Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2019

ISBN-13: 9781594163203

400 pages


The Agony of Heroes

Medical Care for America’s Besieged Legions from Bataan to Khe Sanh

The Inspiring Story of the Men and Women Who Risked Their Lives Alongside the Soldiers Fighting Some of the Most Desperate Actions in American History

Bataan, Anzio, Bastogne, Chosin, Khe Sanh: names that define the American spirit. They are synonymous with courage, resilience, and determination against great odds. At each of these battles American soldiers and Marines weathered desperation and fear to survive, advance, and triumph. Along with these heroes of the battlefield were no less determined and courageous providers of medical care. From the heat- and disease-ridden jungles of Bataan, the precarious beachhead of Anzio, the encircled town of Bastogne, the frozen fields of Chosin, and the forsaken plateau of Khe Sanh, doctors and nurses worked under intense conditions, with whatever means at hand, to staunch bleeding, repair damage, and resurrect the dying. In so doing they gave a glimmer of hope for the warriors facing possible death or capitulation. Often completely cut off from vital supplies and modern technology, and under the threat of enemy fire, these medical professionals never lost sight of their passionate commitment to the sick and wounded. As noncombatants, they required extraordinary resolve to ignore the mortal threats of explosions and gunfire to focus on the mission of relieving pain, dragging from the brink of death damaged soldiers completely dependent on their resourcefulness. Some of these brave men and women would suffer the same fate as their fighting comrades, cut down by enemy fire in the prime of life, many times in the very task of rendering the compassion that was their hallmark and sometimes their only tonic.

In The Agony of Heroes: Medical Care for America’s Besieged Legions from Bataan to Khe Sanh, distinguished surgeon Thomas S. Helling relates the inspirational and compelling stories of the doctors, nurses, corpsmen, aides, and others who braved the most frightening conditions in order to save lives. Their experiences testify to the indomitable human grit that, when asked, transforms ordinary behavior into extraordinary achievements.

Praise for The Agony of Heroes

“The heroes of the title are the dedicated men and women of military medical support units who served in five instances (from WWII and the Korean War to the US-Vietnam conflict) where American forces were under siege: Bataan, Anzio, Bastogne, Chosin, and Khe Sanh. The individuals described here demonstrated incredible courage, skill, and perseverance through their effort to aid the wounded, when hope and supplies were almost non-existent. Although ignored by many combat histories, they endured the same terrible conditions, deprivations, and enemy fire that the fighting men did, suffering many casualties along the way. The sometimes horrific details and documentation found here will help students research and understand the surrounding events. Formerly a staff officer of the US Army Medical Corps, Helling (Univ. of Mississippi Medical Center) has also authored Desperate Surgery in the Pacific War (2017), covering in detail the medics who served all over the Pacific theater. Television series like M*A*S*H and China Beach come nowhere close to accurately portraying what medical personnel have endured in such desperate situations, where death for oneself or one’s patients is a constant presence. A much-needed companion to the many works focused exclusively on combat history, this work is accessible and suitable for anyone interested in the subject. Highly recommended. All readers.”

“The author, a former U.S. Army Medical Corps officer and current Professor of Surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has produced a ground-breaking account of American military medicine as practiced at five venues: Bataan, Anzio, Bastogne, Chosin, and Khe Sanh. Why these five? As the title suggests, not only were American personnel besieged at these locations, but the conditions under which medical care was provided were emblematic of the most difficult circumstances in which military medical care could be provided. . . . Helling is to be commended for writing this major contribution to the literature of military medicine, a book that belongs on the shelf with classics like Cowdrey’s Fighting for Life and The Medics’ War and Cosmas and Cowdrey’s Medical Service in the European Theater of Operations.”
Journal of America’s Military Past

“Helling weaves a riveting and harrowing narrative of the sacrifice, courage, and indomitable spirit residing in the men and women fighting to save the lives of those entrusted to their care. Kudos to Helling for this diligently researched and often emotionally compelling narrative that chronicles the best of the human spirit operating under the worst of circumstances.”
Col. (ret.) Christopher Gruber, Medical Service Corps

“A history of combat medicine unlike any other, Agony of Heroes is an epic journey through the experiences of military medicine’s finest during the most extreme conditions of warfare. Without the heroic and selfless endeavors of Dr. Helling’s frontline protagonists, there is no doubt that the terrible toll of war would have been far, far greater.”
André B. Sobocinski, Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, U.S. Navy