With 14 Emmy Awards and an audience of over 100 million viewers, the TV show MAS*H helped the nation come to grips with the harsh and occasionally hilarious realities of war. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077 was fictional, but the wisecracking main character Hawkeye Pierce was based on a real person: H. Richard Hornberger. But though the former U.S. Army Surgeon penned the book that led to the series—and was as heroic and humorous as Hawkeye himself—he came to hate TV’s take on his own creation.
Hornberger barely profited from the show—he only got $500 per episode, and sold the rights to the franchise for pennies. But his bitterness was more than financial. As the show’s reputation for its commentary on war grew, he distanced himself more and more from the series, and the character he modeled on his own wartime heroism and humor.
Hornberger’s books may have been whimsical, but his real-life war experiences were dead serious. Born in New Jersey in 1924, he struggled in his pre-med program and nearly didn’t get into med school until, according to biographer Dale Sherman, a chemistry teacher recommended him as “peculiar, but worth taking a chance on” to Cornell Medical School. Hornberger might have gone on to a normal career as a thoracic surgeon if not for the Korean War, which began in June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea.
A month later, the United States sent its first troops into South Korea as part of a battle against international communism. The war soon turned into a tense stalemate as truce talks between North and South failed again and again. Meanwhile, the United States began drafting soldiers—and doctors. That included just-graduated medical students and interns like Hornberger, who was drafted in 1951.
Hornberger soon found himself in Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 8055. The tent-based surgical hospital was one of seven fully functional, tent-based hospitals that operated at various points during the Korean War. The 8055 was located on the 38th parallel, which divides the Korean Peninsula and today serves as the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
The MASH concept was simple: The hospitals were located close enough to the front lines to serve wounded soldiers, but far enough away that they weren’t in danger of bombs or direct combat. Life in a MASH unit was grueling: Aside from the constant stress of warfare and long hours in surgery, the units usually picked up and moved at least once a month.
In Korea, Hornberger pioneered a kind of surgery that was prohibited during the war. “Hornberger possessed the courage and audacity to attempt arterial repair when it was forbidden, and by one account, he may have been the first,” writes Steven G. Friedman, a vascular surgeon who recently published an account of Hornberger’s daring surgical attempt.