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Annals of Hopkins

When Hopkins Went to War

“The Maryland Club” of the 118th. Billings is at the far left. Trimble is seated in the middle with his hat on.
click to enlarge
> “The Maryland Club” of the 118th. Billings is at the far left. Trimble is seated in the middle with his hat on.

Josh Billings, the last surviving officer of the World War II 118th Hospital Unit, recalls everything about his three years in the South Pacific.


By Janet Farrar Worthington


“None of us had any idea how to be a soldier,” Josh Billings says, “so we wandered around there in uniform, all dressed up, but feeling self-conscious.”

Billings is reminiscing about his first days as a World War II military doctor with the Johns Hopkins unit. We are sitting at a massive refectory table in the dining room of his lovely home in Nashville, near Vanderbilt University. Billings' wife, Ann, who died three years ago, bought the table decades ago. But now, for two hours—thanks to this man's extraordinary memory—we are back in the war.

He remembers everything: The sudden departures; unending weeks of rain; mammoth transport ships and overloaded cargo planes taking off from short runways; the tedium of hurry-up and wait until the unit could finally get down to actually caring for wounded soldiers; the mosquitoes and the parasites; wanting to be where the action was and wanting to go home.

Some 50 Johns Hopkins doctors boarded a train at the Baltimore train station on the cold, rainy night of April 20, 1942. Headed for the South Pacific, the physicians would form two medical units, each staffing a 500-bed hospital. The first, the 18th General Hospital Unit, wore the name of Hopkins' famous World War I unit. The other, the 118th, had been assembled right after Pearl Harbor. Billings, a 34-year-old internal medicine specialist who had trained at Hopkins, was part of that unit. And now at age 97, he is its last surviving officer.

The 118th was expected to move fast once it was called up. Its immediate job would be to go to Camp Edwards, Mass., and learn how to be in the U.S. Army. Billings, a first lieutenant at the time, remembers seeing a private heading toward him as he walked down the street on one of those first days at Edwards and feeling panicky. “I crossed the street, so I wouldn't have to return his salute. I didn't know how!”

Whipped through the basics, the physicians were again uprooted in the middle of the night to catch a train headed for what turned out to be San Francisco. There, in May 1942, along with the nurses, technicians and orderlies who made up the 118th, they set sail on the U.S.S. West Point. The night and the ship were both pitch dark. Under blackout orders, lights were strictly forbidden on the vessel until morning. “They wanted to keep the existence of a 500-bed hospital in the Southwest Pacific a secret from the Japanese for as long as possible,” Billings says.

Billings at Vanderbilt in the 1970s.
>Billings at Vanderbilt in the 1970s.

Once a gleaming white luxury liner, the ship, painted in camouflage and overflowing with nearly 8,000 military personnel, was headed for Australia—though no one knew that for sure.

Night after night, packed into one small, dark stateroom, cot touching cot, the doctors would lie quietly listening to the disembodied radio voice of Tokyo Rose—the English-speaking broadcaster of Japanese misinformation, taunting them. The Japanese, she said, knew the West Point was crossing the Pacific and that a hospital unit was on board. “We know exactly where you are.” Nonsense, the Army officers told the ship. If that were the case, the enemy would be firing torpedoes. Still, the unit felt haunted until a night in mid-ocean when Tokyo Rose announced that the Japanese had sunk the ship. “We never paid any attention to her after that,” Billings chuckles. “She sank us!”

Eventually, the West Point stopped briefly in New Zealand. Then on June 4, 1942, it put into port in Melbourne, where the unit was sent to the zoological gardens to set up camp. Billings (whose given name is Frederic Tremaine, but who has gone by Josh since the fourth grade) vividly recalls the miserable arrival. “The Australians really were not at all prepared for the great Johns Hopkins unit. It was summer, and bitter cold, wet and icy. We were in tents, in a big field next to the zoo. During the daytime, we spent our time gathering newspapers,” to try to insulate the cloth-bottomed Army cots from the cold. “There were a few scattered latrines, but the one nearest us had had a case of meningitis in it, so we weren't allowed to use that. We had to walk half a mile to the next one.”

Ten days later, the group sailed on to Sydney, where it found authorities preoccupied with rumors that three midget Japanese submarines had been sighted in the harbor. “Eventually,” Billings says, “they managed to sink one. (The other two were found in the harbor after the war.) But no one had any idea that we were arriving. We all knew the Army was pretty messed up—but not that messed up!”

This time the 118th was billeted at the racetrack. The enlisted men slept in the stables, the officers were assigned to the ladies' room, “with cots again, and mirrors all around. “And of course,” Billings says, “we still weren't seeing any sick people.” Finally though, in July, the unit's chief of surgical services, I. Ridgeway “Ridge” Trimble, and its medical director, James Bordley, succeeded in straightening things out. The Royal Prince Albert Hospital, Australia's main teaching hospital, would be divided into two parts, with 400 beds given over to the Hopkins unit.

The 118th’s hospital on Leyte in the Philippines.
>The 118th’s hospital on Leyte in the Philippines.

And after that, Billings recalls, “everything clicked. We just melded together, the Americans and the Australians. It worked awfully well. We started getting our own patients from the front—more and more.” Many of those most in need of care had come from the Battle of the Coral Sea, the huge naval confrontation fought in early May 1942 in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and east of New Guinea. With the influx of wounded, it soon became obvious there were too many to share the facilities.

Billings and orthopedic surgeon George Berkheimer were assigned to seek out new quarters for a convalescent hospital. Discovering that a summer resort hotel called the Hydro Majestic, 70 miles from Sydney in the Blue Mountains, was empty except for a manager and his wife, they decided the place would work and were told to get it in shape. Fifteen corpsmen were sent out to help them.

“I know that they were taken out of the brig—all 15 of them,” Billings says. “The plumbing was in terrible shape, the electricity was out of order, and those men weren't capable of fixing anything. The only task they applied themselves to with any enthusiasm was penetrating the hotel's locked wine cellar. “Every night, they would work like dogs to try to break into it; every day, we'd make them fix it.” Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in, and the medical department of the 118th moved into the Hydro Majestic. Billings' ward was a picture gallery, hundreds of feet long.

But in May 1943, the unit moved at last to a brand new, spacious hospital center at Herne (“Hernia”) Bay outside Sydney. “They built us a real hospital, and finally we felt at home, kind of like we were back at Hopkins,” Billings says. By November, according to an Australian record, the hospital had 1,700 patients. One hundred of these, Billings recalls, were young men with gonorrhea that was resistant to sulfonamides. “MacArthur wouldn't let us use penicillin,” which was scarce. “We couldn't send them home, because there was nothing really wrong with them, but we couldn't turn them loose, either. So we had 100 of these renegade gonorrhea carriers.”

Billings had heard that the Harvard medical unit in Brisbane had achieved success with similar cases by using “hotboxes,” which they said made the sulfonamides more effective. The idea was to fill the men “full of sulfonamides and liquids, attach them to an EKG and run their temperature up to 106 for six hours—knowing exactly what the temperature was the whole time. To test the method, Billings had a hotbox constructed and tried it out on himself. “After I spent about four hours, with a temperature of 103, I quit,” he says. All the men were cured, though. One guy, “who went back to the same woman,” was even cured twice.

The medical service of the 118th, with Billings in the middle of the back row. At left in the front row is Mac Harvey, who would be named chief of medicine here after the war.
>The medical service of the 118th, with Billings in the middle of the back row. At left in the front row is Mac Harvey, who would be named chief of medicine here after the war.

Meanwhile, the fighting intensified around New Guinea. And so, for a few weeks in November 1944, as “it just rained like fury,” the doctors of the 118th moved into grass-roofed huts with wooden floors on that island. Station hospitals were set up near the war zones, and Billings and Trimble went out to evaluate them. “I had the job of trying to discover why the patients up there kept running fevers,” Billings says. “It turned out they weren't giving them their Atabrine” (for malaria).

On one of these forays, the two men camped on the beach. “One morning, Ridge was taking a shower, and I heard a noise,” Billings remembers. “There was a whole squad of the Women's Army Corps, marching up the beach! I said, ‘Ridge! Look out! The WACs are on their way up here!' Ridge said, ‘Josh, they can throw stones at anything they haven't already seen.' And when they came abreast of us, I heard their sergeant say, ‘Eyes front!'”

Assigned to cover the eastern half of New Guinea, Billings and Trimble traveled sometimes by Dutch schooner, sometimes by cargo plane. “They packed us in like sardines,” Billings remembers. “The planes were all overloaded, and the runways were very short,” freshly carved out of the jungle. “Once every two or three days, one of these great, heavy freight planes would crash before it took off. Then one morning, they said, Well, we're off.” The unit was to pack up for the Philippines. “They marched us all down to the sea to a huge harbor. Day and night, great searchlights were on while we loaded up battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and troop transport ships. Then we moved out—this huge armada.”

Onward the 118th sailed, to the flat, watery island of Leyte. But what nobody had realized was that Leyte was also home to a nasty parasite, a liver fluke with a complicated life cycle involving snails, called a schistosome. Anyone who walked in fresh water was at risk, and there was no cure.

That deadly parasite, however, turned out to be Billings' ticket home. Talking one day to the base surgeon, he asked if the U.S. Public Health department had any infected snails with which it could infect other animals and find out how to treat schistosomiasis. No, said the surgeon, but this was certainly an urgent need.

“If I can find some infected snails, will you send me home?” Billings asked immediately.

“Same day,” responded the surgeon.

So it was that Josh Billings and a Filipino medical officer, rubber-booted and -gloved, gathered several hundred infected snails, put them in a fruit jar, and packed them in a big box with wet blotting paper and ice. Billings received an “A” air priority status, telegraphed Ann to meet him at his mother's apartment in Baltimore, and was in Washington 36 hours later.

“The trip on the train to Baltimore,” Billings says quietly, “was the longest part of the journey, and then climbing the stairs to Mother's apartment and opening the door. I had left Ann for the South Pacific just a month after our marriage in February 1942, and there she was three years later! A wonderful vision.”


Photographs courtesy of Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives

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© The Johns Hopkins University 2006