During World War II, the U.S. Army 32nd Station Hospital operated in the Mediterranean Theatre. It supported Allied forces in two separate locations: Tlemcen, Algeria (February 1943–December 1943) and Caserta, Italy (January 1944–July 1945). This article will provide a brief history of the unit from the time it was organized in June 1942 through its deployment to French North Africa from January through December 1943.
The 32nd Station Hospital’s records are quite fragmentary, posing a problem even in stating with certainty so basic a fact as where the unit was created. According to unit reports, the 32nd Station Hospital’s story in World War II begins on June 25, 1942, when the unit was activated at Camp Rucker, Alabama, with the first of its male personnel reported the following day.
Oddly enough, a December 7, 1942 story in The Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia), “Fort Hospital is Expanded”, states: “The 32nd Station Hospital was formed a year ago at Barksdale Field, La., then went to Camp Rucker, Ala., where training was begun.” Circumstantial support for the article’s claim includes the fact that at least two early members of the 32nd Station Hospital, Hank Knitter and Dr. William A. Carey, Jr. are known to have served at Barksdale Field. (That’s based on a photo in Knitter’s collection and notes written by Dr. Carey about where he served, but neither explicitly stated they were part of the 32nd when they were at Barksale.)
Initially, the 32nd was classified as a 250 bed hospital and training began in earnest during the summer of 1942. On August 13, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Burstein took command of the unit. Burstein was born in Ohio in 1893 and had served as regimental medical officer for the 53rd Artillery, Coastal Artillery Corps during World War I.
On October 26, 1942, the 32nd moved from Camp Rucker to Fort Benning, Georgia. On November 1, the unit was expanded to become a 500 bed hospital. Meanwhile, the nurses and other female personnel that would eventually join the unit were working at a variety of other U.S. Army installations. The largest contingent would come from Lovell General Hospital at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, which supplied 25 of the unit’s original 55 nurses.
With its training more or less completed, on December 27 the 32nd left Georgia for the overnight trip to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Kilmer was a staging area for the New York Port of Embarkation (N.Y.P.O.E). On December 29, the unit’s female personnel (55 nurses, two physical therapists, and a dietician) joined the unit, just over two weeks before the unit shipped overseas.
On January 13, 1943, the unit headed to the N.Y.P.O.E, with most on the unit boarding the U.S.S. Ancon, a transport under the command of Captain P. L. Mather. 24 of the nurses were split into groups of four along with a single male officer and embarked on other ships. The morning of January 14, 1943, the 32nd Station Hospital headed overseas.
Arrival in Algeria
Though fears of U-boat attack ran high at times during the crossing of the Atlantic, the convoy arrived safely in Oran, Algeria on January 26, 1943. The 32nd Station Hospital was part of the Mediterranean Base Section (M.B.S.), which supported operations well behind the front lines. For over three weeks, the 32nd staged at Bouisseville before being transported by road to Tlemcen, Algeria on February 18. By this point, the Allies were fighting to the east in Tunisia; battle casualties arrived in Tlemcen by road from Oran and rail from Algiers. (Later in the year, casualties arrived from Sicily and Italy as well.)
The unit requisitioned two schools for conversion into hospital buildings. Unfortunately, the fact that these buildings were ten minutes apart on foot meant the arrangements were less than ideal. Mess (food service) personnel found themselves stretched thin serving both hospital buildings as well as two sets of living quarters (officers and enlisted, located in different hotels). The December 31, 1943 “Medical History of the Thirty Second Station Hospital” by Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. Goss explains the setup best:
Headquarters, Administrative Offices, and the Admission and Disposition Office and Dispensary, the Operating Rooms, Ex-ray [sic] Department, Orthopedic Clinic, Pharmacy, and Physio-therapy were set up in L’Ecole des Filles Indigenes (Building “A”). This building accommodated approximately 200 patients. The second building, L’Ecole des Filles, housed the Laboratory, E.E.N.T. Clinic, Dental Clinic, Prophylactic Station and G.U. Department, and 200 patients, (Building “C”). The Engineers constructed Niessen Huts (Building “B”) adjacent to L’Ecole des Filles Indigenes, to house more patients and Medical Supply. When a few weeks later the bed capacity was increased to 750, a warehouse also adjacent to “A” Building was acquired; this became known as “D” Building.
Officers (including nurses) were quartered in the Grand Hotel des Voyageurs for the first two days. 1st Lieutenant Helen W. Brammer (the 32nd Station Hospital’s Principal Chief Nurse) later wrote in her “Report of Nursing Activities – 1943” that “most of our time was spent in the pursuit and defeat of the hordes of bedbugs that were inhabiting the rooms.” Two days later, the officers upgraded to the Hotel Transatlantique, which Brammer reported had “clean beds and linens, a spacious dining room and a lobby with a home-like atmosphere.” It also had hot water, bathing facilities, and nary a mention of bedbugs. The enlisted men took over the newly bedbug-free (maybe) Hotel des Voyageurs instead.
The 32nd Station Hospital’s first patient arrived on February 28, 1943, ten days after they arrived in Tlemcen. During the next nine months, the unit admitted approximately 7,502 patients. By June, the hospital had a capacity of 1,000 beds, though without any additional staff being assigned.
The army had found that it was more efficient in terms of personnel to simply enlarge an individual station hospital rather than open several smaller ones; a single 750 bed station hospital, for instance, required a third fewer officers than three 250 bed hospitals. The 32nd Station Hospital was now comparable in size (if not capabilities or staffing) to a small general hospital.
A New Commanding Officer
In May 1943, Colonel Burstein suffered a heart attack. Captain Lowell E. Vinsant wrote in his journal that Major Robert O.Y. Warren ran the hospital until Colonel Burstein’s replacement arrived. Lieutenant Colonel Gayland L. Hagelshaw took command of the unit on May 23, 1943. One month later, he was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. Goss. A World War I veteran like Burstein, Goss was destined to lead the 32nd Station Hospital until after V-E Day. He was not popular with all members of the unit, earning the nickname “Blood and Goss” according to Technician 4th Grade Dwight A. McNelly.
On November 11, 1943, the 32nd Station Hospital participated in an Armistice Day ceremony. Willard Havemeier recalled “it was a great feeling, marching to one of our American Military bands and saluting our flag.” (A photo that Havemeier identifies as having been taken on Armistice Day also appears on a page in Ruby Milligan’s photo album, but is labeled as having been taken on Bastille Day in 1943. It is entirely conceivable that the 32nd Station Hospital participated in festivities for both, although Principal Chief Nurse Helen W. Brammer’s report that year only mentions that a platoon of nurses took part in a ceremony for Armistice Day.)
The 32nd Station Hospital’s First Tragedy
On the morning of November 24, 1943, 2nd Lieutenant Rachel H. Sheridan was traveling on a C-47 from Maison Blanche (Algiers) to Oran when her plane experienced an engine fire and ditched in the Mediterranean Sea. Although Sheridan and two others were rescued by fishing boats, she died while being transported to the 29th Station Hospital for treatment. Lieutenant Sheridan is buried in the North Africa American Cemetery near Tunis, Tunisia.
Thanksgiving and End of Operations in North Africa
According to Dwight McNelly, Thanksgiving 1943 brought an unusual sight to Tlemcen: a foot of snow (Ruby Milligan’s photo album gave the figure as nine inches, and the date as early December). The 32nd Station Hospital managed to hold a feast with Vermont turkey on the menu. Lieutenant Brammer noted that, “A bit of gloom hung over the day” as a result of the news of Lieutenant Sheridan’s death.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, on November 28, 1943, the hospital ceased operations in Tlemcen. In its first seven months of operation, the 32nd Station Hospital had admitted 7,502 patients, including 7,091 U.S. Army personnel. Among U.S. Army personnel, 4,631 patients were admitted due to disease. 1,225 admissions were due to injury and 1,235 due to battle wounds.
On December 7 or 8 (depending on the source), the main body of the 32nd Station Hospital relocated by train and truck to a staging area near Oran. The location, known as Goat Hill, was by all accounts unpleasant. Captain Lowell E. Vinsant wrote in his journal that “we went to Staging Area #1 on what is known as ‘goat hill,’ (after being there a week you smell like a goat)”. Technician 4th Grade Willard O. Havemeier later wrote that it “was nothing but a sea of cold mud with lots of rain” and “was about the most miserable spot we were ever in.” (The nurses and other female personnel were lucky enough to have been billeted elsewhere, at nearby villas in Ain el-Turck.) Undoubtedly, it was a relief when the men of the 32nd Station Hospital shipped out for Italy a week later.
Baker, Walter H. “Statement of 1st Lt. Walter H. Baker, O-793714, 38th Air Depot Group.” Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-1947, National Archives. Accessible online via Fold3 (paywall): https://www.fold3.com/image/28704447
Brammer, Helen W. “Report of Nursing Activities – 1943.” Held by the National Archives in College Park.
“Fort Hospital is Expanded.” The Columbus Enquirer, December 7, 1942.
Goss, Harold L. “Medical History of the Thirty Second Station Hospital.” Report for the Surgeon General, December 31, 1943. Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Goss, Harold L. “Supplement to Annual Medical History Report.” Report for the Surgeon General, December 31, 1943. Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Greenberg, Myron and Frederick J Lipp, “History and Highlights of the USS Ancon.” Booklet dated September 1945, Tokyo Bay.
Havemeier, Willard O. “Africa to Italy with the 32nd Station Hospital World War II.” Last modified 2009. https://www.catherinegibsonart.com/blog/havemeier/
McNelly, Dwight A. “Crossing.” Unpublished manuscript, circa 1987, located in Box 1, Folder 6 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. “Envelope labeled ‘North Africa’.” Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 6 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. “North Africa.” Unpublished manuscript, circa 1987, located in Box 1, Folder 6 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. “North Africa Binder Photos.” Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 1 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
Milligan (Hills), Ruby. Unpublished photo album, courtesy of the Hills Family.
Silverman, Robert. Unpublished collection including scrapbook (compiled at an unknown date with materials 1942-1944), photos (1942-1945), 8 mm film (1942-1945), and papers (1942-1945).
Smith, Clarence McKittrick. The Medical Department: Hospitalization and Evacuation, Zone of the Interior. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1956. Reprinted 1989. https://history.army.mil/html/books/010/10-7/index.html
Smith, William A. “Period Report of Medical Department Activities.” Report for the Surgeon, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, U.S. Army, September 19, 1945. Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Vinsant, Lowell E. Unpublished journal, copy contributed by the Vinsant Family.
Wiltse, Charles M. The Medical Department: Medical Service in the Mediterranean and Minor Theatres. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1965. https://archive.org/details/medicaldepartmen00wilt
Request for Materials
I can use your help expanding this site and adding to knowledge about the 32nd Station Hospital in general. If you have photos, documents, oral histories, or anything else involving the hospital or its members, I would love to know about them! Since there is no known roster of the 32nd Station Hospital’s enlisted personnel, even a name might help me to better piece together its story.
Last updated July 11, 2019