With the rise to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s, the United States began making preparations in case we were drawn into an armed conflict. On March 11, 1940, the Surgeon General of the United States wrote a letter to Father Alphonse M. Schwitalla, S. J., the Dean of SLU’s School of Medicine, inviting the University to assume the sponsorship of a general hospital for the Army to be called the 70th General Hospital. Similar letters were sent by the Surgeon General to other medical schools around the country. Father Schwitalla quickly responded to the invitation by saying “the School of Medicine of Saint Louis University expects to live up to its traditions and to meet every request of the Surgeon General.” Thus, on March 26, 1940, the Trustees of the University’s Medical School formally approved the University’s sponsorship of the 70th General Hospital, and almost immediately the University began the process of appointing a medical director and then recruiting medical officers and hospital personnel.
The first medical director of the 70th was Dr. Frank J. Tainter, a Professor of Surgery on the SLU Medical School faculty. Because of his age (he was over 70), he served as medical director only until August, 1940, when he was replaced by Dr. Goronwy O. Broun, Sr., a Professor of Internal Medicine at the University. Dr. Broun was medical director of the 70th until February, 1942. During his tenure as director, new medical officers were appointed while virtually the entire medical staff was reorganized. Unfortunately, Dr. Broun had to step down from this post with the 70th as he was declared “indispensible and essential” to the war effort, as he was helping direct an accelerated medical teaching program at the Medical School.
Remember that in early 1942 we are post-Pearl Harbor and the United States was actually at war in both Europe and the Pacific. Since the University’s hospital unit could be called into action at any time, there was little time to waste in getting the hospital unit organized and operational. Thus, Father Harry B. Crimmins, S. J., the University’s 25th President, was asked to appoint the new medical director for the 70th General Hospital.
In early February, 1942, Father Crimmins contacted Dr. Curtis H. Lohr, who was then the Superintendent of St. Louis County Hospital, about becoming the medical director of the 70th. Dr. Lohr accepted Father Crimmins’ invitation to become Medical Director of the 70th, initiating a friendship between the two men which would last the rest of their lives. On February 6, 1942, Father Schwitalla submitted Dr. Lohr’s name to the Army, and on March 26, the Adjutant General and Surgeon General of the Army of the United States announced Dr. Curtis H. Lohr as the Director of the 70th General Hospital and Chief of Medical Service. At around the same time, Father Schwitalla decided that for health reasons, he would no longer be able to serve as the Hospital’s chaplain. Shortly thereafter, Father Crimmins resigned his position as President of Saint Louis University to become the Chaplain for the 70th General Hospital.
Immediately Dr. Lohr initiated a process for selecting and assembling some 52 medical officers (doctors) and 105 nurses. At the University’s 124th commencement exercises on June 2, 1942, the entire assembly of the doctors and nurses of the 70th marched together in the academic procession at the graduation ceremony. They were assigned seats of honor at the graduation, and Father Schwitalla presented the men and women of the 70th General Hospital to Father Crimmins and to the entire assembly.
In September, 1942, the men and women of the 70th were sent for their initial training to the Army’s O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, and then in December, they were transferred to Longview, Texas, for further training at the Harmon General Hospital, sponsored by the Medical School of Cornell University. Training for the personnel of the 70th continued throughout the early months of 1943. Although there were soldiers being treated at that time at Harmon, the personnel of the 70th had little patient contact. Father Schwitalla and other administrators and faculty from Saint Louis University visited the staff of the 70th at Harmon in Longview. A ceremony was held during which all of the personnel of the 70th passed in review for Father Schwitalla and the other visitors from St. Louis. Father Schwitalla presented a large American flag to the 70th.
On June 14, 1943, the 70th General Hospital received an order to move to a staging area in preparation for being sent overseas. Then on August 11, all personnel of the 70th boarded trains in Longview, Texas, for Camp Shanks, which was near New York City. Ironically, the train carrying the personnel of the 70th from Texas to New York passed through St. Louis and actually was stopped on the tracks in St. Louis for several hours a few blocks north and east of the University’s Medical School and Hospital. Within several days, the trains had arrived at Camp Shanks, and on August 20, 1943, the 70th General Hospital began boarding the U. S. Army Transport ship, the Edmund B. Alexander at Staten Island, New York. Two other smaller hospital units also boarded the Alexander. The following day, the Alexander left the port and joined a large convoy of ships for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The transport ships were protected by a fleet of battleships and destroyers. Most of the doctors, nurses, and other personnel of the 70th did not know their exact destination when they left New York. It was only after a few days at sea that they were told they were going to North Africa. The convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, and on the afternoon of September 2, 1943, the Alexander left the other ships and docked at the small town of Mers-El-Kebir near Oran in Algeria.
Some mention should be given here as to the place a “general” hospital like the 70th occupied in the Army’s plan for treating a wounded soldier. Basically, the Army considered a “general” hospital like the 70th, as the fourth stage in a continuum of treatment for the wounded or ill soldier. A general hospital was to be a complete, full-service medical facility that would be located only a few miles from the “front lines” of battle. The process of evacuating an injured soldier was to move him in stages farther and farther away from the battle while offering him medical assistance at each stage along the way. A wounded soldier was first taken to a battalion aid station where a medical officer would examine him. He would then be moved farther away from battle to a field hospital, where emergency surgery could be performed, and then to an evacuation hospital where he could be further treated. The final stage was the general hospital where further treatment could be performed. The general hospital is also where the more serious cases would be sent immediately after the soldier had been examined at the battalion aid station, bypassing the field and evacuation hospitals.
All of the equipment and supplies for the 70th had been shipped from the States in freighters, and they did not arrive in Algeria for 2 weeks. In the meantime, the personnel of the 70th were taken to several staging areas in preparation for their move to their “permanent” location. Most of the men of the 70th stayed in an area called “Goat Hill."
On September 6, 1943, the 70th General Hospital was assigned to the Hospital Center of the Mediterranean Base Section, a few miles inland from Oran, Algeria, and the move to this center was actually made about 6 weeks later. This hospital center was composed of 6 hospitals, including 2 other general hospitals. The 70th General Hospital started out with 1,000 beds, but it quickly expanded to 1,750 beds. Over the next year in North Africa, the doctors and nurses of the 70th treated thousands of wounded soldiers, including many soldiers with various types of psychiatric problems. The most common surgical service was orthopedics.
The men and women of the 70th did have time away from the hospital. They were required to continue their training, including marches, air raid lectures and drills against gas attacks, use of equipment in the field, and lectures on sanitation and venereal disease control. They also did have free time for enjoyment as well including swimming in the Mediterranean, playing volleyball and baseball, and singing and dancing.
In November of 1944, with Allied military operations in North Africa having ended months earlier, it was decided to close the Hospital Center in Algeria, including the 70th General Hospital, and to move it to the Italian Peninsula as the fighting in the Italian Campaign at that time was very intense. On December 17, 1944, most of the personnel of the 70th arrived in Leghorn, Italy, and shortly thereafter they moved by truck convoy to Pistoia, Italy, in the Italian Province of Tuscany, about 25 miles west of Florence. This area was about 15 miles south of the main battle zone where Allied troops, including the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division were engaged with the Germans in some pretty horrific fighting. The new site for the hospital was an abandoned Italian army barracks which had been heavily damaged by the various bombings. Very quickly, however, the run-down buildings were transformed into a functioning hospital ready to receive patients.
And receive patients they did. From January to October, 1945, the 70th General Hospital treated literally thousands of soldiers who had been wounded in the fierce fighting nearby. Dr. Merenda reported that the ambulances carrying the wounded kept arriving one after another without stopping, and the medical personnel worked virtually without a break for several days. The 70th even treated nearly 1,000 German soldiers. Of the American soldiers treated by the 70th General Hospital, two soldiers deserve special mention here not only because of the sacrifices they made for their country in Italy in 1945, but for the service they have given to the United States ever since. One of these wounded soldiers treated by the 70th was a 22 year old from Russell, Kansas, by the name of Robert Joseph “Bob” Dole. Dole was a second lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy when he was wounded in the right shoulder and arm by heavy German machine fire. In 1996, during a campaign stop for the presidential election, Senator Dole held a rally and gave a speech at our West Pine Gym on the Saint Louis University campus. After the speech, Senator Dole was informed that Saint Louis University sponsored the 70th General Hospital where he was treated during World War II and that one of the doctors who had served in the 70th, Dr. Sam Merenda, was in the audience. (Dr. Merenda was also a graduate of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.) Senator Dole took time after his speech to meet and speak with Dr. Merenda for several minutes.
The second wounded soldier of note treated by the 70th was a 21 year old Nisei Japanese-American by the name of Daniel Ken Inouye. Inouye was in Italy as a member of the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit which became the most highly decorated unit in the history of the Army, when he was wounded in the right arm during. Inouye’s arm was so severely wounded that it had to be amputated. Inouye, who was a medical volunteer during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, has served as a United States Senator from Hawaii since 1963. In fact, Senator Inouye is currently the most senior member of the United States Senate.
On October 25, 1945, the 70th General Hospital was formally deactivated although by that time many members of the unit had already returned to the United States or were in the Philippines preparing for the invasion of Japan. For the remarkable work done by the 70th, the unit received numerous awards and citations, including: the E-Flag by the Mediterranean Base Section; the Meritorius Unit Plaque. Three of the 70th’s officers were awarded the Legion of Merit while eight officers received the Bronze Star.