MASH Helicopter Bell H-13

Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) units and H-13 helicopter

The use of helicopters for medical evacuation (popular M*A*S*H TV series was based on this) had its origin in circumstance rather than planning. At the beginning of the Korean War, Detachment F of the USAF 3rd Air Rescue Squadron, which had been tasked primarily with downed pilot rescue, also received requests from ground elements for casualty evacuation. Many successful missions, derived from those requests, prompted the U.S Eighth Army to test its helicopters for similar duties. After a successful Joint Army/Air Force experiment at Taegu on 3 August 1950, the Army Surgeon General strived to obtain helicopters for medical evacuation within the Eighth Army. His efforts were rewarded on 22 November when the 2nd Helicopter Detachment arrived in Korea with four H-13s. Within one week of arrival, one of the unit’s H-13Bs became the first Army helicopter flown into combat, flowever, the exact date was never recorded since the aircraft flew in support of Eighth Army units withdrawing from a major Chinese assault. After a period of in-country training, the unit became operational on 1 January 1951, and attached to the 8055th MASH at Anscom City. Two weeks later, as the Chinese continued to push Eighth Army elements back to Seoul, the first Army medical evacuation mission was flown in one of the H-13s. At the controls was Captain Albert Sebourn, who later designed an alternative patient litter for the H-13 in place of the standard stokes basket.

In January, the 3rd Detachment arrived with four H-13s, followed by the 4th Detachment several days later, also with four Sioux. The 3rd became operational with the 8076th MASH and the 4th was assigned to 1st MASH. On 21 February 1951, the 1st Helicopter Detachment arrived in Korea with four H-13s and was attached to the Eighth Army Flight Detachment. Shortly after its arrival; however, it was stripped of its H-13s, which were passed on to other units. Eventually, all H-13Bs in the theater were replaced by H-13Ds.

So intense was the action that all four pilots of the 2nd Helicopter Detachment had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, after only two weeks. During their first month of operations they evacuated more than 500 severely wounded, in one instance, twenty-three from a single location. They often flew supplies to besieged units, then flew the wounded out, earning the profound respect of their comrades.

The four detachments were redesignated Army Units (AU) under the Eighth Army on 14 May 1951. The 1st Detachment was disbanded, while the remaining 2nd, 3rd and 4th became the 49th, 50th and 52nd Medical Detachment Helicopter Ambulance respectively, in December of 1952. Until June of 1953, when a fourth detachment was formed, the Surgeon General had only a dozen H-13s operating in Korea – four in each detachment.

Medical Detachment personnel made modifications to their H-13s to improve the care of their wounded passengers. Un-detachable stokes baskets gave way to removable litters with Plexiglas covers. Thanks to GI ingenuity, the pods were heated with warm air piped from the engine manifold. Some aircraft had a plasma bottle holder mounted on the cabin exterior behind the door openings to facilitate blood replacement while airborne.

During the final months of hostilities, some H-13s were replaced by much larger H-19s, which did double duty as cargo and rescue helicopters. By the end of the war (27 July 1953) a total of 21,212 soldiers had been evacuated by helicopter. Some sources put the number closer to 25.000, considering civilian casualties and non-combat related injuries. The original H-13 pilots that served in Korea were not medical personnel but culled from other branches. During 1952, the Medical Corps began training its own pilots, who arrived in Korea shortly after the armistice but maintained an average of sixty medical missions per month throughout the country.