The 51st Evacuation Hospital was a 750-bed field hospital and was a channel through which all casualties passed on their transit out of the combat zone to fixed hospitals in the communications zone. It provided major treatment of the sick and wounded as near the front as possible. Up to that point casualties had been treated by combat medics who prepared them for transfer to an evacuation hospital where definitive treatment was begun. Evacuation hospitals were normally in the combat zone and could be in buildings or under tents and on the major evacuation route to the rear. The majority of the patients arrived at the hospital by field ambulance and were evacuated the same way. Patients returning to duty were either returned to their unit or sent to a replacement depot.
The 51st was organized in Sacramento, California by local doctors and nurses. The U.S. Army supplied the balance of personnel to fill out the T/O (Table of Organization). The personnel of the 51st primarily consisted of 32 MDs (Medical Officers) 3 DCs (Dental Officers), 5 MACs (Medical Administrative Officers), 2 chaplains, 52 nurses, 1 dietician and 318 enlisted men. These amounts could vary depending on conditions.
The unit came together at Fort Lewis, Washington, in October 1942 where all the personnel went into field training except the nurses, who were put to work at the North Fort Lewis Station Hospital. When the hospital became operational in April 1943, it was sent by rail to the Mohave Desert Training Center. Set up in tents, the 51st provided medical support for troops on maneuvers. In July the unit moved to Banning, California where it operated as a General Hospital until relieved by the 97th General Hospital. Some of the nurses were sent on detached service to the 97th until the 51st moved to San Luis Obispo, California. San Luis Obispo was a permanent post. After living in the field for several months it was a welcome change to be in buildings, have access to a P.X., and eat "A" rations again. The nurses of course, were put to work at the station hospital.
WW2 Theater Hospital
The operating room held eight operating tables. Four of the nurses on each shift were responsible for the patient care on two tables, with the assistance of an enlisted man trained by the Army Medical Corp. They assisted with the transfer and positioning of the patient and the cleanup of the table. The nurse assisted the doctor with procedures, dressings, and set-up for each case.
When shipping time came for overseas, the 51st came together at Camp Cooke, California, and left by train to Hampton Roads Virginia. In March 1944, the nurses embarked on the USS Billy Mitchell with nurses from several other hospital units. After eight days they debarked at Casablanca where they spent two days before boarding a train made up of boxcars and traveled across North Africa to Oran. In a small village on the Mediterranean outside Oran, the group was allowed to recuperate for a few days at a lovely recreation area then were sent out on detached service to various Army hospitals in the area.
From Oran in May 1944, the 51st boarded the U.S. Army Hospital Ship, Seminole, and sailed to Naples, Italy. As they entered Naples harbor, with Mt. Vesuvius still belching smoke from a recent eruption, the first news received was that Rome had been liberated that day. There the nurses were again sent on detached service to various General Hospitals in the area while the rest of the 51st prepared for the invasion of Southern France.
In August of 1944 the 51st sailed from Naples for Southern France. After landing at St. Tropez on "D plus 3", the 51st set up outside the town of Draguignan, in tents in a field, and began receiving patients. The unit received patients at this location for 25 days, and admitted 2007 patients. Conditions were very good; weather was balmy and much time was spent outdoors.
The next move was September, 1944. The war had moved so fast the 51st was left behind since it had to rely on other transportation to move. Subsequently it was moved by rail using old third class coaches and boxcars of various sizes and nationalities. It took five days on the train to make the 500 miles from Dragiugnan to Vincey. It was one of the first trains to make the trip after the Germans abandoned the railroad. A captured 400 gallon tank was put on board to provide potable water. The nurses carried their own C & K rations. Some carried small Colman stoves enabling them to have an occasional hot meal and heat water for sponge baths.
The next place of operation was outside the little village of Vincey in Northeastern France. The hospital was set up on October 8th in another farmer's field. It was the start of the cold and rainy season and soon became a muddy mess, making it difficult to walk and keep things clean, dry, and operational. It was here the surgery was doubled in size by connecting two ward tents, providing a much more workable area for everyone. The nurses were housed four to a 16 X 16 pyramidal tent. They became very resourceful. Some had wooden bed platforms which were made by locals and paid for by the nurses' cigarette rations. They also lined their tents with blankets captured from the Germans. The tents were heated by coal stoves.
The 51st remained in the area for 51 days and admitted 3677 patients. It was here, in a cold, damp tent, that Private Melvin W. Johnson gave up the fight.
On November 27th, 1944, the unit moved into an old French Cavalry barracks in St. Die, France. The officers and nurses were billeted in heated buildings, as were the wards and surgery. The weather was very cold with snow most days. The fighting was very rough in the Vosge Mountains and the Colmar Pocket. Casualties were high from both battles and severe weather. The unit was there 81 days with 7969 admissions. The 51st celebrated Christmas at St. Die. It was a festive occasion in spite of being busy. A lovely turkey dinner with all the trimmings was prepared by the mess department, champagne flowed freely, and hard liquor from the monthly ration was abundant too. The meal was served at 5:30 P.M. Those on shift were able to break away long enough to enjoy the meal. Many members shared packages from home filled with goodies, fruit-cakes, cookies and candy.
The next move was to Sarre Union, France. The 51st was set up in tents again for only nine days with 971 admissions.
The next move was to Neustadt, Germany into a German hospital. However, the building's configuration and equipment were not compatible to the operation so the surgery was set up in large garages. This was a short stay of five days with 861 admissions.
We crossed the Rhine river on a floating bridge at Worms, and traveled up the road toward Numbert, setting up the 51st outside the village of Waldurn, at the intersection with the road to Heidelberg. The 51st was back in tents again. There the unit processed many U.S. and allied prisoners of war who were released as allied troops liberated their camps. The 51st was there 17 days and had 1851 admissions.
The last place the 51st operated as a field hospital was Welzheim, Germany. It was situated in another farmer's field in tents. It operated there for 89 days with 4329 admissions. At Welzheim, one of the ward nurses married the lieutenant in command of the ambulance company that serviced the 51st. There were married in the town church by the 51st protestant chaplain. It was there the unit suffered its first and only fatality. One of the nurses was killed in a command car accident.
Spring arrived while the 51st was in Welzheim, a welcomed change after a severe winter. The nurses were able to relax and even nap in the fields when off duty. VE Day came on May 8, 1945. It was anticipated that the 51st would be redeployed to the Asiatic Pacific Theater via the U.S.
In Stuttgart, the 51st Evac. occupied and operated in the upper floors of the Robert Bosch Krankenhaus on the outskirts of the heavily damaged city. Relatively few patients were admitted to the hospital and not long after its arrival in Stuttgart, Col. Weller was relieved of command and replaced by Col. James Yarborough.
On orders from Seventh Army Headquarters in Heidelberg, an official review of the 51st Evacuation Hospital was held on the hospital grounds. Col. Rudolph presented Col. Yarborough and Lt. Col. Cook with the unit's "Service Award of Merit", citing the 51st's record of 277 days of operation in the European Theater, 21,666 patients admitted during that time, with 9,454 operations performed and 6,143 patients returned to duty.
The 51st Evac. was relieved of duty on Oct. 12, 1945 and ordered to return to the U.S. for training and possible redeployment to the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Interview with Howard and Tillie Kehrer
This story is quite extraordinary. For as long as I've known that the last place my grandfather was alive was at the 51st Evacuation Hospital, I've looked into the history of this unit. I've found bits and pieces here and there, mostly on the web. I stumbled across a site that was written by one of the surgery nurses as well as one of the surgeons. On a whim, I did a Google search for the nurse. Imagine my surprise when the first site I came to was a newspaper story in Seattle, WA describing the expansion of the airport and how one Tillie Kehrer had to move from her home to allow for airport expansion. I found a phone number, and made the call. Howard and Tillie were still living in the Seattle area! Tillie is 91 and Howard is 89! I talked to them for awhile on the phone and accepted their invitation to their home. It ended up being an incredible interview, with rooms full of WW2 memorabilia and photos. These sound files are excerpts of that interview.
Description of the 51st Evacuation Hospital.
Description of Push & Leapfrog movements of hospital.
Getting married in Vincey, France.