The young man lay wounded near the front lines in France, thousands of miles from home.
Pusey Noal McGee was a hometown guy. He was born in Council Bluffs; he served as captain of the football team at Abraham Lincoln High School. And when the United States entered World War I, he enlisted along with about 115,000 other Iowans.
On Oct. 10, 1918, McGee, observing the front lines from an airborne balloon, was attacked by German planes. He was wounded in the right shoulder and chest.
Maybe McGee kept up with news in his hometown. Maybe he’d read reports of the hospital corps, organized by former mayor Dr. Donald Macrae Jr., that many had taken to calling the “Council Bluffs Unit.”
And maybe McGee was surprised, and a little comforted, to find out that doctors and nurses from his hometown, stationed nearby, would be the ones to treat his wounds after his balloon was shot down.
Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the mustering of Unit K, a mobile battlefield hospital created at the start of World War I and staffed almost entirely by doctors and nurses from Council Bluffs. Throughout the war, Unit K moved more than a dozen times, treating thousands of patients. Its members and their peers were on the cutting edge of mobile combat medicine, decades before the widely known MASH units.
But you will find few accounts of Unit K’s deeds, except in obscure World War I texts, and no monuments. Today, Unit K has been mostly forgotten, even in Council Bluffs.
But there are some who think the story of the doctors and nurses should be told. Dr. Richard Warner, a Council Bluffs dentist and member of the Pottawattamie County Historical Society, has spent years perusing records left by Macrae and other members of Unit K.
They’re worth remembering, Warner said, because they were volunteers who put their lives and careers on hold, venturing to the front lines to save lives.
“There was a need — ‘American boys are dying and suffering, and we’re going to do something about it’ — that’s just ... wow. You have to appreciate that,” Warner said.
Warner and other Council Bluffs history enthusiasts point to evidence that indicates Unit K was one of the very first mobile hospital units, if not the first.
Macrae was a man to get things done, Warner said. He served in the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s, and as mayor of Council Bluffs from 1904 to 1907. He was a no-nonsense statesman, shutting down illegal saloons and gambling halls.
Macrae served in the Iowa National Guard’s Medical Corps. Upon his return from the Mexican Border Service in March 1917 he resigned his commission with the National Guard to organize his hospital unit, hoping to aid in what would come to be called “The Great War” overseas.
Unit K consisted of 12 medical officers (seven from Council Bluffs, the rest from other cities in Iowa and Omaha), 21 nurses (16 from Council Bluffs) and a team of 50 enlisted men. That June, the unit was officially mustered into the Army.
Among the officers was Capt. F. Earl Bellinger, who, Warner said, would become the unofficial documentarian of Unit K through his journals and letters.
Before the group left for Europe, there were drills and lectures, rallies and meetings.
The unit was funded at least initially by southwest Iowa, Warner said. In a 50-page document detailing Unit K’s exploits that Macrae wrote after the war, he commended the people of Iowa for their support during this period.
“Great praise is due the citizens and especially the women of Council Bluffs and vicinity and the nearby towns, for their efforts to quickly furnish the necessary surgical instruments, dressings and hospital equipment ...” he wrote.
Among the donations: a fully functional “motor ambulance” from the Crawford County, Iowa, town of Manilla.
A fundraising campaign would collect about $12,000. Even Macrae’s wife sacrificed for the cause, Warner said, discharging her servants and selling her car to raise money.
The men of Unit K left for Europe in November 1917. The women left in December.
After the unit arrived in France, orders were given for Macrae to take over operation of a French “auto-chir,” mobile hospital units that were equipped to care for the seriously wounded near the front lines. Once aware of the French concept, the American Army quickly endeavored to establish its own mobile hospitals, according to the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History.
Macrae and his team were to operate the second of these mobile hospitals purchased from the French, called, confusingly, Mobile Hospital No. 1. Eventually, members of the former Unit K would merge with Mobile No. 1.
Despite the nomenclature, the first of these hospitals was actually Mobile Hospital No. 39, also called the “Yale Unit,” said Andy Watson, historian with the Army Medical Department’s Center of History and Heritage, based in San Antonio, Texas. Thus, Watson said, Mobile Hospital No. 1 cannot claim the title of first mobile medical unit.
“They did good things,” Watson said, but “it’s always hard to say ‘first in history.’ There’s always provisos.”
But Warner points to a passage in Macrae’s account, which characterizes No. 39’s situation during the war: “Unfortunately Mobile 39 was erected on a site near (a community in France) where it was made into a semi-permanent affair. It remained on the same site until near the close of active hostilities.”
In contrast, Warner said, Macrae’s hospital unit moved 14 to 16 times during the war, always to the front lines to be closest to the most non-transportable wounded.
In June 1918, Mobile No. 1 doctors and nurses attended to wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood. They did the same in July at the Battle of Château-Thierry and in September at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
The hospital’s equipment included beds, mattresses, operating X-ray machines, sterilization tools, bedpans, bedside tables, urinals, post-mortem instruments and much more.
To see their patients at night, doctors had to use bright lights, Warner said, which happened to be prime targets for the enemy. So Mobile No. 1 staff had to devise a system of tarps and tents to shield the light from enemy view.
“The ever-present rain and mud, only too familiar to the American who soldiered in France, presented a menace to the functioning of the hospital,” Macrae wrote. “Camp sites quickly became mud mires due to the constant traffic by ambulance and truck.”
From late September 1918 through the end of the war, Mobile Hospital No. 1 tended to wounded fighting in what would be called the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, part of the Allies’ final offensive. Macrae described the experience there as “some of the most dreadful and horrifying” of the war.
Men came to the hospital in “deplorable” condition, some having lain in the field for days. The rocky soil made it difficult to bury the dead.
In November 1918, while stationed near the village of Fromerville, Mobile No. 1 encountered another problem. Until then, combat medical staff had been using a “gum salt” solution as a blood substitute to treat cases of shock. But the solution had proven to be ineffective and in some cases harmful to patients, and its use was discontinued.
The enlisted men of Mobile Hospital No. 1 gave what blood they could, and when they could give no more, a call went out to the surrounding soldiers, who showed up in droves.
“This magnificent display of devotion stimulated the entire organization to do better work. It also saved many lives,” Macrae wrote.
World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Unit K returned home to Council Bluffs amid fanfare on May 6, 1919.
“In spite of the time of night, fully 25,000 people were assembled at the station and on the surrounding streets to welcome the boys home,” Macrae wrote.
Macrae would emerge from the war a colonel. Some time after returning to the States, the French government honored the unit with the Croix de Guerre, given to allies of France who showed heroism during the war.
The World-Herald marked the return with a glowing editorial: “(Unit K’s) duty was not to the removal of the enemy from the ranks of combat. It had the sober, wearing, nerve-consuming task of picking up the shattered bodies of its friends, its own boys, binding their wounds, cutting off their mutilated limbs if need be, saving as best it could the broken pieces of man which were the wreckage of war.”
Over the course of the war, Unit K would treat about 5,000 patients.
World War I has taken a back seat to World War II in the popular consciousness, Warner said. Maybe that’s why there are few memorials to its heroes today.
There was a small park named for Macrae in Council Bluffs, he said. But in the 1960s it was removed with the rerouting of Highway 6.
But there are other tributes. Smaller, perhaps, but just as meaningful. Maybe more so.
Like the email sent from a man named Thomas McGee to the Pottawattamie County Historical Society, about his grandfather, Pusey.
“Without Dr. Macrae’s intervention,” he wrote, “my grandfather would have most likely succumbed to his injuries and I wouldn’t have been born.”
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