HARVEY W. PHELPS

Lieutenant Colonel | Medical Corps

During the entirety of his service, Doctor Phelps was known only once to have broken his own conviction to abstaining from alcohol.  It took a period of combat on Bougainville and several months in the worst possible conditions in Korea before he finally accepted a bottle of whiskey.  The action, though small, is just representative of how the most terrible wars can push the strongest of individuals beyond their limits.

 

News of the attack on Pearl Harbor swept the entire nation in an instant.  With Christmas approaching, Harvey was visiting home from his studies at the University of Denver.  He was doing quite well despite his less than satisfactory performance in high school.  He postponed enlisting until he finished at least his first year of college and in August 1942, enlisted in the Navy as a Hospital Apprentice First Class.  Boot camp at San Diego lasted three weeks after which most of the class went to sea due to Naval losses at the battle of Coral Sea.  Harvey went to San Diego Naval Hospital instead and then to the Marines at Camp Elliott for a few more weeks, joining the 3d Marine Division upon its creation.  He was made a member of D Company, 3d Medical Battalion, which along with E Company, formed the hospital that supported the Division in combat.  His role in the operating room began with training on sterile procedures and assisting in surgical operations.  His entire training was abbreviated due to the wartime needs and they were soon under orders to move overseas.

Assuming they were going to the Aleutians, the members of the Division focused on packing and preparing cold weather gear and equipment.  Only when they began to head Southwest across the Pacific without diverting course did it become clear they were destined for much warmer climate.  On the third day of the journey, Harvey became sick and was diagnosed with mumps, likely from working in the contagion ward the previous week.  He was quarantined to the sick bay where the terrible heat exacerbated his fever and he was violently seasick.  He began to feel much better when they learned the Division was headed for New Zealand.  They landed near Warkworth and began four months of training and re-equipping for jungle warfare.  Harvey managed only a three-day pass to see any of the gorgeous country before heading for the Solomon Islands.

BOUGAINVILLE

 

During the final days of the fight for Guadalcanal, the 3d Marine Division landed on the infamous beaches of the island for another period of additional training.  The medical battalion established a hospital not far from the beachhead and began treating patients.  Most of them required treatment for malaria or other tropical diseases and more complicated cases arrived when the operating room was set up.  Finally, on the first of November 1943 the assault elements of the Division landed at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville that started two months of fighting through the dense jungle.

The amphibious landing and subsequent battle for Bougainville was a great success, but overshadowed in Marine in Naval histories by Guadalcanal and the later more bitter battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  For Phelps, a Pharmacists Mate Second Class at the time, it was among the most valuable two months of his career for the lessons he learned from in the combat hospital.

During the final days of the fight for Guadalcanal, the 3d Marine Division landed on the infamous beaches of the island for another period of additional training.  The medical battalion established a hospital not far from the beachhead and began treating patients.  Most of them required treatment for malaria or other tropical diseases and more complicated cases arrived when the operating room was set up.  Finally, on the first of November 1943 the assault elements of the Division landed at Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville that started two months of fighting through the dense jungle.

 

The amphibious landing and subsequent battle for Bougainville was a great success, but overshadowed in Marine in Naval histories by Guadalcanal and the later more bitter battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  For Phelps, a Pharmacists Mate Second Class at the time, it was among the most valuable two months of his career for the lessons he learned from in the combat hospital.

Marines were often wounded within a mere ten yards of Japanese defenses and were difficult to evacuate through swamps and torrential rain, frequently necessitating twelve men to act as stretcher bearers.  They passed through aid stations near the front lines to the battalion hospital near on the beach where treatment from surgeons, doctors and assistants was impeccable.  Quality of personnel and the medical techniques had improved significantly in just the first two years of the war.  Less than one percent of Marines with bullet or shrapnel wounds died.  Diseases continued to be more debilitating than combat casualties, but even dysentery and malaria cases had dropped astonishingly since Guadalcanal.  Between both types of evacuees, the low number of Marines to leave the island proved the exemplary medical support the battalion provided.

 

About the time the Army arrived to mop up the remaining Japanese in January, Harvey received a notification that he was accepted into the Navy V-12 program and he returned to the United States to finish his pre-med at the University of Idaho.  Upon graduation, he attended Saint Louis University Medical School where he met Adah Godbold.  After their marriage and his graduation, Harvey was commissioned into the Army and was posted to Brooke Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston for an internship before he moved again to Fort Riley, Kansas just as war erupted in Korea.  He was only vaguely aware of the invasion until he received orders in July 1950.

PUSAN PERIMETER

 

At his home in Colorado, Doctor Phelps received a call from Fifth Army Headquarters.  The captain on the line stated he had orders for Phelps to report to the 6th Tank Battalion already en route for Korean service.  He explained to the captain that his wife and two-month-old son would have to move to his inlaws’ summer home in North Carolina.  The captain, remaining fairly strict, admitted that though the orders stated ‘immediately,’ he had no way of stopping Harvey from taking his family to the east coast.  In less than thirty minutes, their car was packed and they rushed to Adah’s family home, driving day and night without rest until arrival.  Harvey then left them immediately to fly to Fort Hood, Texas where he reported to an officer at four in the morning who informed him that the tank battalion had already departed for San Francisco.  During his brief stay at Fort Hood, Harvey received his dog tags, immunizations and allotments and rushed to San Francisco by plane, ultimately beating the tank battalion traveling by rail.

 

Immediately, signs of the Army’s unpreparedness for war began to show.  On arrival, Harvey interviewed with a lieutenant colonel who asked several general questions, none of them about combat experience, and seemed more irritated about Phelps not saluting him.  When his 6th Tank Battalion arrived, he met his Medical Service Corps officer, Dental officer, and First Sergeant.  Paperwork showed they were up to the Table of Organization and Equipment, but reality was far different.  Of the several footlockers Phelps inspected, he found most to be empty except for a few syringes with penicillin in oil and a few old bandages.  The personal equipment was no better.  Phelps called an inspection of about twenty men within his command and asked them to turn out their first aid packets.  They produced cigarettes, candy, a few hip flasks and a variety of other items without any first aid supplies.

The Captain visited the medical supply depot at the base and explained his supply problem to the commander who gladly helped bring the unit up to their authorized TO&E.  Within two days, Phelps had turned things around and acquired additional cases of antibiotics, bandages, instruments and three five-gallon cans of 190 proof alcohol, something he found to be extremely valuable during his Navy days.

 

Orientation began almost immediately after embarking.  He met with men of the unit, worked on sterilizing bandages, and drilled continuously throughout the two-week voyage.  Burn cases were a focus for training due to the high number of burn casualties in European theater tank units during World War II.  In addition to his own medical personnel, Harvey had the forethought to meet with other key personnel of the battalion including the motor officer to understand their available vehicles, their maintenance, and support.

As the troopship approached Korea, there was speculation they would unload in Japan due to the rapidly deteriorating situation, but ultimately they proceeded to Pusan.  The port city set Harvey’s expectations for the rest of the country.  It was a scene of poverty and antiquity.  People were living out of boxes; transportation was by foot or ox cart; only a few old Japanese street cars served as public transport.  As part of an Army scheme, Phelps was given two Korean boys named Lee and Cho who would act as aides and interpreters.  They were likely pulled from the streets, but quickly learned English and remained loyal throughout Phelps’ Korean tour.  Soon the battalion moved outside the city, loaded onto rail cars and prepared for combat.

 

For two weeks they moved along the length of the Pusan Perimeter acting as mobile artillery.  Every couple of days, Harvey had to break down the aid station and set it up again in their new area.  He and the other officers slept in their ambulances while the enlisted men stayed in tents. All of the casualties they treated were civilians and most of them children.  Despite the crude affordances – little more than a small set up next to a halftrack – the care was nothing like what the Koreans experienced under Japanese rule.  The American benevolence was well above and beyond and the civilians quickly showed immense thanks.

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By mid-September, pressure seemed to ease on the 24th Division that the tank battalion was supporting.  They crossed the Naktong as news of the Inchon landing came around and they began rushing north in a constant storm of dust agitated by the air-cooled tank engines.  Harvey continued to treat sick and wounded children more than military personnel.  They picked up the occasional North Korean which they turned over the Military Police and were always wary of infiltrators.  The ROK soldiers simply executed any of them at the slightest hint of communist sympathy.  Along the road on their way out of the Pusan Perimeter, the medical staff passed a knoll with fifteen or sixteen trenches dug into it.  A buzz of activity prompted the assistant surgeon Worsham Roberson to investigate.  A glance over the edge of the trenches revealed a pile of bodies in each, all buried waist deep with hands bound behind their backs.  In total there were 500 ROK soldiers and 86 Americans.  Phelps confirmed they were likely killed the previous evening.  Some were bayonetted to death, others clubbed, and the fortunate were simply shot.

 

On the approach to the Naktong River, they found large numbers of North Koreans along the road who consistently claimed to all be telegraphers.  Phelps assumed this would have been the highest station of life under Japanese rule and would therefore warrant better medical treatment, but he gave no mind to one’s status in life and treated all of his patients with the same care and attention.

 

The tankers crossed the river, passed through a destroyed Waegwan and into the rubble of Taejon past abandoned T34s.  Phelps began setting up his aid station in an apple orchard on the outskirts of the city when he heard a noise behind them.  A quick look startled a group of North Koreans who fled from their task of camouflaging an intact tank with branches.  The result was the small medical team’s capture of a completely intact T34.

By October they neared the Han River just south of Seoul.  Seoul itself was burned out.  The only building left unscathed was the American embassy.  Outside of the gate and along the roads going into the city, all the village and hamlets were desolate and decimated by bombs or artillery.  Despite all of the destruction, Seoul was thriving with merchants selling their wares, particularly those dealing in black market military goods.  Beyond Seoul was Kaesong on the 38th Parallel.  The university city had a Methodist school and college, just part of the impactful work the Methodists had done in the past.  A Methodist himself, Phelps was proud of their positive impact in such a remote part of the world.  He had the fortune of adding to their construction and generosity by rehabilitating some local civilian hospitals which had been reduced to a pitiful state and above all other joys, was able to take his first hot shower in two months.

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NORTH KOREA

 

Phelps crossed the 38th Parallel with Captain Worsham Roberson by his side.  The line units were only mopping up the destroyed North Korean Army, but fighting was still heavy and the 1st ROK Division to which the battalion was attached had plenty of casualties passing through their aid station.  Worsham reflected on the hard days behind them and produced a bottle of Seagram’s 7 from his kit and offered it to Phelps, knowing well he was a teetotaler.  The doctor was ready to refuse and considered his father-in-law’s strict views on alcohol, but he realized in that moment that he was on the other side of the world with months of combat behind him and more unknown days ahead.  Sitting in the jeep beside a plain sign noting they were crossing into the hostile North Korea, Phelps accepted the bottle after a moment of hesitation.

 

They broke north toward Pyongyang after a few days and became accustomed to traveling with the ROK troops, though they were nearly impossible to distinguish from North Koreans.  The ROKs had earned a mixed reputation, but Phelps found them to be capable and zealous.  They lived off the land, stealing cattle for food and were determined to be the first in Pyongyang.  They moved so rapidly that Phelps hardly ever set up an aid station despite the number of casualties they sustained.

They sped into the capital city with such haste that they left Phelps behind in his ambulance to be shot at from the surrounding buildings.  One bullet pierced the seat he sat on.  A few shots fired into suspected windows were enough to rout the North Koreans and Phelps was faced with the problem of managing unwounded enemy soldiers.  Until this point, he had only dealt with the wounded.  He ordered them to strip, assuming that the impending cold weather would be enough to discourage any misbehavior as he sent them on their way.  A lone ROK soldier quickly intercepted them and began to shoot them one by one until Harvey intervened after the second execution.

 

Rumors of American POWs in four trains headed north prompted a plan for the 187th Airborne to drop in on them.  Harvey received orders to take his ambulance north as well.  When he arrived, the trains were a burning wreckage due to airstrikes from their own aircraft unaware that they held allied prisoners.  The few survivors were rescued by the 187th and Harvey was left watching the train cars smolder.

Snow came in late October.  A handful of Canadians showed up at the aid station who reported they had been prisoners released by the Chinese and the Americans should not to go any further toward to Yalu River as there were thousands of Chinese swarming through the area.  Harvey relayed their information to regimental headquarters and with no further instruction, simply sent the Canadians on their way.  He also mentioned the presence of Chinese at a battalion staff meeting.  The ROK commander confirmed with reports of stiff opposition.  Their knowledge seemed to hold no weight as orders did not change and they moved through Unsan to a point twelve miles from the edge of the Yalu.  When they reached the border the next morning, the war would be over.

 

Their hopes were spoiled that night when the sound of small arms fire began echoing through the cold night.  Phelps rang the battalion S-3 and mentioned that if the Chinese behaved anything like the Japanese, mortars would follow shortly.  They began falling promptly as he was speaking, one striking a gasoline truck nearby which quickly became engulfed in flames.

 

The tankers withdrew out of range in the morning after taking eight casualties during the night – the most at one time since they had been in Korea.  They learned the Chinese had them surrounded and cut off.  Helicopters became necessary to evacuate wounded over the course of the next week.  They also delivered supplied by air drop.  Harvey ensured a letter to his wife made it onto one of the helicopters – the letter stated that he was not sure he would make it out.

 

The men felt betrayed as they withdrew south on November 1st.  They were beginning to see they would not be home by Thanksgiving as promised nor did the war conclude on nearing the Yalu.  Instead, the opposite – the Chinese retaliated with vigor.  The 8th Cavalry held the line open for withdrawal and were overwhelmed in an attack later that night, beginning the longest retreat in American history.  The potential length of the war became evident in the next weeks and months and Harvey joined the Regular Army because of it.

As they moved south to Kunu-ri, the medical company picked up wounded along the road.  The only space available for the casualties was on the backs of their tanks and soon they were overloaded.  Helicopters continually touched down along the edges of the road to evacuate them two at a time and within two days, Harvey estimated over a hundred wounded stragglers had been taken out.  The desperate combat conditions put all personnel in the position of infantrymen as they contended with Chinese, lingering North Koreans and infiltrators.  Waves of refugees appearing on the roads always signaled an impending attack, but during the mass retreat was just as likely to be due to the deteriorating weather or destruction of their homes.  Children crowded around the troops begging for scraps from their Thanksgiving dinner.  Paired with snowfall, the pitiful refugees and constant pressure of an attack began to wear on soldiers who had been fighting without a break since July.  They had no new winter clothing, no baths in months, and many were covered in lice.  The wounded and depressed alike passed through the aid station – Harvey could mend their wounds, but not their minds.

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Refugees moving through the flurries suddenly vanished and the Americans were back on the offensive.  The attack lasted for two days and did not end the war, but inflicted severe casualties that Phelps’ company picked up along the route out of Kunu-ri.  Every vehicle including tanks was packed with wounded to keep them out of Chinese hands.  Even a constant flow of helicopters was not enough to take them all and many men were left along the road.

It became clear that tanks were not particularly useful in the Korean theater of combat and the battalion fell into a lull.  They consumed too much gasoline required for other vehicles in the withdrawal and after the bulk of the wounded were cared for, Harvey requested a transfer to an infantry unit where his skills could be of greater use.  He left his post as battalion surgeon of the 6th Tank Battalion and went to the 3d Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.  He immediately faced more wounded with the infantry than with the tankers.  Everyone had lost equipment and supplies in the withdrawal, including the supply depot at Sinanju that had been burned rather than relinquishing supplies to the Chinese.  Harvey managed to cling onto his stock of 95 alcohol and bartered it for new winter clothing, 10-in-1 rations, and a captured Russian ¾ ton truck.  He may have been the only medical officer in Korea who could trade for anything he wanted.  Even the Division surgeon was not as fortunate and well prepared as Phelps.

 

Snowfall increased and they travelled daily.  Many men slept along the road in a foot of snow.  Harvey was lucky to have his sleeping bag and his ambulance to sleep in.  Frozen feet were rampant and the doctor discovered it was due to improper boot sizing.  He approached the battalion commander and insisted on fitting everyone’s shoes with proper sized replacements.  As they crossed the border, Harvey had a moment to go into Seoul which had transformed into a much more habitable environment while fighting raged in the North.  He was able to place a phone call to his wife – the connection took fifteen hours and he had only thirty seconds to update her on his safety and he was out of North Korea before the line cut out.  She was relieved to hear from him after his ominous letter in Unsan.

 

When the 24th Division settled along their section of the 38th Parallel there was no indication of Chinese and Harvey had time to investigate the needs and health of his new battalion.  While in the North, he saw about ten cases of smallpox in the civilians he treated, a disease he had never dealt with before, along with three cases of chickenpox in his own troops.  The men also had their first opportunity to establish a mess and squad tents; hot meals became the norm over frozen C-rations; reinforcements began to arrive; and Harvey found a local Korean house and a hot bath at the local Seventh Adventist hospital.  The house was humbly constructed of straw and mud plaster walls with an outdoor fireplace that heated a tile system throughout the floor.  It was adequate, though anything greater than a small fire threatened to ignite the house which did occur several times.  It was cold enough that gasoline would not vaporize to burn, so fires required wood for fuel which was scarce in Korea and had to be purchased due to deforestation during the Japanese occupation.  Regimental Headquarters was in an old schoolhouse that Harvey was able to tour during a meeting with the regimental commander, his other battalion surgeons and an officer from the Surgeon General’s office in D.C.

Droves of women and children signaled the end of the rest period.  The month of December had been relatively quiet, but the refugees and increase in artillery fire at the end of the month brought their life of luxury to an end.  Harvey called Battalion Headquarters more than once a day to ensure he would not be left behind as had happened before.  It seemed when a unit packed and bolted, they often forgot to inform the Medical Company.  After midnight on January 1st, he could not reach Battalion and began to pack equipment.  One of his Korean boys saw men coming down the road and confident they were not Korean, but Chinese, the company broke the carburetors on their vehicles and left to find the Battalion.  The medical personnel finally located the fringes of their unit in the dark.  The sound of canteen caps knocking against the steel sides of the bottles ensured they were American.

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The 19th Infantry pulled back into Seoul where Harvey found an abandoned university building.  It was dark and cold without electricity or water; all windows had been broken or blown out and the concrete floor was cold to sleep on.  After one night, he moved into the adjacent officers’ club that had all windows intact as well as a fireplace in the large room where he set up his aid station.  The doctor could only enjoy the comforts of the building for one day before the battalion was alerted to move out across the Han River.  Seoul was being shelled and was on fire again.  Alongside the Chaplain, Phelps watched Seoul burn for the third time in six months while they waited to move out across one of the three treadway bridges spanning the river.

The ensuing fight lasted for three days as the Chinese attacked a rotation of units around the river.  The regiment lost a third of their men in the fight and those apparent for sick call included many old veterans of the July campaigns who had managed to survive the most difficult months.  Harvey’s aid station remained in an abandoned wine distillery behind the hill that the battalion occupied.  It was the most solid building he discovered since arriving in Korea and stayed for a lengthy three days before resorting to a squad tent once again.  Every time they assembled the large pyramidal tent, it seemed to collapse on a hot stove that would burn a hole in the top and Phelps would have to take more 95 alcohol to the supply dump and trade for another tent.

 

As warmer weather of February approached, there was little contact with the Chinese but the troops’ positions became engulfed in mud.  The Division surgeon visited with a new smallpox vaccine to administer as well as orders to transfer Harvey to the Regimental Collecting Station, which also meant a promotion was due.  His replacement was to be a Naval doctor who was eager to leave his practice in Pennsylvania.  His own health caught up to him at the end of the month when the Army started north again.  Facing constant contact with Chinese forces, Harvey got the closest to combat as he had ever been and was suddenly experiencing dark urine and nausea.  The Regimental Surgeon diagnosed him with hepatitis and he was subsequently tagged and evacuated to Japan in an abrupt conclusion to his Korean tour.

 

He continued the rest of his career in the Army focusing on the effects of air pollution and emphysema.  In a 1961 study, he tied unusually high cases of asthma to air pollution around Yokohama.  It was so concentrated and patients improved immensely after moving from the Kanto Plain area that it became known as “Yokohama Asthma.”  While it would have been best to evacuate everyone, particularly United States military personnel, to do so would have compromised the purpose of the units stationed in the Kanto Plain area.  Phelps accepted this limitation, but proposed doing pulmonary function studies to evaluate the severity of the disease in patients and concluded that their ailments were directly tied to the pollution and smog resulting from the rapid industrialization of the area. 

 

He continued pursuing his interest in respiratory health and effects of pollution in his civilian life.  The humble doctor ultimately became most known for his use of large bow ties, perhaps his only extravagant feature, and his dedication to simply ‘getting things done.’  He pioneered work in the treatment of lung diseases to win Black Lung benefits for coal miners and was a member of the first Los Angeles air pollution variance board.   Doctor Phelps later entered into private practice in Pueblo where he made his life.  As he had in Korea, he showed keen foresight and ingenuity in his studies and in public service for many years before retired to his family cabin where he focused on restoring antique cars and gas engines.

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Sources:

Phelps, Harvey.  "Battalion Surgeon."