Burlish Camp Memories – Dr. Kesterson

Account of Dr. Kesterson (Anaesthetist 114th GH)

Full text can be found at.-

The Centre for the Study of War and Society University of Tennessee     www.csws@utk.edu.


They shipped me out to Fort Bragg, where I joined the 114th General Hospital, as chief of anaesthesia of a 3,000-bed hospital. [I was] a nine-month wonder with three months of training in anaesthesia, but things were that way. It’s remarkable how well they went. We received our nurses in late July. About twenty-four nurse anaesthetists who trained at Charity Hospital and at Ochsner, and they were well trained, superb. I never had any problem with any of the nurse anaesthetists. They were all capable, and concerned, and knowledgeable, and took excellent, excellent care of the patients. I was always impressed by that.

We went to Camp Kilmer by train from Bragg on August 3, 1944, and embarked from Jersey City, from the pier there, on the fourth, on the U.S.S. Argentina, which was an 18,000 ton passenger ship. We had good quarters, excellent, excellent service, good food, and we were comfortable the whole way. We were in about a sixty-ship convoy, so we didn’t go too fast. Not like the Queen Mary, who scooted across with no protection…. We did have protection. We had some destroyers, and one cruiser in that convoy. You could see him in the distance. There was also another aircraft carrier with airplanes on it, which gave us great assurance except we had a sub alert, and everybody changed positions, and the aircraft carriers ended up on the port side and—guess what—the airplanes had no wings. They were transporting them, they weren’t operational. They gave us comfort just the same, and we didn’t have any problems. It was a sub alert, maybe a sub, maybe not, but they didn’t drop any depth bombs, so I assumed there was nothing definite out there…. That was the fourth day out. A sub scare.

At any rate, we came to Gourock, in Scotland. It’s one of the small ports, which is essentially a bay. There is no pier. You unload it by loader, so we unloaded into loaders and small craft, and unloaded all the equipment. We went on into Gourock and caught the train, and went by train to our station at Kidderminster. That is in the midlands of England. It’s the carpet manufacturing town. Maybe you’ve heard of Kidderminster carpets? Yeah. There is a little triangle there on the Stourport Canal. Bewdley, and Kidderminster, the little triangle. One of the armed regiments or armies had trained there in that area. It’s about eighty miles from Birmingham, and  just about twenty-two miles from Worchester. And we landed and started to set up shop about seventy days after D-Day, and got to work….

We set up our hospital at Kidderminster. Some people called it Bewdley, some called it Stourport, but Kidderminster was the larger, the largest (town) of the three. We began operations right after setting up. About August 10, I would judge. We received two trains … a week. Two convoys a week from the opening of the hospital, and each convoy had 250-300 casualties, as I recall. Now, that’s an estimate again, but it would run in the nature of 300, normally. During the Battle of the Bulge, we had as many as 400 in a convoy. We did triage immediately, of course, assessed the status of the patient, and assessed the necessity of early intervention, or could we wait until a little later. We did those patients in Category One immediately, if necessary. If dressings had to be changed, we did so immediately, because we didn’t want them to lie in blood and pus-soaked bandages or in tight casts, because tight casts, of course, will endanger the viability of the limb. So we did those Category Ones early with intervention early, or on the first day, certainly, and then Category Two the next day, and so on sometimes on the third day you’d have to go back and check everybody, and this was done primarily by the physicians, the doctors, the officers on the ward, the head of the ward, and the head of the surgical department and his assistant, and sometimes they would ask for consultation, but usually I didn’t get called in for consultation because it wasn’t really indicated or necessary. Sometimes a convoy would arrive before we could really work through the first one, but all in all we kept up and we did well. As I said, we got a convoy with large numbers, and sometimes every other day during the Battle of the Bulge, and we were busy. It was almost too much for us to handle. We performed about—and this is an estimate—[we were] there about thirteen months—so we should have been doing around 1200 per month—around 10,000, between 10,000 and 11,000 operations during the period of time we were there. Surgical procedures. Many of these were fairly simple wound advancements under local anaesthesia, but many of them were major abdominal intervention operations, which we always did under endotracheal anaesthesia just like they do here, except we did not have cuffed tubes to really make it easy for us. We just put in the endotracheal tube and packed around it thoroughly and poked a hole in a can of ether and hung it on the side of the tube. Now that sounds crude, but it is very, very safe. Much safer than the cyclopropane anaesthesia, much safer than the agents even we use today.

We had one death, and it was such a tragic death. I’ll never forget it. A youngster from Kansas, eighteen years old, who was hit by—apparently he must have been hit pretty much … face on with an 88 [shell]. He had some facial injuries that weren’t life threatening, but he had injuries to both lungs, and he had pneumothorax on both sides and haemothorax on both sides, so he had chest tubes. He had an abdominal injury, and he had to have his colon brought out as a colostomy, and small bowel resected. He had a liver injury which had been drained. An 88 shell had gone through one of his hips, so he had an injury to that bone, and he had a fractured femur and, as I recall, he had a fractured tibia on the opposite side. That is a significant injury. He developed a mass in his groin, which was thought to be an abscess. When it was drained it was not an abscess. It was a false aneurysm due to an injury to an artery. Although they were able to control the bleeding and did a hip joint disarticulation successfully, he died of organ system failure, post op. I’ve thought about that so many times. War is hell.

We had a good record. But, now that’s an unfair statement in a way. It’s not meant to be bragging or anything. These were the finest specimens you could have. The finest youngsters you could have, just great kids, and strong, and withstood tremendous stress, and tremendous injury. So it was terrific. They were terrific. I admired the soldiers very, very much. I felt it [was] an honor to serve them. Still feel that way. Okay, I made a trip every month to London to report to my peers, and we also had anaesthesia meetings and reported complications that we had encountered, and ways to avoid those complications, and ways to improve our service. I can assure you that the Army may have been messed up … at times bureaucratically, but it was organized in the medical units. I though the medical divisions of the Army were excellent. Really excellent. Well staffed, and had good men and pretty good service…. I was proud of that.

I was there during the V-1, V-2 …, we had V-1s … sputter over the hospital, and when they would cut out—you got shelter, and in London where they were fairly common—I saw several V-1s in London. When the buzz bomb quit buzzing, why, you just got into shelter, and when they landed they really were not a factor. But the V-2s came in out of the clear blue…. Didn’t know they were coming. One landed at night when I was in a hostel fairly near St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I thought it had landed on top of the hotel. It knocked me almost out of bed. It was tremendous. I found out the next morning [that] it was at least four or five blocks away. It hadn’t been as close as I had feared, because it scared me. But you didn’t know. They went so high, and they were so big, and they came in without warning. There was no way to track those with radar, so it was pretty frightening. The psychological affect maybe was as great as the actual material damage done. The Germans were pretty clever in that respect.

I saw great movies and shows, plays, and ballets in London. We were near enough so that we could go to Stratford-Upon-Avon for the Shakespearean Festival each year. And the British, to their credit, never stopped theatre, or cultural events, or the symphonies, or the Shakespearean plays during the war. Say what you please about Churchill and the British; they were tough during these times. They were admirable during these times. What was it that Churchill said when he gave the shortest baccalaureate speech on record? “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never, never give up,” and sat down, I think that’s great. That apparently actually happened. At least I’ve read that it did. Birmingham, also near us, about fifty miles, also had … excellent ballet. We got to go to Scotland on a little leave. Went to Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond—climbed Ben Lomond—it’s not very tall really.