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  Northwestern University
February 1, 2001
Vol. 16, No. 15  
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Basecamp Chicago unit of American doctors and Nurses
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In war time Northwestern answered call, set up hospitals

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 facilities.

Northwestern responded 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! Rah’s! 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 School’s 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.

Although officially 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 and Evanston.

On May 19, Besley’s 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 war.

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 Force’s 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 University’s Medical School. Two of the unit’s commanding officers became Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.

Northwestern revived 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 infectious jaundice.

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 wars:

"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."

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Monica Metzler, Director. 847-491-1500; . Last revised 03/08/01.
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