When Radar O’reilly, just out of high school, left Ottumwa, Iowa, and enlisted in the United States Army it was with the express purpose of making a career of the Signal Corps. Radar O’Reilly was only five feet three inches tall, but he had a long, thin neck and large ears that left his head at perfect right angles. Furthermore, under certain atmospheric, as well as metabolic, conditions, and by enforcing complete concentration and invoking unique extra-sensory powers, he was able to receive messages and monitor conversations far beyond the usual range of human hearing.
With this to his advantage it seemed to Radar O’Reilly that he was a natural for the communications branch of the service, and so, following graduation, he turned down various highly attractive business opportunities, some of them legitimate, and decided to serve his country. Before his enlistment, in fact, he used to fall asleep at night watching a whole succession of, first, sleeve stripes, and then shoulder insignia, floating by until he would see himself, with four stars on his shoulders, conducting high-level Pentagon briefings, attending White House dinner parties and striding imperiously to ringside tables in New York night clubs.
In the middle of November of the year 1951 a.d., Radar O’Reilly, a corporal in the United States Army Medical Corps, was sitting in the Painless Polish Poker and Dental Clinic of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital astride the 35th Parallel in South Korea, ostensibly trying to fill a straight flush. Having received the message that the odds against such a fortuitous occurrence open at 72,192 to 1, what he was actually doing was monitoring a telephone conversation. The conversation was being conducted, over a precarious connection, between Brigadier General Hamilton Hartington Hammond, the Big Medical General forty-five miles to the south in Seoul, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake, in the office of the commanding officer of the 4077th MASH, just forty-five yards to Radar O’Reilly’s east.
“Listen,” Radar O’Reilly said, his head turning slowly back and forth in the familiar scanning action.
“Listen to what?” Captain Walter Koskiusko Waldowski, the Dental Officer and Painless Pole, asked.
“Henry,” Radar O’Reilly said, “is trying for two new cutters.”
“I gotta have two more men,” Colonel Blake was shouting into the phone, and Radar could hear it.
“What do you think you’re running up there?” General Hammond was shouting back, and Radar could hear that, too. “Walter Reed Hospital?”
“Now you listen to me …” Colonel Blake was saying.
“Just take it easy, Henry,” General Hammond was saying.
“I won’t take it easy,” Colonel Blake shouted. “If I don’t get two …”
“All right! All right!” General Hammond shouted. “So I’ll send you the two best men I have.”
“They better be good,” Radar heard Colonel Blake answer, “or I’ll …”
“I said they’ll be the two best men I’ve got,” Radar heard General Hammond say.
“Good!” Radar heard Colonel Blake say. “And get ’em here quick.”
“Henry,” Radar said, his ears aglow now from the activity, “has just got us two new cutters.”
“Tell ’em not to spend it all before they get here,” Captain Waldowski said. “You want another card?”
Thus it was that the personnel of the 4077th MASH learned that their number, and perhaps even their efficiency, would shortly be augmented. Thus it was that, on a gray, raw morning ten days later at the 325th Evacuation Hospital in Yong-Dong-Po, across the Han River from Seoul, Captains Augustus Bedford Forrest and Benjamin Franklin Pierce, emerging from opposite ends of the Transient Officers’ Quarters, dragged themselves, each hauling a Valpac and trailing a barracks bag, toward a jeep deposited there for their use.
Captain Pierce was twenty-eight years old, slightly over six feet tall and slightly stoop-shouldered. He wore glasses, and his brown-blond hair needed cutting. Captain Forrest was a year older, slightly under six feet tall, and more solid. He had brush-cut red hair, pale blue eyes and a nose that had not quite been restored to its natural state after contact with something more resistant than itself.
“You the guy going to the 4077th?” Captain Pierce said to Captain Forrest as they confronted each other at the jeep.
“I believe so,” Captain Forrest said.
“Then get in,” Captain Pierce said.
“Who drives?” Captain Forrest said.
“Let’s choose,” Captain Pierce said. He opened his barracks bag, felt around in it and extracted a Stan Hack model Louisville Slugger. He handed the bat to Captain Forrest.
“Toss,” he said.
Captain Forrest tossed the bat vertically into the air. As it came down Captain Pierce expertly grabbed it at the tape with his left hand. Captain Forrest placed his left hand above Captain Pierce’s. Captain Pierce placed his right hand, and Captain Forrest was left with his right hand waving in the air with nothing to grab.
“Sorry,” Captain Pierce said. “Always use your own bat.”
That was all he said. They got into the jeep and for the first five miles they did not speak again, until Captain Forrest broke the silence.
“What are y’all anyway?” Captain Forrest asked. “A nut?”
“It’s likely,” Captain Pierce said.
“My name’s Duke Forrest. Who are y’all?”
“Hawkeye Pierce?” Captain Forrest said. “What the hell kind of a name is that?”
“The only book my old man ever read was The Last of the Mohicans,” Captain Pierce explained.
“Oh,” Captain Forrest said, and then: “Where y’all from?”
“Where in hell is that?”
“Maine,” Hawkeye said. “Where you from?” “Forrest City.”
“Where in hell is that?”
“Georgia,” Duke said.
“Jesus,” Hawkeye said. “I need a drink.”
“I got some,” Duke said.
“Make it yourself, or is it real?” Hawkeye asked.
“Where I come from it’s real if you make it yourself,” Duke Forrest said, “but I bought this from the Yankee government.”
“Then I’ll try it.”
Captain Pierce pulled to the side of the road and stopped the jeep. Captain Forrest found the pint in his barracks bag and opened it. As they sat there, looking down the road, flanked by the rice paddies skimmed now with November ice, they passed the bottle back and forth and talked.
Duke Forrest learned that Hawkeye Pierce was married and the father of two young sons, and Captain Pierce found out that Captain Forrest was married and the father of two young girls. They discovered that their training and experience had been remarkably similar and each detected, with much relief, that the other did not think of himself as a Great Surgeon.
“Hawkeye,” Captain Forrest said after a while. “Do y’all realize that this is amazing?”
“I mean, I come from Forrest City, Georgia, and y’all are a Yankee from that Horseapple …”
“… Crabapple Cove in Maine, and we’ve got so much in common.”
“Duke,” Hawkeye said, holding up the bottle and noting that its contents were more than half depleted, “we haven’t got as much of this in common as we used to.”
“Then maybe we’d better push on,” the Duke said.
As they drove north, only the sound of the jeep breaking the silence, a cold rain started to fall, almost obscuring the jagged, nearly bare hills on either side of the valley. They came to Ouijongbu, a squalid shanty town with a muddy main street lined with tourist attractions, the most prominent of which, at the northern outskirts, was The Famous Curb Service Whorehouse.
The Famous Curb Service Whorehouse, advantageously placed as it was on the only major highway between Seoul and the front lines, had the reputation of being very good because all the truck drivers stopped there. It was unique for its methods of merchandising and outstanding for its contribution to the venereal disease problem faced by the U.S. Army Medical Corps. It consisted of a half dozen mud and thatch huts, prefaced by a sign reading: “Last Chance Before Peking” and surmounted by an American flag flying from its central edifice. Its beckoning personnel, clad in the most colorful ensembles available through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, lined the highway regardless of the weather, and many drivers who made frequent trips to the front and back fastidiously found their fulfillment in the backs of their trucks, rather than expose themselves to the dirty straw and soiled mattresses indoors.
“You need anything here?” asked Hawkeye, noting the Duke saluting and nodding as the jeep chugged through the waving, cooing colorama.
“No,” the Duke said. “I shopped in Seoul last night, but something else bothers me now.”
“You should know better, doctor,” Hawkeye said.
“No,” Duke said. “I’ve been wondering about this Colonel Blake.”
“Lieutenant Colonel Henry Braymore Blake,” Hawkeye said. “I looked him up. Regular Army type.”
“You need a drink?” Duke said.
Out of sight of the sirens now, Hawkeye pulled the jeep to the side of the road once more. By the time they had finished the bottle the cold, slanting rain was mixed with flat wet flakes of snow.
“Regular Army type,” the Duke kept repeating. “Like Meade and Sherman and Grant.”
“The way I see it, though, is this,” Hawkeye said, finally. “Most of these Regular Army types are insecure. If they weren’t, they’d take their chances out in the big free world. Their only security is based on the efficiency of their outfits.”
“Right,” the Duke said.
“This Blake must have a problem or he wouldn’t be sending for help. Maybe we’re that help.”
“Right,” the Duke said.
“So my idea,” Hawkeye said, “is that we work like hell when there’s work and try to outclass the other talent.”
“Right,” the Duke said.
“This,” Hawkeye said, “will give us enough leverage to write our own tickets the rest of the way.”
“Y’all know something, Hawkeye?” the Duke said. “You’re a good man.”
Just beyond a collection of tents identified as the Canadian Field Dressing Station, they came to a fork in the road. The road to the right led northeast toward the Punchbowl and Heartbreak Ridge; the road to the left took them due north toward Chorwon, Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy and the 4077th MASH.
About four miles beyond the fork, a flooded stream had washed out a bridge, and a couple of M.P.’s waved them into a line with a dozen other military vehicles, including two tanks. They waited there for an hour, the line lengthening behind them until the line ahead began to move and Hawkeye guided the jeep down the muddy river bank and across the floorboard-deep stream.
As a result, darkness was settling on the valley when, opposite a sign that read “THIS IS WHERE IT IS— PARALLEL 38,” another, smaller marker reading “4077th MASH, WHERE I AM, HENRY BLAKE, LT. COL. M.C.” directed them to the left off the main road. Following directions, they were confronted, first, by four helicopters belonging to the 5th Air Rescue Squadron and then by several dozen tents of various shapes and sizes, forlornly distributed in the shape of a horseshoe.
“Well,” Hawkeye said, stopping the jeep, “there it is.”
“Damn,” Duke said.
The rain had changed to wet snow by now, and off the muddy road the ground was white. With the motor idling, they could hear the rumble of artillery.
“Thunder?” Duke said.
“Man-made,” Hawkeye said. “They welcome all newcomers this way.”
“What do we do now?” Duke said.
“Find the mess hall,” Hawkeye said. “It figures to be that thing over there.”
When they walked into the mess hall there were about a dozen others sitting at one of the long, rectangular tables. They chose an unoccupied table, sat down, and were served by a Korean boy wearing green fatigue pants and an off-white coat.
As they ate they knew they were being looked over. Finally one of the others got up and approached them. He was about five feet eight, a little overweight, a little red of face and eye, and balding. On the wings of his shirt collar were silver oak leaves, and he looked worried.
“I’m Colonel Blake,” he said, eyeing them. “You fellows just passing through?”
“No,” replied Hawkeye. “We’re assigned here.”
“You sure?” the Colonel asked.
“Y’all said you all needed two good boys,” Duke said, “and we’re what the Army sent.”
“Where you guys been all day? I expected you by noon.”
“We stopped at a gin mill,” the Duke told him.
“Let me see your orders.”
They got out their papers and handed them to the Colonel. They watched him while he checked the papers and then while he eyed the two of them again.
“Well, it figures,” Henry said finally. “You guys look like a pair of weirdos to me, but if you work well I’ll hold still for a lot and if you don’t it’s gonna be your asses.”
“You see?” Hawkeye said to Duke. “I told you.”
“You’re a good man,” Duke said.
“Colonel,” Hawkeye said, “have no fear. The Duke and Hawkeye are here.”
“You’ll know you’re here by morning,” Henry said. “You go to work at nine o’clock tonight, and I just got word that the gooks have bit Kelly Hill.”
“We’re ready,” Hawkeye said.
“Right,” Duke said.
“You’re living with Major Hobson,” Henry said. “O’Reilly?”
“Sir?” Radar O’Reilly said, already at the Colonel’s side, for he had received the message even before it had been sent.
“Don’t do that, O’Reilly,” Henry said. “You make me nervous.”
“Take these officers …”
“To Major Hobson’s tent,” Radar said.
“Stop that, O’Reilly,” Henry said.
“Oh, get out of here,” Henry said.
Thus it came about that it was Radar O’Reilly, who had been the first to know they were coming, who led Captains Pierce and Forrest to their new home. At the moment, Major Hobson was out, so Hawkeye and Duke each selected a sack and lay down. They were just dropping off to sleep when the door opened.
“Welcome, fellows,” a voice boomed, followed by a medium-sized major, who entered with a warm smile and offered a firm handshake.
Major Hobson was thirty-five years old. He had practiced a good deal of general medicine, a little surgery, and every Sunday he had preached in the Church of the Nazarene in a small midwestern town. The fortunes of war had given him a job for which he was unprepared, and associated him with people he could not comprehend.
“You fellows certainly are welcome,” he intoned. “Would you like to look around the outfit?”
“No,” said Duke. “We been stoned all day. Guess we’ll get a little sleep.”
“We’ve gotta fix the President’s hernia at nine o’clock,” Hawkeye said. “We’re Harry’s family surgeons. We’d ask you to assist, but the Secret Service is worried about Chinese agents.”
“Yankee Chinks from the north,” Duke said. “Y’all understand.”
Jonathan Hobson was shocked and confused, and there was much he didn’t understand. Soon after nine o’clock he understood even less. The gooks had indeed hit Kelly Hill, the casualties were rolling in, and the five men on the 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift had their hands full.
When 9:00 a.m. arrived, it was clear that the most and best work had been done by Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest. Among other things, the two, functioning as if they had been working across the table from each other for years, did two bowel resections, which means removing a piece of bowel damaged by such foreign bodies as fragments of shells and mines. Then they did a thoracotomy for control of hemorrhage, which means they opened a chest to stop the bleeding caused by the entrance of a similar body, and they topped this off by removing a lacerated spleen and a destroyed kidney from the same patient.
The ease with which they handled these and several more minor cases naturally stimulated considerable comment and speculation about them. With their chores done, however, Hawkeye and Duke were too tired to care, and right after breakfast they headed across the compound for Tent Six.
As the components of the 4077th MASH were arranged around the horseshoe, the operating tent, with its tin Quonset roof, was in the middle of the closed end. The admitting ward and laboratory were to the left and the postop ward to the right. Next to the laboratory was the Painless Polish Poker and Dental Clinic, then the mess hall, the PX, the shower tent, the barber shop, and the enlisted men’s tents. On the other side, and strung out from the postop ward, were the tents were the officers lived, then nurse country, and finally the quarters for the Korean hired hands. Fifty yards beyond these domiciles was a lonely tent on the edge of a mine field. This was the Officers’ Club. If one walked carefully and obliquely northwesterly for another seventy-five yards beyond the Officers’ Club and didn’t fall into old bunkers, he’d reach a high bank overlooking a wide, usually shallow, branch of the Imjin River.
“Southern boy,” Hawkeye was saying as they approached their tent, “I’m going to have myself a butt and a large shot of tax-free GI booze and hit the sack.”
“I’m with y’all,” Duke was saying, as Hawkeye opened the door affixed to the front of the tent. “Look!” Hawkeye said.
Duke looked where Hawkeye was pointing. In one corner, kneeling on the dirt floor with his elbows on his cot, a Bible in front of him, his lips moving slowly, and oblivious to all about him, was Major Jonathan Hobson. “Jesus,” Hawkeye said.
“It don’t look like Him,” Duke said.
“Do you think he’s gone ape?”
“Naw,” Duke said. “I think he’s a Roller. We got lots of them back home.”
“We’ve got some back at the Cove, too,” Hawkeye said. “You’ve gotta watch ’em.”
“Y’all watch him,” Duke said. “It would bore me.” While Major Hobson maintained his position, they had a large drink and then one more. Then, in loud, unmelodious voices, they sang as much as they could remember of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and crawled exhausted into their sleeping bags.
When they awoke, darkness had come again, and so had another load of casualties. The casualties continued to pour in without letup for a whole week, and the new surgeons did more than their share of the work. This naturally aroused a growing respect among their colleagues, but it was respect mixed with doubt and wonder, for they fitted no recognizable pattern.