In the early years
of World War I, few in the Northwestern community thought their
lives would be affected by what was viewed as a European conflict.
But, in 1916, the Allied armies were in dire need of hospital
by forming a field hospital that would treat some 60,000 servicemen
in France over the course of nearly two years. The Northwestern
unit would go on to have distinguished records of service in both
World War I and World War II.
Medic George R. Baker
remembered the departure from Northwestern and Chicago on May
16, 1917: "The enlisted men marched away from Patten Gym with
baggage, suitcases and all kinds of bundles, amid great singing,
Rah! Rahs! and goodbyes from the students. They all piled
on the Evanston L and got off at Union Station and
then headed by train to New York and the S.S. Mongolia."
In October 1916, the
American Red Cross and Dr. Frederick A. Besley, a surgeon on the
Northwestern University Medical Schools faculty, began organizing
the general hospital unit. Besley became director and chief of
surgical services for the unit, which initially consisted of 23
doctors, 2 dentists, 65 nurses and 153 enlisted men. By the time
the United States declared war in April 1917, the unit was ready
to head to France.
called U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 12 (Chicago Unit), it also
was known as the Northwestern University Base Hospital because
75 percent of the enlisted men were Northwestern students. The
medical officers also came primarily from Northwestern, while
the nurses were recruited from various training schools in Chicago
On May 19, Besleys
pioneering unit sailed for England so quickly and secretly that
the enlisted men boarded the transport ship in civilian clothing.
Uniforms were issued at sea.
The next day, during
target practice on the open sea, powder caps from a fired shell
boomeranged and struck several nurses on a nearby deck, killing
two. The nurses were from Chicago hospitals, not Northwestern,
but their deaths were among the earliest American casualties of
The Mongolia arrived
on June 2 in England, where the men and women were greeted by
King George V and Queen Mary. After a short stay, the Northwestern
unit landed on June 11 at Boulogne, France, only the second U.S.
hospital unit to reach France.
The group traveled
15 miles along the Channel coast, to the Dannes-Camier area, and
took over the position of the British Expeditionary Forces
Base Hospital No. 18, freeing the British staff for duty closer
to the front line.
For the next 22
months, Base Hospital No. 12 operated a tent-and-hut hospital
with 1,200 to 1,500 beds, treating some 60,000 patients, mostly
British soldiers. Occasional German air raids in the area brought
the hazards of war even closer.
A newspaper article
described the hospital scene: "Streams of wounded British Tommies
flowed into the base station, and the cries of the wounded piercing
high above the thunder of the heavy guns, turned the place into
a ghastly inferno."
The signing of the
Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, finally ended the war, and the unit
returned home the following April.
Most of the enlisted
personnel who had been Northwestern students in 1917 returned
to the University to finish their schooling. Some were pre-med
students who went on to graduate from the Universitys Medical
School. Two of the units commanding officers became Surgeon
General of the U.S. Army.
Base Hospital No. 12 during World War II, primarily through the
efforts of two Medical School physicians, Dean J. Roscoe Miller
and Michael L. Mason . (Mason had served with the unit in World
War I as sergeant in charge of the orderlies. Miller later became
president of the University.) A group of graduates and professors
of the Medical School acted as the nucleus of the 2,000-bed general
hospital with eight operating rooms.
From December 1942
through August 1945, the Northwestern unit operated in North Africa,
Naples, Rome and Leghorn, Italy, receiving its "full quota of
patients through the rain, cold and slush." The personnel worked
in rehabilitation of war casualties, combat and war fatigue and
A letter dated Sept.
29, 1944, from U.S. Surgeon General Norman T. Kirk to Northwestern
president Franklyn B. Snyder sums up the role Northwestern faculty,
students and alumni played not only in World War II, but in both
"I realize what a serious
deprivation it has been for your University to meet its manifold
responsibilities with so many of its ablest members in the 12th
General Hospital. I do want you to know, however, that your contribution
has been of inestimable value to the Army Medical Service, particularly
to our soldier patients."