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"The Fightin' 52nd"

At the start of World War II, many American educational institutions organized local hospital units to serve medical and surgical needs overseas. Syracuse University was no exception. The Department of War had authorized the creation of these mobile hospitals in 1940 -- even before the United States entered the war. The first recruitment meeting for the U.S. Army 52nd General Hospital, the unit affiliated with the Syracuse University College of Medicine, occurred early in 1941, many months before Pearl Harbor. The five members of the original committee were Wardner D. Ayer, M.D., Clyde Barney, M.D., Richard S. Farr, M.D., Harry Steckel, M.D., and Dean of the College of Medicine Herman G. Weiskotten, M.D. Dr. Farr was chosen as senior officer with Dr. Ayer as his aide.

The Army commissioned the 52nd on September 1, 1942 and ordered it to Camp Livingston, Louisiana for basic training. On November 14, 1942 it was relocated to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey for additional training before it sailed for England on January 6, 1943. After a week on the high seas in peril of U-boats, the 52nd debarked in Scotland and travelled by train to cold, wet, coke-heated temporary quarters in Somerset. Gradually, through the spring of that year, the unit moved into its permanent quarters in Wolverly, near Kidderminster in Worcestershire. The first patient was admitted on April 15, 1943. The unit remained at that location until June 26, 1945, when it was transferred to Bristol and thence, in September, home to be disbanded.

There was little to do before D-Day except prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Facilities were built for 600 staff and 1700 patients. An inspection by Surgeon General of the Army Norman T. Kirk in March 1944 resulted in the 52nd receiving one of the few top ratings awarded to U.S. Army affiliated hospitals in the European theatre.

The first casualties from Normandy arrived the second week of June 1944, and from that time until early 1945 the beds were filled nearly to capacity. The busiest and most worrisome time was December 1944, when the Nazis almost blunted the Allied invasion at the Battle of the Bulge. But the load steadily lightened in 1945, so that by V-E Day there were only 300 patients in care.

Altogether the 52nd treated more than 21,000 patients. Immediately after D-Day these were mostly surgical patients, battle casualties. But toward the end of 1944, as Allied hospitals were established on the European continent to treat surgical emergencies as close to the front lines as possible, the proportion of medical patients increased dramatically for the 52nd. These included cases of trench foot, exhaustion, contagious diseases, and psychiatric disorders.

Throughout its stay in England, the relationship of the 52nd with the British people was warm and friendly. For example, the unit welcomed and entertained children who, for the sake of safety from Nazi bombers, had been sent north from their homes in the south of England.

The unit had some interesting dealings with a British supply officer, Major "Tip" Saddler. If not for Saddler, who commandeered British personnel and lorries to transport equipment for the 52nd, the medical facilities would not have been so quickly established or so fully stocked. Saddler was an enterprising sort. He had contracted malaria in the Gambia, but had been so anxious to get out of the hospital that he switched thermometers with the man in the next bed. The ruse worked. Even though the other man's temperature was normal and Saddler's was about 103, he was released from the hospital and assigned to serve the 52nd. Soon after, Saddler developed a rash that looked for all the world like measles, and he still had the vestige of that high temperature. It was thought that the 52nd would have to be quarantined for measles, which would throw the construction schedule off by several weeks. But when someone pointed out that overdoses of quinine could produce rashes which imitated measles, Saddler admitted that he had tripled his own dose of quinine to fight the malaria. That confession saved the post from quarantine. Saddler was a real character, but an unsung hero as well.

Two stories about the 52nd appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of the Alumni Journal, published by the SUNY HSC [i.e., Upstate] / Syracuse Medical Alumni Association.

Three veterans of the 52nd, David Brewer, Arthur Ecker, and Max Kutzer, offered a multimedia presentation about the 52nd as the first Health Sciences Library Lecture on October 5, 1996.

The SUNY Health Sciences Library, Department of Historical Collections, is the official home of the archives of the 52nd. Further donations are always welcome.