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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 22, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 42
A Digital Rebirth for a WWII Film

Outside their tents in Fiji, nurses use their helmets when brushing teeth and washing.

Archive footage shows JH Hospital unit at work in the Pacific Theater

By Jessica Valdez
Special to The Gazette

The amateur film of the Johns Hopkins Hospital unit during World War II had warped and deteriorated so much that Dale Levitz, Hopkins medical video producer, could barely make out the film�s shadowy figures. "Most of the film appeared grainy and dark," she said. "The film was also somewhat shrunken, making it jump in the viewer and difficult to watch."

Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant, the historic images have been restored and transferred to a digital video format and can be viewed at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The films, which were donated to the medical archives in 1979 by the unit historian, physician R. Carmichael Tilghman, provide about two hours of footage of the 18th General Hospital, from the unit�s activation at Fort Jackson in South Carolina to its deactivation in Ledo Road in Assam in 1945.

"Dr. Tilghman�s films are an especially rich and enlivening archival resource that documents the experience of the doctors and nurses who served in one of two Hopkins medical units during World War II," said Phoebe Evans Letocha, coordinator of processing and research at the medical archives. "The medical archives hopes that our preservation efforts will enable the use of the film by future researchers and flimmakers."

The yearlong $15,000 restoration process improved the film�s quality and transferred the footage to DVD to protect the material from time and the ravages of vinegar syndrome, a condition that commonly warps, shrinks and breaks down acetate-based film. After hours of inspection by Sonja Jordan-Mowery, director of preservation of the Sheridan Libraries, and Levitz, the films were sent to a preservation company, Film Technology in Hollywood, Calif. It took seven months to transfer the films to a new base.

"We now have the original deteriorated film, the new archival original and a digital version," Jordan-Mowery said. "It�s from that secondary copy that the medical archives can generate viewing copies in DVDs or VHS."

In 1940, The Johns Hopkins Hospital organized the 18th General Hospital at the request of the U.S. surgeon general. Originally organized as one 1,000-bed unit, it was split by the army into two smaller, 500-bed units, designated as the 18th and 118th General Hospitals. The film depicts the buildings and functioning of the 18th General Hospital and the conditions under which its doctors and nurses lived and worked, as well as the customs of the local populations. Tilghman, a major in the unit, recorded everything, from nurses modeling gas masks and washing their clothes in helmets to white-masked doctors concentrating on surgery. The footage also features dance and musical performances by the Fiji Islanders and visits to local markets.

The film is a historical record unavailable at most other universities, Levitz said.

"This is the moving image history of Johns Hopkins," she said. "This is what went on in a medical unit that predated MASH." The 18th General Hospital Unit embarked from San Francisco in early 1942 and arrived in Fiji on Aug. 3. The film shows footage of doctors and nurses unloading materials, setting up huts and weaving the thatched roofs of the makeshift hospital buildings. The unit primarily dealt with cases of malnutrition, malaria and psychoneurosis, but it also treated casualties of the Solomons campaign, the first American offensive in World War II. The unit�s Fiji hospital closed on Aug. 1, 1944, after 22 months and 12,195 patients and then moved to Burma, where it closed on Oct. 5, 1945.

"The patients, as a rule, came in large groups, often several hundred at a time, with a lull in admission thereafter for a period of weeks," wrote Tilghman in his book L.O.D.�Yes: An Odyssey of the Army�s 18th General Hospital. "The monotony of the tropics combined with enforced idleness, after two years of foreign service, became increasingly difficult to endure," he wrote.

During these torturous weeks of inaction, the unit tried to make its camp a home. Staff members built a stadium called the Kava Bowl, published a weekly newspaper called The Fijitive: An Escape from Boredom and named the hospital�s concrete roads after Baltimore streets, so that they walked down paved paths called Charles and Monument.

Although not located in the thick of battle, Tilghman said the unit was historic among war hospitals.

"It was one of the first general hospitals in the Pacific," he wrote in his book.

When Col. George G. Finney, commanding officer of the JHH unit, returned to Baltimore for a time in 1944, the Sunpapers� Harry S. Sherwood wrote a story detailing the moving-picture record being made.

"In the future it will be possible for physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses and army personnel to relive the present days, when these pictures are shown," he wrote in a June 22 article. "Almost everybody who has worked in the hospital, or who has been a patient there, turns up at sometime in these pictures." The $15,000 grant that has preserved this rare glimpse into a WWII medical unit is the second received by the Sheridan Libraries on behalf of the medical archives. The first grant, awarded in 2003, saved a 1932 film documenting the behind-the-scenes work at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Both grants are part of a film preservation effort led by Jordan-Mowery, in collaboration with the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, Hopkins Medical Video and other offices.

Additional efforts are currently under way to restore more of the extensive Johns Hopkins Moving Image Archive and preserve the visual heritage of the Johns Hopkins Institutions.


Jessica Valdez, a 2005 graduate, was until recently an intern in the Office of News and Information.


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