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The fireplace in Hospital
Valley
The only structure still standing in Hospital Valley is the fireplace chimney of the old officers' club. Alas for conspiracy theorists, the O club was open to anyone who came through Narsarsuaq, and Burl Ives once gave a concert there. (Photo by Birgitte Pederson)

The legend of Hospital Valley

In every war, soldiers tell about the secret hospital where men too maimed for society are warehoused, their next of kin told they were honorably killed in combat. I heard the story about the Vietnam War, when the hospital was on Dragon Island in the South China Sea, not only for combat casualties but those being devoured by a particularly virulent form of syphilis.

For the Korean War, in recent years, the dubious honor has gone to 188th Station Hospital at Bluie West One. Last summer in the former headquarters building, now the BW-1 museum, I had the schizophrenic experience of reading a letter from a retired colonel, Dr. Albert Merkin, explaining that the stories weren't true--couldn't be true--even as a pretty Danish tour-guide told the story afresh to her British and American charges. What about Merkin's letter? a man asked. "Well, that's the official line," she sniffed. "They're bound to say that, aren't they?"

When BW-1 was under construction, the sick and injured were treated in a 10-bed tent hospital. In 1942, a permanent hospital was built a couple miles east of the airfield, in a 20-acre field that became known as Hospital Valley. One unit with 20 beds was ready by the end of the year. In January 1943, the troop transport Dorchester was torpedoed and its survivors flown to Narsarsuaq; two more wings were hurriedly opened. The project was completed in December, by which time 188th Station Hospital had a theoretical capacity of 250 beds.

It was an infirmary for Narsarsuaq and an evacuation hospital for seriously injured or sick Americans and Greenlanders from anywhere in the country; it may even have hosted a few battle casualties from Europe, though the vast majority went home by sea. Altogether, it treated 1,821 patients in 1942 and 2,137 the following. By January 1945, however, the Bluie bases were shutting down, and 188th Station Hospital too was shrunk, even as it became the last medical facility in the country. It continued into the 1950s, as BW-1 again became briefly important as a stopover for jet fighters bound for Europe. By this time--Dr. Merkin's time--the medical staff was down to three doctors. A vacant unit served as a school for 30 dependent children. The BW-1 officers' club was in another unit, and the grounds also served as a picnic area for the enlisted men. Thirty singers and dancers from George Washington University put on a show there at Christmas 1954.

When BW-1 was turned over to the Danes, the hospital was closed. Its buildings were still standing in 1966, when Danish journalist Lars Borbeg visited as a young soldier: "I will never forget the almost supernatural sight," he wrote of it, "that met us when we turned a corner of rocks and bushes and suddenly stood face to face with the huge long deserted hospital, still seemingly, almost fully equipped, but absolutely empty and overgrown. Quite scary, actually." Later, however, it was demolished for its planks and timbers, so precious in treeless Greenland. The usable stuff was given to Inuit sheep herders, and the rest was burned. Today only the fireplace chimney of the O Club remains, standing alone at the glacier end of the valley, in a field of dandelions and detritus. It is indeed a spooky place--a fertile place for a conspiracy myth to be born.

The midwife was Lawrence Millman, who in 1990 wrote Last Places: A Journey in the North about his travels in the Arctic. He hadn't personally seen any human remains in Hospital Valley, mind you, but a friend supposedly did, and that was good enough for a couple paragraphs about the supposed Korean War death house. Danish playwright Sven Holm liked the notion well enough to spin it into the 1992 comedy, Bluie West One. And in 2001, novelist John Greisemer gave it an even wilder turn in No One Thinks of Greenland, which was then filmed as Guy X, starring Jason Biggs and released to some small acclaim in Europe, though it went straight to DVD in the U.S. By this time, of course, the war had been updated to Vietnam. As a cinema website solemnly explained, Guy X was based on the novel, "itself inspired by the true story of the secret American hospital where fatally injured soldiers from the Korean War, officially billed as missing in action, were sent to die."

It's not true! Really it's not! (But then, I'd be bound to say that, wouldn't I?) -- Dan Ford