Having recently undergone knee replacement surgery, I got to thinking about what the soldiers, sailors and marines who were wounded during WWII went through. The latest technology and medical knowledge insured that my surgery was successful. The same was true of the wounded in WWII.
Thanks to the medical innovations, both in the organization of how the wounded were handled and the medical techniques utilized, survival rates during WWII were much better than in previous wars. Also the survivors enjoyed an improved quality of life.
Let’s walk through what happened to a soldier after being wounded.
Immediately after being wounded, a medic performed first aid. That might include bandages, a tourniquet, sulfa powder and morphine for the pain. Stretcher bearers or fellow soldiers took the wounded man to the nearest aid station just behind the lines. At the aid station patients were examined and separated by severity and type of injury. Seriously wounded were treated and prepared for evacuation to a field hospital. Minor wounds were treated at the aid station.
At the field hospital a team of doctors and nurses performed any necessary surgery. They splinted broken bones, treated burns, open wounds, etc. If called for, they performed amputations. Think of the TV show M.A.S.H. Although the TV show was set in Korea, the concept of a mobile field hospital originated during WWII.
From the field hospital the wounded soldier was transported by ambulance to an evacuation hospital or a general hospital even further back where he would recover or be sent home. If the patient could recover and return to the fight, he was kept in the Theatre of War. Very few wounds required that the soldier be sent back to the states. Depending on the time and place, the wounded soldier might be transported by airplane or by ship.
Wounded Sailors followed a different path. If wounded aboard ship, a corpsman (similar to a medic) would initially treat the wounds. Then the sailor went to sick bay which is the hospital aboard ship. The doctors in sick bay would perform surgery or provide whatever treatment was needed. If the sailor needed to be transported to a hospital, he had to wait until his ship made port. Sometimes, he would be transferred to a hospital ship, if one was nearby. In the Pacific, a hospital ships waited nearby during major battles or invasions such as Iwo Jima. The hospital ships would take the badly wounded back to Hawaii where the Navy had a large hospital complex. In the Atlantic, the more severely wounded went to a hospital on the U.S. eastern seaboard.
Marines fighting in the Pacific Theatre followed a similar path as the soldiers wounded on land and then were evacuated onto a ship.
These methods of moving the wounded from combat to medical facilities with increasing capabilities insured that the more severely wounded got the treatment they needed in a timely manner. This resulted in fewer deaths and better outcomes.
In my research I have read about some of the innovative medical techniques developed during WWII. One example was the use of plasma. Back in the states the Red Cross collected blood to be used in hospitals and overseas, but transporting it over long distances proved difficult. They developed a technique to extract the plasma from the whole blood and preserve it so that it could be transported overseas and given to the wounded in place of whole blood. This innovation saved many lives. Read about it here.
Surgical techniques, skin graphs, plastic surgery, improved artificial limbs, air transport and much more improved the lives of the surviving wounded.
When I look down at the scar on my knee, I can’t help but wonder how much I am benefiting from the medical lessons learned during WWII.
Life Magazine published a story in 1945 that followed a soldier from the time he was wounded until he reached a hospital in the United States. George Lott Casualty includes incredible photographs. Click this link to read more about this story.