At the Aid Station a T-5 washes my hand with alcohol and paints the splinter-graze with iodine. He removes the dressing from my hip, dabs at the wound with an alcohol swab, and whistles. "Looks like you go for an ambulance ride, Joe." A very busy young captain looks at the wound, and nods. "Write out a ticket on him, and send him back with the next load of walking wounded." The T-5 dusts the wound with sulfa-powder, tapes a dressing in place and scribbles on a tag, which he ties through a buttonhole in my field jacket. I sit on a mattress in one corner of the building and wish I'd had sense enough to bring along an extra package of cigarettes. Temple and the infantry sergeant are also tagged and slated for an ambulance. Temple has cigarettes; we smoke as we listen to an 88 walk shells up and down the street out front. A jeep skids to a stop outside the front door. The T-5 nods at us. "You three hop on that jeep." The jeep driver guns his motor impatiently as we climb in back; he lets out his clutch and the jeep whirls like a polo pony and zooms up the street. We skid around a corner as an 88 lands just behind us in the street.
Ambulances Lined Up
Two ambulances are lined up behind the protection of a thick walled stone barn. We climb into the first one. The jeep spins around in the street and goes back around the corner for another load, the driver hunched well forward and gripping the wheel very tightly. The 88 walks shells up and down the main street. The jeep careens back around the corner, carrying one man on a litter and two hanging on. The litter patient is loaded into our ambulance and the other two climb in and sit down. The ambulance orderly tucks a blanket snugly over the litter patient, closes the back doors and the ambulance moves out. We go through alleys and side streets to the edge of town, there we hit the main road, and the orderly twists about in his seat. "Keep your heads down, and hang on." He says. "We get shelled for the next five hundred yards." The ambulance leaps forward and the motor roars. The orderly is right. We get shelled. Perhaps the German artillerymen's eyesight is poorruined by long winter evenings spent studying the Geneva Conventions by candlelight so that they will know their rights as Prisoners of War. Perhaps they cannot see the large Red Cross insignia painted on the sides and top and aback of the ambulance. (Most people can see the Red Cross further than they can the ambulance.)
The shells land close enough to splatter the sides of the ambulance with mud, but we make it over the crest of the hill and are safe. We light cigarettes all around, give one to the litter patient and prop him up so he rides more comfortably and relax. The ambulance threads its way through front-bound traffic; tanks and tank-destroyers, halftracks crammed with infantry, gas and ammunition trucks, hurrying jeeps, and empty ambulances. We pass my battery in position on the left of the road; they are firing a mission. The short-barreled 105's snap back in recoil and the tanks rock on their tracks; the tubes creep back into battery with blue smoke wreathing their muzzles, and snap back again. Seven voices lift together inside that ambulance: "Give 'em hell! Pour it on the squarehead __________s". I am guilty of a warm proud feeling; I am an artilleryman, and that's my battery!
A Dressing Station
The division collecting station is at Kerling, five days ago the place where our infantry killed Panzergrenadiers with bayonets and grenades, now beyond artillery range of the front. The dressing station is a French house, with a pump and horse-trough out front. The inside of that house is a busy place, for through this house pass all the wounded of our division, plus a few from adjoining and supporting units. Waiting litter cases lie in the center of a large room; walking wounded sit on chairs, benches, and on the floor around the sides of the room. A clerk works at a desk in one corner of the room, and two orderlies move about the room looking at evacuation tags. They check the dressings on the litter cases, check pulses, light cigarettes for those who can't do it themselves. One at a time the litter cases are carried into the operating room; the sharp, acrid smell of antiseptic drifts out into the waiting room. When all the litter cases have been processed, an orderly comes around the wall and looks at our tags. He beckons to me, and I follow him into the operating room. The surgeon is a short, fat, black-haired Virginian. "Lay down on that table, there, son," he says. A T-4 in a white jacket pulls my clothing away, and removes the dressing from the wound. He swabs it with alcohol and the surgeon looks at it. "Huh," he prods above the wound with a blunt fore-finger. "That hurt? ... Thought it would. Hunk of metal in there. Can't take it out here. Dust it good with sulfa-powder, Finney, and put a big dressing on it. Plenty of tape, now, so it won't come off before he gets back to the evacuation hospital." He looks at my tag, and scribbles on it. "West Virginia, huh? I'm from Roanoke. Hell of a long ways from home, aren't we, Sergeant?"
A clerk takes my field glasses away from me, and gives me a receipt for them, types out a form and places it in an envelope, and looks up at me. "You'll sleep here tonight. We're short on ambulances; got a lot of litter cases to move. Got any cigarettes? Got a messkit?" I shake my head. He hands me a package of Chesterfields and a box of matches. "The kitchen is across the road. Go on over there and eat. Here's my messkit; don't forget where you got it. I'll give you some blankets when you come back."
At the kitchen I get steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, bread and butter, coffee, and a big chunk of pineapple pie. After five days of cold K rations it is wonderful. And that pie would be wonderful anywhere. I wash the mess-gear and return it to the clerk, and he gives me three blankets and an orderly leads me through a side door of the house into the barn. Ten or twelve men are there already, stretched out on blankets laid over a foot of hay. I remove my boots for the first time in four days, and stretch luxuriously. My hip is stiff and beginning to get sore, but the hay is soft. Soon Temple and the infantry sergeant come in and bed down beside me. I go to sleep listening to the same guns muttering to the east.
In the morning Temple goes back up to the battery and I go with the infantry sergeant and four other walking wounded in an ambulance bound for the Evacuation Hospital at Thionville. It is a short ride in the rain through the rear areas. The hospital is a former French school; the red brick buildings are undamaged and the plumbing fairly intact. Young Frenchmen in blue berets carry litters and help walking wounded from the ambulances and into the receiving room. The corridor is filled with the wounded and sick of four divisions, waiting to be processed. A battery of clerks with typewriters sit at tables on one side of the corridor. Litter cases are parked in neat rows in front of them, waiting their turn in the x-ray room. Medical Corps technicians move among them, checking evacuation tags and looking at dressings. The litter casesmen with serious woundsare whisked away rapidly and efficiently into x-ray and surgical wards. Nurses work among the sick and walking wounded, checking tags; wounded men get an immediate anti-tetanus shot, and their dressings are checked to see if they are dry and secure. The sick get their temperatures taken, and if there is nothing seriously wrong with them, they wait until the wounded men are taken care of. A pair of Red Cross girls in blue coveralls come through the receiving ward, passing out cigarettes, matches, and candy. A young Wehrmacht lieutenant limps through the front door holding himself erect as a ramrod; the right leg of his tailored breeches and his right boot are bright red with new blood. He makes a teeth-clenching effort to ignore both the pain of his shattered leg and the unsmiling French lad who holds him up and helps him along. The French lad finds a chair for the lieutenant and eases him into it; the lieutenant refuses a cigarette. He sits staring straight to the front, with beads of sweat forming on his pale forehead. I get my tetanus shot and a medic checks the dressing on my wound, and I am assigned to a ward. A Frenchman helps me up the stairs and down a corridor to a long roomformerly a lecture roomwhere some forty cots have been placed. About ten cots are vacant, and the Frenchman leads me to one of these. A nurseyoung and lovely, just like in the movieslooks up from a desk where she is filling out forms. She gets up and comes over to my bunk and looks at my tag. "How you feeling, Sergeant?"
A Girl Grins At Him
"Good," I say, trying to look heroic as possible.
"I'll bet you do." She grins at me. "How would you like to wash and shave and get some clean clothes?" She calls the ward-boy, a small Chinese in a white jacket, who wears a perpetual smile. "Get some toilet articles for this sergeant, Charlie. And when he has finished cleaning up, you can take him over and get him some clean clothes." To me she adds; "You'd better be ready to go down to x-ray in about forty minutes."
The lavatory has clean white basins, hot running water, and mirrors. I stare at the apparition in the mirror; he glowers back, his face covered with mud, dried blood, and six days' beard; he needs a haircut badly. Soap, gallons of hot water, and a razor help; I'm recognizable. The Chinese ward-boy and a man in a white jacket come along the row of beds. This second man carries a hypodermic equipped with the longest needle I ever saw. The Chinese boy carries a vial of large white tablets, a pitcher of water, and a glass. The halt by each occupied bunk, and look at the tag hanging on the foot. The wounded man on the bunk wordlessly bares his arm and looks the other way. Sock! Goes the needle into the shoulder muscle, and the level of the brownish fluid in the hypodermic sinks a little. The wounded man rolls down his sleeve, grinning wryly. The Chinese boy holds out two of the white tablets, and a glass of water. The wounded man gulps, sighs, and stretches out again.
"Hey, Joe," I ask as the man with the needle stops beside my bunk, "what's this? I've had shots for every disease known to man and beast." He smiles wearily. "Penicillin. You'll get a shot every four hours until you have had twelve of them. Good for you. Kills bugs." Resigned, I roll up my sleeve and brace myself. The Chinese boy grins at me, and holds out two tablets and a glass of water. "Sulfa-pills," he explains. "Good for you. Kills all the bugs Penicillin doesn't get. You get two pills every four hours." I gulp, sigh, and stretch out. I have a cigarette lit and burning nicely when another man in a white jacket walks down the aisle to the nurses desk. He has a slip of per in his hand; the nurse reads it, and points to me. "Your Gawthrop?" he asks, coming over to my bunk. I nod. "Let's go. You got to have an x-ray." I follow him.
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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.