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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Did M*A*S*H get Korea right?

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There's a pretty head nurse nicknamed “Hot Lips” and a surgical team stitching and joking inside a drafty tent. Wacky Army doctors distill moonshine, subvert the system, and wisecrack their way through dozens of injured bodies, fresh from the front lines.

Like it or not, the movie and television series M*A*S*H* gave generations of Americans their only awareness of the Korean War. Tomorrow at 9 p.m., the History Channel will broadcast M*A*S*H*: Comedy Under Fire, an episode of its “History vs. Hollywood” series. And 81-year-old Dr. John Howard, a Medical College of Ohio surgeon and former M*A*S*H doctor, will be part of the action, one of the real-life veterans who adds comment and color to the compare-and-contrast program.

Dr. Howard will see the finished program for the first time tomorrow night, when his family joins him in Whitehouse to watch his television debut.

A crew from the History Channel visited Toledo a year ago, he said, and spent an hour interviewing him on his experiences as a surgeon with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean War.

“We talked for an hour, and it wasn't till the very end I was asked if the program was anything like the reality, [and] what I thought of the lighthearted nature of the show,” he said.

“I didn't realize they might be deriding the M*A*S*H* show. I never resented that show, even though thousands of people died there,” he added. “Myself, I only ever saw a few episodes of it. I just think it never adequately showed how lonesome it was over there.”

Other experts interviewed for the hour-long broadcast include a professor of Korean history, directors and writers from the movie and television show, an Army nurse and medical technician, and a former soldier whose life was saved at a M*A*S*H hospital.

The Korean War was fought from 1950 to 1953, after Communist North Korea invaded the south. Americans joined with troops from several other nations to push back the “Red Threat” until an uneasy armistice was struck.

Hollywood captured the long, exhausting hours surgeons served, but it didn't show how inexperienced the field doctors were, Dr. Howard said. As one of only two seasoned, board-certified surgeons in the Korean theater, he saw dozens of newly graduated MD's drafted into service. Dr. Otto Appel was one of them. As he says in the program, “I stepped off the helicopter and directly into surgery. ... I was there, working, for 80 hours. ... We didn't know anything about war. We didn't know what Korea was. But we went.”

Medical workers were so valuable they could often get away with behavior that would earn regular soldiers a term in the stockade, the show confirms. Dr. Hawkeye Pierce personified the eccentric rebel to a T.

But his cavalier treatment of women would never have passed muster, said former M*A*S*H nurse Mary Quinn. Television footage rolls, showing a practical joke that removes the sides from a shower tent, humiliating the nurse bathing inside. A lineup of smug soldiers applauds as she screams and runs for cover. (For whatever reason, History Channel editors chose to repeat the nudity footage at least three times.)

“No one would have dared treat a head nurse as Hot Lips was treated,” Ms. Quinn says. “Nurses were always respected.” In her unit, a Korean cleaning lady was given a ball bat and stationed outside the shower tent whenever nurses were inside.

Even with women around, loneliness prevailed. It gave a lie to the cross-dressing antics of Cpl. Max Klinger, portrayed on the TV series by Toledo native Jamie Farr.

“We didn't have any guy dressed up in women's clothes,” said medical technician Eugene Hesse. “After eight months or so, he'd have started looking too good. That wouldn't have worked!”

The program traces the history of the American medical units in Korea, as well as the 250-plus television episodes that finally wound up in 1983 - the beloved series lasted four times as long as the war it portrayed. The last M*A*S*H unit in Korea was decommissioned in 1997.

The farewell episode of the television series, as well as the film, captured the bittersweet goodbyes the soldiers faced when their long-awaited orders arrived.

“That camaraderie was such that you were leaving behind friends ... they were also lonesome,” Dr. Howard says.

“You'd come home, your wife met you, your children met you, you were happy. Those were some mixed feelings. But it was great to get home!”

It was only a movie, only a TV show, says Col. Young Oak Kim, whose battle injuries were treated at a M*A*S*H hospital. But they served a purpose.

“Most people don't even know we fought a Korean war,” he says. “But if they've seen M*A*S*H*, they know we were there.”

  • Tomorrow night's M*A*S*H program is part of the History Channel's four-part “History vs. Hollywood” series, which looks at the true stories behind the people and events portrayed in well-known movies.

    Future installments during the week will focus on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (Tuesday), “Patton” (Wednesday), and “The French Connection” (Thursday).



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