- 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
“My family is German,” the American said. Then he asked Borgert if he didn’t want to surrender, as “Germany has lost the war in any case.” No, Borgert replied; he would continue to fight. But he let the American know that as soon as dark came, he intended to pull back from his present position.
“Then I won’t attack you till dark,” the American replied, and it was done.
In the bloody chaos of Falaise, Lt. Hans-Heinrich Dibbern, of Panzer Grenadier Regiment 902, set up a roadblock outside Argentan. “From the direction of the American line came an ambulance driving toward us,” he remembered. “The driver was obviously lost. When he noticed that he was behind German lines, he slammed on the brakes.” Dibbern went to the ambulance. “The driver’s face was completely white. He had wounded men he was responsible for. But we told him, ‘Back out of here and get going. We don’t attack the Red Cross.’ He quickly disappeared.”
An hour or so later “here comes another Red Cross truck. It pulls up right in front of us. The driver got out, opened the back, and took out a crate. He set it down on the street and drove away. We feared a bomb, but nothing happened and we were curious. We opened the box and it was filled with Chesterfield cigarettes.”
On the other hand, Americans sometimes shot medics. Maj. John Cochran of the 90th Division remembered a forward observer who would call for a barrage when he knew the Germans were eating; he had a sixth sense about it, according to Cochran. After calling for a cease-fire, he would say, “Get ready to do it again.” He explained to Cochran that in five or ten minutes “their medics will come out to treat the casualties and we’ll get them too.”
Sgt. Robert Bowen of the 101st recalled that on December 23, in the Bulge, two men from his platoon were wounded. “They lay in the snow, one babbling incoherently and the other screaming.” Bowen tried to get to them, but German fire drove him off. Medic Evertt Padget said he would try, explaining that the Germans would honor his Red Cross patch. “He went out there. It was one of the bravest acts I had ever witnessed. Enemy bullets were plowing up the snow around him until he reached the wounded men. Then the German fire slackened, and he tended the two men. Although both were beyond rescue, at least Padget gave them some morphine. Then he returned to the American line and the firing resumed.” Bowen confessed, “I thought of the wounded Germans who had lain in the road the day before and our guys had tried to kill whomever went out to help them.”
Too often when the medic arrived, the man was dead. In that case it was the medic’s responsibility to oversee the retrieving and hauling of the body back to the graves-registration crew. Bill Mauldin described one such group. Its personnel, he said, “could have played the gravediggers in Hamlet .” They were usually drunk, perhaps a necessary condition for their work.
They became callous. Pvt. Kurt Gabel of the 17th Airborne described the day he had participated in the gruesome job of finding and piling up the dead from his outfit following a failed attack in a snow-covered field. The bodies were frozen. After a morning’s work Gabel and his comrades had a large stack. A graves-registration crew drove up in a deuce-and-a-half truck. Two guys got into the back of the truck, and two others went to the pile. The two on the ground grabbed a body by shoulders and legs and swung it three times to gain momentum, chanting, “One . . . two . . . three . . . heave . ” The body flew through the air and landed with a thump. The men on the truck dragged the corpse to the far end and got ready for the next. They did it again.
Gabel and a few of his buddies stepped forward looking like the combat infantrymen they were. One of them touched his rifle lightly, and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “You do that once more and I’ll blow your goddamn heads off.”
For a moment no one moved. Then the men on the truck slowly climbed down, and the four-man crew gently lifted the next body.
The men killed in action were buried as soon as possible in small temporary cemeteries, later dug up and taken to a division or Army cemetery in the rear. This too was temporary. After the war ended, the family had the right to have the body brought home. Many parents or widows decided, however, to leave their loved ones where they fell. Those bodies went into one of the beautifully landscaped military cemeteries maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commissions. The largest are in Normandy and Luxembourg.
Robert Bradley of the 30th Infantry Division had been a medical student before the war. A religious man, he preferred to save rather than to kill. He went into Omaha Beach on June 10 and slept that night along a hedgerow. Starting at dawn, through to the end of the war, he set about saving lives.