The Real-Life MASH Unit Celebrates Its Final Episode


Maj. Charles Winchester III wielded a cake knife last week instead of a scalpel. And Maj. Frank Burns celebrated with his wife, not "Hotlips" Hoolihan.

But just as on TV, it was a little zany and a little sad when the U.S. military closed the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital that inspired the movie "MASH" and the long-running television series of the same name.

"Today you are joining us in making history . . . saying farewell to America's MASH," unit commander Col. Ronald A. Maul said in deactivation ceremonies at this camp 35 miles south of Seoul.

Members of the audience--which included actors from the hit TV series--wiped tears from their eyes as a color guard retired the unit's flag. An Army band played the theme song from the TV show that immortalized the wisecracking but dedicated doctors and nurses who served at the front lines in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The show, filmed in Southern California, touched a chord with civilians and soldiers alike with its portrayal of wacky humanity in the midst of mayhem. Some of the themes it addressed are still considered taboo in the military.

"We were like a Boy Scout training film in terms of what's going on today," the show's writer-producer, Larry Gelbart, said of the fictional adulterous affair between the character of Maj. Burns and Maj. Hoolihan. "But we were pretty risque in our time."

The MASH was among only four left in the world. The units are being phased out to make way for what the military says is a smaller, faster, more efficient medical group called the Forward Surgical Team.

Attending the ceremony, and later signing autographs and cutting the farewell cake, were three actors from the TV series that ran from 1972 to 1983 and is still being shown in reruns around the world.

"You've been stupid in 100 languages," Gelbart told actor Larry Linville, who played the whining Burns, at a reception after the ceremony.

"I think it was popular because it placed people visibly in positions we are in every day--being asked to do something without the resources, being asked to do a task that seems hopeless," said David Ogden Stiers, who played the wealthy and often snotty Maj. Winchester.

The soldiers agreed.

"I'm a physician and I like the fact that it showed the human side of doctors--that we get tired, that we have compassion for our patients," said Maul, of Canby, Ore.

"I'm a fan," said Col. Steve Wilson of Colesburg, Iowa, who can quote lines from the show. "Hair, uniform, discipline, fraternization--it poked fun at all the things that get people fired today. It gave me a chance to laugh."

Though Hollywood named its medical team the 4077th MASH, the real unit was the 43rd. It consisted of 100 soldiers who staffed two operating rooms and a 36-bed hospital--often packing up in 39 vehicles and moving closer to the battlefields to provide lifesaving medical help.

Of the three MASH units remaining, the two in the United States will be deactivated this year and one in Bosnia will probably continue only as long as the U.S. mission stays there.

The unit deactivated last week had served in India, Burma, Algeria and China during World War II, and on the Korean Peninsula continuously since the Korean War.

During that war, the hospital and living quarters were tents that provided little protection from sweltering or freezing weather. Some of the bloodiest times saw doctors operating on more than 150 patients a day--once more than 300 in one day, officers said.

"It's humbling to be here," said Linville, the actor. "We were like a plastic representation of the real people--and these are the real people."

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