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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Korea's real M*A*S*H doctors
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

For many in the West too young to remember the Korean War, their main reference source has been the 1970s American TV series, M*A*S*H.

The programme presented a ribald and irreverent view of the 1950-53 conflict, through the eyes of colourful medics such as Hawkeye and "Hotlips" Houlihan.

MASH 8055
MASH 8055, where Dr Weinberg (top left) was stationed
It showed the protagonists overcoming the horrors of war with japery and an acerbic wit. In their Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), alcohol and madcap antics flowed.

The TV series, and film that preceded it, were based on the war-time experiences of Dr Richard Hornberger, who wrote a book under the pseudonym of Richard Hooker.

But other doctors who worked during the conflict say they do not recognise Dr Hornberger's fictional MASH.

"I think everybody was relaxed, and there was a certain amount of humour, but not like... the MASH unit that was shown on TV," Milton Weinberg of MASH 8055 told BBC News Online.

The sexual innuendo of the series, shot in the more liberated decade of the 70s, was not representative of his experience, he said.

Major Holleman (right), the 8055 Commanding Officer who followed Colonel Beeler, dances with a nurse
I saw nothing going on between the doctors and nurses that wasn't cordial and respectful
Milton Weinberg

"I saw nothing going on between the doctors and nurses that wasn't cordial and respectful."

Alcohol was not freely available either, he said.

"We had one time when a unit nearby gave us beer," said Dexter Ball, who served in MASH units 8063 and 8209 in 1950-1. "It wasn't issued as a weekly thing."

But both doctors did acknowledge that there were "long periods when not much of anything happened" in an atmosphere of apparent safety - plenty of time to play.

"When things were quiet we would sit around and read. Sometimes the nurses would have a little dance," Dr Weinberg said.

He said that what really upset him about the TV series was its irreverence towards the military. "I thought it was awful."

"The regular army was great as far as we were concerned."

He talked of his unit's commanding officer, Colonel Beeler, who gave the doctors impromptu lessons when times were quiet. "If someone died he did an autopsy."

For young doctors in their 20s, many with little postgraduate surgical training, the experience in the MASH could be "fairly sobering", Dr Weinberg said, with "as many as 1,000 casualties a day".

Wounded soldiers would enter triage - manned by the doctors who had the least surgical experience - and, initially at least, the MASH would keep only those who needed emergency surgery.

Drs Weinberg and Ball said they were aided in their jobs by good equipment and reasonable conditions, despite the fact surgery took place in tents.

Operating tables were stretchers on trestles.

MASH medical technique has been described as "meatball surgery" - crude but effective. Dr Weinberg stressed that 95% of the patients who entered the MASH left it alive.

Dr Ball said he moved with his unit 12 times in one year, as the frontline also shifted up and down the Korean peninsula.

But he said that his experience in the war was not too different from his ordinary job, "except for the conditions we were working under".

Unlike Dr Weinberg, he said that he enjoyed the TV series.

Milton Weinberg
Milton Weinberg said he never felt in danger

Both men stressed that M*A*S*H was set during the "static war" of truce talks and less fighting, when they had left Korea.

During that time, there was a "better set-up", Dr Ball said, with "alcohol and parties".

"(The TV series) was well done in that sense, and I didn't feel like they were making fun of us. Naturally it wasn't quite like it was when I was there," he said.

How their experience was similar, both doctors said, was in its sense of removal from the politics of the conflict.

"We were all young guys - we didn't know anything," said Dr Weinberg.

His unit was not even shocked when they heard, in April 1951, that a man called Douglas MacArthur had been relieved from his duties for insubordination.

"I was in the MASH when he was fired by Truman... we just thought it was another guy who'd lost his job," he said.

Regarding today's political climate, Dr Ball said he was hopeful the current tensions on the Korean peninsula would not erupt into conflict once more.

"I think it is still a tinder box but... I think the countries around North Korea will keep an eye on them," he said.

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