The 77th Evacuation Unit, formed in 1942 at the University of Kansas Medical Center, saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Europe during the United States' involvement in World War II. An exceptional unit, it maintained 750 beds, usually under canvas, while saving the lives and treating thousands of soldiers.
This documentary is the end result of years of work researching the unit, interviewing the surviving members and collecting the materials for the film. That pales in comparison to the care provided by the members of the unit overseas and their dedication over the years protecting this history for future generations.
Dr. Max Allen wrote the book, Medicine Under Canvas which ...is the war journal of the 77th Evacuation Hospital. The writing of the book was started in 1945 while the unit was still in the field in Europe. Medicine Under Canvas is a unique and fascinating source of medical and military history, detailing the creation, composition and travels of the 77th during WWII. Insightful sections on the experience of the wounded soldier, as well as first hand details about military medicine in North Africa, Sicily, England, France, Belgium, and Germany. The 77th supported the Allied troops during most major offensives in the European Theatre of Operations.
There were two premieres yesterday. We went to the one in Kansas City. The other one was in Lawrence. There will be a third today in Wichita.
There were at least four surviving members of the organization in attendance -- a doctor, two nurses and one of the enlisted men. It was amazing to watch the film. It is a chronicle of the formation of the unit in 1942 through 1945 when it was deactivated. It was easy to recognize the four people in attendance who were also interviewed for the film.
Dr. James McConchie was the doctor mentioned above. The following article about him and the documentary was featured in the Kansas City Star newspaper September 10, 2008.
For James McConchie, the story finally has been told.
'Medicine Under Canvas' documentary
"Medicine Under Canvas," a film documenting the World War II service of the 77th Evacuation Hospital, formed at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has been completed.The 72-minute documentary will be shown Tuesday, Veterans Day, at the Screenland Crossroads. Several surviving members of the 77th will attend.
McConchie, 91, the last surviving original physician from the 77th, often shared his urgency about the project with Dan Ginavan, a filmmaker with the medical center's external affairs office."Dr. McConchie would call me up once every six months and say he wanted me to get it done," Ginavan said.
He now has, to McConchie's satisfaction."I choke up every time I see it," said McConchie, a retired Independence radiologist.
"Right at the beginning of the film you see a half-dozen or so individual faces of the group. It's as if somehow they are saying to me, 'You are one of the last ones of us there, and you have to tell it as it was.
'"That's quite a lot on my shoulders.
"About 40 American evacuation hospitals operated in Europe during World War II. The work done by such teams, especially the unit formed at the KU Medical Center, deserved documentation, McConchie said.
"This is real history. We had 750 beds, all in tents. When we would get busy we would add a tent. During the Battle of the Bulge, we were seeing more than 1,000 patients a day.
"The 77th was staffed with about 30 doctors from the medical center's teaching staff, about 50 nurses from the Kansas City area and perhaps 325 enlisted men.
Its first combat stop was Oran, Algeria, in November 1942. The unit participated in the North Africa and Sicily campaigns. By the time the 77th hit Utah Beach on July 7, 1944, about one month after D-Day, it was a veteran outfit.
That year, the 77th treated 35,086 patients, 20,925 of them in Verviers, Belgium, before and during the Battle of the Bulge.The unit often operated close to the action. In 1943, the 77th was perhaps 20 miles from the advancing Germans at Kasserine Pass.
In October 1944, German pilots welcomed the 77th to Verviers by strafing and bombing its building. That was where the 77th suffered its only death from enemy action. A bomb struck a building and killed a Red Cross worker who was recuperating from an illness.
Ginavan and others thought the hospital's story deserved telling, and they began at the medical center's archives. They found a war journal, with photographs, self-published in 1949 by Max Allen, a physician with the 77th. Also available was about three hours of 16 mm color film shot by Mervin Rumold, another 77th physician.
Ginavan conducted new interviews with surviving members at the unit's last formal reunion, in 2004 in Dayton, Ohio. A disclaimer at the beginning of the finished film warns of the graphic nature of some images. But the film only documents what 77th members saw every day, McConchie said."My job, doing radiology, was to find the foreign bodies -- bullets and pieces of shrapnel -- and mark the locations on the skin so the surgeon could go right in there," he said.
Today about 30 members of the 77th survive, among them McConchie and Lillian Hoch Macek, a retired nurse in Roeland Park. Both agree that seeing the film prompts many memories from long ago. For Macek, the many scenes of tents in muddy fields recall the scarcity of fresh water and the luxury represented by the occasional bath or shower. "Our water always was hauled and put into cloth containers with spigots," she said. "When you wanted hot water, you had to go to the kitchen. We only had showers every now and then."But there were other people dirtier than us."
We arrived rather early and were able to have a drink and visit with others who were there to see the film. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Frank. He was a veteran, retired Army officer who is living near his daughter and son-in-law in the KC area. We were able to swap some war stories. My only regret is that I do not have a way to keep in contact with him. I did learn that he is 92 but he sure doesn't act like it.
Priscilla was able to talk to one of the nurses who was from her home town of Wilson, KS. The nurse was also interviewed in the film.
It was a perfect way to celebrate Veteran's Day. Even better than the annual parades.
Thanks to all my fellow veterans and to those who are currently serving.