The history of Base Hospital No. 53 started in April, 1918, at Camp Greenleaf, where the enlisted personnel, mostly from Ohio, were assigned to the Unit. Their time at this camp was spent in drilling and fatigue around the Medical Officers' Training Camp. Their pleasantest recollections, at this stage of their career, were those of their inoculations against typhoid and of the task of cleaning out the stables of the former remount station, preparatory to their being used as barracks by the drafted men. As to any knowledge of hospital work - either paper or practical - they were quite uninstructed and, on arrival at Camp Hancock, Georgia, they had much to learn before qualifying as members of the medical department
Seven officers with one hundred and seventy-seven enlisted men, one man having deserted from Camp Merritt, boarded the "Karmala" at Brooklyn and the remaining officers were assigned to the S.S. Baltic, which sailed from New York on July 14th, in the same large convoy to which the "Karmala" belonged. The "Baltic" had a comfortable trip, lasting thirteen days from New York to Liverpool. The trip was lengthened because the recent sinking of the "Justicia" by a submarine off the coast of Ireland made the following of a very devious indirect course seem advisable. They reached Liverpool on July 27th, and remained on board that night, entraining early the next morning for Southampton where they went to the First American Rest Camp for two days. Then they crossed the Channel on the S.S. Duchess of Argyle, landing at Cherbourg the following morning. At the English Rest Camp at Tourlaville, a suburb of Cherbourg, they received their orders to entrain for their permanent station at Langres, Department Haute-Marne.
On August third these officers arrived at Langres - four days ahead of the men who had sailed on the "Karmala" for they had not been so fortunate as to their ship and passage. This ship had been forced to put in at Halifax on the third day out, whether the trouble was due to the conduct of the stokers or to a weakness of the engine is a disputed point. Whatever the reason, the "Karmala" went into Halifax harbor and remained there for three days when she started out in a second convoy on July 21st.
According to the imagination of the person to whom one is talking, the story of their submarine encounter varies. the unimaginatively accurate tells you that there was a submarine scare two days before reaching Liverpool, at which time the S.S. Saxonia directly ahead of the "Karmala," is reported, unofficially, to have sunk an enemy boat. The man who enjoys the idea of having had some excitement cheerfully. if not correctly, states with conviction that the "Saxsonia" was fired upon, the shot just missing the stern and that she replied by sinking the submarine - a feat which was officially acknowledged later.
The "Karmala" docked at Liverpool on July 29th, and the men of Base Hospital 53 were sent to a Rest Camp at Knotty Ash for the night. From Southampton they crossed the Channel to Cherbourg where the entire work of unloading was given to the enlisted personnel. They worked in the pouring rain, without food to sustain them, carrying baggage and hospital equipment belonging to other units which had marched off without doing their share of unloading.
On the afternoon of the 7th of August, the men of the Detachment arrived at their station on the low plain to the east of the town of Langres, where they found plenty of work to be done in finishing the buildings, policing the grounds, and unpacking the equipment.
These few days of activity in the Hospital will never be forgotten by those who were here. The pleas of thermometers, medicine glasses, plates, etc., the trips to the Medical Supply depot, the carrying of pails of precious hot water, the washing of towels and sheets in a desire to have something clean in a land of no laundries will always remain a vivid part of the picture.
The mud grew daily deeper under an almost continual downfall of rain, and no one seemed to have any time to do more than throw a few sharp stones in the places where the walks were intended to be. Gradually, as the work became more systematized and the German prisoners, in the nearby prison camp, more numerous, ditches were dug for draining the surface and walks were made so that now the rain hardly bothers us at all.
A few days after the arrival of the first patients, with influenza and pneumonia as the prevailing diagnoses, a number of the hospital personnel succumbed to these ailments. Two nurses were dangerously ill with pneumonia - one of them made a rapid recovery, the other developed empyema and was finally sent home after months of slow convalescing.
Early in October a large convoy of gassed patients came in. The nurses who were sent to those wards will never forget the sights they saw on the morning they reported to duty. Seventy-five cots were crowded into the wards designed for fifty. There were no pillows or sheets and the men looked utterly forlorn and exhausted, many of them being blind and helpless - their inflamed, swollen eyes showing the inevitable neglect of the journey. The incessant racking coughs were distressing beyond words. Many of the gassed patients developed pneumonia which, with discouragingly few exceptions, proved fatal.
Shortage of blankets, the non-arrival of coal stoves, the lack of oil for the lanterns and small cooking stoves in the wards all combined to make the cold weather in October a very unpleasant experience. The patients lay wakeful and shivering while the night nurses and corps men put on all available sweaters, leather jerkins and ulsters and tried hard to work with frost bitten fingers or sat by candle light thinking of all that might be done for the patients in the way of hot drinks, hot water bottles, etc., if only there were oil for the stoves.
The "movies" and other entertainments at the Y.M.C.A. and Red Cross Hut have been our principal amusements. People who probably do not show any interest in going to any kind of show from one month's end to the other at home, dash over to the Hut as soon as their supper is finished and sit patiently on backless and collapsible chairs, that collapse at most inopportune moments, waiting for the band to play and the show to begin. They add greatly to the excitement by shouting out comments on the performance and performers, which would probably result in their being thrown out of a theatre at home but here we all laugh and think them very witty and often the best part of the entertainment.
We have not been a model unit. We have had our rows. We have talked our heads off around the stoves in our barracks, criticizing, rebelling, judging, but, on the whole, we feel that we have not done such a bad job as though we had done the work for which we came over. If we sound narrow-minded and unpatriotic at times, it is because homesickness has become a chronic state of mind and anything or anybody that stands between us and our getting home seems monstrously unreasonable and unjust. We feel sure that in the years to come we can look back on our days with Fifty-three with more pride and satisfaction than we, at present, feel while we are tired and cross. We can smile indulgently at the memory of goldfish, beans and onions and hope we won't have to eat them in the next war or the next world.
The Diary of Bill Schira