The ‘Real Thing’: My father’s story | Guest Column

A young R. David Pennings, in uniform, stands beside relatives in a Korean War-era a family photo .   - Contributed photo / Lisa Brown
A young R. David Pennings, in uniform, stands beside relatives in a Korean War-era a family photo .
— image credit: Contributed photo / Lisa Brown

Special to the Journal

He was only 18 when he wrote this,” Lisa said, as she handed me a typewritten manuscript, the work of R. David Pennings, her father.

His story, sent in to be published in the mid-60s, portrays his comrades as the characters we read of in the novel, saw in the movie, and watched in the TV series, MASH. After deployment from Japan, his MASH unit attached to the Victory Division (the bittersweet name given the 24th Infantry) and marched north into the jaws of the enemy.

Lisa Brown proceeded to unpack the duffle bag of a soldier medic of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit, equipped to treat the soldier and civilian wounded.

With care and reverence, Lisa unfolded her father’s heavy dark khaki flight suit, and then laid out each item, telling of what she had learned of the fight to hold the line and defend the outnumbered, outgunned, and ill-prepared Republic of Korea from the powerful North Korean People’s Army that had flooded across the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950, taking the capital city of Seoul in three bloody days.

Theirs was an impossible task, but if they could save South Korea from being overrun, they could buy time for MacArthur’s 8th army to form up for a counter attack. With the backdrop of intense fighting, bombed out cities and extreme casualties, the young medic (who later became a pharmacist, then scientist and cancer researcher) wrote of the bravery, fun-loving antics, and constant dedication to preserve life that he experienced with his platoon.

“He was sent in to the front lines to administer treatment and triage,” Lisa said. “There were times he had to carry the wounded through enemy fire.”

Hypocrites spoke of the way war advanced medicine when he said, “War is the only proper school for a surgeon.”

MedalsIndeed. Helicopter rescue and emergency medicine techniques were developed in Korea. If a wounded soldier could make it alive to a MASH unit, there was a 97-percent chance he would survive; and the surgeons treated civilians and enemy soldiers as well. No wonder they called them “MASH angels.”

One account of her father’s service is memorialized in a book, War in Korea, by Marguerite Higgins, in which he is referenced as the “medic corporal.” Lisa noted that her father had mistaken the author of the book, a combat correspondent, as a nurse and sent her to the front car of the hospital train, which he had filled with the less injured, thinking that she would be able to handle their injuries on her own. He stayed in the back car to tend to the more severely injured.

“This account is impressive, considering my father was the only medic assigned to tend to the two box cars full of injured soldiers at the age of 19, and only (but sadly) two casualties resulted. When we asked him to share stories about what happened in Korea he became stoic and didn’t want to discuss the horror that he witnessed. Instead, he told about the friendships he developed and how they made the agonizing chaos bearable.”

“It is sad that he carried this burden all his life, but I believe it made him more compassionate - he was a kind and loving man. I am proud of my father for his service to our country, his desire to help others, and his ability to find the “positive” in any situation. This he imparted to my brothers and sisters and me, and even our children, and we are grateful. To honor and carry on this spirit, we all enjoy volunteering for service organizations in our communities.”

We are about to celebrate Independence Day with the “Fabulous Fifties” parade theme. The American Legion Post 163 Auxiliary put together a float depicting a MASH unit of that time. We found the veterans — the people of legends — heard their stories, and again realized that we live among heroes; men and women who are the “real thing”.

Our float will consist of Lee Brewer’s jeep — Brewer flew 100 missions in Korea — pulling a MASH helicopter purchased by Bob Greenway because it was the real thing, with Ed Wilson, a helicopter-gunship pilot who flew many rescue missions, in the cockpit, and a trailer with several MASH scenes. No surprise that Bill Ray, a door gunner, built the float.

Hear again the MASH theme song and the sound of rescue helicopters, honor the veterans, and enjoy our MASH characters. On this 4th of July, please take a moment to appreciate and remember our fabulous real life heroes.

— Editor’s note: the column above was submitted by Lisa Brown and Sue Carnes of The American Legion Post 163 Auxiliary in anticipation of the annual Independence Day parade and its theme, “The Fabulous Fifties”.


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