In a hard war theirs may have been the hardest job of all. But together with Army doctors and Army nurses, [the medics] worked something very close to a miracle in the European theater.
— Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose in his book, Citizen Soldiers gives a whole chapter to the medical corps, "Medics, Nurses, and Doctors" Buddy was a surgical tech, which I assume meant he was not at the front but behind it in the field surgical hospitals, the forerunners of the M.A.S.H units. Overall, though, the work of all the medics was almost that of miracle workers. Here are some of the reflections from Ambrose.
It wasn’t any different getting killed in World War II than in the Civil War, but if the shrapnel, bullet, or tree limb wounded a GI without killing him, his experience as a casualty was infinitely better. The medical team, from the medics in the field to the nurses and doctors in the tent-city hospitals, compiled a remarkable record. More than 8 percent of the soldiers who underwent emergency operations in a mobile field or evacuation hospital survived. Fewer than 4 percent of all patients admitted to a field hospital died. In the Civil War, it had been more like 50 percent.
Wonder drugs and advanced surgical techniques made the improvements possible, but it was people who had to get the wounded into a hospital before it was too late for the nurses and the drugs and surgeons to do their work. Those people were the medics. (P. 311)
At least to some degree, there were soldiers assigned to the medical units because of a desire to be non-combatants, often “conscientious objectors,” usually for religious reasons. While this was obviously not a common occurrence since the Army had clearly recruited for the medical corps, it still had an impact on some of the impressions of the troops concerning the medics. While Buddy was not, to the best of my awareness, not a conscientious objector, he may have had to face some of this prior to the war. As a trained pharmacist, though not doing that work, he no doubt was assigned to the medical corps for his training. Ambrose addresses this.
The medics had gone through the same training as any infantryman, except for weapons. In training camp, they had been segregated into their own barracks and kept away from the men they were learning to save, apparently for fear of contaminating the real soldiers. The rifle-carrying enlisted men and the medics developed little mutual camaraderie. One lieutenant confessed that he and his platoon “mildly despised” the men of the Medical Corps for being conscientious objectors. Their mere presence cast a moral shadow over what the infantrymen were training to do. The nascent medics were ridiculed, called such names as Pill Pusher, and the tourniquets and bandages they put on imagined wounds in field exercises were joked about. So was their only real work, treating blisters and the like.Something I had not known was mentioned by Ambrose. As non-combatants, there were certain limitations beyond not carrying any firearms.
But once in combat they were loved. “Overseas,” the medic Buddy Gianelloni recalled, “it became different. They called you Medic, and before you know it, it was Doc. I was nineteen at the time.”
On countless occasions when I have asked a veteran during an interview if he remembered any medics, the old man would say something like “Bravest man I ever saw. Let me tell you about him.. . .” (P. 312)
To preserve their non-combatant status under the Geneva Convention, the War Department did not give any medics combat pay (ten dollars extra a month) or the right to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge. This was bitterly resented. In some divisions, riflemen collected money from their own pay to give their medics the combat bonus. As for their right to wear the badge, five enlisted medics in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were awarded the Medal of Honor, and hundreds won Silver or Bronze Stars. (P. 313)Overall it seems very clear that the army was bound and determined to keep their GIs alive, even if they weren’t going back to battle.
The remarkable rate of recovery for wounded GIs was based on mass production 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.” (P. 321)While Ambrose is referring to the doctors at the end of the chapter, I would guess that the attitude, training, and support of the other medical personnel were as critical to the mental health “treatment” on and near the front lines.
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.All quotes from-
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.
Good company commanders already knew that to be the case. Captain Winters of the 101st commented that he learned during the Bulge “the miracle that would occur with a man about to crack if you could just get him out of his fox hole and back to the CP [command post] for a few hours. Hot food, hot drink, a chance to warm up—that’s what he needed to keep going.”
Men who needed more than a quick visit to the CP or battalion aid station were sent back to division medical facilities, where the division psychiatrist operated an “exhaustion center” that could hold patients for three days of treatment. The bulk of these men also returned to the line. Those who had not recovered went on to the neuropsychiatric wards of general hospitals for seven days of therapy and reconditioning. The extreme cases were air-evacuated to the States.
The system worked. Ninety of every hundred men diagnosed as exhaustion cases in the ETO were restored to some form of duty—usually on the line. As they had done with the men wounded by bullets and shrapnel, so the medics, nurses, and docs did for the exhausted casualties: under the worst possible circumstances, superb medical care. (pp. 329-330)
"Medics, Nurses, and Doctors." Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose (also online at American Heritage as Medic!)
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