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Blood in War

World War II Transport of Blood

Soldier being transfused during WWIIThe Allies had various methods of collecting blood and moving it to the fighting front. The British set up a series of storage depots where blood would be received, inspected, refrigerated, and moved forward again. Refrigerated vans would fan out across Britain, collecting blood and delivering it to a centralized medical unit. Technicians at this "home depot" chilled, processed, and readied the blood for shipment overseas. They flew it in insulated crates to large blood banks in the major theaters of military operation. Experts at these units would receive and store the blood, and estimate the need for additional shipments. From there the blood traveled forward to smaller "field transfusion units" -- mobile transfusion stations that could be moved to the action.

The Free French designed a sophisticated system, complete with processing laboratories, vehicles, and propaganda specialists to encourage donation. Exiled from their home country, they set up a central facility, or "Mother House," in Algiers where they collected blood and plasma from volunteers. From there they shipped the liquids to a "Moving Wing" that traveled with the French Expeditionary Corps in Africa, Corsica, and southern France. Blood banks in Tunisia and Morocco also fed the system. The French doctors called their organization O.R.T., for Organisme de Réanimation-Transfusion, or the Transfusion-Rehabilitation System. Blood donation was benevolent, voluntary, and welcomed from all. To the French the system embodied all that was modern and humane, especially in contrast to the values of the fascist enemy.

American Red Cross vanAmerica processed blood and its derivatives as the industrial giant it was rapidly becoming. The Red Cross collected blood at centers throughout the country, separated the plasma, and shipped it to a network of pharmaceutical labs. They in turn produced freeze-dried plasma and albumin that was flown and shipped to troops overseas. Later in the war, with the advent of portable refrigerators and better preservation techniques, the nation processed whole blood, mostly for the battles of the Pacific. Blood from all over the country was collected and sent to the Naval depot in Oakland, California. There it was packed into insulated boxes, then flown to Hawaii and Guam, where it was re-iced and forwarded to the Pacific islands. Whole blood, carried in portable refrigerators, traveled as far forward as the medical aid stations behind the lines. Medics carried albumin and dried plasma right up to the fighting.

-- Douglas Starr

Photos: Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives (top right) and the Library of Congress (bottom left).

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