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Blood in War

Red Cross Blood Donor Service


External circumstances also interfered with donations. Plasma deliveries in December 1943 were 40 percent short of the quota because of an epidemic of influenza. On 9 February 1945, a blizzard in the East almost wiped out the donations scheduled for that day and the next several days.

Cancellations of appointments and failures to appear for scheduled appointments were serious losses in themselves, and they also wasted the time of physicians, nurses, and technicians, for they kept other volunteers from using the time scheduled. Some centers found it profitable to send out reminders several days in advance of appointments. About 10 percent of donors who appeared for their appointments had to be rejected for physical reasons.

For these and other reasons, it was necessary to secure an enrollment of about 150 donors to obtain each hundred pints of blood. This meant that the 13,326,242 pints of blood collected during the war by the Red Cross required the enrollment of nearly 19 million persons.

Multiple donors. -- A major source of blood came from multiple donors. Most centers had a special desk at which, before they left, donors were invited to make future appointments. Some donors voluntarily phoned for second appointments. It was estimated that the average donor made two donations. About 10 million gave three donations, 150,000 gave a gallon each, and about 3,000 gave 2 gallons or more. In some centers, multiple donations ran as high as 60 percent of the blood collected. Multiple donations and the publicity which attended them did much to dispel the fear in some minds that giving blood was harmful. ...

The Total Program

The first request for blood for plasma by the Army and the Navy, in February 1941, was for 15,000 pints. In May 1941, when the completion of the first quota had convinced all concerned of the feasibility of the project, an additional 209,000 pints were requested. In December 1941, after Pearl Harbor, another 165,000 pints were requested for the current fiscal year. On 1 January 1943, the request for that calendar year was set at 4 million pints, and the request for the calendar year of 1944 was set at 5 million pints.

D-Day invasionThe impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of the declaration of war against Japan on the emotions and reactions of the U.S. public was reflected in the Blood Donor Service. In November 1941, blood donations had been about 1,200 per week. In December, the weekly donations rose to 4,600. By the end of April, they exceeded 50,000. By September 1943, they had reached 100,000 and they were maintained at or above this weekly level during most of 1944. The largest weekly procurement, 123,284, was for the week ending on 10 June 1945, the amount collected, as already mentioned, being the reflection of the D-day landings on the Normandy beaches. After 21 October 1944, the weekly averages progressively declined, as centers that were no longer needed were closed, and only about 2,000 donations per week were being collected when the project was concluded on 15 September 1945. At the peak of the program, the 6-month period between January and July 1944, total donations averaged 110,923 pints a week. Based on the 48-hour working week then generally in effect, this was approximately 1 pint every 2 seconds.

Distribution. -- Of the more than 13 million pints of blood collected by the Red Cross during World War II, 10,299,470 pints were processed into dried plasma. More than 3 million 250-cc. packages were put up, and more than 2.3 million 500-cc. packages. About 310,135 pints of blood were used in military hospitals in the Zone of Interior, as either liquid plasma or whole blood.

The largest amount of O blood, 14,928 pints, procured in any single week for shipment overseas was collected between 19 and 24 March, during the battle on Iwo Jima. This amount, a daily average of 2,497 pints, was over and above the amounts collected for plasma and serum albumin. In all, 387,462 pints of group O blood were flown overseas, 205,907 to Europe by the Army Air Transport Command, and 181,555 to the Pacific by the Naval Air Transport Service.

Costs. -- The total cost of the Blood Donor Service to the American Red Cross was approximately $15,870,000, about $1.19 per pint of blood collected. Of this amount, about 19 cents was paid from local chapter funds and the remainder by the National Headquarters.

In the original program, the total cost of the operation was borne by the Red Cross. When the project expanded, the costs rose so sharply that, as of 1 September 1942, the Army and the Navy assumed the costs of servicing the collecting equipment, which were added to the expense of processing the blood. As of 1 August 1943, the cost of transporting the blood to the processing laboratories was also assumed by the Government. The cost of servicing the equipment averaged about 60 cents per set, and the cost of transporting each bottle of blood in a refrigerated container was about 15 cents. When blood typing was discontinued on 1 November 1942 ..., for reasons other than expense, the cost fell about 7 cents per donation, for a total of about a half million dollars.

All funds expended by the Red Cross were contributed by the American people. They were carefully supervised and profitably expended, and it is not possible to estimate what they purchased in terms of human lives saved.

The End Result

The Red Cross Blood Donor Service was translated, almost overnight, from a limited peacetime activity to a major national contribution to the military effort. It was enormously successful because of the fine organization of the program; the hard work of those who operated it; the hundreds of thousands of hours contributed by volunteer workers; and, most of all, the voluntary donation of millions of pints of blood by hundreds of thousands of patriotic American citizens, whose gift of themselves saved untold thousands of lives of wounded American troops.

From BLOOD PROGRAM IN WORLD WAR II (SUPPLEMENTED BY EXPERIENCES IN THE KOREAN WAR) by Douglas Blair Kendrick. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, 1989. (Provided by the Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgeon General/US Army Medical Command.)

Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

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