Backroads

Army attendants help unload some of the 75 wounded soldiers from three planes in Temple in January 1944. The soldiers were wounded in battles in Italy and North Africa. This was the first time the massive planes had been put to use outside of military maneuvers. The planes quickly replaced rail hospital cars as efficient patient transportation.

The skies over Bell County opened up 75 years ago this week to a new era, thanks to remarkable teamwork blending medicine and aviation, all for the sake of the nation’s most cherished cargo — wounded soldiers.

The patients were heading to Temple’s McCloskey General Army Hospital, a vast 1,200-bed military and rehabilitation hospital. The event even got attention from a wartime syndicated comic strip a few months later.

During this week in 1944, 75 wounded soldiers with hometowns in Texas, California and Oklahoma rode the skyways to the Temple airport as part of the first mass evacuation by air into an interior U.S. military hospital. This was the first time the massive planes had been put to use outside of military maneuvers.

The soldiers were recovering from serious injuries sustained in battles from Italy to North Africa, most with bone fractures and needing extensive rehabilitation.

Thirty-five wounded men in litter cases came in three oversized ambulance planes of the Army Troop Carrier Command from Stark General Hospital in Charleston, S.C., and arrived in the mid-afternoon on Jan. 10.

This Charleston-to-Temple flight was an expansion of 30 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadrons that served during World War II in every combat theater.

Military hospitals quickly filled as fighting increased in Europe and Asia. Patients who were able to travel were transported first by ship, then by rail in military hospitals on the Pacific and Atlantic seacoasts. But by late 1943, even those beds were filled, and more wounded soldiers were expected. About half were ambulatory patients (the “walking wounded”), and half were litter patients.

What was different about this flight to Temple was it was used to transport wounded soldiers into interior military hospitals for further care.

Transporting wounded soldiers

The idea of transporting wounded soldiers by air was a long time coming. In 1910, two Army officers constructed the first ambulance plane, and during World War I the Army experimented with transporting patients by air.

The advent of large multi-engine cargo planes in the interwar years made the concept a reality. In November 1941, the U.S. Army Air Force authorized the Medical Air Ambulance Squadron. Air evacuation was first performed informally in 1942 during the construction of the Alcan Highway and in Burma, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal.

The flight surgeon for the McCloskey flight was Army Air Corps Maj. Glenn E. Kahler (1911-1951) of Buckholts, in charge of the flight to Temple. McCloskey’s commander, Brig. Gen. James Albertus Bethea (1887-1984) predicted that extensive aerial evacuations to interior central hospitals would increase as the war progressed.

Kahler brought uncanny experience. A graduate of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, he left his successful surgical practice to volunteer for the Army Air Corps when the war began. Among his most remarkable military achievements was establishing a station hospital at one of the first airstrips in New Guinea in 1942.

The flight to Temple was uneventful. “There was no air sickness,” said an attending nurse. “Some had never been in the air before and were a little frightened for a few minutes; then all was fine.”

A county milestone

The arrival of the medical air ambulance to the Temple airport marked a significant milestone. Bell County had been a logical place for the massive Camp Hood and McCloskey Hospital, both activated in June 1942, because of this area’s excellent rail service.

In 1940, U.S. railways moved 70 percent of all freight transported in the country. McCloskey even had a rail spur that brought the wounded onto the grounds. Hospital trains reached their pinnacle during World War II, when the number, complexity and resources devoted to hospital trains exceeded any other time in U.S. history.

Within a year, that amount rose to nearly 100 percent, making railroads indispensable to victory, but rails couldn’t compete with air travel. One major drawback was the 1,050-mile trip from Charleston to Temple by rail would have taken up to three days, compared to six hours of this flight. The air ambulances carried more soldiers in less time with less stress to patients.

Texas soldiers came home

Among the wounded traveling with Kahler were Sgt. Jack G. White of Belton, Sgt. Randall Wade of Belton, Capt. A.L. Laughlin of Moody, Pvt. Jesse L. Stajanik of Little River and Sgt. August Waskow of Belton, all injured in Italy.

Each told the Temple Daily Telegram harrowing tales of injury and escape. Despite that, the Telegram reporter found the men were hopeful for full recovery, happy to be home and proud of their service.

Pvt. Raymond Horton (1919-2005) of Coleman said, “I may be torn to pieces but I’m back in good old Texas, and nothing else makes any difference.”

White said that more than half of his battalion, a Belton National Guard unit, was crippled, wounded or captured in Italy. Stajanik, wounded in the hip, fell at Altavilla. “I lay on the battlefield all day with artillery fire roaring overhead. I didn’t think I’d ever get out of there,” Stajanik said.

By the following May, the syndicated comic strip “Scorchy Smith” made special mention of the military medical planes and its heroic doctors and nurses onboard. The Associated Press’s leading strip during its heyday between 1930 and 1961, “Scorchy Smith” featured a pilot-for-hire whose adventures included fighting criminals, aiding damsels in distress and fighting foreign aggression.

The entire military medical air transport system in North America, Asia and Europe was impressive. Of the 1.17 millions soldiers transported, only 46 patients died in flight, although several hundred did perish in crashes. By mid-1944, 18 percent of all Army casualties were evacuated by air.