Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War
Doctors and Damage Control for American Wounded, 1941–1945
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 476 pages
Book Review published on: July 7, 2017
In Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War, author Thomas Helling writes on the difficulties doctors faced when conducting medical treatment on Allied soldiers throughout the Pacific Theater during the World War II. Often referred to as “damage control” due to the numerous casualties doctors often had at one time and the massive trauma many of these soldiers received on the battlefield, Helling writes a gripping book on the daily struggles doctors had with keeping service members alive in the exhausting conditions of the Pacific Theater.
Helling, a former Medical Corps officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and professor of surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, authors one of the few books dedicated toward the requirements to stabilize and evacuate injured service members once they successfully reached aid stations in the Pacific Theater. Helling, an author of over forty medical publications ranging from organ transplants to treating fractures in major trauma incidents, and whose father participated in the Pacific Theater, is the seemingly perfect person to tackle the unforgiving subject of trauma care in the Pacific Theater.
Filled with the appropriate amount of detail to keep the reader intrigued from the first to the last page, Desperate Surgery’s context places the reader in the jungles of the Solomon Islands, in the aid stations on New Guinea, on the beachhead at Iwo Jima, or aboard the numerous medical ships off of Okinawa to allow the reader to understand the hardships that both patient and doctor dealt with during these violent campaigns. One of the most intriguing parts of the book describes how the medical community was a learning organization with a willingness to adapt to their surroundings in order to provide the best level of care to the warfighter. Changes in the treatment methods, composition, and disposition of each level of care were required as each campaign was distinct based on the enemy threat and geographic conditions.
Outside of Helling’s already excellent credentials as a medical professional, he uses an organized blend of primary and secondary sources consisting of casualty reports, treatment logs, historical battle reviews, medical journals, and personal journals kept by the medical professionals described in this book.
For individuals interested in casualty care during periods of total war and the innovations in medical treatment between the interwar years, Desperate Surgery is an excellent source. However, due to the medical terminology used and in-depth treatment procedures discussed within this book, I believe Helling’s main audience is geared toward the medical community. Regardless, Desperate Surgery is a worthwhile reference to learn about the terrain and enemy conditions that had to be conquered in order to stabilize, evacuate, and care for our wounded service members during a chaotic period in our nation’s history. In order to view a completely different side of World War II from the perspective of the men and women charged with saving the lives of thousands of warriors that fought in the Pacific Theater, I recommend Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War.
Book Review written by: Maj. Matthew R. Prescott, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas