The Example of Private Slovik


Two medical officers, having somehow missed the earlier exodus, requested my permission (since I was designated acting surgeon of the defending task force by the departing division surgeon, my dental degree and time in service deemed adequate for the job) to retrieve two abandoned ambulances “just outside town.” Working in concert, they succeeded in getting my permission and quickly took off, for good. I met one of them at a veterans’ reunion four years later, and he spent a lot of time detailing an elaborate alibi.


When I volunteered to remain with the defense task force, my action technically relieved all the other headquarters medical department officers of the need to wait for orders to leave. I requested a volunteer from my own detachment. There was an immediate response from one man, the others staring at us as though we were out of our minds. He was Sgt. Bill Moffett, a 1941 draftee from Pittsburgh, an able medic and a maverick in no awe whatever of Army regulation and routine.

On the night of December 18, Moffett and I crept out of our empty aid station at the lower end of Wiltz and cautiously approached a nearby bridge across the narrow Wiltz River. It was patrolled by a single sentry, who challenged us in unmistakable American, and we soon discovered that a medical unit of about eighty men had fallen back and was now situated on our left flank, leaving us exposed there no longer. I reported this good news on the field telephone to the commander. At dawn on the nineteenth, when Moffett and I ventured out to contact them again, they all were gone, the bridge left unguarded and ourselves again exposed.

On the fateful night of December 19, our remnants were still in the town of Wiltz, thanks mainly to the resistance of the little groups of “noncombatant” specialists on the outskirts and the remnants of one infantry regiment. A group of three visiting surgeons, who were now marooned in Wiltz, shared rations with me. With a couple of candles and a bottle of wine, we squatted about an improvised table in the basement of an outbuilding of the castle headquarters, the shellfire muffled by the thick walls, and we sensed we were sharing a “last supper.” A few hours later, at about 11:00 P.M., I got word that all of us were to move out, our job done, the Germans all around us. As medics, Moffett and I were to bring up the rear.

We had to hustle in single file through an underground tunnel that opened on the courtyard. The shelling was now heavy. On emerging, Moffett and I raced the few yards to the outbuilding to pass on the orders to the three surgeons and five or six exhausted soldiers I had seen there. None of the soldiers got to his feet. They were through with the war, ready to be taken prisoner. I bent down to shake hands and say good-bye. I felt no obligation to order or persuade them—infantrymen who had been in the line for days on end, over many months, and now had decided “no more.”

The major, highest-ranking of the visiting surgeons, said to me, “Don’t go. You haven’t a Chinaman’s chance.” Those were his exact words. Never forgotten, either, was my immediate understanding of how different our worlds were, his and mine. For me there was no choice. I had orders.

The six frenzied hours of combat, of being shot up from three sides by panzer troops in the trap that had finally closed on us just outside Wiltz, are remembered all too well. My ubiquitous shorthand diary, resumed three weeks later, cites a numb acceptance of personal disaster by many of the wounded we reached and their effusive thanks; the energy and zeal of Moffett and three other medics picked up somewhere; and one brave, hopeless flanking maneuver attempted by an officer and a pickup squad. I stumbled on to a little group of soldiers huddled in a heap, too demoralized to fire their weapons. Half-hallucinating and in a burst of crazy humor, I asked one man with the shakes, whom I recognized, if he was taking his rifle apart to clean it.

Moffett, the other three medics (my diary gives their names as Pogue, Deboe, and Curtis), and I managed, during lulls in the firing, to carry all our forty-one wounded up a slope of the traplike defile and onto several vehicles blocked on the narrow road. When flares exposed our position, the German mortars proceeded to bracket our vehicles front and back. I jumped into the ambulance and got the little convoy to move forward, some of the vehicles tilting on two wheels to maneuver around the wrecked jeeps in front. A few hundred yards farther on we got stuck in an impassable copse. It was about 5:00 A.M., and the firing had stopped. A short while later we heard shouts in German, followed by short bursts of automatic-weapons fire. Mr. Purvis, the band warrant officer, ill with pneumonia and a casualty, called out our surrender in German, and he and I went forward, hands on top of our heads, to surrender ourselves and our wounded to a brisk German tank corporal, posing and strutting as though he had won the war.

Days of misery, exhaustion, and near starvation followed as groups of us were marched east into Germany, through devastated villages, halting during the day in bombed-out buildings or in woods to escape strafing by American planes and trudging on during the night. The final leg of our journey was a four-day ride in crowded boxcars, in which we took turns sitting and standing, unable to stretch out.