- 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
In a letter home the nurse Ruth Hess described setting up and opening a field hospital that had moved forward in the wake of the American sweep through France: “We arrived late in the evening and spent all nite getting ready to receive patients. We worked until 3:00 P.M. Then started nite duty, 12 hours at 7:30 P.M. For nine days we never stopped. 880 patients operated; small debridement of gun shot and shrapnel wounds, numerous amputations, fractures galore, perforated guts, livers, spleens, kidneys, lungs,—etc. everything imaginable. We cared for almost 1500 patients in those nine days.” Then the hospital packed up and moved forward.
Like many of the nurses, Hess found herself full of admiration for the wounded men. Lt. Frances Slanger of the 45th Field Hospital expressed the feeling in an October letter addressed to Stars and Stripes but written to the troops: “You G.I.’s say we nurses rough it. We wade ankle deep in mud. You have to lie in it. We have a stove and coal. . . . In comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can’t complain, nor do we feel that bouquets are due us.. . . It is to you we doff our helmets.
“We have learned about our American soldier and the stuff he is made of. The wounded don’t cry. Their buddies come first. The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. It is a privilege to receive you and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, ‘Hi-ya, babe.’”
Slanger was killed the following day by an artillery shell.
“Doctors in all military hospitals did a great job,” Ken Russell of the 82d Airborne remarked. He knew; he had been their patient. “The doctor in the forward field hospital was one of the most dedicated people you could meet. He would work long hours without adequate supplies—and the wonderful nurses did the same thing. They did not even have decent lighting. I have heard of them picking shrapnel out of a wounded man by flashlight.”
Their patients were often mangled beyond imagining. Dr. William McConahey was a battalion surgeon in the 90th Division in Normandy. “I’ve never seen such horrible wounds, before or since,” he wrote. “Legs off, arms off, faces shot away, eviscerations, chests ripped open and so on. We worked at top speed, hour after hour, until we were too tired to stand up—and then we still kept going.”
Dr. Joseph Gosman was an orthopedic surgeon with the 109th Evacuation Hospital. He got to Normandy in time for the St.-Lô battle. “I was floored by the turmoil,” he recalled. One patient had been in a jeep when it set off a mine. X rays showed “undamaged bolts, washers, bushing in the muscle as on a workbench.” Another man had been shot in the side. The bullet entered a large vein and “floated” in its current into the right ventricle of the heart and then into the left auricle. The X ray showed it bobbing in the heart chamber. A third soldier had been carrying a Swiss army knife in his pants pocket. Shrapnel had hit it, and bits of knife and shell entered his thigh together. “X-ray picture looked like a table setting with knife, fork and spoon and other stuff.” A fourth man was crouched beside a manure pile when a shell landed on it, “filling his thigh from knee to buttocks with manure, all tightly packed as into a sausage.” These were a few of the almost two hundred thousand battle-wounded men treated in the hospitals in 1944.
Gosman noticed a look among survivors of such wounds. It was “an appearance of naked bankruptcy, the stunned emptiness ... of men whom death had breathed on and passed by.” He was especially struck by a GI lying on his bunk, silent, who looked “like somebody rescued from the ledge of a skyscraper.” He read the chart and was astonished to learn that the soldier had been shot in the neck. The bullet had entered on the left, missed the nerves, carotid artery, and jugular vein, drilled a neat hole in the spinal column without touching the spinal cord, and exited. The man needed no surgery; his chief symptom was a sore neck.
The doctors had to be shrinks as well as surgeons. Some of the patients— as many as 25 percent when the fighting was heavy—were uninjured physically but were babbling, crying, shaking, or stunned, unable to hear or talk. These were the combat exhaustion casualties. It was the doctors’ job to get as many as possible back to normal—and back to the lines—as soon as possible.
In the field hospitals the American doctors treated the men as temporarily disabled soldiers rather than mental patients, normally categorizing them with the diagnosis “exhaustion.” For the sake of both prevention and cure, the doctors tried to treat such patients as close to the line as possible. Typically the doctors at battalion level kept the exhaustion cases at their aid stations for twenty-four hours of rest, often under sedation. The men got hot food and a change of clothing. For as many as three-quarters of the cases, that was sufficient, and the soldier went back to his foxhole.