ISBN 1476664218

Jefferson NC: McFarland Publishing, 2017

475 pages

Paperback only

Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War

Doctors and Damage Control for American Wounded, 1941-1945

Caring for the wounded in the World War II Pacific Theater posed serious challenges to doctors and surgeons. The thick jungles, remote atolls and heavily defended Japanese islands of the Pacific presented dangers to medical personnel never before encountered in modern warfare. At the same time, on Navy ships at sea embroiled in gun battles and air attacks, including the feared kamikaze suicide raids, doctors faced equally daunting challenges of repairing bodies riddled with shrapnel and burnt by flaming petrol, all without the resources of modern surgical equipment and specialty assistance.

Sophisticated treatments, including complex surgery, were by necessity far removed from the fighting, requiring front line doctors to do the minimum–often under fire–to stabilize patients until they could be evacuated: “damage control,” it would later be called. Navy doctors responsible for thousands of sailors aboard fleets in battle found caring for the wounded daunting or nearly impossible. Yet to save lives, medical resources had to be kept as close as possible to the action. This book systematically details the efforts and innovations of the doctors and surgeons who worked to preserve life under extreme peril. Doctor Helling meticulously outlines the Pacific campaigns that generated thousands of casualties among American boys who needed urgent treatment, literally under enemy guns. Innovative life-saving surgery was the rule rather than the exception as surgeons repaired wounds formally considered hopeless and salvaged countless numbers of casualties.

This remarkable medical journey through the Pacific War as described by Dr. Helling earned him the Harry D Langley Book Prize bestowed by the Society for the History of Navy Medicine in 2019.

Praise for Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War

“Helling . . . adeptly mines an array of primary sources to portray medical care in the Pacific theaters. He illustrates how the unique geography and conditions in this part of the world dictated the manner in which the Army Medical Department and Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery could tend to the wounded. For example, hospitals could not land until assaulting troops had at least secured a beachhead, which often required days of intense combat. Until then, the wounded had to be evacuated off the island. Transoceanic distances further compounded the difficulties of transporting casualties to surgical hospitals, a voyage often necessitating days to reach bases sometimes a thousand miles away. This expanse similarly rendered resupply—particularly for perishable items like blood—a herculean logistical exercise . . . Desperate Surgery is a meaningful contribution to the literature. Illuminating for our generation an underexamined topic, it clearly outlines the difficulties of providing surgical care to American wounded in the Pacific and how the US military strove to overcome those challenges. Military and medical historians both will find value in this account and particularly the ability to read selectively for topics of interest.”
Justin Barr, MD PhD, Humanities and Social Sciences Online

“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 . . . 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.”
Maj. Matthew R. Prescott, Army University Press