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by William H. Benson

February 22, 2018

The Korean War and the draft swept up Richard Hornberger into the U.S. Army in the early 1950’s. A recent graduate of Cornell University Medical School, Hornberger operated on wounded American boys in the the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. A colleague said Hornberger “was a very good surgeon with tremendous sense of humor.”

After he returned to the States, he settled in Waterville, Maine, and established a surgical practice there. He retired in 1988, and then passed away died from leukemia in 1997 at age 73.

Horberger’s single claim to fame was the book that he wrote and published in 1968, MASH: A Novel of Three Doctors, a fictional account of his days in Korea. Only 219-pages long, it appeared on bookshelves in 1968, sold well, but under Hornberger’s pen-name, Richard Hooker. 

Instead of the 8055th, Hornberger changed it to the 4077th, and the three doctors included Captains Duke Forrest, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and “Trapper” John McIntyre. The three live in a tent that they dub “The Swamp,” that was “hot in the summer and colder than cold in the winter.” 

The three manufacture their own still to ensure a steady supply of alcohol. Then, showing no mercy, they tease the nurses, especially Margaret Houlihan, whom they nickname “Hot Lips,” and they make life miserable for the pompous Major Frank Burns.

One of the characters, “Painless” Waldowski, the 4077th’s dentist, suffers a bout of depression. The three doctors stage a “Last Supper” for Painless. They give him a sleeping pill, rather than a poison pill, and Father Mulcahy performs last rites. The next morning Painless awakes, and reports to Hawkeye that his depression has subsided.

Hornberger made a mistake when he sold the film rights to his book for only a few hundred dollars. “He was so furious that he never signed another copy of his book.” Too late he realized that he should have demanded a percentage of the movie’s revenue.

Robert Altman earned $70,000 for directing the movie, MASH, that appeared in theaters in 1970, the year’s biggest comedy. Donald Sutherland played Hawkeye, Elliot Gould played Trapper John, and Tom Skerritt played Duke Forrest. Sally Kellerman played Hot Lips Houlihan, Robert Duval played Major Frank Burns, and Gary Burghoff played Corporal Radar O’Reilly.

At one point, Altman instructed his son, Michael, to write the lyrics for a song for Painless’s “Last Supper” scene. “It has to be the stupidest song ever,” Altman told his son. In about ten minutes Michael wrote “Suicide is Painless,” and Johnny Mandel added the music. For his ten minutes of work, Michael earned over two million dollars, far more than Robert Altman did for directing it.

Four years later, the producer Larry Gelbart broadcast MASH on television. He picked Alan Alda for Hawkeye, Wayne Rogers for Trapper John, McLean Stevenson for Lt. Col. Henry Blake, and Gary Burghoff for Radar. The show first aired on September 17, 1972, and Gelbart played the movie’s theme song “Suicide is Painless,” at the beginning and ending of the 256 episodes. A very recognizable song.

An estimated 121.6 million viewers watched the final episode, “Goodby, Farewell, and Amen,” that aired on February 28, 1983, thirty-five years ago this month, the most watched television broadcast in American history, until the 2010 Super Bowl surpassed it. In the final scene as the helicopter ascends, the doctors and nurses have arranged a series of white rocks that spells out the words “Good-bye.”

Richard Hornberger liked the movie, but he did not watch the television show much, because he did not like Alan Alda’s portrayal of Hawkeye, whose constant anti-war remarks irked Hornberger.

The book, the movie, and the television episodes reveal dark humor at its best. The reality is tragic. The United States military bombed the northern part of the Korean peninsula back into the Stone Age. This ugly war tore bodies apart, spilled blood, and causes millions of needless deaths, but the three surgeons crack jokes, tease nurses, and humiliate other officers. 

Comedy is comedy, and tragedy is tragedy. The two do not mix well. To insert comedy into tragic events requires imagination. “Comedy is the thinking person’s response to an experience, either good or bad, but tragedy records the reactions of a person with deep feeling to a tragic experience.”

The North Koreans have not forgotten America’s bombs. Their country was leveled, their citizens massacred. The Korean War killed an estimated five million people, and of those almost three million were civilians, “about ten percent of Korea’s prewar population.” For the Korean survivors the war was an apocalypse. It is doubtful that many who lived through those dark days would laugh at MASH, either the book, the movie, or the television show.