The Chief Nurse for the US in the Korean War, Eunice Coleman, played a vital role in bringing a range of innovations in troop treatment, some of which put nurses in great danger. Matt Goolsby continues his series on Nurses in War and tells us about Eunice Coleman.
The previous articles in the series are on US Civil War nurses Clara Barton (here) and Cornelia Hancock (here), World War One nurse Julia Catherine Stimson (here), and World War Two nurse Reba Z. Whittle (here).
Prelude to the Cold War
When World War II ended, the allies who had fought the war against the Axis Powers – Germany, Japan, and Italy – ultimately divided into two ideological camps.
The first were the United States, Canada, Britain, Western Europe, Australia, and other like-minded nations. These would be the powers who believed in freedom through the rule of law as republics.
The second camp was made up of two large nations, both of whom believed that communism was the way to solve man’s problems. These two nations were: The former Soviet Union and China.
As these two camps began to divide up the spoils of war in Europe and Asia, a coming ideological storm was looming.
Ideological warfare becomes the Cold War
Ever strategic in their control of power, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong looked to gain geographic strongholds - one in Eastern Europe and the other in Asia. Their interests were in expanding communism throughout as much of the world as possible through brute force and oppression.
During the post-war occupation, Germany was divided into Western and Eastern zones. The Western zone was administered by the United States and the Eastern by the Soviet Union. This would ultimately be the symbolic demarcation of the Cold War.
In China, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China resumed their dormant civil war with the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Ultimately Mao Zedong and his revolutionaries would prevail, thus spreading communism through a vast swathe of Asia.
The empire of Japan, in ruins after World War II, had occupied and controlled Korea during and prior to the war. Korea was now divided between the Soviet Union controlling the North, and the United States controlling the South.
The ones who suffered the most in these ongoing conflicts were those who had been caught in the middle with either no way of escape or very limited ability to flee.
After World War II, survivors of the Holocaust and other nations wanted to have a refuge for the Jewish people who had been so severely abused during the worldwide conflict. The State of Israel was established by the United Nations in 1947 with Israel itself propelled into an Israeli-Arab war in 1948. This led to conflict in the Middle East that has continued to this day.
By the start of the 1950s, international tension was again escalating.
Into War again
Korea was now a divided nation with separate republics each stating that theirs was the legitimate claim.
As tensions continued to escalate into 1950 between the North and South, North Korea, with the assistance of China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. It hoped to take control of the peninsula, after the attack on June 25th, 1950.
The United Nations, now a full-fledged worldwide body, adopted UN Security Council Resolution 82 on the same day. This condemned the North Korean aggression.
Two days later, UN Security Council Resolution 83 was adopted authorizing the use of military force to stop the invasion of a sovereign country.
Acting on the adoption of these resolutions, President Harry Truman asked Congress for approval of funds to fight on the Korean peninsula and received approval in August of 1950.
America and much of the world were again at war.
The ‘Lucky 13’
The U.S. found itself ill-prepared to go to war in Korea, but had learned a lot from its experiences only 5 years earlier, particularly in terms of trauma care.
The US Army had drawn down much of its military to such minimum levels that getting nurses to take up the mantle took maximum effort. Most of those brought into active duty status were part of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC).
Deploying with the Army’s 7thInfantry Division were thirteen nurses who worked at the 1stMobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) on September 15th, 1950. The Army had learned that the key to survival for severe injuries was to have a trauma team located close to their position.
This led to added danger in the conflict, but the rate of fatalities from severe injuries was reduced to 2.5% from 4.5% during World War II.
Upon deploying to Incheon and then moving to Pusan, the nurses who had journeyed with the infantry came under enemy fire and were forced to take cover. On October 9th, 1950, Chief Nurse Major Eunice Coleman wrote: “The whole sky was lit up by gunfire and burning vehicles. About sun-up we got out of the ditch and started treating the wounded. All that day, until 1500, we worked on the roadside; operating and treating for shock. We lost eight men and quite a number of supplies and vehicles. When all was clear, the convoy started again and arrived at Pusan by midnight.” After this event they began calling themselves the ‘Lucky Thirteen’.
Eunice Strange Coleman was born on March 21st, 1903 in Wilbarger County, Texas to Leonard Alvin and Mary Elizabeth Coleman. She was the 3rdof five children.
She received her Bachelors of Science degree at the University of Minnesota and had been stationed in Duke, Oklahoma prior to the war.
As with many of the other nurses throughout the history of U.S. war, there’s no record of her ever marrying. She dedicated her life to serving others through the Army Nurse Corps.
Saving Lives at the front
When the Korean War started, only a small contingent of nurses were working in the combat theater.
As the war progressed, it’s estimated that more than 1,500 nurses served on the Korean peninsula, all of them women since men were not allowed to serve as nurses in the Army Corps until 1955.
Even though the women stationed in Korea were not trained or required to fight in combat, they still had to be ready to in case the fight came to them.
As Mary C. Quinn, a First Lieutenant who served alongside Chief Nurse Coleman in the 1stM.A.S.H. unit said: “The nurse must be armed to fight just as the soldier, sailor, or marine. The nurse’s weapons are knowledge and skills that can be employed to wage war on disease and injury wherever these calamities have laid low a man, woman, or child."
Chief Nurse Coleman learned this lesson and many others during her tour in Korea.
Having had her nurses treat 360 wounded when their capacity had been 60 and surviving their ‘Lucky Thirteen’ roadside episode, Major Coleman, a devout Catholic, was asked why she stayed in the Korean conflict. She answered: “Because if we are to impress Christianity on anybody out here, we must also live it.” Even the Chinese and Korean prisoners of war were amazed at how they were treated.
The Korean War led to great innovations for saving lives.
The first was the use of helicopters to transfer wounded soldiers back to M.A.S.H. units.
The aircraft used in the majority of transfers was the UH 13 Helicopter called the ‘Sioux’. This method was a rapid way to assist traumatized and wounded patients to the mobile units.
In fact, not only were American and allied UN soldiers transported, but also North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were convoyed back where they could be cared for.
The nurses would often work twelve-hour shifts, only to continue on once their shift was over due to the numerous casualties coming into their units.
The second advancement in trauma care treatment was the transport of blood and blood banks to where it was needed most. It was in this conflict that the Army started using plastic instead of bottles to transport, store, and administer blood.
Storage of blood in bottles often led to breakage in transfer or hemolysis, the destruction of red blood cells, because the bottles had to be stored in refrigerators prior to use.
The third major advancement came in vascular surgery. This led to a reduced level of amputations due to trauma from 49.6% in World War II to 20.5% in Korea. This was a significant reduction in long-term injury care.
The fourth and final advancement came in renal dialysis (kidney). Nurses were the ones to first use dialysis to save lives of those who had hemorrhagic fever thus keeping the severely wounded alive long enough for surgery.
Even while saving lives, Chief Nurse Coleman found humor.
As the nurses were huddling in the roadside ditch in Pusan, Major Coleman called out their names twice for a response. One of her thirteen ‘Army Nightingales’, as they were fondly called, 1stLieutenant Marie Smarz didn’t answer.
Finally, Major Coleman went down the line touching each one to make sure they were safe. Why hadn’t Nurse Smarz answered? “I was afraid the Reds would hear me,” she replied.
Major Coleman would go on to be awarded the Bronze Star with V bar for Army Nurse Corps valor. She would also go on to serve at the Kansas City General Hospital School of Nursing.
Eunice Strange Coleman passed away on August 15th, 1983, living to the age of 80,having served her country for many years in the Army Nurse Corps.
She exemplified the caring and nurturing spirit that the nurses in our military demonstrate to those in greatest need. The following nurses’ prayer is a testament to what these ‘Army Nightingales’ demonstrated during this conflict.
May they never be forgotten.
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The Army Nurse Corps Prayer
Mary M Roberts, RN, “The Army Nurse Corps, Yesterday and Today”, United States Army Nurse Corps, 1955.
Margaret (Zane) Fleming Collection, Gift of Frances Zane, Women's Memorial Foundation Collection, “The Lucky Thirteen”, Pacific Stars and Stripes, Tom Hamrick, 1951 and other associated articles. (Many thanks to the Women’s Memorial Curator Britta Granrud for her assistance.)