Documentary immortalizes WWII hospital service

Monday, November 10, 2008 | 3:04 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A documentary about the World War II service of the 77th Evacuation Hospital, formed at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has been completed.

The 72-minute film will be shown Tuesday, Veterans Day, in Kansas City, and several surviving members of the 77th are expected to attend.

James McConchie, 91, the last surviving original physician from the 77th, was pleased that the documentary had been finished.

"I choke up every time I see it," said McConchie, a retired radiologist from Independence.

"Right at the beginning of the film you see a half-dozen or so individual faces of the group. It's as if somehow they are saying to me, 'You are one of the last ones of us there, and you have to tell it as it was.'

"That's quite a lot on my shoulders."

Dan Ginavan, a filmmaker with the medical center's external affairs office, and others thought the hospital's story deserved telling. They began at the medical center's archives, where they found a war journal, with photographs, self-published in 1949 by Max Allen, a physician with the 77th. Also available was about three hours of 16 mm color film shot by Mervin Rumold, another 77th physician.

Ginavan conducted new interviews with surviving members at the unit's last formal reunion in 2004 in Dayton, Ohio.

Today about 30 members of the 77th survive, among them McConchie and Lillian Hoch Macek, a retired nurse in Roeland Park.

About 40 American evacuation hospitals operated in Europe during World War II.

"This is real history. We had 750 beds, all in tents. When we would get busy we would add a tent. During the Battle of the Bulge, we were seeing more than 1,000 patients a day."

The 77th was staffed with about 30 doctors from the medical center's teaching staff, about 50 nurses from the Kansas City area and perhaps 325 enlisted men.

Its first combat stop was Oran, Algeria, in November 1942. The unit participated in the North Africa and Sicily campaigns. By the time the 77th hit Utah Beach on July 7, 1944, about one month after D-Day, it was a veteran outfit.

That year, the 77th treated 35,086 patients, 20,925 of them in Verviers, Belgium, before and during the Battle of the Bulge.

The unit often operated close to the action. In 1943, the 77th was perhaps 20 miles from the advancing Germans at Kasserine Pass.

In October 1944, German pilots welcomed the 77th to Verviers by strafing and bombing its building. That was where the 77th suffered its only death from enemy action. A bomb struck a building and killed a Red Cross worker who was recuperating from an illness.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the finished film warns of the graphic nature of some images. But the film only documents what 77th members saw every day, McConchie said.

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Dan Seltzer July 6, 2009 | 10:54 a.m.

My mother, Louise Seltzer (nee Eisenstaedt, age 92) was a Red Cross worker in the 77th Evac Hospital Unit. Many times she has told me about her experiences during the war, including the death of the Red Cross worker at the Battle of the Bulge. As I recall, my mother was in the same building at the same time, but at the other end of the building. She was not hurt.

Is there any way I could view the documentary? I'm sure my mother would love to see it.

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John Mayes July 22, 2009 | 10:03 p.m.

My dad, Virgil Lee Mayes, served with the 77th from its inception until the end of the war in Europe. He was a Motorpool Sgt. He was very proud of his service to our country and being able to serve in the 77th. I still have his black and white pictures that log his tour from Ft. Leonard Wood to North Africa to England to Normandy & France and eventually into Germany. Dad passed away in Dec 2000. He would have been very thankful for what you have done. His family also thank you for recording their service to our country! JOHN MAYES

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