Our War: Korea ... Belleville surgeon Dr. Bruno Kwapis rebuilt faces of war

News-DemocratSeptember 19, 2010 

Sixty years ago and half a world away, American GIs and South Koreans suffered horrific facial injuries from communist bullets and grenades.

They would be on a stretcher with a shattered jaw, their nose torn or their face a wound. Did they wonder whether the girl whose wrinkled photo was tucked into their jacket would recognize them?

Waiting not far from enemy lines at the 121st Evac Hospital was Dr. Bruno Kwapis. The Belleville surgeon said he was determined to put the pieces of soldiers' shattered faces back together.

"The injuries were very complex, but it was very much like putting together a puzzle," said Kwapis, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. "You had to try to identify the pieces and then fit them back together the way they belonged."

His biggest obstacle was overzealous corpsmen who cleaned wounds too well before shipping soldiers to the hospital for surgery. Kwapis said sometimes they washed away fragments of bone or other material he needed to rebuild a face. Kwapis, now 85, still agonizes about the what-ifs of those cases.

If you saw the long-running television series "M*A*S*H" you have an idea of what the experience in an Army hospital was like during the Korean War, minus the home-made hooch, the fraternizing with the nurses and the substitution of Hawaiian shirts for Army uniforms.

Kwapis said the death and destruction that caused doctors to try to save the lives of young boys was real. The comedic interludes were not.

"I resented that show a little bit at first because it was a situation comedy," Kwapis said. "We weren't joking around all the time like that. It was serious business."

But the way they portrayed the care the patients received was very accurate, Kwapis said. "I realize, if it wasn't for that show, people would have no idea what we did over there. So it has its value."

The 121st Evac Hospital was located at Yongdungpo, South Korea, near Seoul. The Evac hospitals, like a MASH unit, were near the front lines so wounded soldiers could quickly receive care.

Like in the television program, doctors and nurses usually learned they were going to be busy with patients when they heard the sound of inbound Bell helicopters that could carry two wounded men apiece in stretcher carriers mounted to the landing gear outriggers on either side of the bubble cockpit. The casualties included Americans, South Koreans and soldiers from other United Nations countries who fought against North Korean and Chinese communist troops.

At a MASH, doctors both performed major surgery in and lived in tents. At the 121st Evac, a partially bombed-out trade school was rebuilt into a hospital, so surgeons had a solid roof over their heads.

Doctors had better conditions working in an actual building but the conditions were Spartan. Five surgeons worked in one small room without curtain dividers.

"Surgeons worked in 12-hour shifts, working one case after another until their shift was over and another doctor came in," Kwapis said. "The nurses were excellent. They performed their jobs wonderfully, and you could see a soldier's morale go up when he had a nurse taking care of him. It was very comforting for them to see a friendly face."

Kwapis said there was a revolution in medical care for soldiers between the end of World War II and the opening of hostilities in Korea. He credits the leap forward to the fact that the military made an effort to employ better-qualified doctors, that it made sure whole blood was always available, the advent of antibiotics and the use of helicopters to quickly get patients to doctors.

"Suddenly we were able to see patients within two hours of them being injured," Kwapis said, noting that many trauma patients are handled these days with a similar system. "That's as good as we have today."

Kwapis graduated from high school during World War II and received a deferment to go to school at Marquette University. He later worked as a resident at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston, where he became familiar with trauma surgery.

In the late '40s, Kwapis said Houston was an oil boomtown full of rowdy residents who always had pistols handy.

"The violence was unbelievable," Kwapis said. "There was a volume of cases in the emergency room you wouldn't believe. And that prepared me for what I saw in the war."

Kwapis was planning on a life of private practice -- coupled with a career teaching surgeons -- when his draft board came calling.

"I figured since I wasn't drafted for World War II that they would get me for Korea," Kwapis said. "After World War II ended, everybody got out (of the military) as quick as they could and no one was going to volunteer. So the Army needed doctors wherever they could find them."

After being drafted in as a lieutenant in 1952, Kwapis received a token amount of training on how to fire a .45 automatic and was shipped to Korea. When he arrived at the 121st Evac to replace another doctor who had contracted hepatitis, he got a baptism by fire.

"The first day, I was asked to look at a patient with a badly broken jaw," Kwapis said. "I took a look at him and said, 'We'll schedule him for surgery in the morning,' but was told, 'No, you'll do it now.'"

It was the first of more than 200 cases the surgeon would handle before he was discharged from the Army in 1954 with a commendation ribbon and captain's bars. He credits the experience with helping him become a better surgeon -- and a better teacher.

With the help of his father-in-law, Kwapis crafted a lighting device for his 35mm camera. He used it to document his patients before and after their reconstructive surgery.

"My experience during the war was the only way that I could see cases in the volume I saw them," Kwapis said. "Some surgeons don't see that many cases over the course of their entire career."

After the war, Kwapis and his wife, Marge, with whom he'll soon celebrate a 60th anniversary, settled in Belleville. He had a private practice for years first in East St. Louis and later at 10200 W. Main St. He taught at St. Louis University from 1954-70 and was a founder and developer of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine in Alton, where he worked from 1971-92.

Kwapis said his only regret about the war was that he wished he had some way to stay in touch with his patients and find out how they recovered.

"If we did our job right we could lessen the amount of reconstructive surgery they would need in the future or, hopefully, eliminate the need for further surgery," Kwapis said. "As a doctor, you want to follow your cases and make sure things turn out right."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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