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During World War II, Plasma Saved Lives

An excerpt from Out for Blood: The Pursuit of Life for the Wounded on the Fighting Fronts of World War II

A radio show called Life to the Front, broadcast weekly over WEEI, the Columbia Broadcasting System’s New England network outlet in Boston, helped keep alive the connection between the home front and the fighting fronts to encourage blood donations. Each week the broadcast was dedicated “To all the men of the armed forces of the United States … who – on every fighting front in the world – daily risk their lives in the service of their country … that they might live.”

The program was co-produced by Anastasia Kirby of the Boston Blood Donor center and Lt. Henry Lundquist of the First Naval District. On June 11, 1944, they were married.

She tells her story in a new book, Out for Blood: The Pursuit of Life for the Wounded on the Fighting Fronts of World War II, available on Amazon, a portion of which is excerpted here.

Much has been written about the greatest generation, but not about its greatest gift. While the people at home contributed to war bond drives, raised victory gardens, and collected scrap metal for the war effort, the most intimate gift all, a person’s own blood, was often the gift of life for many a casualty. These gifts were given through the wartime American Red Cross Blood Donor Service for the exclusive use of the surgeons general of the Army and Navy wherever needed.

Out for Blood cover

Out for Blood, by Anastasia Kirby Lundquist. Photo courtesy of the author

The majority of the blood taken was sent to a laboratory for processing into plasma, then shipped wherever the Army and Navy directed. Eventually, the blood of many type O donors was flown as whole blood directly to Europe by the Army’s Air Transport Command and, after V-E Day [victory in Europe], to the Pacific by Naval Air Transport Service – or NATS – planes. From the beginning, plasma – and later whole blood – was credited by the surgeons general of the Army and Navy as being the greatest lifesaver of World War II.

The generosity of these donors can be traced for generations into the future. They were indeed part of a great romance, and their children are, too, because many of these children are alive today because the life of a father or grandfather was saved by the blood of one of these donors.

Much has been written about the greatest generation, but not about its greatest gift. While the people at home contributed to war bond drives, raised victory gardens, and collected scrap metal for the war effort, the most intimate gift all, a person’s own blood, was often the gift of life for many a casualty.

Sixteen million Americans served in uniform in World War II. The death toll was just over four hundred thousand, of which nearly three hundred thousand were battle fatalities. Chief of Naval Operations Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King was stoic about this grim statistic when he wrote from the Pacific, “The Pacific War, though thousands of miles away from the shores of the United States, is daily brought directly into many American homes by formal notification of the injury or supreme sacrifice of a member of the family. There is nothing that anyone can do to prevent altogether the tremendous cost of war.”

The survival rate among those who were not killed outright, however, was far greater than anyone might have thought possible. It was estimated that ninety-six survived out of every one hundred wounded. Maj. Gen. Norman T. Kirk, surgeon general of the Army, presented three reasons for this when he addressed the American Medical Association [AMA] House of Delegates in Chicago on June 7, 1943.

LTF cast

This broadcast of Life to the Front took place from the studios of WEEI in Boston. Lt. Henry Lundquist is next to the microphone: Anastasia Kirby is at the far right. Photo courtesy of the author

“The foremost lifesaver,” the general declared, “is plasma, the dried blood extract which millions of Americans have been giving the Red Cross for nearly two years. Plasma saved shock and bleeding, and without that many men would have died before they could have reached medical care. Second in lifesaving was surgery, which cleaned up the wounds to reduce risk of infection. In third place were the sulfa drugs, aiding to minimize infection.”

The AMA had always received good press coverage of its meetings. After all, it was the foremost authority on matters medical, so something of significance was expected when they met. Announcement of their speaker for that June event brought greater interest than ever. With the war raging throughout the world and Kirk just back from the African front, the media turned out in record numbers. They were so impressed that many of them carried the general’s speech in its entirety.

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