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Transcript: S. Joseph Magidson, 1969

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This is Archives Collection Oral History Interview #1, recorded on September 25, 1969 with Dr. Joseph Magidson, concerning his World War I experiences in Base Hospital 21, United States Army, sponsored by the Washington University School of Medicine.

[These plans] were developed in 1916 by the American Red Cross and the War Department.  A number of base hospitals were organized by the Department of Military Relief of the American Red Cross.  At the time, America had not entered the war.  These units were developed from existing civil institutions so that if the need for such units should arise there would be fully-equipped hospital units, complete with physicians, nurses, and so forth, for active service.  Washington University, in conjunction with Barnes Hospital, was designated as the organizing unit for Unit 21.  Dr. Fred T. Murphy, Professor of Surgery of Washington University, was appointed as director of the unit.  Other doctors and nurses were recruited from the University and Barnes Hospital.

When war with Germany was declared April 7, 1917, the War Department made plans to call these medical units into service as part of the American army.  On April 21, 1917, a telegram from Washington was received, asking, (quote) “Can your unit go to Europe, and how soon?” (unquote)  Dr. Murphy replied, (quote) “Yes, within one week.” (end of quote)  The next week orders were received to prepare to mobilize for foreign service.  Final preparations were made.  A balanced staff of doctors and nurses was organized and the enlisted personnel recruitment was completed by May 13, 1917.  On May 16, farewell services were held at Christ Church Cathedral [St. Louis.]

[On] May 17 the unit left for New York and sailed on the 19th on the steamship St. Paul.  After an eight-day voyage the unit landed in Liverpool, England.  The enlisted personnel proceeded to Blackpool where they were instructed in the rudiments of army training.  The officers and nurses spent this time in London.  They were reunited at Southampton on June 10 and crossed the [English] Channel on a British troop and supply ship that night.  The men spent the next night in a British camp on the hill at LeHavre and traveled on a French troop train to Rouen during the night of June 11.

I would like to interject at this point that the steamship St. Paul returned to the United States, New York harbor.  It disloaded its cargo and immediately thereafter sank in the harbor at New York.

In the champ de courses (in parenthesis, racetrack) on the outskirts of Rouen, the British established Number 12 General Hospital, British Expeditionary Force, in 1914.  Our unit proceeded to the champ de courses on Tuesday, June 12, to replace the British staff.  This was a 1,350-bed hospital, almost completely made up of tents.  Two other hospitals were operated within the racetrack.  One was a British hospital for captured, wounded enemy prisoners and British prisoners who had self-inflicted wounds.  And the third was a British colonial hospital.

On the steamship St. Paul we were accompanied by Hospital Unit Number 10, recruited in Philadelphia.  We thought these two units would be the first American troops to land in France but, to our surprise, when we arrived in Rouen we learned that Unit Number 3 from Cleveland had arrived a few days before we did.  The Cleveland unit operated a British hospital up Route de Elbeuf from General Hospital, a distance of about a mile and a half south of us.  As we proceeded to take over the operations of the hospital, we soon learned that it would be necessary to retain some of the British personnel until reinforcements could be sent from the United States of America.  Also, because of the rigors of our work, about twenty of the enlisted men were unable to continue with the work and were returned to the United States of America.

Reinforcements arrived in November 1917, which included nine doctors, twenty-nine nurses, and forty-seven enlisted men, all having been recruited in St. Louis.  As the fighting on the Somme front increased, the number of wounded received increased considerably.  It was on the Somme front that tanks and poison gas were first used.  At this time there were autopsies performed on patients who had died from poison gas.  And we made sections of various anatomical structures, and these were perhaps the first made overseas.

To help us carry the extra load, additional help in the form of Unit D, recruited in Louisville, Kentucky, was very welcome.  Unit D arrived in April 1918 and remained with us until August.  At another time, forty men from a Canadian hospital arrived to help with the work.  At times we also used German prisoners, however, most of the prisoners were skilled tradesman who replaced our ward tents with portable wooden huts (wooden structures).

Because of the vast experience gained by our early arrival in France, and because of our excellent record of operation, the American army headquarters began a program of recruitment of our men and women.  A number of our men were called to Paris or elsewhere for duty.  In most instances these men received handsome promotions in rank.  I might add at this time that there was recruitment for aviators and there were two of us, another person and myself, who volunteered.  But I suddenly found out that I was not acceptable.  And I later found out that Dr. [Eugene] Opie, who was supposed to be my second father overseas, interceded and hence I remained with the unit.

A number of our men were called to Paris or elsewhere for duty.  In most instances these men received handsome promotions in rank.  When the American army became active at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood in 1918, it took pressure off the Somme front and our work became lighter.  It was then that Mobile Unit Number 4 was recruited from our Unit 21.  Mobile Number 4 was sent to the American sector where, because of their extensive experience at Rouen and their indomitable spirit, they made an excellent record.  After the Armistice, Mobile Unit Number 4 was returned to Rouen.  During the 18 months of ministering to the ill and wounded at Rouen, 61,453 patients were received.  During this time only two patients were kept for extended periods of treatment.  The others were rehabilitated as quickly as possible and sent to convalescent camps or to England for further treatment.  The war ended on November 11, 1918 and few patients were received after that date.

In January 1919, the work of closing 12th General began and on January 22nd the last patients were transferred elsewhere or discharged.  Up to this time our military service was with the British, specifically the Royal Army Medical Corps.  On February 11, 1919, we left for Vannes, Plouharnel, or Cornac Plage.  The nurses were sent either to Germany for further service or to Vannes General Hospital for return to America.  About five weeks was spent in Britanny or elsewhere awaiting orders to sail home.  This gave the personnel time to visit interesting places in the area.

On March 20, we left for Brest and our first American camp, Pontenezen.  On April 7 the unit sailed on a German troop ship, Graf Waldersee, which was a ship turned over to the Allies by the American government, according to the terms of the Armistice which ended World War I.  This Graf Waldersee was no prize, as we usually consider prizes.  It leaked very badly and listed dangerously.  At one time the water in the hold became so deep the ship stopped in mid-Atlantic so steam could be used for the water pumps.  After thirteen days we landed in New York on Easter Sunday, which was April 20, 1919.  The Red Cross served our Easter dinner on the deck: sauerkraut and sausage.  We went to Camp Meritt in New Jersey and spent one week there.  On our way to Camp Funston, Kansas, we stopped in St. Louis for a parade, a reception, and memorial services at Christ Church Cathedral.  The unit then left for Camp Funston and on May 3, 1919 was demobilized and the men were discharged.  Time in service: May 17, 1917–May 3, 1919.  Only three members died in France: Humphrey Evatt, Sheldon Murray and James Simpson were buried with full American military honors.  Nurses Helen Marshall and Paul Graham died in America in 1919 after being sent home, ill, from France.  Because of the passing of years we do not have a record of how many of our former members are still living.  For the departed we humbly say, “Lord, may their souls rest in peace.”  (Written by Charles W. Koch.)

[Ed. note:  At this point in the interview, Dr. Magidson apparently is showing the interviewer an album which included pictures taken of members of Unit 21 beginning with their departure from St. Louis.]

The third page shows our commanding officer, Colonel James D. Fife, Base Hospital 21.  He was a member of the regular army.  The second photograph shows Colonel Fred T. Murphy of Base Hospital 21.  The third photograph shows Colonel Borden S. Veeder, Base Hospital 21, and the fourth [photograph] shows Colonel Malvern B. Clopton, Mobile Hospital Number 4.  There is a fifth picture on the same page showing Miss Julia C. Stimson.  She was director of Washington University School of Nursing in 1917.  When Base Hospital Unit 21 was formed, Miss Stimson was appointed chief nurse and sailed for France with the unit, the first to leave St. Louis for active duty overseas.  In April, 1918, Miss Stimson became head of the Red Cross Nursing Service and later chief nurse of the American Expeditionary Force.  After the war, Miss Stimson was placed in charge of the nurses in the regular army, a position that she held until her retirement with the rank of major in 1917 [sic].  [ed. note: Stimson was promoted to the rank of major in 1920, the first woman to achieve that rank.  She retired from the Army in 1937, though returned to the Army during World War II to help recruit nurses.]

The next page shows the personnel of Base Hospital Unit 21, which replaced that of British General Hospital Number 12, which was in the environs of Rouen, France.  The next page shows some of our commanding officers, Walter Fischel, Fred T. Murphy, Malvern B. Clopton, Julia Stimson and Borden S. Veeder.  He was our last commander.  The next two pages shows the personnel of Unit 21:  medical officers, dental officers, officer of quartermaster corps, chaplains, sanitary corps, the nursing staff, and enlisted personnel.  The next page is a view from the south bank of the Seine River, in which there is no war damage.  The next page shows the wreckage in World War II.  This is included particularly to show the wreckage and ruins at Rouen.

Rouen is one of the great, history-packed cities of Europe.  Joan of Arc was burned in the marketplace.  The great cathedral so near the scene of her tribulations is one of the world’s sublime monuments bequeathed [to] our time by the men of an un-mechanized age.  Rouen stands about halfway between Paris and the sea, on the Seine.  It is a great port because ocean-going boats can come inland as far as Rouen and unload their cargoes there for rail shipment to Paris.  The cathedral stands about halfway between the river and the railroad station.  The importance of Rouen as a port explains why this area had to be bombed when it was in German hands.  You see here the ruins of one of the two main vehicular bridges across the river and the surrounding demolition, partly by fire, which unfortunately had to destroy many historic old buildings.  That the cathedral still survives may be taken as a tribute to the precision bombing of our airmen, whose duty it was to destroy the usefulness of the port.

The next page shows scenes [of us] first leaving St. Louis in May 1917.  Another photograph next to it shows arriving in New York in May 1917.  There is a third picture showing a picture of the pier when we left New York.  This is Pier 61, May 19, 1917.  The next two pictures are pictures showing a lifeboat drill with men carrying their life preservers and the positioning of the lifeboats, two of them.  There’s another picture on the boat showing one of our five protectors, a five-inch gun with some shells, and another view of this boat.

I might add that when we got on the boat our Section M was assigned to the very bottom of the boat.  I soon decided that it would take me a long time to get up on the top deck of the boat in case something happened.  So I sort of walked around and I met this second-class smoking cabin steward.  We had a friendly conversation and I told him where I was sleeping and he said, “Why don’t you come up here and sleep on the leather cushions?”  So, that’s where I slept the rest of the trip.

A little bit later on, being inquisitive, I walked around some more and met a man who was the captain’s steward, who waited on the captain’s table.  Understand, that we two units were present on board ship but there were private passengers, as well, so to be invited to the captain’s table is quite an honor, and here I met the man who was waiting on this particular table.  We had a conversation and finally we decided that he was going to feed me going across.  So, I walked with my great coat and had a piece of thick, yellow paper on the inside.

[Ed. note:  At this point in the tape the volume fades out so that Dr. Magidson’s account is very difficult to understand.]

I would pass the galley and all of a sudden a roast duck would be in [the coat].  I would go down to the quarters and put it in the box and finally I’d collect the whole meal.  I’d get the ten men who enlisted in our unit as privates, who were about to graduate [from] Washington University medical school in June 1917.  They were all known to me by their first names and they knew me by my first name, so I fed them as well as myself all the way across overseas.

The next page shows the steamship St. Paul as it was in its heyday.  The next page shows the positions of lifeboats on the steamship St. Paul – other views.  Page 13 shows our officers on board the boat with their preservers and with their greatcoats and life preservers.  The following two pictures on the same page shows our nurses on board the steamship St. Paul and another group showing Miss Julia Stimson with nine nurses.  There is also a view of the lifeboats on the steamship St. Paul.  The next page, page 14, shows the enlisted men’s headquarters, Blackpool, England.  It shows a view of a large tower and a Ferris wheel, and it shows another view of the ocean, and it shows another view of one of our soldiers examining a crab in the company of a small girl.  There’s a small picture on the same page showing the officers and nurses in London, England.

Page 15 shows the view, taken from the large tower shown on the previous page, of the city of Blackpool, England.  Page 16 shows views of the British General Hospital Number 12, where it was a tent city, during summer and winter.  Roll call was held on the track.  Later on, living quarters for the enlisted personnel were erected on the track.  The walks were made by members of the unit, who dined underneath the grandstand, and the officers, _____(?) and nurses and enlisted men who had their quarters behind the stands.  Page 17 shows an identification card given to the Base Hospital 21 by the American Red Cross.  This identifies Mr. Nushan, A. K., (address) 3890 Windsor Place, St. Louis, Missouri, enrolled as male administrative personnel.  It has the signature of A. K. Nushan and “Director, Fred T. Murphy.”  Underneath this, on the same page, is a decal showing the left shoulder pad, indicating that the wearer belongs to the Second Army Corps, which consisted of British and American units.  This was the only such unit in the two armies – I mean, general hospitals.  They were connected, as were the other hospitals _____(?).

Page 18 shows casualties being unloaded from ambulance and carried into the receiving hut.  Page 19 has further views showing casualties arriving by rail from various points [and] brought to the base hospital in Rouen where men on convoy duty unloaded them from the ambulances [and] took them into a hut where they were assigned to wards and carried there by two enlisted men as shown in the succeeding photograph.  Two other photographs are on this page.  One shows patients waiting to be x-rayed, lying on their stretchers, either waiting to be x-rayed or to be operated on.  I should tell you that the operating room was in the middle of three units.  On one side was the x-ray room and the [unit] on the other side was the room containing the laboratories.

Page 20 shows a patient about to be operated on.  There’s another [picture on this page] showing Dr. [Levi H.] Fuson operating on a patient.  Page 21 shows the equipment in the x-ray department.  Page 22 shows the x-ray equipment, another view, and page 23 shows another view of further x-ray equipment.  Page 24 is a view of the clinical laboratory after it was put into one of the buildings that was built for it.  The next page, 25, shows the laboratory tent, which we occupied during the first days on arrival to the base hospital.  It’s presumed that this was erected in 1914.  On the same page, 25, there’s a view of Captain Walter F. Thomas, who succeeded Eugene L. Opie in charge of the laboratories when he left the unit.  He became head of something [else] when he left our unit.

There’s a picture on the same page showing Lt. Colonel Gustav [H]. Koppel (spells) K-o-p-p-e-l [ed. note: according to the Unit’s records, the spelling should be “Kopple”], who was attached to the quartermaster corps when he joined Base Hospital Unit Number 21.  There’s another picture on the same page of Mance (spells) M-a-n-c-e Taylor, who was head of the nursing school at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis.  She succeeded Miss Stimson when she left our unit.  Page 29 [ed. note: page 26] is a view of the back of the grandstand with the nurses’ quarters.  Page 27 is a view showing the German prisoners carrying patients on convoy duty – (in parentheses, during the day only).  The huts, above, replaced the original tents.

Page 28 shows the enlisted personnel.  First, third and fourth were men assigned to the clinical laboratory: Joe Magidson, Duane Hutchinson, and James B. Costen.  The second man is Tom Lodge, an operating room assistant.  We are standing before a water container used for emergency purposes in case of fire.  Tom Lodge, incidentally, has just dipped his hand in the water and is about to shower me with some water, saying he is finally going to get me.  He studied for the priesthood and gave up the priesthood to come with our unit.

Page 29 shows the patients relaxing in the sun.  There’s another view on the same page showing a typical ward scene.  Page 30 shows treatment of a knee by the Carrel-Dakin method, and there’s another view of the same knee injury.  Page 31 shows methods of treating lower limb fractures.  Page 32 is a continuation of treating lower limb fractures.

Beginning of Volume 2.  Page 1 shows officers’ early quarters.  Two other views show prisoners at work and prisoners at mealtime – German prisoners.  The second page is a view of the nurses’ quarters with a nearby trench in which they might seek shelter in case of an air raid.  The third page shows the funeral of General [Robert E. Lee] Michie in 1918 [with] various of our units marching – French and two units that were nearby.  The fourth page shows the back of the grandstand and a bulletin board on which non-commissioned officers read some of their orders.  The fifth page is a banquet, I think at Christmastime, showing the non-commissioned officers eating.  The sixth page is a view of the cast and orchestra of C’est la Guerre, book by Percy Byrns, lyrics by Edwin Dakin, both enlisted men in our unit.  The seventh page are the stars of C’est la Guerre, James B. Costen and Calvin G. Tilton.  The eighth page is another play called Studying Conditions, by Edwin J. Collier.

The ninth page is “The nurses put on a show.”  The tenth page is a continuation of “The nurses put on a show.”  The eleventh page shows the partial erection of [the] enlisted men’s new sleeping quarters being finished.  [On] the twelfth page there are three pictures.  The first one show men with their hands tied behind their backs eating pie.  The second picture shows a scene of racing with their feet in bags.  The [third] is a man called Spencer, who was climbing a greased pole.

There are four pictures on page 13, the first showing the general view of the hospital and the seating emplacement of the enlisted men in the shape of “U.S.A.”  The second picture shows the enlisted men seated, dining.  The third and fourth pictures on this page show that if a bomb exploded near a hut, there is some protection for the patients in having sandbags around the hut – none, of course, if there is a direct hit.  The fourteenth page is a group of our medical officers in celebration of Féte Day.  The second picture on this page is a view of the grandstand and some of the audience.  The third picture is some of the seated and standing audience watching what was going on.

On page 15, the personnel stages a circus.  Another picture on this same page is one showing the nurses performing a May pole dance.  On page 16 there is a view showing where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen.  There’s a picture on this page showing Angie and [Philip J.] Conrath after a drive in Unit 4 ambulance in Paris.  There’s another view showing Charles Koch and his staff.  And there’s another picture showing some of the members of Unit 21.  On this same page is a picture of Pasteur Institute in Paris.  Page 17 are various views showing the attire of the people; one showing young girls, one of a wedding party, one of little Breton boys and girls, and the fourth, residents of Brittany – as is known, [they] live in the northwest part of France.  It was there, from their port of Brest, that American soldiers left for home after the Armistice.

There were various places that we stayed before we boarded ship.  One of them was a former convent (in parenthesis, the Convent of Kergonan, end of parenthesis) above and the Grand Hotel below, a seaside resort where our unit was billeted at various times.  There is a third picture on this page showing Plouharnel-Carnac – menhirs (in parentheses, tall, upright monumental stones of varying antiquity found in parts of Europe, end of quotation) in the old mill near the railway station.

Page number 15 is as follows: St. Louisans Arshav Nushan, drums; Edwin Dakin, violin; Syl [Sylvester] Horn; banjo; and Clarence Koch, trumpet.  Clevelanders Russell Hauslaib, saxophone; Clayton Thirkill, piano; and Albert Angelotta, trombone; made up the Scrap Iron Jazzerinos which entertained the St. Louis and Cleveland units.  When the two hospitals were deactivated, the band played for the YMCAs all over Europe, at peace conferences, for the queen of Romania and other dignitaries at the Casino de Paris.  Appearing with them were stars of the entertainment world: John Boles, singer and movie actor; Maurice Chevalier, singer, entertainer; and Bob Carleton, composer of the words and music of the 1918 popular hit “Jada.”  Sophie Tucker, singer, was their godmother, arranging for the band to get all the music publications they needed.  The Victor and Pathé companies recorded their music and a brilliant future was predicted for the band.  However, they were discharged from the army nine months after they had performed before various groups.

Page number 20 shows views of the entranceway to the race track as it now stands.  The first one is the gateway to the racecourse of a few years ago, the second picture is [the] racecourse with the stands in the rear, the third is another view of the racecourse.  On page 21 is the city of Rouen, France, with reconstructed and replaced buildings, when visited in 1960 – three pages showing this.  [Page] 22 is something that remains from World War I: the transporting bridge over the Seine River.  The next picture is a garden in Rouen and the third picture is a facet of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  All of these, of course, were taken during the present-day in Rouen.  Page 23 shows the city of Rouen with reconstructed and replaced buildings when visited in the sixties.  The first picture shows the Rue Grosse Horloge and the other two pictures show new buildings put up in Rouen.  Page 24 is also of the city of Rouen with reconstructed and replaced buildings when visited in 1960.

Page 25 consists of letters appearing in various periodicals in St. Louis.  One is headed, “St. Louis Hospital Unit Wins Fame for City in Britain: Rev. E. Combie Smith in Letter Tells of Valiant Work Done.”  The second picture is from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Unit [21] Held Big Banquet in Hut in France on War Anniversary.”  This was our first anniversary.  The third letter is from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: “Washington University Medical Unit Soon to Return to United States: Lt. Colonel Veeder Writes Base Hospital Unit 21 is Finishing Up Work.”

Page 26 is what was formed, namely, the Rouen Post, a paper devoted to the interests of the Rouen Post Number 242.  The editor of this page was Mr. William Stack.  And someone by the name of Helen Seevers in the [Hotel] “Kingsway Page” said of Mr. Stack: “Salute Editor Stack!  We’ve known Bill Stack as soldier, pugilist, artist, bon vivant, but now he bobs up in a new role, that of editor of the Rouen Post, official news organ and commentator of the recently-organized Rouen Post of the American Legion, which meets at the Kings-Way Hotel.  In its first transition of mood, from grave to gay, the Post gives us retrospective glimpses of memorable days, betrays a between-the-lines rough, masculine tenderness, gives flashes of Rabelaisian humor, all studded with the incomparable Stack cartoons.”

Page 25 is an outer cover of the Rouen Post, “A chronicle of the past and present activities of the men and women who served with Base Hospital Unit Number 21,” William Stack, Editor; Arthur Melville, Publisher; William Engel, Manager, 1936-1946.  Page 29 contains the exact copy of that which was handed us as we entered Thanksgiving services on return to St. Louis in 1919.  It [ed. note: the scrapbook page] can be taken apart and the reverse side read.  Pages 29 and 30 [show] what was held May 19th through the 21st, 1967.  It’s titled, “21 on Deck: the 50th Anniversary Reunion, Base Hospital Unit 21 Golden Jubilee.”  It gives the committee report, Golden Jubilee Roll Call, Your Name for the Roll Call, The Committee, Any Questions, and then a Program.  This is the end of the story.


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