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The Toughest Job

The Toughest Job

A special excerpt, by Stephen E. Ambrose, from the newly-published AMERICAN HERITAGE® New History of World War II.

It wasn't any different getting killed in World War II from how it had been in the Civil War or World War I, but if the shrapnel, bullet, or tree limb wounded a GI without killing him, his experience as a casualty was infinitely better than Johnny Reb's or Billy Yank's or a doughboy's, beginning with his survival chances. In 1864, 50 percent or more of men admitted to hospitals died; in 1918, it was 8 percent; in 1944, 4 percent.

Wonder drugs, especially sulfa and penicillin, and advanced surgical techniques helped make the improvements possible, but the first reason for such success was the speed with which wounded men were treated. It began with the medics. In training camps they had been mildly despised because most of them were conscientious objectors, and often ridiculed, called "Pill Pushers" or worse. But in combat they were loved and admired without stint. "Overseas," medic Buddy Gianelloni recalled, "it became different. They called you medic and before you knew it, it was Doc. I was 19 at the time."

The medic's job was to get the wounded away from the front line. That often entailed running out of his foxhole during shelling or into no-man's-land to help a fallen soldier. Once with the wounded man, the medic would do the briefest examination, apply a tourniquet if necessary, inject a vial of morphine, clean up the wound as best he could and sprinkle sulpha powder on it, slap on a bandage, and drag or carry the patient to the rear. This was often done under enemy fire, although generally the Germans respected the Red Cross armband.

It was the universal opinion of the frontline infantry that the medics were the bravest of all. Captain John Colby of the Ninetieth Division commented, "We had so much faith in our medics' ability that we firmly believed we would not die if they got to us in time."

Once the medic got the patient behind the lines, he put him onto a litter or jeep, to be taken back to an aid station, anywhere from a couple of hundred meters to a kilometer or more to the rear. That usually took about fifteen minutes. In early August 1944, Lieutenant Charles Stockell of the Second Infantry Division was hit badly in the leg. A medic treated him, then helped him to the rear and onto a jeep. "I am laid across the hood," Stockell wrote in his diary, "like a slaughtered deer." At the aid station he was stabilized, given plasma, and sent on to an evacuation hospital. His condition was critical, so rather than being admitted after triage, he was marked for evacuation. He traveled by train and ship, and after being unconscious for twenty hours woke up in a hospital in England. There he recovered, as did more than 99 percent of the men evacuated from northwest Europe.

Corporal Walter Gordon of the 101st Airborne was hit outside Bastogne on Christmas Eve. The bullet went in the left shoulder and out the right. It had brushed Gordon's spinal column; he was paralyzed from the neck down. A medic gave him morphine and plasma and got him on a jeep. Within minutes he was at the aid station. An hour after he was wounded, he was in an ambulance headed toward an evacuation hospital, where he was immediately marked for air evacuation to England. Once there, the doctors kept him immobile for six weeks. His recovery was not rapid but it was nearly complete. Gordon went on to live a full and successful life thanks to the speed of his treatment.

The less severely wounded were treated in the evacuation hospitals where assembly-line medicine was practiced. During the Normandy battle, ambulances coming from the aid station to the hospital had to line up, three abreast, in lines reaching up to two hundred meters. The doctors worked as rapidly as possible but were only just able to keep up with the litter bearers. The tents had space for a hundred litters and were nearly always filled, with litters bearing wounded on the ground outside. Along the sides of the tent sat the walking wounded. A tag showed whether and how much morphine the casualty had received from the medic. The doctors went from patient to patient, asking questions, scanning each record, lifting the dressing to check each wound.

One nurse, Lieutenant Aileen Hogan, recalled, "I have never worked so hard in my life. The boys get in, get emergency treatment, penicillin and sulfa, and are out again. It is beyond words."

In a letter home, nurse Ruth Hess described setting up an evacuation hospital in the wake of the American sweep through France. "We arrived late in the evening and spent all night getting ready to receive patients, setting up the tents and equipment. Then went to work, for nine days we never stopped. Eight hundred eighty patients operated; small debridement of gunshot and shrapnel wounds, numerous amputations, fractures galore, perforated guts, livers, spleens, kidneys, lungs, everything imaginable. We cared for almost 1,500 patients in those nine days." Then the hospital packed and moved forward, closer to the front.

Because the hospitals were in the combat zones, they kept black-out conditions. Lieutenant Aileen Hogan described how that affected her nursing duties: "At 1900 hours all the penicillin needed for the first round is mixed and two technicians and one nurse make the rounds of the hospital, giving penicillin to the patients. One loads the syringes and changes needles, the other two give the hypos. It is an art to find your way around at night, not a glimmer of light anywhere, no flashlights of course, the tents just a vague silhouette against the darkness, ropes and tent pins a constant menace, syringes, and precious medications balanced precariously on one arm."

Behind the evacuation hospitals were field hospitals, where most of the wounded were brought for treatment and recovery. The doctors were magnificent. Their patients were often mangled beyond imagination. Their minds went numb. "Legs off, arms off, faces shot away, eviscerations, chests ripped open, and so on," one doctor commented. "I've never seen such horrible wounds. We worked at top speed, hour after hour, until we were too tired to stand up—and then we still kept going." Because the doctors and nurses kept working even when their tents were under enemy fire, tens of thousands of wounded GIs survived.  

From AMERICAN HERITAGE(r) New History of World War II, revised and updated by Stephen E. Ambrose, original text by C. L. Sulzberger. Copyright (c) 1966, 1994, 1997 American Heritage, a division of Forbes Inc. New text and introduction copyright (c) 1997 Stephen E. Ambrose. Published by Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., available in bookstores, or call 1-800-876-6556.

For more on medics, see the article "Medic!" by Stephen E. Ambrose, in the 11/97 edition of American Heritage.