When the United States entered World War I, Base Hospital 21, the medical reserve unit based at the Washington University Medical Center, placed a call for volunteers as the U.S. had yet to institute the draft. There was a great response from the public. In a nation of immigrants, many enthusiastically joined up in support of the troops and to express their patriotism.
One of these early volunteers was Arshav K. Nushan who became an enlisted man with the unit. Nushan was an immigrant, a refugee who had come to the U.S. at the age of six with his Armenian family, fleeing what was then Ottoman-controlled Syria.
Nushan and the rest of the 21st first arrived in the United Kingdom in late May 1917, where their presence was celebrated, though the makeup of the American unit was concerning for some. On June 5, Walter Hines Page, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., sent a telegram to the Red Cross noting that “the St. Louis unit” had a number of enlisted men with Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian origins. He wrote, “The practice of including alien enemies in units of the American Red Cross is a cause of the greatest embarrassment…that of the so-called St. Louis Unit, nine orderlies are of Turkish, Austro-Hungarian or German birth, and that this fact has also had a bad effect.” Page requested that the Red Cross stop accepting volunteers with similar backgrounds. The date of the telegram coincided with the first registration of the draft in the U.S. and perhaps was sent as a reminder from the British and French that they still had some concerns about the types of troops who would be coming from the melting pot that was early 20th-century America.
However, Nushan and the other volunteers distinguished themselves during their nearly two years overseas with the 21st.
Nushan was a gregarious member of the unit and later was remembered fondly in the Rouen Post, the newsletter of the American Legion Post for veterans who served with the 21st. One story retold in the Rouen Post was how Nushan, when visiting Paris on leave, “proved so irresistible to a female hanger-on at the Princess Cafe…that she followed him to Rouen.” The “tender romance,” however, was ended “by the appearance of the lovesick woman’s grandson, who escorted her back to Paris.”
In addition to being a hospital orderly, Nushan was a member of the unit’s drum and bugle corps. Some of his fellow musicians would team up with members of Base Hospital 4 to form a jazz band, the Scrap Iron Jazzerinos. Originally formed to boost the morale of both patients and staff, when the war was over they continued to perform, playing at YMCAs all over Europe, at the Peace Conferences, for dignitaries including the Queen of Romania, and at the Casino de Paris. The renowned French singer-entertainer Maurice Chevalier made an appearance with them. The band got recording time in Paris where they cut records for both Pathe and The Gramophone Company in 1919. Their records included the earliest known recording of “The Dirty Dozens” – the first song to have a boogie-woogie bass line.