- 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
Medic Ed Grazcyck of the 4th Division earned a Bronze Star. When his company underwent a shelling in the Hürtgen Forest, one of the sergeants was killed by shrapnel in the neck, and Grazcyck took a large fragment in the back of his head. He was unconscious and looked gone. Beside him a third man was screaming for a medic. Lt. George Wilson ran to the wounded man and found him “frantically gripping what was left of one arm with his remaining hand. The arm was gone, almost to the shoulder.”
As Wilson stared helplessly, Medic Grazcyck came to. He told Wilson to get a tourniquet on the man, handed him some morphine, explained how to use it, then gave instructions as Wilson sprinkled sulfa powder on the raw stump and bandaged the wound. As Wilson completed the job, both the wounded man and Grazcyck passed out. Wilson got a jeep to carry them back to the aid station. Both survived.
Medics served in the line companies. They were in the foxholes in static situations, but when the Americans went on the offensive, medics sometimes had to stay behind with the wounded, feeling lonely and abandoned. On other occasions, when an attack failed and the men fell back, medics had to go between the lines to deliver aid and start the wounded men on their way to the field hospital.
Pvt. Byron Whitmarsh of the 99th Division described what it was like for the medics during a barrage. “There are worse things than being a rifleman in the infantry, not many, but being a medic is one of them. When the shelling and shooting gets heavy it is never long until there is a call for ‘Medic!’ That’s when your regular GIs can press themselves to the bottom of their hole and don’t need to go out on a mission of mercy.”
Once the medic reached the wounded man, he did the briefest examination, put on a tourniquet if necessary, injected a vial of morphine, cleaned up the wound as best he could, sprinkled sulfa, slapped on a bandage, and dragged or carried the patient toward the rear. Pvt. Robert Phillips, a medic with the 28th Division, came to dread the sound of incoming shells and the invariable “Medic!” cry that forced him to leave his hole. As he worked, shell fragments whittled down the trees and casualties increased. He remembered for the rest of his life the job of examining a wounded man at night, cutting away clothes in the darkness, feeling for the wound: “It’s like putting your hand in a bucket of wet liver.”
Pvt. Benedict Battista, a medic with the 90th Division, went the whole way from Utah Beach to Central Europe, “trying to save lives.” After the war he reflected: “I don’t regret what I did but if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t want to be a medic. I have seen too much blood. I would want to be in a maintenance outfit.”
If the medic didn’t do the job right and fast, he lost the patient. And sometimes he had to deliver his first aid while under aimed enemy fire, because occasionally Germans would fire on a medic at work between the lines. Private Phillips was wounded while tending to a wounded man. On Christmas Day Pvt. Louis Potts of the 26th Division was fired on while attending a wounded soldier. He stayed in the snow-covered field and went to work on another casualty. This time the German sniper got him in the forehead.
I’ve heard dozens of similar stories, from German and American veterans—usually, however, from men who heard about such a thing as opposed to seeing it themselves. Albert Cowdrey of the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History insists such incidents were uncommon: “The Germans by and large were following the Geneva Convention.” Although men wearing their Red Cross armbands did get shot, sometimes it was because the red crosses had not been seen. The response of the medics is conclusive: It was to make themselves more visible, not less. They began to wear two armbands and paint a red cross in a white square on their helmets. They were confident that most Germans or GIs would respect the symbol if only it could be seen. (Cowdrey contrasts this with the Pacific war, where medics were special targets of the Japanese and responded by taking off the armbands and even dyeing their bandages jungle green.)
Lt. Wenzel Andreas Borgert, who commanded a German antitank unit in Normandy, described an American attack in which ten of his fifteen men were wounded. He radioed for an ambulance. “And this much I acknowledge,” Borgert said in an interview, “that at the very second that the big Red Cross flag came over the hill behind me, the Americans stopped firing immediately. I can honestly say that made a big impression on me, because there was no such thing as the Red Cross on the Russian front.”
“When the shelling and shooting gets heavy it is never long until there is a call for ‘Medic!’ That's when your regular GIs can press themselves to bottom of their hole and don’t need to go out . . .”
Both sides tended to their wounded. Borgert noticed an American officer and crossed no man’s land to talk. The American opened the conversation in German.
“Where did you learn such good German?” Borgert asked.