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Hospital 125th: Dentist recalls war service

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Two wars played a big part in dentist Alan Cull’s career.

Now 94, Palmerston North-born Alan looks back at those events that shaped his life.
“When I turned 16 in 1940, I began work at Palmerston Hospital as a trainee radiographer. It was during World War II, and we did a lot of work for the army and air force as every recruit had to have chest X-rays.
“We all had to join EPS (Emergency Precautions Scheme). Occasional emergency drills were held, and when the siren sounded, I was to report to the X-ray Dept. I lived a considerable distance from the hospital and, cycling, I would quite often arrive as the “All Clear” sounded.”
At the end of three years Alan had qualified as a radiographer in the X-ray department, headed by Dr Denny Gillies. Alan recalls that she was in charge until about 1947.
“In those days the hospital was designed around one big corridor with wards and the pharmacy off it on one side, and the operating theatres, two I think, and the X-ray department were on the other side.  Upstairs were the bacteriology and pathology departments.  It was certainly a lot smaller place than it is today and I knew most of the staff. There was no dental department then, but I recall we did have visiting dentists from time to time.
“After a while I felt that the job had become routine. In 1943, there were bursaries on offer for those wanting to go to Medical or Dental School. I was lucky enough to secure one in 1943 and went off to Dental School in Otago for five years. Often, during the Varsity long vacation I would do relieving work at PNH X-ray department.
“On qualifying I worked at Wellington Hospital for 15 months. I had joined the Territorial Army in 1949.
“When the Korean War broke out in 1950 I applied to go and was appointed to Command Mobile Dental Section. I spent the next two years in Korea attached to the 16th Field Artillery Regiment. We landed in Pusan on New Year’s Eve 1950 and spent two weeks there while the big guns were made ready. Then we went north to the combat zone.
“Conditions were primitive and bitterly cold and we weren’t properly kitted out for winter.  We were in tents and it was 30-degrees-below outside.  By the second and third winter, conditions had improved a bit because we were given better gear.
“My work consisted of tending to any dental casualties.  Periodically, when we weren’t moving around I would undertake routine examinations of the New Zealand troops but this was not always possible. There were four of us in the dental unit– myself, a dental orderly, a dental mechanic and a driver/clerk. I held the rank of Captain.
“There were 1000 troops in the original K Force. This grew to 1500 later. All our equipment was treadle-powered as there was no electricity. We worked by daylight, or in extreme cases I wore a headlight but this wasn’t really satisfactory.
“Very seldom I might be called on to treat a local person. Honestly, there were no civilians around as they had fled the fighting.
“I left in February 1953 and the Armistice was declared in July 1953. When I got back to New Zealand I was still in the territorials but joined a group dental practice in Palmerston North – McKegg, Andrews, Cull (and later, Hawke in 1960). I was there for 30 years before retiring.”
Amos McKegg later became Chairman of the Palmerston North Hospital Board. He was also a former President of the New Zealand Dental Association.
Alan was awarded an MBE (MILT), which was published in 20 June 1953 in a publication special to K Force. During the Queen’s visit late 1953 and early 1954 Her Majesty presented the award at the Investiture in the Town Hall, Wellington on 2 January 1954.
Many years later Alan’s service in the Korean War resulted in an impromptu trip to India. 
“In Korea I had got to know the dental officer in the Indian army medical unit, which had camped nearby for six weeks. 
“Forty-seven years later,” he said, “out of the blue this man invited me to stay with his family in India.
“When I arrived at Delhi the first thing I saw was a cow walk unimpeded in and out of the airport building.
“I had a wonderful time in India, and it was amazing that after 47 years this man and his wife would contact me and offer such hospitality.”


- Written by Paula McCool

Read more about the Palmerston North Hospital's 125th Anniversary here.


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