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August 2019
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US Army

A Medic's Memoir

 A Medic's Memoir
 
The memories had remained sharp and well defined in my mind over the expanse of 52 years.  But as I tramped the battle sites on a 1997 visit to Belgium, where I once served as a young medic, the memories flooded back in all their gory, glorious detail. I wanted to record it as I remembered it. 
 
I was a Medic in the 99th Infantry Division, 395th Regiment, before, during and after the Battle of the Bulge.  Prior to our withdrawal to Elsenbom Ridge the Headquarters Aid Station of the 395th was in Rocherath and after the Battle of the Bulge began, the Aid Station received its share of shells pointed in our direction on the 16th, 17th and 18th December.  We had set up in a house on the outskirts of the town and by the 18th of December, we were receiving many casualties and some DOA, as well.  That evening, an attempt to move the bodies back to the Graves Registration area on litter jeeps was unsuccessful, so we returned to our station and placed them alongside our station house in neat rows.
 
 We had a roomful of injured men and we attempted to make them as comfortable as possible by giving injections of morphine to control their pain.  Later during the night, a lieutenant from the 2nd Infantry Division stopped by with his patrol and he asked why the injured had not been evacuated.  I told him that the ambulance drivers had reported that all the access roads were blocked toward the west.  He then instructed us to load up all the injured and that he would try to get them through to medical units behind our lines. We did as instructed, but I never knew whether they made it or not.
 
The next morning we received orders to move out, and we loaded our vehicles with equipment and supplies and headed toward the 395th Headquarters Company.  When we were about a mile from our destination, the road was heavily shelled and many of us opted to follow the vehicles to the Headquarters area on foot.  By this time it was late afternoon and the shells kept coming.  While walking along this rural road I heard a shell coming in and I hit the ground.  It landed nearby, took two skips along the ground, came to a stop and never exploded.
 
By the time we got to the Headquarters area, the trucks were already in convoy so we hopped on the nearest vehicle and headed cross country.  The ride was pleasant but short, because the trucks began to bog down and it was necessary to jump off and resume walking.  No one knew our destination, we just walked in the direction we were told to go.  Having not arrived at our destination by dark, it was necessary to find a place to spend the night.  We came upon a dug-out about 12’ X 12’ and 3’ deep, covered with logs and tin.  It looked great to us at the time and a group of us shared the protection it provided for the remainder of the night.  The shrapnel and dirt hitting our overhead cover during the night didn’t keep us from sleeping and feeling grateful for our safe haven. The next morning a GI was brave enough to poke his head out to assess the situation, detecting no immediate danger, we all left our dugout and began walking once again.  We came upon a U.S. Army truck that had some C rations on board that the drivers were willing to share.  They were frozen solid but we ate them as if they were good. 
 
As we approached a village, we saw a 6 x 6 truck approaching with a Red Cross flag flying from the front bumper. It turned out to be our Headquarters Medic truck out looking for me.  Interestingly, I was missing in action for a period of one night. That’s okay, I needed the rest! 
Elsenborn 
The truck driver took me to a house where our aid station was located at an intersection of the road from Elsenborn to Butgenbach.  No sooner had we settled in when we were told that German tanks were coming up the road from Butgenbach from Elsenborn.  The house had a small fruit cellar with a window facing the road. Someone had left a bazooka and some shells in the aid station and Walter Pawlaski (from Minneapolis, Minnesota) and I decided to go to the cellar and from the vantage point that the window presented, fire the bazooka shells at the tanks when they approached.  Medics were not allowed to carry weapons and we were a little short on expertise in the use of the bazooka, but we felt inclined to take some action in the face of oncoming tanks.  We were greatly relieved to learn later that the tanks were stopped before they could proceed to our location.  An officer came down into the cellar and asked what we were trying to do and we explained our plan to him.  He may or may not have been amused at our bravado, but he told us that if we had fired the bazooka in those close quarters, the concussion could have done a lot of damage...TO US!  So much for stopping a German panzer column in its tracks!!
 
Shelling continued to be heavy and it was suggested to our Command Officer, Captain lames Fyvie (from Manistique, Michigan), that we were in a very vulnerable location, that the Germans were zeroing in on our intersection with great accuracy. He said he would look for a better location for us and promptly left.  On his return, he informed us he had found a likely place for the Aid Station in a very sturdily built school house a short distance away and we lost no time in packing everything up once again and moving into the new location.
 
The school building was located at the edge of the Town of Elsenborn and there was nothing between us and the German lines. It resembled a fort, was well built with thick, stone walls. And a lucky move it was, for two days later a shell made a direct hit on the house we had formerly occupied.
 
The school house was surrounded by a sea of mud when we arrived, but it did indeed look sturdy. It had a concrete floor in the basement and we slept there because it provided us the best production.  Since the front entrance faced the German lines, we used the side door of the building.
 
As we settled in, the weather worsened, became colder and snow fell intermittently. We used two rooms in the building; the first room nearest the side entrance was our Medical Room and the second room was our overflow room which contained a pot belly stove with a smoke pipe sticking out the window.  Whenever possible, the Gls would come in out of cold to warm up at our little stove and snatch a little sack time.  Rags were placed over all the windows to maintain black-out conditions.
 
One night I smelled smoke and to my surprise saw that some GI had stoked up the fire, making the stove pipe red hot, setting the rags over the windows on fire. Guys were sleeping on the floor ail around. There was very little water so after getting the guys out of the room we beat out the flames with whatever we could grab. In a room where we were not allowed to smoke a cigarette in order to keep any light from showing, we had flames shooting out the window!  This was not lost on the Germans, because we took a few shells, as a result of this breach of our black out protocol.
 
We had many casualties coming in from Elsenbom Ridge, many with frozen feet. Replacements were in short supply during this time so we did not evacuate the injured as readily as previously.  If a GI could use a weapon, he was not sent back for further treatment but expected to join his outfit as soon as possible.
 
We had many casualties coming in from Elsenbom Ridge, many with frozen feet. Replacements were in short supply during this time so we did not evacuate the injured as readily as previously.  If a GI could use a weapon, he was not sent back for further treatment but expected to join his outfit as soon as possible.
 
On the 24th of December, Joe Maner and I were going back to Malmedy for medical supplies and water.  Enroute we were strafed by a German fighter plane at an intersection and our jeep was hit and totally demolished.  The water cans were shot full of holes and an M.P. was hit in the shoulder as he was directing traffic at the intersection.  I went back to take care of him. After he was bandaged and cared for, and afoot once again, we set out toward our Aid Station.  As I slogged along, my right foot felt squishy, and I looked down to discover I had a flesh wound in the lower calf and blood was running into my boot.
 
After hearing out story back at the Aid Station, Captain Fyvie decided I should be evacuated for treatment of my wound.  My thought was that he was a doctor and could take care of me where I was.  Later on when pieces of the bullet began coming out of my leg, he again wanted to send me back to a medical field hospital.  I refused for a second time.  Later, I received a Bronze Star for providing care for the injured MP before attending to my own wound.  Truth be known, at the time, I had not yet discovered I was wounded!!!  As the war progressed, all combat medics were awarded the Bronze Star. I have two.
 
Trips continued to be made back and forth to Malmedy for supplies and it was my job to supply all four of our 395th aid stations, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Battalions and Headquarters. There was an ample supply of plasma for transfusion, however, it is supposed to be transfused at body temperature. This was impossible. The plasma came packaged in a kit with needles, lines and in powder form.  The powder had to be dissolved in a bottle of saline solution before it was administered intravenously. Nothing stayed warm in Elsenborn and it was a challenge to try to warm the plasma. We tried to keep the plasma warm by placing the bottles in a pan of water that sat on a little gasoline burner.  The bottles stayed there until we went out in the field, then we carried the saline bottles in our arm pits to maintain their warmth.
 
After transfusing one GI with several liters of cold plasma-he looked a hopeless case--we placed a blanket over him because we thought he was dead. After a time we saw movement under the blanket and we hurriedly transfused him again, loaded him in an ambulance and sent him back for further treatment.  Working near the front lines, we sent the wounded back as soon as possible and seldom ever knew whether they recovered. I have wondered about that one. 
 
While we were at Elsenborn we received our first shipment of penicillin.  It came to us as a powder that had to be reconstituted with normal saline.  Previous to this time sulpha was the only drug we had to fight infections.  Shortly after Captain Fyvie had been promoted to Major he became very ill and was running a high fever.  He decided to try the new medicine on himself right then and there.  It worked like the miracle drug that it was.... It made believers out of all of us. 
 
The weather worsened and the army issued us Weasels, a more suitable vehicle with tank-like tracks for maneuvering in the snow.  We promptly set about white-washing them in the hope of becoming invisible to the Germans when we were out and about.  Our 395th Headquarters kitchen was set up about a block from the school building so we had to make trips to chow.  On Christmas Day it was turkey and trimmings for all. Due to the heavy shelling, we did not go in groups, but singly or in pairs.  There was a jeep sitting about half way between the school house and the kitchen. Our plan included making a dash to the jeep, hitting the ground, then going the rest of the way as fast as possible.  It worked great on the way over, but on the return trip, laden with our turkey dinners, we ran to the jeep, hit the ground as planned, but so did a lot of the turkey dinners.  Soon the jeep was surrounded with turkey and trimmings! 
 
Although we saw all types of injuries, some of the saddest patients were those suffering from combat exhaustion.  I went to a house one day and found a GI seeking protection by trying to dig into the floor with his fingers.  In Malmedy, I saw a GI walking back and forth in road ruts full of ice water obviously without any idea where he was or what he was doing. 
 
We had the unforgettable experience of being assigned a Medical Administrative Officer who came to the Aid Station and told us he wanted to go to the front. I told him to just step out the front door!  A few days later he came into the station carrying a live bazooka shell.  He said he wanted someone to detonate it so he could have it as a souvenir. I reported this incident to Major Fyvie and needless to say, the poor fellow was gone the next day.
 
One day a German artillery shell came scudding through the front door of the school building-but didn’t explode. I have always been thankful for that dud.
 
We didn’t use the triage system during this time.  We had about 12 medics, a doctor and a dentist in our outfit to take care of all the incoming wounded.  We treated other ailments such as colds, diarrhea, upset stomach as well as shrapnel wounds, bullet injuries, combat fatigue and frozen feet.
 
There was a big controversy over trench foot as opposed to frozen feet.  Our aid station personnel received official notice that GIs in the field developed trench foot because they did not wash their feet and change to clean socks each day.  We were instructed to designate the condition as "trench foot" which was considered a self-inflicted wound.  Our major told me that we were never to use those two words on an evacuation card!
 
I admit to having had a problem with the liquor ration.  We had four Aid Stations and we received three bottles per day to be used for medicinal purposes.  There was scotch, cognac and some cheaper brands, but I was usually accused of keeping the best for our Aid Station.  I should have documented the liquor distribution, for I really tried my best to divide it fairly and I thought that I did.  Ironically, I didn’t even drink liquor!
 
We remained in the school building until the break out from Elsenborn in late January at which time we headed back toward the twin cities of Krinkelt and Rocherath.  My experience in treating these soldiers seemed like a routine job to me at the time.  I was able to accept the responsibility without it creating any lasting personal problems.  Of course there were times when patience grew thin but a good night’s sleep and some decent food took care of those times.  We were always hungry for fresh meat and we butchered a cow and a pig during our stay at the school house. We greatly enjoyed the meat for as along as it lasted!  Usually the wounded men and the others who needed our help did not complain excessively or give us a hard time.  I feel honored to have served as a medic in the 395th, and shall always remember and admire the courage and inner strength shown by the men on Elsenborn Ridge.......
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle May 2000
Harry E Mc CRACKEN

 

 

395th Infantry Regiment

 

99th Infantry Division

 

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium