Helicopter Evacuation: Korea

A wounded American soldier is placed into the litter carrier of an evacuation helicopter at the 21st Infantry Regiment collecting station, Painmal, Korea (one mile south of the 38th Parallel), 3 April 1951
A wounded American soldier is placed into the litter carrier of an evacuation helicopter at the 21st Infantry Regiment collecting station, Painmal, Korea (one mile south of the 38th Parallel), 3 April 1951. Click here for a larger version of this photo.

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Helicopter Evacuation in the Korean War

The small number of evacuations and rescues during World War II were enough to make it clear that the helicopter was the future of battlefield MedEvac. The Korean War brought that promise to an operational reality.

In Korea, the use of helicopters as ambulances was especially important due to the physical landscape. The rugged terrain and difficult roads made a ride in a tactical ambulance truck to reach an aid station far too rough and lengthly to meet the needs of the wounded soldiers. Casualties often went into shock from the rigors of truck transport and essential time was lost before treatment. Medical officers noted that "A man dies in a period of time, not over a distance of miles" to summarize the problem.

Medics gently carry a wounded American soldier towards a Bell H-13 helicopter for evacuation to emergency treatment, 23 July 1953. An M43 Dodge Ambulance is in the background
Medics gently carry a wounded American soldier towards a Bell H-13 helicopter for evacuation to emergency treatment, 23 July 1953. An M-43 Dodge Ambulance is in the background.

At the outset of the Korean War, the U.S. military was still equipped only with a small number of World War II helicopters. There was no doctrine to prescribe their use. But, as always in wartime, practical necessities drove the agenda, problems were solved, and helicopters quickly became the primary medical evacuation aircraft for the movement of casualties from the battlefield to the medical/surgical treatment facility. Helicopters also were used to transport patients between ships. By 23 February 1954, the U.S. Air Force Military Air Transport Service had transported over two million patients.

MedEvac Development During the Korean War

In the early months of the Korean conflict, following the invasion of South Korea in June 1950, a helicopter detachment of the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron, USAF, had the mission of rescuing United Nations pilots downed over water or behind enemy lines using their WW II vintage H-5 helicopters. 3rd Air Rescue received occasional requests from ground elements to air evacuate casualties from difficult terrain, and when they had time, they responded. By August 1950, they were answering so many calls they found themselves formally in the medical evacuation business.

The 8th Army began testing Army helicopters for ambulance duty. In November 1950, the 2nd Helicopter Detachment arrived in Korea, equipped with four Bell H-13 Sioux helicopters. The Air Force’s 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron -- one of the first units to receive a distinguished unit citation -- evacuated more than 4,700 casualties from the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950. The Army's 2nd Helicopter Detachment was followed by the 3rd and 4th Helicopter Detachments in January 1951 and the 1st Helicopter Detachment in February, all equipped with H-13s.

Combat units sometimes requested helicopter evacuation as a convenience. This practice had to be curbed since there were relatively few helicopters and they were vulnerable to fire from the ground. By the fall of 1951, helicopter evac was requested only for cases involving head, chest, and abdominal wounds, multiple fractures, and great loss of blood. Even then, evacuation was available only if an ambulance could not reach the patient, if a rough ambulance ride would seriously injure him, or if it was necessary to get him to a medical installation quickly. As a working premise, the local surgeon decided whether the patient needed helicopter evacuation and the helicopter detachment commander decided whether the helicopters could reach the patient. In addition to all other criteria, Eighth Army ordered helicopters to refuse missions where danger from enemy fire was too great.

1st-4th Helicopter Detachments were redesignated Army Units by 8th Army in May 1951, serving behind the Corps areas under the aegis of the Army Medical Service and attached to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units, starting with 8076th MASH. By late 1951, combined Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) support in Korea enabled naval ships in-theater to serve as floating hospitals rather than simply transports for the wounded, while long distance AE from Korea to OCONUS or CONUS facilities was provided by Military Air Transport Service. In December 1952, the Helicopter Detachments were redesignated as Medical Detachments, Helicopter Ambulance.

The Bell H-13 Sioux was used in the MedEvac role as a litter carrier in Korea, following initial fielding in 1951. In the MedEvac role a cacoon-like stretcher pod could be mounted on each skid. A distinctive feature of the Bell Model 47D, military H-13G, was the "Goldfish Bowl" plexiglass canopy, known to many from the TV-series MASH, set in Korea. The H-13 earned the nickname "Angel of Mercy" for evacuating some 18,000 United Nations casualties during the war. Modifications were made to the H-13 by Medical Detachment personnel to improve patient comfort. Litters were outfitted with removable covers with Plexiglas windows over the patient's heads. Warm air was piped from the engine manifold into the litters to make the wounded soldiers more comfortable. Plasma bottle holders were mounted on the exterior of the cabin door openings to facilitate blood replacement while airborne.

The 3-place Hiller Model 360, military H-23 Raven, was based on the U.S. Navy UH-12, which was first flown in 1948. The H-23 Raven performed as a utility, observation, and MedEvac helicopter during the Korean war. Model variants ranged A through D, F and G. The H-23A had a sloping front windshield but beginning with the UH-23C, all later models featured the "Goldfish bowl" canopy similar to the Bell Model 47 (H-13).

The Sikorsky Model S-55, military H-19 Chickasaw, initially procured in November 1949, was the World's first transport helicopter. The 12-place H-19 (redesignated UH-19 in 1962), with a crew of two, served as a utility, troop carrier, and rescue helicopter with winch. Air Force model numbers were H-19A and H-19B while Army model numbers were H-19C and H-19D. In the MedEvac role it could carry six litters and one medical attendant. For the first time casualties could be carried and attended to under cover, within the aircraft.

MedEvac Helicopters Used During the Korean War

Recommended Book about Korean War Medicine

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