On Nov. 14, 1950, Jean Kirnak went to war. She was the daughter of Montana homesteaders, so poor that—in her words—“we didn’t even know we were poor.”
She had become a nurse through a post-World War II program and joined the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation. When the Korean War began 18 months later, her unit was given orders to fly to Pyongyang, North Korea, and join the 8076 MASH tent.
“All I knew about war was what I had read in history books,” she recalled. “The United States always won wars, so I knew I was in good hands.”
By Thanksgiving, the 8076 had been relocated to Kunu-ri, about 20 miles from the Manchurian border, not far from where 300,000 Chinese troops were stationed. Kirnak and her fellow service members enjoyed a good dinner, which included turkey, and she began her night shift. With a quiet night expected, only 50 cots had been set up.
What Kirnak did not know was that a decisive action that would come to be known as the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River had broken out. The MASH tent was soon inundated with wounded soldiers, totaling more than 600 before the night was through.
“Every available doctor, nurse and corpsman worked feverishly, crawling on the frozen tent floor, cutting off layers of sleeves and pant legs in order to take blood pressures and get blood transfusions started,” she later remembered. “As soon as possible, off they went to the operating room where the litter was the operating table. Electricity went off from time to time and doctors had to use flashlights to complete an operation.”
The 8076 spent the next several months on the move, serving as a mobile surgical hospital, traveling steadily south with U.N. forces and treating hundreds of casualties each day. They were never more than 10 miles from the front line, and the sound of gunfire was never far behind.
“Because we were so close to the front line, we were able to render treatment more quickly, thus saving more lives than in previous wars,” Kirnak said.
The 8076 MASH was later awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation for “displaying such outstanding devotion and superior performance of exceptionally difficult tasks as to set it apart and above other units.”
Kirnak returned home in August 1951 and was discharged a year later. She used her GI Bill benefits to attend classes at the University of Oregon and earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She worked as a registered nurse, retiring in 1994. In 2000, she returned to South Korea with her son in a trip financed by the Korean government.
Sixty years later, she described her military service as “a highlight of my life.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs will spend this week recognizing a handful of the countless brave Oregonians who have served our nation during war and stood guard over our peace.