- Historic Sites
“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”
Reminiscences of World War II’s European Theater add up to considerably more than a bunch of good war stories
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
The trenchfoot mail has been heavy. The theme is summed up by one letter: “For five decades I’ve carried around a sense of shame at being evacuated for trenchfoot. The Army (but not the nurses and doctors) made me feel I had let down the side. Your account has helped me get over those bad feelings.”
Pvt. Norman Redlich of the 100th Division remembered that “in late November, 1944, after spending another night in a cold wet foxhole, and after following as best I could the instructions to remove our boots at night and dry our socks, I awoke and found that I could no longer fit into my boots because my feet had swollen like balloons. Barely able to walk, I was removed to a field hospital and told that I would be back on the line in a matter of days. But the pain intensified, and my feet started to turn white, and then purple. The pain became so excruciating that I was given a shot of morphine. It was so bad that I could not place a sheet over my toes and had to sleep with the blankets and sheets turned back.”
Redlich was shipped back to the States on the Queen Elizabeth , which had been converted into a hospital ship. He recalled that “virtually the entire contingent of passengers had trenchfoot, many of them with toes and legs amputated. I felt both lucky and guilty. In many respects, I still do.”
Redlich’s blunt honesty is typical of the GIs I’ve interviewed or corresponded with over the years. Shakespeare wrote that old men remember, with advantages, the deeds they did as warriors. With a few exceptions, I’ve always found the opposite. Many times in group interviews I’ve heard something like this exchange: “I’m no hero. He’s the hero.”
“No, not me. You want to hear about a real hero, let me tell you about so-and-so.”
November 10, 1944, the 5th Division was attacking at Metz. Pvt. Henry Roon of Company B, 2d Regiment, caught a mortar-shell fragment in his throat. He fell prostrate in the mud with “a perforating wound of the neck, with the wound exit over the tracheal area and a fracture of the trachea.” Pvt. Duane N. Kinman, a nineteen-year-old medic with two years of high school education, finished binding up a chest wound and rushed over to help. “He saw Roon turning blue in the face, gasping and suffocating to death. Kinman whipped out his jackknife. Roon made protesting motions which Kinman overruled, saying, ‘I don’t like to do this, but it’s the only way you’re going to live.’
Many times I have heard something like: “I’m no hero. He’s the hero.” “No, not me. You want to hear about…”
“Then, without wasting any more time in deliberation and with perfect presence of mind and recollection of two lectures given him a year previous in basic training, Kinman prepared to perform an operation which is delicate in the best of surgical conditions. He knew he had to open up the windpipe and he knew he had to have a tube or edge to insert to keep it open. He saw a fountain pen in Roon’s pocket and seized that.
“With machine guns clattering all around, with mortar shells still landing, with a muddy field for an operating table, a gray sky for light, and his jack-knife for a scalpel and without benefit of any anesthetic or drug, Kinman cut into Roon’s throat, carefully avoiding the jugular, made a longitudinal one and a half inch incision in Roon’s windpipe, cleanly and safely. Then he slipped the rounded end of Roon’s fountain pen into the incision to keep the cut open and told Roon, ‘Now keep that pen in your windpipe and you’ll be okay.’”
Kinman helped Roon get to the rear and walk to an aid station. The battalion surgeon found nothing to improve upon. Two other tracheotomies performed by surgeons there the same day were unsuccessful.