“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”


Pvt. Jack Crawford provided another confirmation when he commented on a story about Ernest Hemingway’s self-indulgent war “reporting.” Crawford went ashore at Utah Beach on D-day plus twelve with the 4th Division. He fought in the hedgerows, at Mortain, and in the Hürtgen Forest, was wounded three times, and was awarded a battlefield commission. He went AWOL from a hospital to rejoin his outfit in the Hürtgen. When he arrived at Bradley’s headquarters, in Spa, he went into a bar “and sitting there was Ernest Hemingway and Colonel Buck Lanham, C.O. of the 22nd Infantry, 4th Division. Lanham asked me to come over and I was very pleased to talk to Hemingway as I had read some of his books. As we drank and talked, I felt he was full of it and this really wasn’t his war. He was telling tales of hiiinks in Paris. I finally got pissed off and said he should come up to my battalion with me in the Hurtgen to see what the war was really like instead of sitting back thirty miles from the front lines. The Colonel jumped on me and said I was out of line, so I stood up, saluted the Colonel, said ‘F—you, Hemingway,’ and walked out.”

I’ve had dozens of letters from front-line veterans who say they never saw a colonel, much less a general, where they were. But I’ve also had a couple of GIs write to say that this colonel or that general made it to the front lines in their sector.

WYATT BARNES SAT DOWN TO WRITE ME A “TWO or three page letter, at most,” but it ended up as a twelve-page single-spaced memoir, one of the best I’ve ever read. Some highlights: Barnes started off as an Army Specialized Training School student at Brooklyn College in mid-1943. Then it was off to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where “we were all miserable. Especially, we detested our new comrades, who were mostly from Appalachia and the deep South, with a few from Idaho and Montana. They were rural and spoke in funny accents; we despised their ignorant ways. In turn, they disparaged our elitism and urban mores. I flaunted my subscription to The New York Times , thus inviting their special loathing. In time we adjusted to them and they to us.”

Barnes shipped over to England in August 1944, then on to France in mid-October and into the line with the 80th Division as a replacement. “Five of us were admitted to the 1st squad, 1st platoon. We five knew each other slightly from our replacement trek, bonding among us came later.”

In mid-December the 80th packed up and headed north, toward the southern shoulder of the Bulge, part of the 3d Army counterattack. “We were in 2½ ton trucks for the trek north. This was a new torment in the bitter cold and interminable night. No rations. There were frequent stops because of the clogged roads, occasions we used for piss-calls. This task was an ordeal. Cramped and frozen, we eased ourselves off the back end into the furious wind and performed the needed function. The weather was utterly appalling.”

On Christmas Day the 80th joined the 4th Armored for the final push to break through to Bastogne. “We formed a skirmish line. Not a word was spoken. Then we began to move, 8 or 10 feet separating the men. Soon the rounds started coming, their tiny sonic booms causing distinct snaps as they passed close by. A tracer round struck the frozen ground in front of me and described an arc over my head. Then, after about 100 yards, I felt the slug strike just below my right collar bone. After the impact, and this still seems incredible, I could actually feel the bullet piercing the tissues and organs within, clipping through each in sequence. Time, almost literally, must have stood still as my whole being concentrated on this devastating physical assault. The bullet exited down, just to the left of my right shoulder blade.

“I fell forward, and the instant I hit the ground I in-toned ‘two months’ to myself. This was the million dollar wound! Two months would give me relief from the line and get me through the worst of winter.” Actually, the wound was worse than Barnes thought; his right lung had been pierced. For him the war was over. Barnes recounted in some detail his evacuation from the snow-covered field back to a jeep, then to an aid station, then the 39th Evacuation Hospital, next Paris by train, and finally a flight to England to the 160th General Hospital near Cheltenham. He concluded, “Your tribute to the medical people in the ETO [European Theater of Operations] was richly deserved.”

American Heritage printed the chapter on medics, nurses, and docs (my own favorite chapter, because lives are being saved, not destroyed) and got a big mail in response, nearly all of the writers telling this or that story about being saved by a medic and how wonderful the medics and nurses and doctors were. It almost breaks your heart to read some of them. We now have the letters in the Archives of the Eisenhower Center, available to scholars and visitors, and I hope someday someone does a book on U.S. Army medicine in World War II.

Pvt. Eldon McDermeit was an ATSP student who went to the front line with the 70th Infantry Division: “On our third night on the line, two of our guys were bayoneted in their foxholes. They had obviously been asleep. The next day all of the 70th Division infantry had to exchange our sleeping bags for two blankets. It was much harder to stay warm with blankets so we stayed awake. We seldom got hot meals on the front line. We ate K rations almost exclusively. Our first hot meal was after six weeks on the line.”