- 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
His instruments were crude. He tied scissors to one of his wrists with a shoestring in order to have them handy to cut away bloody clothing. He carried extra compresses in his gas-mask container. His raincoat had many patches cut out of the tail because he had learned to slap a piece of raincoat on a sucking chest wound, then cover it with a compress.
In Normandy Bradley learned how to get to his patients in a hurry. In basic training he had detested learning to turn somersaults, but he found that the best way to go over a hedgerow was in a dive, headfirst. Then he would dash to the wounded man in the open field, a man who had been abandoned and was utterly dependent on the medic. Bradley remembered “the unspeakable light of hope in the eyes of the wounded as we popped over a hedgerow.”
“We were convinced the Army a regulation against dying in an aid station.”
Sgt. Frank South, a medic in the Rangers, noticed something that also struck other medics: “During training it was not uncommon to hear one say, ‘If I lose a leg (arm or whatever) please shoot me. I don’t want to go home a cripple.’ Never, in combat, did I, or anyone I know, hear this, no matter how bad the wound.”
“The medic could do more with less to do it with than anyone,” said Ken Russell of the 82d Airborne. He seldom had much, and often not enough. Morphine was most important, because it would relax the wounded man and help keep him from going into shock. In the Bulge, to keep the drug from freezing, the medics kept it next to their bodies. One man carried his in his underwear top, others under their arms.
Carrying so much morphine around a battlefield proved to be a temptation at least one medic could not resist. During a shelling Medic Gianelloni heard the cry “Medic!” “I said, oh shit, got up and went in the direction of the call for help.” It took him into the next platoon’s area. He asked who was hurt. “Doc, look over there,” said one of the GIs. There was a platoon medic, walking like a zombie among the shell bursts. Gianelloni tackled him and discovered he had given himself morphine when the shelling began. It turned out he had become an addict.
Once the wounded man was behind the main line of foxholes, four litter bearers from the forward aid station a few hundred yards to the rear, summoned by radio or telephone, would come forward to evacuate him. That usually took about fifteen minutes. They would haul the soldier back to wherever they had parked their jeep, load him into one of the four slots on the jeep, and drive as rapidly as possible to the battalion aid station, a kilometer or so to the rear.
In early August Lieutenant Stockell of the 2d Infantry Division was hit badly in the leg—twenty deep shrapnel wounds. A medic got to him, did some patch work, and helped him to the rear. There a jeep awaited. “I am laid across the hood,” Stockell wrote in his diary, “like a slaughtered deer.”
At the aid station, “It is a blur. I did wake up in a field hospital to find my two doctors taking my combat boots off and stealing my Luger pistol. I protest but then the fog closes in again.”
In that field hospital doctors gave Stockell more morphine and plasma and an antitetanus shot. They removed his bandages and cleaned up the wounds, put on fresh bandages, made a tentative diagnosis of his case, and labeled him for evacuation. An ambulance took him to Omaha Beach—he remained unconscious—where he was transferred by landing craft to an LST, then taken to Portsmouth and by rail to the hospital.
“I next woke up in England.” It took twenty hours from the time he was wounded until he was in a modern hospital across the Channel. There he recovered, as did more than 99 percent of the men evacuated from Normandy to England.
The remarkable rate of recovery for wounded GIs was based on massproduction assembly-line practices. How well it worked, from the medic to the aid station to the field hospital to England, can be judged by the reaction of the men of the front line, who were almost certain to get caught up in the process, with their lives depending on it. As one lieutenant put it, “We were convinced the Army had a regulation against dying in an aid station.”
Most patients came back to consciousness, groggy from the morphine, in the field or evacuation hospital. The first thing many of them saw was a nurse from the Army Nurse Corps (ANC). She was harassed, wearing fatigues, exhausted, and busy. But she was an American girl, and she had a marvelous smile, a reassuring attitude, and gentle hands. To the wounded soldier she looked heaven-sent.
The first nurses to enter the Continent came in on June 10 at Omaha. Members of the 42d and 45th Field Hospitals and the 91st and 128th Evacuation Hospitals, they were the vanguard of the 17,345 ANC who served in the ETO in 1944-45. That was seventeen times as many ANC personnel as existed in the entire Army in 1942. By 1945 total ANC strength stood at nearly 60,000.