists’ brutality six decades ago.

I thanked him.

End

 

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