History of the 32nd Station Hospital: Part II (Italy, 1944–1945)

The U.S. Army 32nd Station Hospital operated in the Mediterranean Theatre, supporting 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 its arrival in Italy until it ceased operations in the M.T.O.

 

From Barracks to Hospital Wards

NaplesSunkShip
Sunken ship in Naples harbor (Robert Silverman Collection)

On December 15, 1943, the main body of the 32nd Station Hospital shipped out of Oran aboard the H.M.T.S. Cameronia, arriving in Italy four days later.  The ship docked next to a capsized vessel in Naples harbor.  I initially assumed that the vessel had been sunk in an air raid, and was in disbelief when I read in Dwight McNelly’s manuscript that the 32nd Station Hospital disembarked onto the capsized ship!  According to Tools of War: An Illustrated History of the Peninsular Base Section, the Germans apparently sunk ships before retreating as part of an effort to wreck the port.  Although not obvious in the above photograph, engineers transformed some of the capsized vessels into piers!  (That explains why personnel are visible atop the vessel in the photograph.)

The 32nd Station Hospital was assigned to the Peninsular Base Section (P.B.S.) which included various medical, supply, and other support units behind the lines in Italy.  Boundaries under P.B.S. jurisdiction changed as the front progressed northward.  The 32nd’s male personnel were initially billeted with the 21st General Hospital in or near Bagnoli.  The unit’s female personnel followed aboard the U.SA.H.S. Shamrock on December 28 and rejoined the rest of the unit on December 31 .

32nd-Caserta
Buildings of the 32nd Station Hospital in Caserta, Italy (Robert Silverman Collection)

The 32nd Station Hospital remained in staging for more than three weeks.  During this time the hospital’s personnel were divided between those preparing equipment and those detailed to assist at a pair of local hospitals.  On January 10, 1944, the 32nd moved north of Naples to a new site at the direction of The Surgeon, Peninsular Base Section.  This was a compound along the highway running between Naples and Caserta (designated Route 87).  The specific location was near the village of San Nicola la Strada and one mile (1.6 km) south of the Royal Palace of Caserta.

6-July-1944-NCAP-aerial-close
Detail from a July 6, 1944 aerial photograph, of the 32nd Station Hospital compound in Caserta. The compound backed up to the tree lined Naples-Caserta Highway (Route 87), which leads north to the Royal Palace of Caserta.  The intersecting road south of the compound leads to San Nicola la Strada to the southeast.  (National Collection of Aerial Photography)
AerialCaserta
This aerial photo of the Caserta area, taken looking north, was annotated by Willard Havemeier. The 32nd Station Hospital compound is circled.  I’m not sure about 1944, but the modern boundaries of San Nicola la Strada include the area from the traffic circle along the Naples-Caserta road (labeled Highway # 87 on the map) and the crossroads southeast of the hospital (below the arrows pointing to Marcinese Airport). Also marked are two apartments Havemeier rented (with supplies purchased from the PX!).  Fifth Army headquarters (later Allied Force Headquarters) was located in the Royal Palace of Caserta, the large white building north of the 32nd’s compound.  Here’s a modern view set to a similar angle in Google Maps. (Willard Havemeier Collection)

Colonel Harold L. Goss (he was promoted to full colonel on July 17, 1944) described the location in his “Medical History of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 31 December 1944 incl.” as follows:

This area consisted of about 54 buildings, formerly Italian Barracks, and used by the Germans prior to October 1943.  The buildings and area were indescribably filthy and the populace of the nearby village had stripped it of all windows, doors, electric lines, fixtures, and plumbing.

The site lacked an adequate water supply; for the first six weeks, water had to be trucked in by road.

32nd-Sta-Hosp-History-HQDrawing
Drawing of 32nd Station Hospital Headquarters Building in Caserta, Italy attached to the 32nd’s 1944 medical history report (National Archives)
32nd-Sta-Hosp-History-XrayPT
Drawing of buildings at the hospital attached to the 32nd’s 1944 medical history report (National Archives)
32nd-Sta-Hosp-History-SurgWard
Surgical ward drawing attached to the 32nd’s 1944 medical history report (National Archives)
32nd-Sta-Hosp-History-Report-PT
Drawing of the PT facility; the cross shaped object mounted on the wall in the next room is a wrist exerciser.  Below the wrist exerciser is a stationary bicycle. Both were made of improvised materials. (National Archives)

 

Open for Business

32nd-Station-Hospital-Entrance-Caserta
Entrance sign for the 32nd Station Hospital compound in Caserta, Italy.  The highway outside connected Caserta and Naples. (Courtesy of the Hills Family)

In spite of the condition of the facilities, the hospital personnel worked rapidly; in the first five days, they rehabilitated eight of the buildings.  On January 15, 1944, the 32nd Station Hospital accepted its first 200 patients even though the wards still lacked windows and doors!  Blankets were hung to serve as an improvised barrier against the winter chill.  It wasn’t until February that hospital personnel (supported by a detachment from the 98th Engineers) finished rehabilitating the buildings.  Engineers also built a water main to the hospital. Prefabricated huts and tents supplemented the existing buildings.

cropped-32nd-hospital-panorama-from-8mm-cropped-retouch.jpg
Panorama of the 32nd Station Hospital with the headquarters building at center left. Note the additional tents on the left near the flagpole and the red crosses painted on the roofs. (Robert Silverman 8 mm Film)

Goss wrote that once the repairs were complete,

The hospital was now functioning as a 750 bed hospital with a total bed capacity of 1,000.  Personnel worked long and strenuous hours to overcome the overcome the burden of patients in excess of T/O capacity.

As mentioned in the article about the 32nd Station Hospital’s service in Algeria, 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.

McNellyTentCaserta
Dwight McNelly outside his tent (Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection.  Courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library)

Initially all personnel were housed inside the existing buildings, but they were dispersed after the hospital administration discovered that the close quarters were leading to a significant number of respiratory infections.  Enlisted men ended up billeted in tents set up nearby.

 

Bombed During a German Air Raid

McNellyDudBomb1
Close-up of a dud bomb dropped on the 32nd Station Hospital in April 1944. Bomb disposal personnel have removed the bomb’s fuzes.  (Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection. Courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library)

On the night of April 24, 1944, the 32nd Station Hospital sustained its closest call during the entire war.  A German air raid (most likely targeting a nearby rail yard and airfield according to Dwight McNelly) resulted in three bombs being dropped in the vicinity of the hospital.  One fell in a nearby field, a second on Route 87 some sixty feet (18 meters) from the hospital, and a third crashed into a wall of Ward 18.  Although one bed was demolished by the impact, no hospital personnel or patients were harmed.  All three bombs were duds, possibly due to sabotage by munitions workers conscripted by the Germans.

 

Operations Wind Down

As the front lines grew more distant, the unit assumed more of a traditional station hospital role (that is, providing medical support to a local post, in this case the Allied Force Headquarters up the road at the Royal Palace of Caserta).  There were increased opportunities for recreation as well.  In the fall, arrangements were set up to allow both personnel and patients to cast ballots in the elections stateside.

Hagelshaw-Caserta-Palace
The Royal Palace of Caserta (photo probably taken in early 1944), was headquarters of the Fifth Army (and from July 1944 onward, Allied Force Headquarters).  As the front lines moved north, the 32nd Station Hospital saw fewer battle casualties, but continued to support local personnel including those assigned to this headquarters. (Courtesy of the Hagelshaw Family)

On November 3, 1944, another tragedy stuck the 32nd Station Hospital when Technician 5th Grade Dominick LaMonica was struck and suffered a mortal head injury after he was hit by a British truck on the highway a mile from the hospital.  McNelly wrote that LaMonica had been walking “back from visiting some Italian family he had become friendly with, and died shortly after surgery.”

During 1944, the 32nd Station Hospital admitted a total of 13,178 patients (10,721 disease, 1,765 injury, and 692 battle casualties).  12,817 patients were American, with the rest mostly British and French).

McNellyWarOver
Dwight McNelly snapped this view of the hospital on May 8, 1945. Back text: “A FEW MOMENTS AFTER WE FIRST HEARD OF THE SURRENDER OF GERMANY” (Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection. Courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library)

As operations in the Mediterranean Theatre drew to a close in the spring of 1945, the 32nd Station Hospital saw an increased turnover in personnel.  German forces in Italy surrendered on May 2, 1945, with Victory in Europe Day coming on May 8.  Those with a high enough Adjusted Service Rating Score (ASRS) were transferred out and new replacement personnel transferred in prior to a planned transfer to the Pacific Theatre.

In June 1945, the 32nd Station Hospital admitted 350 patients from the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (Força Expedicionária Brasileira), accompanied by five of the unit’s own doctors.  Brazilian soldiers had been fighting in Italy attached to the Fifth Army and with the end of hostilities in Europe they were about to return home.  Colonel William A. Smith later recalled:

Since they spoke only Portuguese, we were again faced with [the problem] of overcoming language difficulties, at the same time adding new phrases to our already varied international vocabulary.  In spite of the linguistic problem, mutual understanding was almost immediate, as pain and suffering have no such barriers.

On July 4, 1945, Colonel Goss was reassigned to the 26th General Hospital.  He was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel William D. McElroy on the 5th, who was himself replaced by Colonel William A. Smith two days later.  As far as I know, Smith commanded the unit until it was disbanded.

On July 20, 1945 the 32nd Station Hospital ceased operations in Caserta, turning their facilities and their last 187 patients over to a detachment from the 300th General Hospital.  There were a total of 8,557 new patients in 1945, making a total of 29,237 patients treated by the 32nd Station Hospital during its 2½ years overseas.

The 32nd Station Hospital was staging in Naples when the V-J Day occurred.  As a result, the unit’s planned transfer to the Pacific Theatre was cancelled and the unit was slated for return to the United States.  Colonel Smith’s final report on September 19, 1945 stated that the 32nd Station Hospital’s departure from Italy was “imminent.”

 

Postwar

1998HospitalComplex
Willard Havemeier visiting the 32nd Station Hospital compound in Caserta in 1998. This is as close as he got, since at the time the facility was still under Italian military control. In the two decades since, the compound has fallen into ruin. (Willard Havemeier Collection)

I don’t have a lot of details about the end of the unit.  An October 8, 1945 Associated Press article printed in several newspapers announced the 32nd’s arrival in Boston aboard the S.S. John Clarke.  From there, the majority of the 32nd Station Hospital personnel were mustered out of service and scattered to the winds across the country.  A handful of officers and nurses either stayed in the army or rejoined later.

32nd-Reunion-Oct-13-1962-Big
Photo of 32nd Station Hospital reunion in New York City on October 13, 1962.  A larger image can be viewed here. (Courtesy of the Hills Family)

Some members of the unit stayed in touch.  There was a reunion at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on October 13, 1962.  There was at least one more, April 30–May 2, 1982 at the Dolphin Beach Resort in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Commemorative plates were manufactured for the 1982 reunion, and 42 people attended who were either members of the unit or attached Red Cross civilian personnel.

32nd-Sta-Hosp-Reunion-1982
Program for the 1982 reunion in St. Petersburg, Florida (Courtesy of the Knitter Family)

As of 1994, Willard Havemeier had compiled a list of 75 surviving personnel (though there were at least a few more who weren’t on the list).  The top of letters he sent out to organize communications and reunions somewhat grandiosely declared his Lancaster, Pennsylvania home to be “HEADQUARTERS 32ND STATION HOSPITAL”!  In the late 1990s, Havemeier returned to Italy and visited the old hospital compound.  The buildings had returned to Italian military control and were off limits.  The materials Havemeier gathered for his website were invaluable in preserving the unit’s history.  He died in 2009.

Reunion-Plate-1982
Commemorative plate manufactured for the 32nd Station Hospital’s 1982 reunion (Weiner Family Collection)

I’m still trying to put together the stories of the unit’s personnel, but as of January 2019, I have not located any that are still living.  Colonel Herman Carter Needles, U.S. Army (retired), who was a young 2nd lieutenant when he became the 32nd Station Hospital’s registrar, may have been the last surviving member of the unit when he died on July 17, 2015, aged 93.  Colonel Needles is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

According to aerial photos, the hospital compound in Caserta is still there (41°03’30.2″N 14°19’37.1″E), but in a poor state of repair.  The compound is labeled Ex-Caserma Brignola on a map on the National Collection of Aerial Photography website.  Of the 54 buildings there when the 32nd Station Hospital arrived in 1944, perhaps 21 remain in some form, although no more than seven even have intact roofs.

 

Bibliography

Brammer, Helen W. “Report of Nursing Activities – 1943.” Held by the National Archives in College Park.

Brammer, Helen W. “Report of Nursing Activities – 1944.” Held by the National Archives in College Park.

Goss, Harold L. “Historical Report of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 1 May 1944.”  (Also monthly historical reports from May 1944 through May 1945 which would be too numerous to list.)  Held by the National Archives in College Park.

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. “Medical History of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 31 December 1944 incl.” Report for the Surgeon, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, U.S. Army, December 31, 1944.  Held by the National Archives in College Park.

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. “Italy.”  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. “Italy Binder Photos #2.”  Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 3 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 ‘Italy’ (underlined once).”  Collection of photos, located in Box 4, 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. “White Unlabeled Envelope #1.”  Collection of photos, located in Box 4, Folder 10 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

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.

Tools of War: An Illustrated History of the Peninsular Base Section. Leghorn (Livorno, Italy: Public Relations Section, 1946.

 

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.

Contact me

Last updated August 1, 2019

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