398th Bomb Group

The Guinea Pig Club
by Ken Wright

Introduction by Wally Blackwell

I have a Royal Air Force friend who lives near the English village where the 398th Bomb Group was stationed in WWII. During our friendship we have talked of many things. One time he mentioned The Guinea Pig Club, and explained a bit what it was all about. I was reading the March/April 2004 issue of the B-17 Combat Crewman & Wingmen newsletter. I happily came across a full explanation of the Guinea Pig Club, written by the newsletter’s editor, Ken Wright. I obtained Ken’s permission for me to transcribe his story for the 398th Bomb Group’s web page. Mr. Wright’s story follows.

Wally Blackwell
President 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association
August 2004

The Guinea Pig Club
by Ken Wright

I recently came across an article in a Scottish newspaper by Jim McBeth pertaining to the few remaining members of the Guinea Pig Club. The following article explains the history of reconstructive surgery and the techniques pioneered then that are still in use today.

During his long years of conflict, Flt. Lt. Robert “Mac” Mathieson flew almost a thousand hours in Lancasters over Germany. It was 1945, the war was almost over, and Mac, a bomber pilot at age 22, was returning from a night mission. He was over England when his cockpit windshield exploded for no apparent reason, pelting him with shards of glass. He was instantly blinded and his face was torn apart. When he regained consciousness he was still blind, disfigured and had unwittingly joined the most exclusive of clubs, the “Guinea Pigs”, a now diminishing band of brothers, who sixty years later, still meet annually.

The club has three membership criteria – to be RAF aircrew, to have suffered dreadful disfigurement in service and to have their lives and faces reconstructed by a medical pioneering genius. The late Professor Archie McIndoe, a New Zealander, took plastic surgery from its infancy through innovation, invention and creation of techniques that are still in use today. But more than that, he created the world’s first patient support program with the holistic approach to rebuilding the whole man. The remarkable story of the Guinea Pigs has been told in a documentary (not yet available in the USA) in which the Professor’s patients, now in their eighties, applaud the man they knew as “The Boss”.

“Mac” Matheson is one of them. He says, “one cannot overestimate the effect he had, giving back our faces, belief and confidence and believed that his job was bigger than plastic surgery”. I was lucky compared to some, my injuries were not bad, but I had a pal who was treated abominably. His mother carried a picture of him at the age of 18 (when he enlisted) and when people behaved inappropriately, she would take it out and say, there, that’s my son, look what he gave for you!

According to Mathieson, Professor McIndoe, a burns specialist, was in the right place at the right time. He added, “Doctors were not equipped to deal with us, but McIndoe made it his life’s work. At the height of his work, he preformed 30 operations a day at the special surgical unit of Queen Victories Hospital in East Grinstead in Sussex.

Evelyn Mayhew, a historian, said, “These men faced a dismal future until they met McIndoe”. Ian Hutchinson, a consultant specializing in reconstructive surgery, said ”A stroke of luck brought him to Britain and he did things that hadn’t been done before, developing techniques which are still used to overcome insurmountable problems”. “Even today, McIndoe scissors are still indispensable in an operating theatre”.

Prof. McIndoe’s pioneering work made him the world’s leading authority on reconstructive surgery, particularly eyelid grafts. At the time, such a procedure was unheard of, but his technique is now commonplace. Every day he faced new challenges, which his genius overcame. But it was a mammoth task. He believed that he not only had to reconstruct faces, but futures.

He kept the men together, he organized dances, parties and concerts; and he insisted that his nurses be especially pretty. Prof. McIndoe reasoned that if men were surrounded by attractive women who did not find them repellent, it would restore their sense of manliness. It worked. Some of them even married the nurses.

Mr. Hutchinson explained, “His approach was unconventional, restoring a man’s confidence was a ground breaking philosophy. He even allowed them to watch their friends being operated on. That reduced fear, and when fear goes, it allows control”.

“He enabled the men in the most powerful way, to regain their lives”. Mathieson adds, “What my life would have been like without him I cannot imagine”.

The B-17 Combat Crewmen & Wingmen publishes a newsletter six times a year. Ken Wright, its editor, has an e-mail address of kbwright1@comcast.net The B-17 Combat Crewmen and Wingmen organization has about 500 members and meets the 2nd Sunday of each month (except Dec) at 1 PM at 3250 Airflite Way, Long Beach, CA 90807