Veteran’s Testimony – William Dutcher 203d General Hospital
William Dutcher, 45 Lucas Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45458-2419 has generously shared two histories of the 203d General Hospital which he possesses. However, Bill says he ‘didn’t write either of them. Furthermore, he’s not just sure who did write them but his memory rather tends toward John STRADTMAN, an enlisted man who worked in the Personnel Section as being the author. Or he feels Francis GRAHAM (also EM) who worked In Colonel Turner’s office might have been an author or at least a contributor of some of the information.
Bill worked in the Personnel Section of the unit until it arrived at Burford, England, and he was then transferred to Special Services. In Garches, France, he worked with Percy CARNES in the Patients’ Department . In February 1945, with the help of the unit’s American Red Cross Detachment and Colonel Turner, Bill obtained a leave for the States since his wife was seriously ill. He says he made this trip home on the “USS Brazil”, the same ship on which we sailed. However, for this voyage it was being used as a Hospital Ship.
Upon returning from his leave, it was sheer luck that he became friendly with two men who worked in the Paris Headquarters. Through their efforts, he was able to return to his own unit, the 203d General Hospital. And back in Garches, he returned to work in the Patients’ Department. Bill says the biggest job they faced at the close of the war was processing patients for their ‘points’ for their discharge status. He says they set up rows of clerks and typewriters for processing ambulatory patients. Points were determined by the length of service, where they had served etc. And then they took their typewriters to the patients who were bedfast. They literally worked ’round the clock to accomplish this important task.
We are very grateful that Bill has kept those records all these years and regret only that we are not certain of the author(s) so we could extend a thanks to them as well.
Most of the material in this section comes from the larger of the two histories. Some of the material is duplicated in the two manuscripts. Therefore, the additions from the second writing are offered in parenthesis. August 1991.
Service in the Zone of Interior (ZI)
The following narrative on the 203d General Hospital, is based on facts and figures accumulated since the beginning of its activation at Fort Lewis, Washington to the time the unit ceased operations in the European Theater of Operations. The unit originally consisted of men who received their basic training in Medical Department work in various Camps all over the country although the majority of the personnel received their initial training at Camp Grant, Rockford, Illinois and Camp Barkeley, Abilene, Texas (both Medical Replacement Training Centers). Many of the original personnel came from Ohio and Pennsylvania although every state in the union was represented at one time or another.
The 203d General Hospital was activated at Fort Lewis, Tacoma, Washington on 10 February 1941 with a cadre of three Officers (including one Chaplain) and 30 Enlisted Men. Temporary Headquarters for the unit was set up at Section 3, North Fort Lewis, but in the months that followed, the unit moved to different sections of Fort Lewis. The months of September through December 1942 saw the unit’s enlisted personnel strengthened to approximately 500. The turnover in personnel through transfers, discharges etc., was large during the following months, but these losses were soon compensated. The organization remained at this station 20 months after activation and, by 13 December 1943, the T/O for the unit was complete with Officers and Enlisted Men assigned and joined, although the majority of the unit’s Nurses did not join the organization until arrival at the P/E.
At the time of its activation, the 203d was under the command of Captain Bernard B. Forman, MC. He was succeeded by the following in this order: Colonel Paul W. Ensign, MC; Lieutenant-Colonel Kocher, MC. In the meantime, the unit’s senior ranking Officer temporarily assumed command until the assignment of Major Arnold, MC. Colonel Corr, MC, remained in command until the arrival of Colonel James H. Turner, MC. The latter would remain in command of the Hospital during all its operations in the European Theater.
Much credit should be given those Officers for their splendid cooperation in making this unit a functioning organization. The unit’s Officer Medical Staff contributed in a large part to the success of the organization. Some of the Nurses of the unit, the Medical Staff, and Enlisted personnel aided in forming the 203d into an efficient organization. It was this cooperation given by Officers and Enlisted Men alike which attained such efficiency that warranted Major General P. R. Hawley, at the time, Chief Surgeon, European Theater of Operations, to declare it one of the finest units in the Theater!
On 15 December 1943, the Hospital departed by rail from Fort Lewis for the Port of Embarkation Staging Area, Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The trip to Camp Kilmer took six days and covered the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The unit arrived at Camp Kilmer at approximately 0400, 21 December 1943. During the seven days spent at this Post, the remainder of the organization’s Nurses joined the unit. The reason no passes were issued was because our Nurses had been improperly processed by their former organizations and were lacking many administrative items which entailed additional work. It can honestly be said the unit’s Nurses did not create a very favorable first-hand impression upon arrival. (this should be interpreted as the author’s personal opinion).
Preparation for Movement Overseas
On 28 December 1943, we left Camp Kilmer by rail bound for Jersey City, New Jersey. From this point transportation was by ferry to Staten Island, New York, where the unit boarded the troopship USAT ”Brazil”. Enlisted personnel were quartered in two separate sections of the “S” deck in cramped quarters, as was expected, with triple-decked chain bunks being used.
Due to uncompleted troop loadings, the ship did not sail until the following morning, 29 December, with approximately 5,128 troop passengers.
Due to these cramped quarters and bad ventilation, those who were able, remained on deck as much as possible. Life boat drills were held every day although there were many who could not quite make these drills and didn’t care if the ship sank anyway. During the trip, every day at noon, the gunnery crews held practice-fire with the ship’s guns. The gunnery crews consisted of regular Navy personnel. At first, some of the unit’s mess personnel were detailed to assist in the ship’s mess, but it soon became evident that food stacks were mysteriously being depleted. The mess personnel were relieved from duty. However, for a while midnight snacks were plentiful.
Entertainment was provided daily by impromptu performances of volunteers among the Enlisted troops. This, incidentally, was the beginning of what later was to become the unit’s band. It must be said that much was attempted to make the crossing as pleasant as possible in spite of the circumstances.
As New Year’s Eve was spent aboard ship, the Red Cross sponsored a party which was attended by those who had nothing else to do and those who were able to get up. It might be said at this point that this was one time the American Red Cross made an attempt to prove its worth (this again is the author’s opinion). Every General Hospital is allotted a group of five Red Cross workers whose primary duty is to provide recreation and entertainment for the Hospital patients. These A.R.C. groups were not included in the strength of an organization.
PX goodies aboard the ship were unlimited which helped to make up for the deficiency in food. The most popular means of pastime was gambling and card games were often going on all night. Sleeping was difficult due to the bad ventilation as ‘S’ deck was below the waterline. However, the voyage was uneventful. The complete convoy on this trip consisted of 118 ships.
On 8 January, 1944, the ‘Brazil’ anchored off Gourock, Scotland, and we landed via tugboats. Approximately one-half of the unit went ashore, the other half remaining aboard ship until the following day. Upon debarking, the first group entrained from Gourock and arrived at Petworth, Sussex, England the following morning. This followed an all-night train ride in which little sleep was to be had due to the cramped space on the train. Some of the men slept in the baggage racks overhead.
The scenery encountered during the ride down was well worth the temporary discomfort. There is no doubt the beauty of the Scottish hills cannot be surpassed and all along the route, even through the bombed-out sections of suburban London, the train was greeted with the familiar “V” sign. Some of the cities passed on this trip were Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, London and Reading.
9 January 1944, found the first group of the unit at Petworth where trucks were waiting at the station to take them to the Camp. The Camp itself was know as ‘Pheasant Copse’ and consisted of broken-down Nissen huts set up in an outlying area. At first glance, the Camp looked as if it had been used for target-practice during the last war. Condition of the Camp was very poor, and upon arrival of the remainder of the unit the following day, work was immediately begun to make it habitable.
During its stay at Petworth, the 203d’s only work consisted of fixing up the Camp. The weather during the unit’s stay here was bad because of the incessant rain. Passes were given frequently and the most popular place for entertainment at that time was Brighton, on the southern coast of England. It was, however actually “off-limits” at the time. However, those who went to Brighton were not disappointed as it had been a summer resort before the war and there were still many places of entertainment available.
Buses left Petworth every morning for Brighton and it took about two hours to make the trip. No one was allowed to go on pass without taking their gas mask along. It can now be told that if an inspection would have been made of 9 out of 10 gas mask bags, nothing but cigarettes and toilet articles would have been found instead of the mask itself which was removed by those going on pass. Flashlights were standard part of the equipment while on pass because of the blackout situation. It was a common sight to see GIs being escorted home by the “Bobbies,’ having lost their way in the blackout. In some instances, GIs had forgotten where they had reserved hotel rooms which added to the confusion. Curfew for the majority of the hotels was 1230 p.m. The first thing upon arrival at Brighton on pass was to secure a hotel room.
Petworth itself was a little over three miles from Camp and nightly passes were issued although there was not much entertainment to be found. There were only a few taverns and inns in town. In addition to a Red Cross Club. Dances were held, usually on Saturday nights; music for these dances was furnished by phonographs. It was here in Petworth that GIs were introduced to the English game of darts. One good feature was that there was plenty of opportunity to take sightseeing rides on the buses as the terminal stop was in Petworth.
We remained in this area until 17 February 1944, when we departed for Swindon (Wiltshire), England. Swindon was a fairly large city at that time and had a population of over 100,000 people. The normal peace-time population was about 66,000. Entertainment facilities in Swindon were far greater than in Petworth. In addition to an American Red Cross Club it also had British and Canadian Clubs. Some movie houses were found in the center part of town.
Whereas the American terminology for orchestras appearing in person is “Swing Session”, the British versions of them were designated Concerts. So at first GIs did not go to these socalled Concerts until they became aware of what they really were. These Concerts were always held on Sunday afternoons and always played to packed houses.
There was not a GI who had not, at one time or another, had English “Fish and Chips”, if he had been to the U.1C. taverns that closed nightly around 1030 p.m. and thereafter until midnight, long queues were seen forming outside of ‘Chips’ shops. This was a welcome diversion from the usual GI Bill of Fare.
During its stay here, the unit was billeted with private families (Officers as well.) The unit arrived in Swindon in the late afternoon and it was some hours later before sufficient billets could be obtained as sleeping quarters. The English Bobbies were very cooperative in this respect in obtaining necessary quarters for our unit. There were very few instances of complaints by homeowners who had to billet military personnel. These complaints were quickly retaliated with warnings by the police. However, many of the men felt self-conscious about intruding in this manner. Billeting in private homes did not necessarily mean cots or beds. It was merely a matter of luck being billeted in a home that had an extra bed. Otherwise, it was a matter of getting used to the floor. Eventually quite a few friendships between the English and the GIs resulted from this situation.
It is generally known, that English people love their tea, so many a GI who was billeted with an English family had to get used to the custom of having tea at 700 a.m. in the mornings. English homes were heated only by open hearths so it was impossible to remain in the homes long because of the cold weather which was still prevalent. Many a GI preferred to spend the evening in the Red Cross Club downtown or a pub in preference to the coldness of the homes. Coal was a scarce commodity.
Sleeping quarters only were provided in the hems. The mess hall was situated in an area adjoining a former dance hall. The dance hall itself was set aside as a recreation room which was not much used by the personnel because of the coldness. There was a lot of time spent visiting around town since the Hospital was not yet operational. And in the mornings, just before chow time, GIs could be seen coming out of different homes. However, there were many who preferred to remain in bed as there was no means of checking roll.
(Sidelines from Swindon … the Bobbies still billeting after nightfall … the coldness of the English homes … the open hearths … the Fountain Inn … Bradford Hall … The Railroad Inn … Morning tea at NAAFI … The Bell Hotel … The White Bart Tavern … The Red Cross Club … In the Square … The Empire Theater … Tea and more Tea … The Newport Fish & Chippery …The San Inn at Coatewater …)
The 203d was billeted in Swindon 1 month and on 18 March 1944, it departed finally to commence operating as a Hospital at Burford (Wiltshire) although the unit’s advance party had departed on 15 March. Burford was approximately 18 miles from Swindon, and departure took place by Army vehicles.
Upon arrival at Burford, the unit found the Hospital was as yet not completed and during the following two weeks, own personnel were used to assist in completing the Hospital. One thing that was noticeable during the completion of the Hospital was the fact that the English were very slow workers. It was due to this fact that personnel had to assist in the Hospital’s finalization. Otherwise, it might have been used as an English Separation Center.
The Hospital was spread over a large area. Bicycles were a common sight to see, and they helped a lot to save much walking distance. The Hospital complex itself was set apart from the huts used by the men for their quarters. Heat for quarters was provided by small English stoves which were not of much use except to burn rubbish. Each hut housed 16 men on double-decked bunks. The huts were built of reinforced plaster-board and the Hospital itself consisted largely of such material. This type of building material did very little in preventing the cold from seeping through.
Air raid alerts were a regular occurrence, and many a midnight saw GIs trooping to the Hospital to join their places of duty with their helmets and gas masks. The blackout was strictly enforced here which can readily be understood.
Adjoining the Hospital was a British Airfield where glider training was in daily progress. During the day the sky was filled with planes and their tows. Some of the unit’s Nurses often kept company with these pilots and almost every day a plane would fly low over the Hospital in order to attract attention (author’s personal opinion), and literally shook the Hospital buildings with their low flying. Had they been able to hear the remarks concerning their antic, their ears would have burned for the duration.
The nearest town was Burford which meant a distance of only three miles. However, as there were no means of recreation in Burford, few Enlisted Men bothered to travel there. There were however quite a few surrounding villages which were quite often frequented! Those who liked their ‘Mild and Bitters’ had to satisfy themselves usually with two nights a week in each town as beer was rationed. But nobody went dry.
Finally on 25 April 1944, the unit began operations until 10 July, 1944 when it was relieved by the 61st General Hospital. During its operations at Burford, 1,504 patients were admitted.
(Sidelines from Burford … the village dances at Langford … Brize Morton Airfield …. US Army Hospital Plant 4147 … the Detachment dances and the ATS girls … Guiness Stout …. Roll Me Over … the continuous stream of glider planes overhead a few hours prior to D-Day … D-Day iself … Gl cocktails … )
On 10 July, 1944, the unit departed from Burford by rail to Exeter where it remained two days (arrived at Exeter after a chowless 14 hours on the train). Exeter was really in a class by itself. The area where we were supposed to stay was in the process of being demolished as it was uninhabitable. The wrecking crews were already at work. The unit found temporary quarters at ‘Topsham Barracks’ which was a British Post in Exeter. The organization had purposely been side-tracked to Exeter for precautionary measures and safety reasons. It was a set policy for practically all units to be detoured while en route to their Staging Area.
On 13 July 1944, we left Exeter by rail for Staging Area C-5 located near Winchester, where it remained for seven days making final preparations for departure to the continent. While staging in this area, an occasional buzz-bomb was seen coming over. Some of the men moved their cots outside and slept there in order to see them. Another reason for moving was the jammed condition of the sleeping quarters.
We departed for the Port of Embarkation of Southampton, England by truck on 20 July 1944.
Upon arrival at Southampton, the unit embarked aboard the “HMS Duke of Wellington” for the Channel crossing. However, the crossing was not made until early morning of 21 July. Rough water necessitated a delay of one extra day. On 22 July, “HMS Duke of Wellington” anchored off Utah Beach and from there on the unit was moved via LST to shore.
Some of the men were a little less fortunate, having boarded an LST that fouled its anchor enroute which caused a delay of three hours between ship and shore. Finally the anchor was freed and the LST resumed its course. Due to the rough weather, it was impossible for the LST to approach too close to the beachhead so the remainder of the distance was covered by wading. Each LST held approximately 500 men so when the group was unloaded, it immediately departed inland towards a designated area.
The rain from the previous night had not helped matters and so the six miles march with full pack did not help to increase morale. Instead, new words were constantly being added to the English vocabulary. Numerous signs were encountered enroute warning of mines being cleared only to the ditches so great care was taken to keep on what was supposed to be a road. During the march, what rations remained, were consumed.
Finally, section by section, we finally arrived at the designated area. Some hours later when the organization had assembled once more, the unit’s vehicles finally arrived. It might be said that all of our vehicles (Ambulances included) had been used by the advance party which had arrived on the continent previously. Although the vehicles were always on the move, the majority of the time they did not know where they were going but it did not matter so long as they were moving – some place.
That very same day we transferred to another area located between Montebourg and Ste-Mère-Eglise which was at that time under control of the 8th Field Hospital. Upon arrival, the unit pitched pup-tents (for the EM); all during this period, the battle for St. Lô was in full progress so there was an endless stream of traffic all in one direction. Upon completion of this temporary setup, contact had to be made with the nearest Headquarters which was at the time located at ASCZ Headquarters, outside Carentan. Occasionally, planes came over. One funny incident during the stay here was the night when a plane came overhead and one GI dived into the wrong pit.
After a six day stay in this area, the unit departed by rail on 20 July for Cherbourg. It might be said that this was the first Allied troop movement by rail in France. The unit must have looked somewhat decrepit because there were photographers at Cherbourg waiting to greet the train, but no photographs were taken. After all this moving around, no one gave a damn anyway. It was later thought the Nurses had discouraged the photographers with their appearance (the writer’s opinion here is perhaps speculation).
Upon arrival at Cherbourg, we left by trucks for an outlying suburb of the city called Tourlaville. Once again, tents were pitched. Water was the main problem here, and it was some days before the necessary facilities could be established for maintaining water supply. This was accomplished by making daily trips to a creek seven miles away which was under the supervision of a water-purifying unit.
Trucks departed semi-weekly for Cherbourg where showers had been installed although this water was unfit for drinking. Cherbourg was not an impressive sight as it consisted only of ramshackle houses and cafés. Cider and Calvados were the specialties here and although the Calvados was commonly called Petrol, it was an insult to the oil industries. The Cherbourg Harbor was under repair at the time and there was much activity. Overlooking the harbor, as far as the eye could see, were ships awaiting harbor repairs. This was once of the contributing factors of frequent reconnaissance by planes.
Of the 500 Enlisted Men in the unit at the time, there were no casualties in spite of the surrounding circumstances. As there was nothing much to do here, time was spent in exploring old enemy ammunition dumps in search of souvenirs. With the exception of the area occupied by the unit, all surrounding fields were “Off Limits” because of German mines.
While in this area, an Engineer outfit arrived and began laying the groundwork for what was later to become two General Hospitals. As the unit, i.e. the 203d General Hospital was not yet operational, the men were used to assist the Engineers.
This was general construction work. Then later approximately 100 tents were erected. Now the 203rd unit’s total strength was 660. From time to time, groups were sent out on detached service to other medical units. These people were later recalled when the unit departed from Cherbourg on 28 August 1944 to entrain for Paris (the long journey took them by way St. Lô – Coutances – Avranches – Folligny – Mayenne – Le Mans – Dreux – Chartres – Rambouillet and Versailles -ed). However, the advance party already left by vehicle and arrived in Paris on 29 August, 1944.
The remainder of the unit departed by rail. The trip took five nights and four days. The reason for this lengthy journey to reach our destination was the innumerable stops we had to make while broken tracks were repaired enroute. The Hospital Train (in which 203d personnel were riding) was preceded by another train carrying German PWs who repaired broken tracks enroute). During this trip, Headquarters personnel of the Hospital covered the remaining distance by vehicle, and reached Paris on 1 September 1944.
At approximately 0200 hours, 2 September, the remainder of the unit which had traveled by train (this was Hospital Train No. 27 -ed), arrived at Versailles and were then trucked to Garches, Seine-et-Oise Department, a suburb of Paris. This, incidentally, was the first Hospital unit to officially arrive in Paris, it preceded the 108th General Hospital by one day. Confirmation of this fact was by letter, Headquarters Seine Section, dated 18 September, 1944.
The French Hospital, to which the 203d General Hospital had been assigned, was a comparatively new institution. It was completed in 1938 and was named “Hôpital Raymond Poincaré”. The unit’s mess section made a hasty setup and personnel were fed that morning. It should also be noted the mess department had served all excellently during the travels on the continent. Sleep was to be had in any available place in the Hospital – whatever suited the individual taste but no one had much taste that morning. Ward beds were used. There were a few French patients in the hospital at the time. Some of the men did not bother to undress but instead lay down at the nearest empty place. Later in the morning, contacts were established for rations and also the unit’s arrival was officially reported.
It was not long before things began to function. The following month was spent in cleaning up the Hospital, and the unit did a complimentary job. During this period, operations were going on as usual, and it was not long before the Hospital expanded. Civilian help was used as extensively as possible in order to relieve the unit personnel for Hospital duty.
The months that followed saw the Hospital expand from a 1000-bed capacity to an eventual 3500 bed Hospital, although the unit at one time even maintained a bed capacity for 3699 patients! Due to a large number of daily admissions and discharge from the Hospital, the largest number of patients at any one time was 3360.
During the months of November and December 1944, and January, February, March 1945, it was an almost daily occurrence to receive 400 patients in the morning with an equal number departing in the afternoon. As admissions and discharges were computed as of midnight each day, it can readily be seen that for a few months, the Hospital was actually filled to bed capacity in the mornings, prior to afternoon discharges. Incidentally, the 203d was the biggest Hospital in the European Theater of Operations! (by November 1944, following Hospitals operated in the French Capital: 40th Gen Hosp – 48th Gen Hosp – 62d Gen Hosp – 203d Gen Hosp – 217th Gen Hosp – 365th Sta Hosp).
From time to time as more patients were admitted, it became necessary to move Hospital personnel to different quarters. A group of buildings overlooking the Hospital were used to quarter the majority of the personnel. During its operations at this Hospital, our unit was ably assisted by such other medical organizations as the 15th General Hospital, the 180th General Hospital, the 190th General Hospital in addition to various Auxiliary Surgical Teams.
On 10 July 1945, the unit was relieved by the 36th General Hospital. 65,613 patients had been handled in a ten-month period.
During its stay in Garches, the unit became acquainted with the surrounding populace so many close friendships ensued. Much assistance was given by the civilian employees in operating this Hospital. At the time of this unit’s departure from the Hospital, there were approximately 1,450 civilians employed in various capacities. During one period the unit had a total of 1,020 Army personnel which included those attached, in addition to the 1,298 civilian employees.
The unit left Garches by truck on 13 July bound for Le Pecq, France (near St. Germain). Prior to departure, Officer personnel were depleted so on arrival at Le Pecq, only the Commanding Officer, a few Administrative Officers and the Enlisted personnel were present (some female personnel of the 203d were also transferred to Le Pecq). The unit was subsequently billeted in a French Schoolhouse and was supposedly sent here for rest purposes. The unit remained at Le Pecq for three weeks.
On 3 August 1945, the Enlisted personnel departed for Arlon, Belgium in 40 & 8s and arrived the following day. At Arlon, the unit was again billeted in a converted School building and remained there until 14 September when it transferred to Metz, France, reaching the town 15 September.
In Metz, France, the unit was billeted in French Army Barracks along with other units and during its stay here, the original 203d General Hospital (Enlisted Men) was broken up. The majority of the personnel were transferred to the 82d General Hospital at Toul???, France, where at this writing, it is awaiting redeployment back to the States.
(Sidelines from Garches … Paris … St. Cloud … the dances in Garches … the home of Louis Pasteur … the mademoiselles on bicycles … the French cooks … the Red Ball Highway … A, B, and C buildings … the litter squads … Gare St. Lazare … the Lafayette Monument … the Detachment dances … the city on the Hill …)
The authors would like to thank Dan Leary (ASN: 39232383), (X-Ray Technician) who initially collected the original text from which this Article is derived, in his collection of
203d General Hospital Testimonies entitled “203rd GH: An Anthology of Members.” We would also like to thank him and his family for their kind donation of some of
the images which appear in this Testimony.
The authors would also like to recommend the excellent website dedicated to the 203d GEN HOSP, which includes a detailed history and a plethora of images relating to the unit. It can be found here.