During World War II, roughly 280,000 men and women from Louisiana served in the Armed Forces. There were over 30 military installations in the state, in addition to more than 40 prisoner of war camps. Louisiana industry supplied the Allied war machine with vital materials such as oil, synthetic rubber, and ships of all sizes. Civilians collected scraps, grew Victory gardens, and bought war bonds to build aircraft. Louisianans were all in it together, and this series highlights when the Pelican State went to war.
In early 1942, still reeling from the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the United States was on the defensive as it gathered military strength. Along with frontline troops, medical personnel would be vital assets in forward operating areas. The recruitment of doctors and nurses grew in earnest, and hospital units were assembled. On July 15, 1942, the 24th General Hospital was reactivated. The unit had served in France in World War I, where it earned the nickname “Tulane Unit” as the 100 doctors in the unit were from New Orleans, and many specifically from Tulane University.
The surgeon general of the US Army, General James Magee, requested in early 1942 that the hospital unit from Tulane University be reorganized as the 24th General Hospital. In charge of the unit was Colonel Dr. Walter Clifton Royals, a 1917 graduate of the Tulane College of Medicine. Doctors, dentists, and medical administrators were recruited from Tulane to comprise the group. Nurses were provided by the US Army Nurse Corps and led by New Orleanian Lieutenant Colonel Mary Miller, who was a graduate of the Charity Hospital nursing program. News of the unit’s formation spread around town, making the local newspapers. Another hospital group was formed from Louisiana State University’s (LSU) medical school, also located in New Orleans. The two groups were hosted and toasted around town with dinner parties and celebrations to wish them well as they left for training.
The “Tulane Unit,” as they were once again known, was sent first to Fort Benning, Georgia, to begin training for deployment overseas. After more than a year in preparation for deployment, the Tulane Unit boarded a transport ship in August 1943 for transportation to North Africa. The first location setup for the 24th General Hospital was in Bizerte, Tunisia, where they operated a 1,000 bed hospital. In Bizerte, the Tulane Unit treated GIs wounded in Italy. It was just the beginning of the grim reality they would face as they treated grievously wounded GIs and enemy soldiers for the next 19 months.
As the Allies pushed further up the “boot” of Italy, the 24th General Hospital prepared to move out of North Africa and into Italy. The first stop in Italy for the Tulane Unit was a bivouac in Rome, where they worked from late June until late July 1944. With a more permanent hospital location established in July, the Tulane Unit moved to a 1,500-bed facility in Grosseto, Italy, which had previously served as a tuberculosis sanitorium. Their stay in Grosseto was short-lived, as the 24th General Hospital was moved forward to Florence in September 1944. There they moved into a large building that had formerly been the Mussolini School of Aviation.
According to an account given by Lt. Col. Miller, leading the nurses of the 24th General Hospital, they averaged 2,500 patients at a time while stationed in Florence with only 125 nurses on staff. Just 17 miles from the front lines, she recalled there was “plenty to do all the time.” In May 1945, the war came to an end, and the influx of patients withered. The 24th General Hospital remained open in Florence until June 1945, when they were required to clear out to make way for a redeployment and training center. They remained in Italy until October 1945, working in makeshift locations as space was available. The 24th General Hospital had spent over two years in the Mediterranean theater. In that time, this small unit of Tulane doctors (there were 42), 125 nurses (many from New Orleans), and enlisted men treated 31,640 casualties with only 83 deaths.
Despite the constant work, and sometimes makeshift conditions, there were times the hospital staff could enjoy themselves and bring a little of their Louisiana spirit to the Mediterranean. In North Africa, the 64th General Hospital, Tulane’s LSU counterpart, was stationed nearby. The two groups continued the schools’ rivalry, competing in sporting events, which of course included football. In February 1945, the Tulane Unit hosted a Mardi Gras party in Florence, showing that even amid war and far away from home, the good times could still roll.
Photos Here: 2007.243.290, 2007.243.152, and 2007.243.193
The National WWII Museum has 2 photo collections from the 24th General Hospital available to view on the Digital Collections website. One is a photo collection of Dr. Thomas Weiss, a doctor with the Tulane Unit. The other is a photo collection of Dr. George Grant, also with the Tulane Unit.
New Orleans and the World
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