- Historic Sites
IN A HARD WAR theirs may have been the hardest job of all. But together with Army doctors and Army nurses, they worked something very close to a miracle in the European theater.
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
It wasn’t any different getting killed in World War II than in the Civil War, but if the shrapnel, bullet, or tree limb wounded a GI without killing him, his experience as a casualty was infinitely better. The medical team, from the medics in the field to the nurses and doctors in the tent-city hospitals, compiled a remarkable record. More than 8 percent of the soldiers who underwent emergency operations in a mobile field or evacuation hospital survived.
It wasn’t any different getting killed in World War II than in the Civil War, but if the shrapnel, bullet, or tree limb wounded a GI without killing him, his experience as a casualty was infinitely better. The medical team, from the medics in the field to the nurses and doctors in the tent-city hospitals, compiled a remarkable record. More than 8 percent of the soldiers who underwent emergency operations in a mobile field or evacuation hospital survived. Fewer than 4 percent of all patients admitted to a field hospital died. In the Civil War it had been more like 50 percent.
Wonder drugs and advanced surgical techniques made the improvements possible, but it was people who had to get the wounded into a hospital before it was too late for the nurses and the drugs and surgeons to do their work. Those people were the medics.
Medics, said one officer, were “mildly despised” in training. In combat, they were loved.
In an infantry battalion of twelve platoons, or about five hundred men, there were thirty to forty medics. After time on the line, whether a week or a month, most units were down to one medic per platoon. The medics varied as much in motivation as in size and shape, but they shared a refusal to kill coupled with a desire to serve.
PVT. Ralph (“Preacher”) Davis of the Rangers, a hero in some of the hardest fighting on D-day, asked four months later to be transferred to the Medical Corps for religious reasons. He was accepted immediately because volunteers for the medics were hard to find. On a night patrol Preacher got hit in the back by a sniper and was paralyzed below the waist. (After the war he achieved his ambition of becoming an ordained minister, before he died of complications from the wound.)
The experience of combat brought forth from Preacher a strong moral reaction. Others had strong responses, too, but sometimes in the opposite direction. Preacher couldn’t bring himself to kill anymore; some men who started out as medics because of religious conviction changed on encountering the reality of war: They requested transfers to line companies, meaning they wanted to pick up rifles and shoot back.
The medics had gone through the same training as any infantryman, except for weapons. In training camp they had been segregated into their own barracks and kept away from the men they were learning to save, apparently for fear of contaminating the real soldiers. The rifle-carrying enlisted men and the medics developed little mutual camaraderie. One lieutenant confessed that he and his platoon “mildly despised” the men of the Medical Corps for being conscientious objectors. Their mere presence cast a moral shadow over what the infantrymen were training to do. The nascent medics were ridiculed, called such names as Pill Pusher, and the tourniquets and bandages they put on imagined wounds in field exercises were joked about. So was their only real work, treating blisters and the like.
But once in combat they were loved. “Overseas,” the medic Buddy Gianelloni recalled, “it became different. They called you Medic, and before you know it, it was Doc. I was nineteen at the time.”
On countless occasions when I have asked a veteran during an interview if he remembered any medics, the old man would say something like “Bravest man I ever saw. Let me tell you about him.. . .” Here’s a typical account: Pvt. Mike DeBello got hit by a machine-gun bullet that ripped through the upper muscle of his right arm. “Doc Mellon was the bravest kid I ever saw. He came running right through the machine-gun fire and put a tourniquet on my arm.” Mellon got smashed by the concussion from an 88. His shoulder was out of its socket. He should have gone back to the aid station, but as he later explained, he felt “there were just too many wounded guys to work on, so I took some codeine and morphine. I couldn’t raise my arm beyond the waist, so here I was trying to work on these wounded guys with one hand.”
To preserve their non-combatant status under the Geneva Convention, the War Department did not give any medics combat pay (ten dollars extra a month) or the right to wear the combat Infantryman Badge. This was bitterly resented. In some divisions riflemen collected money from their own pay to give their medics the combat bonus. As for their right to wear the badge, five enlisted medics in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were awarded the Medal of Honor, and hundreds won Silver or Bronze Stars.