Lionel Hastings — a pround "guinea pig"

`Guinea Pigs' an amazing lot

With the evil humour of young men who'd survived hell, they joked they'd been ``fried'', ``mashed'' and sometimes ``hash-browned''.

Burned inside military aircraft full of fuel, battered in crashes -- or both.

But the airmen who called themselves ``the guinea pigs'' persevered to write one of the most amazing chapters in the history of the Second World War.

Wartime navigator Lionel Hastings told a hushed audience at the University of Regina' Seniors Centre on Thursday that the first of these casualties entered Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, in mid-1940.

British surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe realized such horrific injuries needed new approaches, replacing old ones that left victims scarred and stiffened.

McIndoe and colleagues like Canadian plastic surgeon Dr. Ross Tilley also pursued a bold new path in the psychological treatment of injured airmen.

First, they got the Air Ministry to waive the rule that airmen needing 90 or more days treatment be discharged from the service.

Next, they let patients wear uniforms instead of RAF-issue pyjamas.

Recognizing men recovered better when they could talk freely with peers, military ranks were temporarily suspended.

Their hospital ward was a little like a clubhouse, with disfigured young men -- a video shown by Hastings drew gasps -- serving beer and sherry, plus nurses selected for attractiveness.

It was ``an environment that emphasized normalcy over separation,'' Hastings said.

Townspeople were successfully asked to avoid staring at the airmen -- some with tube-like skin grafts -- in pubs, cinemas and dances. ``One emotion that wasn't tolerated was self-pity.''

The nickname ``guinea pigs'' came from the airmen themselves, aware of the successful experiment of which they were part.

They had what Hastings called ``life-enhancing sardonic humour.'' They formed a ``guinea pig club'' whose secretary ``couldn't write because his fingers had been burned off'' and a treasurer, selected because massive burns to his legs ``meant he couldn't abscond with the money.''

In all there were 642 ``Guinea Pigs'', 178 Canadian. Other services had their own hospitals.

Hastings said Regina seems to have the highest per-capita share of ``guinea pigs'' in the world: Jack Reynolds (burned in a 1942 bomber crash), ex-fighter pilot Frank Hanton, Ken Fisher and Hastings, injured when a light transport crashed near Brussels in late 1944.

Hastings sustained 32 facial fractures, three spinal fractures and one leg fracture that put him into a body cast for four months before surgeons pulled out his face with special weights, then rebuilt it.

``It was an amazing group of people and to be part of that was very special,'' said Hastings.

``If there's anything that I learned, it's how to help people who need help.''

This article originally in The Leader-Post on Fri Nov 9 2001. The author was Will Chabun