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Field hospital tent raising ‘Barnum and Bailey’ style

By Staff | Nov 9, 2016

PHOTO PROVIDED Dr. James Akehurst who served in the medical corp during World War I.

HUGHESVILLE – The career of Louise “Stossie ” Sheehan of Hughesville, was influenced by her grandfather, Dr. James Akehurst who served in the medical corp during World War I.

Living locally since 1972, the nurse was employed at Muncy Valley Hospital before retiring from the office of Dr. Michael Gross.

Stossie recalls her childhood in Baltimore, growing up in a three generation household. She explained the layout by saying, ” A first floor front room served as my grandfather’s medical office; the waiting room was a few chairs in the hallway. There were no appointments; it was first come first served. If the chairs became filled, my grandmother put out extras.”

The doctor, his wife and daughter Marian, lived on the first and second floor. Son Robert, wife and their daughter, future nurse Stossie, resided on the third level.

Due to the close proximity, Stossie often sat in on the doctor’s consultations. “I don’t recall doing that, but was told I did. I do remember going along on house calls. I played doctor a lot, taking care of torn leaves and bandaging broken sticks,” she said.

PHOTO PROVIDED Louise 'Stossie' Sheehan

Excerpts from letters the physician sent home have been kept by the granddaughter. With a rank of First Lieutenant, the Baltimore physician’s duties spanned from July 16, 1917 until Feb. 4, 1919. Upon entering the military, he was 44 years of age.

Dr. Akehurst was sent first to Camp Greenleaf in Georgia for medical officers training. Setting up field hospitals was part of the maneuvers, “So we can direct the work and see that it’s properly done,” he wrote.

The doctor described the following: “A field hospital consists of a number of tents and all necessary equipment carried on five wagons, each drawn by four mules. Each stops at a certain spot and unloaded where each soldier has a little piece of work to do. In 45 minutes after the first stake was driven, the tents were up and dinner was being cooked. It is equal to Barnum and Bailey.”

He explained that, “There are six large tents for sick and wounded, one for an operating room, one for officers quarters, one for stores, one for the regimental surgeon, three for his assistants, and a kitchen tent. The corpsmen put up little pup tents after the hospital is built. In 75 minutes, a camp has sprung up and we are ready to receive the wounded from the battle line.”

Two months later, in December 1917, Dr. Akehurst was at Camp Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina. There he tended to soldiers with measles, mumps and several cases of cerebral spinal meningitis.

As all were quarantined, hopes for being home for Christmas were dashed. In addition, there were outbreaks of pneumonia of the fatal type.

Moving forward in time to accounts from letters dated September 1918, the physician was now posted at Camp Sevier, South Carolina, where the Spanish Influenza inundated the camp as well as the entire country. “Our boys here are dying at an average of 20 a day. Many nurses are down sick and have died.” The physician called them ‘all honored dead.’

He assured his wife he was being careful and that the epidemic was on the ebb even though 35 had died the previous day. He shared that he was among a detail who dressed and prepared 75 bodies for shipment home.

For further safety, Akehurst wrote, “In compliance with an order from Washington, every man and officer is getting an injection of Anti-Pneumonia serum as a preventative.”

On Oct 24, 1918, the doctor writes, “We are not paying any attention to the German peace propaganda, but are going right ahead with our work of getting ready to go over and swat them a crack and finish them off and make our own peace terms.”

Unsure of what the future held, be it war or peace, the doctor commented on a recent correspondence from his wife. “When you paint that picture in your last letter of your dinner table with the vacant chair, you made me real homesick.”

Due to the questionable future, the husband added, “If I go overseas, I expect to spend some time with you before I go, and those will be precious days.”

In less than three weeks from the above letter, peace was announced and Akehurst stayed stateside. He did not accept the military’s invitation to remain, but although the military invited him to remain, the doctor returned to Baltimore and his practice.

The 18 months Dr. Akehurst was away was a greater loss than anyone would realize at the time. About five years later, his wife was killed on a rainy evening when a trolley careened into their car.

Dr. Akehurst had seen his only grandchild enter Sinai Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore, but due to his death in 1960, did not see Stossie graduate in 1962.