MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


The Agony of Heroes: Medical Care for America’s Besieged Legions from Bataan to Khe Sanh

By Thomas S. Helling. Westholme Publishing, 2019. $35. Reviewed by George A. Alexander

In this book Thomas S. Helling, a surgeon at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and veteran of the Army Medical Corps, looks at the hell of war through a special—and very specific—lens: the medical care provided to America’s soldiers and marines on the battlefields of Bataan (1941–1942), Anzio (1944), Bastogne (1944), Chosin (1950), and Khe Sanh (1968). Each of these battles presented different challenges to American forces, and each left those forces dealing with the shock of large numbers of combat injuries and deaths.

In his skilled telling of manifold stories of resilience and valor, Helling observes that the roles of medical care providers in these armed conflicts often changed to that of warriors fighting for the lives of their soldiers. “Medics, nurses, and doctors reached beyond their own safety,” he writes, “to uncover a courage few were aware they possessed.” All too often, however, the casualties came with such frightful regularity that medical staffs were unable to keep pace with the incoming wounded.

Helling notes that doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel worked under harrowing combat conditions to stop bleeding, repair injuries, and save lives—even operating on patients while under enemy attack—and to keep rampant

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