Korean War Oral History Interview
Date: April 3, 2002
Veteran: S/Sgt Michael A. Pignatello Sr.
US Army Medical Corps, 8055th MASH
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Michael Pignatello was born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1929. Following graduation from Montclair High School, he took a job as a landscaper, but left that occupation after contracting poison ivy. Lacking any formal job training, he then worked in a factory for a short period, was laid off and collected unemployment insurance. Pignatello’s mother died relatively young and his sister married at the age of sixteen, leaving him alone with his father, with whom he had a personality conflict. In January 1949 Pignatello, unable to get along with his father and expecting to be drafted shortly, enlisted in the army’s Medical Service Corps in hopes of becoming a dental technician, a career he had spent considerable time researching.
Pignatello received his basic training at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, where temperatures ranged from 115 degrees during the day to sixty degrees at night. On completion of his basic training course, he was assigned to the Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for three months of advanced individual training. Following successful completion of that course he was assigned to permanent duty at the center.
According to Pignatello, the Master Sergeant in command of his detachment finagled to keep his friends from being assigned to overseas duty. Pignatello was not a member of the sergeant’s clique, and in the summer of 1951 received orders to go to Korea. He shipped out for the Far East shortly afterward aboard an old Japanese/American troop transport. The ship was buffeted by rough seas for ten of the thirteen days it took to complete the voyage, and most of the 1,300 soldiers on board became seasick. The transport stopped in Osaka, Japan, then continued on to Pusan and Inchon, Korea, where Pignatello debarked. His first impressions of Korea were that it was a beautiful country, despite extensive destruction from B-29 bombing raids and the general ravages of war, but that it was also a poor country, where he observed children picking food out of garbage cans.
Pignatello was assigned to the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), with a staff of medical doctors, surgeons, nurses, a chaplain and a number of enlisted men in support roles. Although trained as a dental technician, he was assigned duty as a supply sergeant, issuing clothing, equipment and other supplies, including ice and toilet paper, to hospital personnel. He noted that the army supplied clothes to South Koreans who worked for the MASH as servants and laborers for a salary of ten dollars a month. The Koreans would don multiple sets of socks, underwear and shirts as a way of smuggling them out of the camp to sell on the black market economy. American soldiers were usually issued sets of summer and winter clothing, although occasional shortages led to the wearing of summer clothing during the winter. In the winter months Pignatello’s section issued small gasoline powered heaters to soldiers to warm their tents.
As a supply sergeant, Pignatello was able to see the American army’s rear area. By that stage of the war, a stalemate had set in and the army was deployed roughly along the 38th parallel line and engaged in static warfare. On one truck trip to pick up portable showers for the MASH nurses, Sergeant Pignatello passed trucks stacked with dead young men killed in action. Soldiers also died from accidents, however, and Pignatello almost joined them several times. On one occasion a truck he was riding in as a passenger overturned, but he was saved by the padding provided by piled up duffle bags. Another time he almost drowned attempting to swim across a river, and once was almost accidentally shot by a drunken soldier. It was his opinion that more U.S. soldiers were killed by accidents than in combat. [Although statistics don’t support that, the number was considerable.] Though he wasn’t exposed to direct combat himself, since the MASH was three miles behind the front lines, Pignatello regularly heard artillery rounds bursting a short distance away.
Pignatello noted that a chest surgeon from Massachusetts who served in the 8055th later wrote a book that became the subject of a movie and television series. [This was indeed the case, as Dr. Richard Hornburger served in the 8055th. Using the pen name Richard Hooker, Hornburger wrote the novel MASH, a fictionalized satirical account of his experiences in Korea which led to the 1968 film and subsequent television series of the same name.]
Sergeant Pignatello recalled that while he observed some North Korean POWS staggering along the roads apparently weakened by starvation, they were well treated once they were securely in captivity. South Koreans, he said, “had good white teeth aided by their consuming ten apples daily,” which fact, being a dental technician by trade, he took note of.
Pignatello rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant while serving in Korea, and sent his $175 monthly pay home to his sister-in-law, who banked it for him. There was not much to spend money on in Korea, and he made some extra cash purchasing items like cameras and canned food in the PX and reselling them for a profit. He ended up with $5,000 in the bank on his return to the United States.
For recreation, the MASH soldiers played ping-pong and drank whatever liquor was available. They were also occasionally entertained by visiting USO performers, including Bob Hope and Frances Langford. After eleven months of duty in Korea, Pignatello was sent to Osaka, Japan on a rest and recuperation (R&R) leave for four nights and five days. Some soldiers took accommodations for $85 a night, a price that included a girl with their hotel room. Japan had still not recovered from the ravages of World War II, and Sergeant Pignatello observed children instructing each other how to steal and engage in petty fraud, like watering bottles of whiskey. While in Japan he witnessed a large plane, which he believed had some 300 men on board, crash into a mountain. He was informed that the tragedy was caused by the plane’s excessive weight load.
Michael Pignatello left Korea in October 1953, landing at San Francisco. Once back in the United States, single men boarded trains for home while married men were able to travel by plane. After his discharge he lived for a short time with his father, with whom he still could not get along, but he married and left home shortly afterward. In retrospect, he believed that his war experience with the 8055th MASH left him unchanged, but that one assignment to Korea was enough. If he had to stay in the army, he would have preferred reassignment to Germany.
At the end of his interview Pignatello displayed his collection of photographs and maps, including views of Seoul, a Korean orphanage, Korean civilians, an aerial view of the 8055th MASH, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to the 8055th during his 1952 trip to Korea as president-elect, and film star USO entertainers Bob Hope, Frances Langford, and William Holden.