by Harry F. Noyes III
As Allied forces closed in on
The surprise part worked. The German forces attacked in fog and
darkness the night of Dec. 16-17, smashing through thinly held First
The results included some of the most shocking losses and failures in American military history. Surprised and without air support due to the weather, the Americans suffered heavy casualties including large numbers captured. Units were bundled ingloriously rearward in panic and disorder, and two entire regiments of one division surrendered in mass.
Yet, the big picture wasn't nearly as bad as it seemed at first to some
observers. At the grassroots, though often broken up into isolated penny
packets, most of the Americans fought like hell before they fled, inflicting
losses on the Germans and -- above all -- imposing fatal delays on the German
timetable. The top Allied leaders were anxious, but did not panic. They rushed
reserve divisions into key blocking positions at road junctions such as
All this happened in one of the most miserably cold, wet winters
Medics under attack
Before the Battle of the Bulge even started, medics fell victim to what apparently was preparation for one of the Germans' most famous (and often exaggerated) "dirty tricks" of the campaign: sending Germans into the American lines in American uniforms.
Shortly before the offensive began, three medical officers -- a lieutenant colonel and two majors -- were killed and stripped of their uniforms in an ambush. Days later, some 9th Armored Division officers noticed a lieutenant colonel and two majors with red crosses on their helmets and sleeves escorting three veiled women in the 9th's rear area in Luxembourg. By the time it dawned on the tankers that there was something fishy about the medics -- they were all carrying sidearms, and the women were wearing nylon stockings -- the suspicious party had disappeared. The mystery was never cleared up, but it is natural to suspect that the armor officers had spotted German infiltrators using the stolen uniforms of the murdered American medics.
For the AMEDD, the Bulge was an essentially new experience: except for
a few units in the
"All I can remember is the chaos," wrote European Theater of Operations surgeon Maj. Gen. Paul R. Hawley later. Nobody knew anything. We were pretty much in the dark."
Though some medical units and people were overrun, on the whole the AMEDD forces coped fairly well with the chaos, demonstrating resourcefulness and determination as well as courage. They were aided by the German inability to get past the 1st Army rear boundary or to interdict the roads being used for medical movements (hospitals and patients); by the U.S. Army's huge motor-transport resources which could be assigned -- or hijacked -- to support medical needs; by field-army medical establishments equipped and staffed for peak loads rather than average loads (on Jan. 1, the 1st and 3rd Army hospitals still had almost 9,000 vacant beds available); and by the presence in the near rear of a well-developed COMMZ medical base which the German offensive barely touched, despite some initial anxiety and planning for hasty retreats that were never needed (though, as we shall see, this was a near-run thing due to some rear-area bottlenecks).
As the official history noted, the often-criticized splendor of American logistics helped save the day. So lavish were American supply lines that disrupted or improvised hospitals could often supply themselves at least at subsistence level from the cast-off, abandoned droppings of retreating units. Though tighter than supplies, even manpower was sufficiently large to permit the creation of emergency hospitals from unit medical staffs.
Hawley's stubborn insistence on building the medical system for the
worst possible situation was vindicated, though it was a close-run thing even
for his "overbuilt" structure. In the end, Hawley's success was aided
by the War Deparment's overruling of his own stubborn determination to keep as
many casualties as possible in
Despite all their own problems, 1st Army hospitals admitted 78,000 patients including 24,000 wounded during the Bulge fighting, while 3rd Army hospitals got comparable numbers (some 70,000 patients including 30,000 wounded).
The men running this show were grateful for the performance of the COMMZ units further back:
"Evacuation to the rear of 1st
Medical personnel shared fully in 3rd Army's amazing 90-degree swing
from east to north to relieve
It could have been worse. As it happened, the German blows fell to the
south of where 1st Army had most of its clumsiest medical facilities
(convalescent hospital, main supply depot). The mobile units directly
supporting V and VIII Corps were able to flee quickly, thanks partly to the
light patient loads they had accumulated in the "quiet"
"The Americans lost a number of hospitals, medics and wounded to the German spearhead formations, but on the whole were able to maintain a high standard of medical care, even in this fluid battle," states the Army's official history of the tactical side of the campaign, reflecting the fighters' high regard for the medical achievement."
North Shoulder: Division medics hard hit
Hardest hit were the division medical units caught in the midst of the fighting, such as those of the 2nd and the (unblooded) 99th Infantry Divisions on the north shoulder of the Bulge.
Aid stations were frequently located at road intersections, precisely where the Germans aimed their fire and their attacks. It was not uncommon for the overcrowded stations to get hit by shells, and medics sometimes worked with fighting right outside.
Wounded had to be evacuated even as units retreated. Units generally gave the medics priority for transportation of wounded on whatever vehicles were available. Wounded went near the head of retreating columns, for safety, while medics followed in the rear to collect new casualties. Most units got their wounded and medics out safely, though some locations got cut off and other routes were too dangeous to use after darkness fell. Other units abandoned medical gear to make room for wounded on their trucks.
The retreat of the 2nd and 99th Divisions was orderly enough to allow their medical battalions to evacuate casualties from forward aid stations most of the time...though not without some trauma to the collecting companies charged with this task, who had to sandbag their stations against direct fire, prepare for long-term care in case their evacuation routes were cut, and constantly shift those routes to prevent that from happening.
The 99th's 324th Med Battalion suffered 18 men wounded or missing in December and one of its companies lost all its gear. A collecting company of the 2nd Division's 2nd Med Battalion was rendered non-operational by equipment losses, and its clearing station lost a lot of equipment while leapfrogging rearwards.
Losses and shrinking division fronts led the 324th to consolidate its collecting companies into one provisional unit supporting all three regiments. As divisions were pushed back from their original lines of communication, routes had to be shifted from east-west to north-south. This often disrupted ambulance support from the rear, forcing some medical units to "push" wounded to the rear in trucks.
Despite heroic efforts, sometimes casualties and medics were overrun or deliberately left behind. Battalion surgeon Capt. Frederick J. McIntyre and his medics remained to care for 12-15 wounded for whom no transportation was available as their 99th Division unit -- 3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry -- barely escaped encirclement on Dec. 17. They flew red-cross and white flags as the enemy overran them.
Two other 99th units -- 2nd Battalion of the 394th Infantry and the 1st
of the 393rd -- got cut off in the Honsfelder Wald. When they tried to march
out, they got into a stiff fight at the
This battle was more dangerous to medics than usual. The desperate enemy, especially SS troops, fired small-arms and even heavy weapons at medics and ambulances more often than he had been wont to do in the past. At Huenningen, two medics of were killed when they went out to help a wounded lieutenant of Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry. (When this battalion retreated, it followed a secondary road scouted by the battalion surgeon.)
Even when medics were not themselves threatened with capture, the harsh conditions made their work miserable. To protect wounded from the cold, litter teams had to carry extra blankets and medics had to administer extra large amounts of plasma against shock.
About Dec. 19, the North Shoulder front stabilized and medical service for the 2nd and 99th Divisions returned to normal patterns. The 134th Medical Group was able to start sending ambulances to the division clearing stations near Elsenborn to haul patients back to army-level hospitals at Eupen.
Middle: Disaster and near disaster
One of the most exposed American units was the unblooded 106th
Division, which got badly whipped and surrounded. The result was several of the
largest unit surrenders in the history of the
The medics were not spared. The entire medical staffs and hundreds of wounded from two of the 106th's infantry regiments (the 422nd and 423rd), two artillery battalions, two engineer companies and a reconnaissance troop were taken by the Germans. Even where units attempted breakouts, they often had to leave their medics and wounded behind.
As is often the case in desperate situations -- and substantiating the importance of efficient field treatment and evacuation services to military effectiveness -- concern for the fate of the wounded was often a prime consideration in an isolated unit's decision to surrender.
Medical supplies were short, the wounded naturally could not be evacuated, and medics themselves were subject to attrition as the battle continued.
A Colonel Kelly described how the 422nd ran out of food, medicine. blankets and even water -- there was a river full of it but the Germans controlled the river.
"...there was a steady stream of wounded...and without dressings or blankets there was nothing we could do except let them lie in their gore and shiver -- with the most goddam pitiful look in their eyes," Kelly wrote. "I put my coat over one -- when it was all over, I felt like a heel going back for it -- but he didn't need it any more."
Col. George Descheneaux, commander of the 422nd, heard the cries of these helpless wounded as they begged for water in the aid-post dugout adjacent to his command post.
When Kelly heard that Descheneaux had decided to surrender the regiment, he protested that Descheneaux must not do that. The commander looked at the nearby accumulation of dead and wounded and simply replied, "No?"
"If his command post hadn't been the regimental aid station, he could have stood it a little while longer," Kelly wrote of Descheaneaux.
The regiment surrendered the afternoon of Dec. 19. The 423rd did, too.
A few isolated elements of the 106th, dubbed the "Lost 500," set up a defensive perimeter on a hill near Laudesville where they at first escaped detection and hoped to hold out till reached by a hoped-for American counterattack.
However, the Germans surrounded them Dec. 20 and tried to wear them down, more with propaganda broadcasts than gunfire. At noon, a German armored car approached the Americans under white flag carrying a German doctor and an American medic (from an aid station near Schoenberg, where German and U.S. medics had been working side-by-side on casualties of both nationalities since the Germans seized the area). The German doctor asked for and got a truce to recover wounded. Both sides used the truce to scope out the other's situation, which made it clear to the Americans that they had no chance to resist meaningfully. The "Lost 500" surrendered, too.
Among the people in the "Lost 500" pocket was 423rd
Infantry's regimental surgeon Maj. Gaylord D. Fridline, who along with his
medics was praised by the Army's official history of the
The division's 331st Medical Battalion with its collecting and clearing companies got most of its units out. The collecting companies fared as follows:
Company A, after making a hasty retreat on day one to escape encircling German forces and being unable to reestablish contact with its supported regiment, reached safety in St.-Vith on day two.
Company B was surrounded with its supported regiment and captured. Company C made good its escape along with its regiment, the only 106th regiment to avoid capture. The regiment helped defend St.-Vith and Company C continued evacuating its wounded.
The 106th's surgeon and clearing company retreated west from St.-Vith
to Vielsalm, where they treated patients from several different divisions. As
German forces advanced, one clearing platoon was sent further west to La Roche
but got overrun by the Germans anyway. The medical elements left Vielsalm on
Dec. 22, as
The 28th Division to the right of the 106th was also hard-hit.
Two of its regiments withdrew in decent order, with their medics, who provided normal support throughout the battle.
However, the division's 110th Infantry was nearly destroyed delaying
German arrival at
As it happened, the 28th benefitted from an ad-hoc arrangement adopted by its 103rd Med Battalion before the German offensive to speed up evacuation from all parts of the overextended division front. The clearing company had been broken down, with one platoon sent to each regiment. Now this meant each regiment continued to have clearing station support even as the tide of battle separated them from each other and from their parent division headquarters.
The 103rd lost 21 medics captured and several of its units lost their
equipment, but the battalion got all of its units out and retreated from Wiltz
to Neufchateau southwest of
Interestingly, even in this ferocious fighting, the Germans attacking 28th Division positions at Weiles twice asked for truces to remove wounded -- and truces were agreed on. There are a number of other reports of truces to rescue wounded during the course of the Bulge campaign.
One combat command of 9th Armored Division fought in the area adjacent to the 28th Infantry Division. About Dec. 18, one of its units made an attack in the vicinity of Haller and was repulsed. A medic named Pfc. T. J. Zimmerer remained behind German lines for 11 days, caring for a badly wounded man. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Corps and army-level units
For the V and VIII Corps surgeons (Col. Brenn and Col. Eckhardt respectively), the problem was how to protect their medical units without interrupting service to the divisions.
The V Corps medical section was at Eupen and stayed there the whole battle, despite shelling and a paratrooper threat.
The corps' 53rd Med Battalion had most of its assets at Heppenbach, which was supposed to be a safe rear area but turned into the 99th Division battlezone. The battalion made two round trips with its vehicles to evacuate its people, equipment and 180 patients to Eupen on Dec. 17 -- over roads observed by the Germans but without German interference. (Later the battalion lost three ambulances and five medics in an ambush.)
With the 53rd relatively safe at Eupen, Brenn returned to worrying about supporting the forward medical units.
The VIII Corps medical section was in direr straits, losing touch with some of its divisions and having to hastily evacuate Bastogne for safer environs at Neufchateau (Dec. 18) and later Florenville (Dec. 21). Its rather spread-out 169th Med Battalion withdrew from its initial positions close behind the front and also reassembled at Florenville, where it supported VIII Corps units and the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne (when the 101st was not isolated).
Even the medical units of First
First Army had two medical groups (134th at Malmedy to evacuate V Corps; the 64th at Troisvierges to evacuate VIII Corps); two field hospitals (42nd and 47th, with platoons scattered all over with division clearing stations); several evacuation hospitals (44th and 67th at Malmedy, behind V Corps; the 107th at Clervaux, the 102nd at Echternach, Luxembourg, and the 110th at Esch, Luxembourg, behind VIII Corps; plus three less exposed evac hospitals at Eupen); a combat-exhaustion center operated by 618th Clearing Company at Malmedy; a hospital for malaria, contagious diseases and self-inflicted wounds operated by a 91st Medical Gas Treatment Battalion company at Grand-Halleaux west of St.-Vith; and 1st Medical Depot Company supply dumps at Malmedy and Bastogne.
Most vulnerable were four field hospital platoons: 47th Field platoons at Waimes and Dom Butgenbach (supporting V Corps' 2nd and 99th Divisions respectively) and 42nd Field platoons at Wiltz and St.-Vith (supporting VIII Corps' 28th and 106th Divisions).
Already the morning of Dec. 16, the evac hospitals at Malmedy and Eupen were reporting enemy shelling (whether hitting them or merely being heard isn't stated). Rogers kept close tabs on incoming reports and by 10 p.m. that night he had heard enough to order the withdrawal of his most exposed units: the 102nd and 107th Evac hospitals and a 42nd Field Hospital platoon at Wiltz. The next day he began ordering 1st Army medical units behind V Corps to withdraw.
The 102nd left Echternach (six miles from the front) on the first day, Dec. 16, and moved across the battle area to reach Huy on Dec. 18. It brought all its gear with it and, unlike many displaced hospitals, was able to reopen for business Dec. 21.
The 107th had already been preparing for a move out of Clervaux. Now it
made several stops, at Libin and Carlsbourg, before settling down in a former
vocational school in
The 110th did not have to leave Esch. It took most casualties from the southern shoulder of the Bulge for the first week (about 300 a day, creating at one point a 300-man surgery backlog) and also housed and fed many troops cut off from their units. It now got many serious wounds, since there were no field hospitals ahead of it to do emergency surgery. The 110th pitched tents in its building's courtyard to help with the overflow, and evacuated as many patients as it could immediately to more rearward facilities.
Augmented by numerous ASG teams and working around the clock, the 110th handled over 5,000 patients in a month and did surgery on 2,200 of them (with only a 1.5 percent mortality rate).
Field hospital drama
In these tumultuous conditions, the special nature of the field hospitals caused some problems. The platoons were collocated with division clearing stations, but they took their movement orders from 1st Army medical groups and they did not have their own vehicles (as clearing stations did).
For the four vulnerable platoons closest to the German breakthrough, this divergence caused confusion, delays in information and orders, and problems in keeping up with clearing station movements.
At St-Vith, the confusion led to mutual recriminations. The field hospital platoon said the clearing station left for Vielsalm before the field hospital platoon even knew an offensive had begun: its first hint was a flood of 106th division casualties. The division surgeon said the field hospital unit had abandoned him without an emergency-surgery capability.
The bottom line was, the four field hospital platoons made good a precipitate scramble for their lives, but lost almost all their gear and suffered some staff and patient casualties. As units, they were out of action for the duration of the battle, though some of their people got put to work with other medical units.
The 1st of the 47th at Waimes and 1st of the 42nd at Wiltz almost did not participate in this good news.
The Waimes platoon, housed in a schoolhouse in the center of the village, cared for incoming wounded the morning of Dec. 17. They were thoroughly alarmed by the sound of artillery and their casualties' frightening "worm's eye" tales. The sudden arrival of staff, surgical teams and patients from another 47th Field platoon in Buetgenbach did not provide any comfort.
Finally, apparently in late morning, 134th Med Group ordered the Waimes platoon to send its patients to the 67th Evac in Malmedy and to prepare for its own withdrawal, but meanwhile to continue operating on patients who were still coming in from the front. The evacuated Buetgenbach platoon was also told to continue to Malmedy. Eighteen patients made it to Malmedy.
Nurse 2nd Lt. Mabel Jessop (of 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group: see further details below) was so worried that the platoon had been designated a sacrificial lamb that she had trouble eating lunch. (The official history indicates that the Waimes nurses left with their patients, but Jessop's account suggests this was not the case and that they in fact stayed with the rest of the staff.)
About , the Waimes platoon was ordered to withdraw. The patients and attached surgical teams departed first, and made it to Malmedy. The platoon's 10 nurses (including surgical-team nurses) crowded into one ambulance and followed, but German artillery fire began falling on the road ahead as they approached the key Baugnez crossroads outside Malmedy.
The driver stopped and the nurses took cover in a roadside ditch, along with troops from some trucks stopped ahead of them. as the shells fell closer and the nurses could see German tanks approaching the Baugnez junction. The muddy, soaked nurses started walking back to Waimes but soon saw an Army truck approaching from that direction, flagged it down and got a ride back into the village from a driver who saw the inadvisability of continuing towards a meeting with German tanks.
When no trucks arrived to evacuate the platoon, the unit unpacked its gear and restarted operations in the schoolhouse to care for the continuing flow of casualties. Two ambulance-fulls arrived from Butgenbach at , with more later.
Meanwhile, with shells falling in the village (fortunately none on the hospital itself), Jessop took shelter in a basement and read her mail. (One letter ironically began, "Dear Mabel, you lucky devil, how I wish I were with you now.")
Besides the 10 nurses, there were some doctors, administrative officers and technicians from the 47th Field platoon. Also present were the commander and two other men of the 134th Med Group's 180th Med Battalion, who had stayed to help the hospital evacuate after the 180th withdrew from Waimes.
Early Dec. 18, about , someone claimed to see a German half-track pass by. Records were destroyed. All night more casualties and some 50 uninjured stragglers trickled in. The latter were ordered to deposit their weapons well away from the hospital to avoid violating the Geneva Convention. It would not be long before the medics would have cause to wonder if that had been a wise decision.
That morning, after a hot breakfast and a surge of hope from the end of the shelling, aJessop ducked into a hallway to light a cigarette -- the evils of tobacco had not yet become a universal item of medical faith -- and witnessed the beginnings of a bizarre incident in which the hospital platoon was briefly captured by a ludicrously small enemy force.
Two Germans, one in an American uniform, entered the courtyard and shouted that the hospital was "under arrest"! They ordered the Americans to line up and were obeyed, because hospital leaders -- still fearful of jeopardizing the facility's Geneva Convention status -- forbade the stragglers to retrieve their weapons.
The Germans took their personal gear and gave them 10 minutes to load themselves and their patients onto trucks. (The German in American uniform received a warm welcome from the Waimes woman who owned the Americans' quarters. She embraced him and pointed to the Americans with contempt, noted Jessop, who decided the two were relatives. The nurse was surprised because they had had cordial relations with the Waimes citizenry and had done things for them. Is it possible, this man in American uniform was not German at all, but one of the Belgian Nazis who played some vague role in the German offensive?)
The platoon commander, Maj. Earl E. Laird, objected to moving the very
seriously ill, citing the Geneva Convention. He persuaded the Germans to leave
36 nontransportable patients and four doctors, all the nurses and a dozen
medics to care for them. The remaining patients and medical people were to ride
Fortunately, the confusion allowed one man to escape (a hospital driver with his ambulance by most accounts). This man contacted a near by American unit, which showed up just as the Germans prepared to take their prisoners away. Equipped with three half-tracks with quad 50-caliber machineguns, the unit -- aided by the stragglers who now reclaimed their weapons -- routed the Germans, who escaped on foot in a hail of fire.
An hour later, a 1st Infantry Division officer arrived to announce that an infantry battalion was on the way and the hospital platoon could prepare for evacuation. Laird now decided to leave. The platoon was able to evacuate its patients on the reopened road and, abandoning almost all its equipment as well as the staff's personal gear due to limited vehicle space, withdrew to Spa.
The 47th was reunited at Spa a week later, but its were farmed out to other field and general hospitals for the time being. (Much later, some returned to Waimes to find their property thoroughly looted...by the local civilians, the Americans suspected.)
In the chateau in upper Wiltz (the 3rd ASG history calls it a convent
on a hill, near 28th Division headquarters), the 42nd
Field's 1st platoon remained in the path of the enemy's drive towards
Dec. 18, as German thrusts cut their communication to 64th Medical
Group in Bastogne, Maj. Charles A. Serbst -- head of one of the attached 3rd
Auxiliary Surgical Group (ASG) teams -- drove to
That evening the Germans surrounded Wiltz and word came that a convoy would evacuate the garrison. The med group provided nine trucks for the hospital.
The field-hospital platoon commander, Major Huber, decided that 26 nontransportable patients (some sources give other numbers) must remain -- though Serbst argued that capture would endanger them even more than movement.
Huber, the men in Serbst's team (selected over Cameron's by a coin toss), and 16 platoon medics voluntarily stayed with the nontransportables and were captured Dec. 19.
The rest of the platoon, the other ASG team, all the ASG nurses and the
patients made their escape under fire (not only German fire but also the fire
of a 28th Infantry Division roadblock between Wiltz and
In any case, the remnants of the field hospital platoon arrived in the
VIII Corps rear without equipment -- the trucks carrying it had been forced to
dump it so that they could turn to more urgent tasks. The equipment was not
wasted: it was dumped at
Back in Wiltz, the medics moved their patients to a basement as shells landed closer. When they heard machinegun fire nearby in the morning (Dec. 20), Huber went up and waved a sheet. After a few more shots, the Germans recognized the hospital and ceased fire.
The Germans, from 5th Parachute Division, took cigarettes but otherwise behaved properly except for their treatment of Capt. Harry Fisher (see below). They left the Americans in place to care for both American and German wounded, while German medics also set up operations in the facility. German troops fighting outside sent newly captured American stragglers to help with wounded.
The Americans found their German counterparts friendly, except that the poorly supplied Germans did not scruple to take American medical supplies for their own use. Serbst learned that the Germans amputated very freely, lacking time and resources for reparative work. An amputee could be sent home quickly; a man receiving more extensive treatment tied up hospital space for weeks or months.
The 3rd ASG underwent a heartrending shock when the Germans took away surgeon Capt. Harry Fisher because he was Jewish. His comrades feared he would be shot, but in fact he was put to work caring for casualties in a German front-line aid station at Marvie and continued to be so employed until the end of the battle, after which he was sent to a POW camp where Serbst encountered him.
Many wounded Americans were sent to the chateau, but many died for lack
of blood and supplies. The German wounded were no better off. Lack of heat, occasional shelling and
The Germans continued to behave decently. They sent wine on Christmas eve, which Serbst gave to the wounded. The German corps surgeon came for a joint Christmas day dinner. He struck the Americans as a jolly fellow and promised they would be released.
In fact, the Germans evacuated the Wiltz hospital on Dec. 27, taking the 80 American patients (including 40 "nontransportables") and medical staff along as prisoners in open trucks.
One 28th Infantry Division soldier, Sgt. Lester Koritz, who was serving as an interpreter in the hospital, slipped away and was sheltered by some local citizens he had befriended earlier until Wiltz was retaken by the Americans in January.
The mystery nurse of Mageret
One of the mysteries of the
German Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, supposedly admitted after the war to Allied military historians (including U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall) that he had allowed himself to get distracted by a "young, blonde and beautiful" American nurse. He reportedly spent much of Dec. 19 spellbound, "chatting her up." One account says this happened after he asked the American hospital to care for German wounded.
The episode led one authoritative analysts,
Charles B. MacDonald to write that the nurse was due at least "a minor
accolade" for her role -- along with several more traditional military
factors -- in delaying Panzer Lehr at
a time when it might have seized
The problem is that there seem to be no other details on the story or any way to confirm it. The sources -- including the Army official medical history of the European theater -- mentions only two captures of field hospital platoons.
One is the very brief capture of the platoon at Waimes on Dec. 18, which was wrong in date, duration and location to jibe with the Bayerlein story.
The other has to do with the Dec. 19 capture of part of the Wiltz platoon, which is right in date and duration (permanent!) and at least plausible in location (Wiltz lies east of Mageret on the same main road). Unfortunately, there is a critical obstacle to identifying this platoon as the source of the mystery nurse.
Namely, the individuals captured at Wiltz had been deliberately left behind to await capture with nontransportable casualties, while the rest of the platoon withdrew successfully to the west. The official history says the platoon commander, one surgical team and some technicians (male medics) stayed with the wounded. While surgical teams had assigned nurses, they were often held back when the teams went in harm's way and were routinely withdrawn early in case of danger. It is almost impossible to picture them being left with patients to await capture when the means to extract them existed. Certainly, if any nurses had been left with this group, it is impossible to imagine the official history not mentioning it.
Perhaps the field-hospital people captured near Mageret were strays who
had gotten lost while retreating. This possibility is enhanced by the 3rd ASG
history's account of the Wiltz platoon's retreat. That account asserts that
part of the withdrawing hospital staff had to try to walk into
One would be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a fable if it were not for the fact that two reputable sources claim that Bayerlein himself mentioned it to them. It is a story not particularly favorable to his professional reputation, so why would he make it up?
On the other hand, a German history of Bayerlein's Panzer Lehr Division ridicules the story, asserting that anybody who knew Bayerlein would recognize the story as absurd. Bayerlein did go to the American aid station that day, but only briefly for treatment of a minor shrapnel wound. Also militating against the legend is the fact that the German history indicates the captured American facility was a Hauptverbandsplatz, which translates better as "aid station" or "clearing station" than as "field hospital" (for which the usual German term would be Lazarett). An aid or clearing station would not have Army nurses, of course, though perhaps one might have volunteer Belgian women assisting -- as several did during the siege of Bastogne. (See below.)
In the end, for now, we must simply classify it as one of the unsolve mysteries of the war.
As front-line units tumbled rearward, many rear medical units were swept up in the tide of retreat.
Most units at Malmedy withdrew towards Spa on Dec. 17 -- the 134th Med
Group, 44th and 67th
The same day, the 64th Med Group abandoned Troisvierges for Martelange,
except for an advance group with the VIII Corps surgeon at
Dec. 18, the 91st Medical Gas
Treatment Battalion unit at Grand-Halleaux pulled out, as did the 1st Medical
Depot Company's advance section at
That same day, the medical units that had made it to Spa were suddenly told — along with other support units, including medical units that had been there all along — to retire further west to Huy on the Meuse River. Among medical units affected was 57th Med Battalion, 1st Army's reserve of ambulance/collecting companies and parent of 1st Army Provisional Medical Department Truck Company; and 4th Convalescent Hospital, which was housing and feeding retreating medical personnel while continuing its primary mission of reconditioning recovering casualties.
(The provisional truck company was formed during the pursuit by pooling vehicles from evac hospitals to facilitate rapid movement of large army medical units. The company became critical again during the Bulge offensive and was expanded from 50 to 100 trucks. In two weeks it would move nine evac hospitals, three field hospitals, a convalescent hospital, and several other smaller medical units. Its work helped save 1st Army's medical system and enabled it to respond flexibly to a chaotic situation.)
The 4th emptied its 1,400 patient beds in 24 hours, sending some back to units and others to COMMZ medical facilities, then packed up and moved to Huy as told. Later it moved to Tirlemont, but was unable to resume operations for lack of a good site. This left a major gap in the army's medical system.
This move was precipitated by the arrival of German troops (Kampfgruppe Peiper of Malmedy massacre infamy)
at Stavelot, only 10 miles from Spa. Even 1st Army headquarters left, for
Despite chaos, the med groups and their ambulance/collecting companies somehow kept casualties moving rearward and even provided trucks for moving other medical units out of the line of fire.
In the latter role, they were aided by the 1st Army Provisional Medical Department Truck Company and by the self-help efforts of the medical units being moved -- e.g., the 618th Clearing Company literally flagged down passing trucks to take half its patients.
Unfortunately, transport was generally sufficient only for people -- unit equipment and medical supplies (including the depot company's Malmedy dump) usually had to be abandoned. However, when the German drive stalled just south of Malmedy, the 134th sent in trucks and troops from the evac hospitals on Dec. 21-22 and was able to retrieve most of the abandoned equipment. Likewise, the depot company sent a few trucks at a time to Malmedy and gradually hauled most of its supplies back to the main dump at Dolhain.
This kind of work was not without hazard. The gas-treatment rescued only part of its gear from Grand-Halleaux because its salvage crew was driven off by German fire.
Despite recovery of some gear, continued withdrawals and realignments
kept these units from functioning as units until the
This involved suitable shifts of medical forces as well.
The 9th Army moved 31st Medical Group and several hospitals to support these realignments, and its surgeon (Colonel Shambora) made preparations for withdrawal to an area near Brussels, just in case. This included moving some hospitals and having forward evac hospitals turn in their unused heavy gear to 35th Medical Depot Company for storage to reduce transport needs. Fortunately, the German offensive did not reach 9th Army areas.
The 9th Army also gave 1st Army the 187th Med Battalion (with three collecting companies and an ambulance company) to reinforce the 134th Med Group evacuating V Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps. This gave the 134th enough elements to organize a provisional medical battalion to support the airborne corps (which had none).
The 68th Med Group shifted its headquarters and exchanged five divisions and five evac hospitals for eight new divisions and two evac hospitals. (Source leaves some confusion as to which corps the new divisions belonged to. It says they were VII and XVIII Airborne Corps: but this conflicts with assertion that 134th Med Group supported both V Corps and XVIII corps. Was XVIII Corps responsibility split between groups, or did 68th in fact support all three corps -- V, VII and XVIII?).
This accomplishment enabled the 68th's commander to boast that the flexibility and adaptability of the medical group concept had never been better demonstrated.
The 1st Army gave 3rd Army the 64th Med Group (with two battalion headquarters, a collecting company, an clearing company, four ambulance companies), three evac hospitals, one field hospital and the medical battalion of the also-transferred VIII Corps.
Saving 1st Army's medical system
Meanwhile, 1st Army scrambled to patch up its medical system, crippled
by a major collapse in hospitalization capacity, not to mention the disruption
in the evacuation system. Severe bed shortages resulted from closure of
hospitals due to movement and loss of equipment -- including half the army's
evac hospitals and several installations for holding short-term cases
in-theater, such as 4th
"During the first two weeks of the German offensive," states the official medical history of the European theater, "the 1st Army medical service redeployed most of its nondivisional units while maintaining continuous evacuation of the regrouping combat forces.
"Its relative success in both endeavors may be attributed to a favorable starting position, to the delays in the German advance, to am abundance of transportation, and to a high standard of unit and individual initiative and resourcefulness,
"By the end of December, however, the army for all practical purposes had lost its ability to hold and treat casualties; its medical service perforce had been reduced to little more than a conduit between division clearing stations and COMMZ hospitals."
The 1st Army surgeon Rogers had no choice but to establish a total-evacuation policy on Dec. 19, replacing the previous 10-day policy. The army's hospitals would pass all transportable patients directly to COMMZ hospitals, without even treating them if their conditions permitted.
The ADSEC (Advanced Section) surgeon Col. Beasley accepted this
necessity and sent most of the 1st Army patients to the mature
Two ADSEC hospitals ensconced in
schoolhouses near the army-rear boundaries -- the 750-bed 77th Evac at
Then 77th quickly shifted to this mission from its holding-unit work. It was helped by 9th Field Hospital, auxiliary surgical teams and personnel from the 1st Army hospitals put out of operation by the offensive, all of whom worked 18-hour shifts with German V-1 buzz bombs, gravity bombs and artillery shells regularly hitting nearby and had to spend their few off-duty hours in crowded bomb shelters. A Dec. 20 shell killed a Red Cross worker and damaged the hospital's laboratory, pharmacy, nurses' quarters, a medical ward and a bathroom; but the staff just cleaned up and continued work.
A week later, a bomb hit on the 9th Field killed 14 and wounded 50, and the 77th sprang into action to help them. Experienced hospital staffers were taken aback by the grisliness of the wounds caused by this bomb.
So heavy were the enemy attacks that hospital trains could not reach
Late in the year, 1st Army hospitals began reopening in
The 130th also had to hurriedly reorganize itself from its previous mission as a combat-exhaustion specialty center, when wounded simply started arriving Dec. 19 from retreating evac hospitals and division clearing stations. Suddenly, the 130th was, in the words of its official report, serving as a cross between a clearing station and an evac hospital. It sent its exhaustion patients to a replacement depot, sent its psychiatrists to the rear and brought in surgeons from 12th Field Hospital and 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group.
In four days, it got 3,000 patients, operated on 200, sent most out on trains arriving at a nearby siding.
The Germans almost overran the hospital itself, and 2nd Armored Division units actually did battle from the hospital grounds. On Dec. 23, the 130th evacuated the premises except for a small staff to care for nontransportable cases, which left gradually along with the remaining patients by Dec. 27. An armored-unit aid station used the premises a while. On Dec. 28, a 130th advance team returned to reclaim the facility and prepare for the 130th's return.
(A different source, Blassinggame's Combat Nurses of World War II, describes the experience of an older nurse named Lt. Bernice Tansy at a hospital in southeastern Belgium whose experience sounds like the 130th's, though that author calls Tansy's hospital the 140th General Hospital. There being no reference to a 140th in the official history -- and it being unlikely the official history would have overlooked such a dramatic story -- one must assume that Blassingame got the numbers mixed up.
(Blassingame describes a former Catholic School surrounded by wide lawns, where the nurses had been setting up Christmas trees and other decorations to boost patient morale.
(As the Bulge offensive began, Tansy noticed the long-unheard rumble of distant guns and saw air combat overhead. Long lines of ambulances came to evacuate transportable cases, and the next day floods of new wounded arrived. Guards appeared around the hospital, the staff had to use passwords, and 12-hour shifts were instituted.
(Then they got orders to evacuate themselves as the Germans drew near. After the patients left, the staff departed in ambulances and trucks, leaving most of their property behind, including clothes and Christmas packages and stashed in closets. Later, upon returning to the site, the staff found their property still in place in an intact school. A German armored car stood at the front gate, where it had run out of fuel as German troops died in battle on the school's broad lawns.
(Lt. Sally Zumaris of an unidentified hospital -- described only as a
100-room Belgian chateau with an operating room in the ballroom, in or near
Ettelbruck [a name which does not appear in the official history's fairly
complete list] -- had an even more dramatic experience. Until the Bulge, her
recent experiences had been more glamorous than deadly. She had shared a fancy
room with five other nurses, sleeping on Army cots amidst elegant old
furniture. She had partied with the owners, a baronial family, before the
patients arrived. And she was on leave in
(Both Tansy and Zumaris related that they were put to work in other hospitals following their retreats.)
This area was so terribly crowded that no buildings suitable for
hospitals were available, and the weather did not permit tent operations in
open fields. However, by New Year's Day, the army had the following hospitals
open: the 102nd Evac and 51st Field (acting as an evac hospital) at Huy, the
97th and 128th Evacs at
Amidst confusion, misrouted trains, disputes over facilities, and lost
supplies, the 1st Army medical supply base depot withdrew from Dolhain to Basse
The 1st Army surgeon worked with theater medical supply to reequip badly hit medical units, some of whom had lost 100 percent of their gear.
3rd Auxers see chaos
In few sources is the drama of the opening of the Bulge offensive -- the chaos, confusion and terror -- better captured than in the unofficial history of the 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group (ASG), which had surgical teams all over the area.
By December, the 3rd Auxers found themselves struggling against the harsh winter, living -- in traditional masculine fashion -- like pigs in decrepit quarters. Tables overflowed with papers, magazines and dirty dishes. Supplies were piled in corners.
Surgeons in Vielsalm had to chop ice off the floor to set up an
operating room in their old Belgian Army barracks. Their stoves only succeeded
in melting more ice, which dripped from the ceiling copiously. Outgoing
artillery shook soot from the stoves. They found an unexploded shell in one
corner and had to get the engineers to remove it. Someone forgot to unseal a
lid on a jerrycan of water being heated on a stove and the can exploded,
fortunately with no injuries (the lid was found buried in the ceiling). A
washroom wherea shell had burst pipes, allowing the leaking water to freeze
into stalactites and stalagmites, was described as "a natural wonder...
Onto this less-than-idyllic scene, combat would burst with shocking
force. At the time the German offensive started, the 3rd ASG had teams deployed
forward to Butgenbach (Peyton and Dorner teams, with 3rd Platoon, 47th Field
Hospital); Waimes (Hurwitz and Higginbotham teams, with 1st Platoon, 47th
Field); St. Vith (Partington and Lavieri teams, with 3rd Platoon, 42nd Field);
and Wiltz (Serbst and Cameron teams, with 2nd Platoon, 42nd Field). Crandall's
team would be rushed to
Like many soldiers, the surgeons would grasp the enormity of events only slowly, as pieces of evidence -- reports of wounded, the sight of retreating units, the sounds of guns -- trickled in to gradually overwhelm instinctive complacency and disbelief.
At Butgenbach and St. Vith, the first hints were slightly wounded men from 2nd and 106th Infantry Divisions respectively, who were brought to the field hospital because their clearing stations had fled to Malmedy and Vielsalm, behind the field hospitals.
In their unheated schoolhouse in Butgenbach, the Peyton and Dorner
teams heard retreating vehicles during the night of Dec. 16-17 as they worked
on a double amputee, but were only slightly worried. At ,
they heard small arms and saw loaded jeeps racing by. By reality still did not
sink in. Capt. Claude M. Warren later admitted he was thrilled..."
An officer from a truck that careened into a ditch warned them to get out or they'd be treating Germans. Now nervous, the 47th Field platoon leader decided to get the nurses out. They left in an ambulance with only the clothes they wore, stopping first at the 2nd ID clearing station now at Elsenborn. Yet they still couldn't believe the Germans would get to Butgenbach.
Real panic set in only when 2nd ID surgeon LTC Cook burst in out of breath and told them to get out now. There was now no time to pack, and there were only two vehicles left...for the patients.
The staff walked towards Waimes, hitching rides when they could. (One pair hitched a ride only to hear the firing get louder: when the driver said he was headed forward to Buellingen to rescue his buddies, the medics jumped out into a ditch, dodged bullets for a while and finally caught a ride going the right way.) Within an hour, they had caught up with their patients in Waimes.
Here they worked until ordered to join the 44th Evac at Malmedy. They had 31 people and only one truck and one ambulance. They got to Malmedy with 20 medics clinging to the side of a water tanker, passing the Baugnez Road massacre site (see below) just two hours before that infamous incident.
In Malmedy they found the 44th and 67th Evacs set up in schools. Firing could be heard. In the confusion, a tank commander actually asked one of the doctors which way he should go.
The 44th wasn't busy yet, so the surgeons tried to sleep. But gunfire noise drove hospital staffers into the streets in panic. They decided later it was the sound of the Baugnez massacre, but that was several miles away...seemingly too far to cause panic. One surgeon was pulling up his pants as he ran. The 44th commander, a Col. Blatt, shouted that the Germans were coming and that they were to evacuate to Spa by truck.
The corps 134th Med Group provided the surgeons a truck and inexperienced driver, but they were turned back at Stavelot by an American tank due to a German roadblock ahead. That day German bombs killed two doctors (not 3rd Auxers) in the 134th convoy.
They reached Spa that afternoon, where 1st Army headquarters laughed at
suggestions they too would have to retreat. In fact, though the German advance
never did quite reach Spa, 1st Army (and Headquarters, 3rd ASG, which was also
in Spa) did indeed leave for the
"(Being) in a retreat of that sort is the most demoralizing experience a soldier can suffer," observed the 3rd ASG history.
Huy was so crowded that the 3rd Auxers who stayed there had to live in an opera house and later a music conservatory next to two grand pianos. At least they could drink their blues away in a nearby hotel.
Not so the surgical teams from Butgenbach, who had immediately been
Meanwhile, at Waimes, Hurtwitz and Higginbotham's teams (including
nurse Mable Jessop, cited above) endured the experiences already described
above. After reaching Spa, the teams were sent on to the 15th
At St. Vith, the Partington and Lavieri teams got caught up in the gloom of the veritable destruction of 106th Infantry Division.
On Dec. 17, surgeon Maj. Ronald Adams returned from leave in
Within 30 minutes, the hospital left for Vielsalm, leaving its equipment in the school building. It got caught in a horrific traffic jam as the retreating 106th and advancing 7th Armored tried to pass each other. The 3rd ASG truck got pushed off the road.
Chaos reigned in Vielsalm. The 3rd Auxers triaged heaps of wounded by flashlight, cobbled together an operating site. Just as they started to operate, a sergeant arrived with an order from the medical group headquarters to stop, on the grounds it was against rules to do major surgery in a clearing station! The 3rd ASG history expresses outraged frustration but does not reveal whether the teams obeyed the absurd order.
In any case, the clearing station abandoned Vielsalm the next day as the Germans approached. The two nurses on the 3rd ASG team were sent with it to join the 107th Evac. The 3rd ASG men stayed with some nontransportable patients, feeling like the "3rd Auxiliary Suicide Group." When the combat units had left and shells started landing on deserted Vielsalm, Partington decided that -- transportable or no -- it was time to skedaddle. They loaded onto trucks and departed by night in cold and snow, just to get caught in more traffic jams. Once when German planes strafed them, they were wedged so tight they had no choice except just to sit and take it, fortunately without harm.
At La Roche they caught up with one platoon of the clearing station, but there were no facilities for surgery, so they bedded their patients down and found quarters in a school gymnasium, using candlelight to salvage their only surviving Christmas package -- a fruitcake! When shells began landing, they decided to leave. Despite having no transport or communications, they managed to scrounge a truck and got out -- one hour before a shell hit the school and killed a half dozen soldiers. They headed for the 107th at Libin, passing by the Harbaimont woods area where (unbeknownst to them at the time) the 101st Airborne's clearing station had been captured the night before (see below). Bucking traffic jams as always, they reached the Libin chateau and were eagerly greeted by an overwhelmed 107th Evac staff. Joining their own nurses and two other 3rd ASG teams -- headed by Cameron and Weisel -- they worked through till the next morning.
Dec. 21, the nurses left for Sedan, France, while the Cameron and Weisel teams left to join the 130th General Hospital at Ciney. The exhausted Partington and Lavieri teams went to sleep on the 3rd floor of the 107th's building. Three hours later, Lavieri awoke and -- finding everything too quiet -- investigated. The hospital had left without them! He encountered one nervous clerk who had been sent back to destroy some forgotten papers and who warned him the Germans were near.
The worried ASG teams now discovered that somebody had stolen the gasoline from their truck. They got a can of fuel from the clerk just as he was about to roar away in his jeep. Now without even toothbrushes to their name, they retreated again. In Carlsbourg, they encountered a 3rd ASG officer who told them to go to Ciney where surgeons were badly needed.
There were already seven 3rd ASG teams at Ciney, so they got a chance to sleep soundly in the 130th's mansion facility. The 3rd ASG commander. Col. Crisler, provided them a truck for future escapes if need be. And indeed on Dec. 24, the Germans reached Ciney, forcing one final dash for safety. The teams there went to work in the 102nd Evac at Huy.
While all this was going on, the Serbst and Cameron teams suffered real catastrophe at Wiltz, where -- as mentioned above -- one of the teams (Serbst's) had to stay with nontransportable patients and await capture.
Cameron's team made it into
(As will be seen, Cameron's team might have proven very valuable in
The whole Bulge retreat damaged the 3rd ASG's morale, the unit history states. The weather and anxiety over the group's missing teams did not help, of course.
The Malmedy Massacre
The massacre of over 80 American soldiers by Jochen Peiper's SS Kampfgruppe (battle group) is one of the most famous and controversial incidents of the Battle of the Bulge. Mislabeled the Malmedy Massacre, the slaughter actually occurred at the Baugnez crossroads some 13 miles from Malmedy -- Malmedy itself remained in American hands.
It is controversial because (1) there was, and according to some sources still is, some doubt whether the Germans were totally unjustified in opening fire (some accounts of American survivors implied that the initial fire was sparked by escape attempts); (2) some U.S. units, enraged by Allied propaganda on the massacre, massacred German prisoners in retaliation; and (3) postwar trials of the alleged perpetrators were tainted by allegations (some justified) that U.S. Army investigators used disturbingly Nazi-like methods to extract confessions, including psychological tortures.
Despite all that and however the incident actually began, eyewitness accounts leave no doubt that it quickly degenerated into a vicious war crime. Moreover, Kampfgruppe Peiper was involved in numerous other, unambiguous war crimes against American prisoners and innocent Belgian citizens.
AMEDD personnel were among both the victims of the massacre and its small number of survivors.
Near Moederscheid, on its way from Buellingen to Schoppen, Kampfgruppe Peiper had captured two ambulances and took their two-man crews along in German trucks as prisoners. A captured artillery lieutenant who survived the massacre later told Army officials that his medical aidman, when they were first captured, had asked the Germans for permission to tend some wounded and had been refused.
These men and other prisoners (including a number of other medical people) were unloaded and herded into a field next to the Baugnez crossroads, along with prisoners from an artillery battery attacked and captured at the scene. Also captured at the scene were two medics from the 26th Infantry named Anderson and Dobyns who just happened by. (Presumably this was the Pvt. Roy B. Anderson described by a contemporary report as having been captured when the ambulance he was driving towards Waimes got stuck behind the convoy that was attacked by the Germans at the Baugnez crossroads.)
By the best available current information, an SS officer simply ordered his troops to open fire on the prisoners without provocation. (At the time a number of eyewitnesses said an officer in the back of a car started firing his own pistol into the assembled prisoners. Others describe more involved details, with tripods being set up for machineguns, etc.)
As the shooting started with either the officer or an SS private named Georg Fleps using his pistol, some of the men including medic Dobyns began pushing their way through the crowd towards safety in the rear of the crowd. Some officers shouted to stand fast to avoid provoking more shooting (perhaps the source of the reports that some Americans started the affairs by trying to escape). However, that may be, what came next was clearly plain murder.
The first or second American to die, depending on the account used, was medical officer 1st Lt. Carl R. Guenther, killed by a pistol shot. Then the machineguns on two SS tanks opened fire on the group, which included a number of men in easy-to-see medical brassards. After 15 minutes the firing stopped. For another two hours, as survivors feigned death, there was occasional strafing by Germans on passing trucks. And then Germans on foot began moving through the field to finish off survivors at close range.
Some called on the men to speak up, promising medical care, then shot the gullible individuals who did so. One Nazi savagely allowed a medic to attend a wounded man, by some accounts another medic, then shot both to death. (This was reported by a survivor who knew both men.) A surviving artilleryman reported that a number of medics, including three from his own outfit, had been shot down by the Germans.
At this point, Dobyns made a run for it and got about 30 yards before being hit by four rounds of machinegun fire. Ironically, that volley saved his life because the Germans assumed he was dead and did not check him closely. By various flukes, some other men playing possum avoided detection and also survived. Amazingly, the other 26th Infantry medic, Anderson, emerged without a scratch.
A survivor named Theodore J. Paluch described meeting a medic with a wounded foot during his escape. Perhaps this was Dobyns, but there is no way to know.
If the atrocities of Kampfgruppe Peiper
dominate memories of the
German paratrooper commander Col. von der Heydte, worried about two men
who had broken arms in their jump near Belle Croix, released six American
prisoners to take the injured men to an American hospital. He gave them a
letter to 101st Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, asking
him to care for the hurt Germans as well as von der Heydte's regiment had cared
for American casualties it had captured. (The unit had fought against the 101st
Even in Peiper's Kampfgruppe,
there were some hints of humanity as the SS troops hit their high-water mark,
trying to find a way across the
Much of this fighting swirled around a four-story brick building called the St. Edouard Sanitorium which dominated some key high ground. The building changed hands several times in frantic fighting until the Americans finally retook it for good Dec. 21.
Throughout the fight, Belgian priests and nuns, some of their patients, and wounded of both sides huddled in the basement, periodically being "liberated" or "recaptured" by one or the other side fighting its way into the structure above.
Here there was a semblance of humanity even from some of the SS troops in their treatment of the wounded, as Germans brought American casualties into the shelter and provided care for them.
A single German medic labored frantically to treat men of both nations, until the Belgian Father Hanlet pointed out that one of the Americans seemed to be a medic and might help. Thereafter the two medics worked together.
Father Hanlet, certain that one American would die despite a tourniquet, began giving the last rites. The wounded man thanked him, noting that his wife was Catholic and would be pleased.
A German sergeant lit a cigarette for the supposedly dying American, who in gratitude proferred the German a candy bar. The German thanked him, later whispering to the priest that he could not eat the candy because it was covered with blood.
Later, when Peiper's troops withdrew from the Château de Froid-Cour to La Gleize, they took most of their prisoners with them. However, they left a number of nontransportable casualties -- both German and American -- in the chateau with a German medical sergeant and two American medics to care for them.
Why this sudden humanity? Perhaps it was a growing premonition of defeat and the fear of being held to account for atrocities. Perhaps it was because the more or less fixed facilities at Stoumont and the Château de Froid-Cour eliminated the Germans' concerns about the burden of having to either leave Americans in their rear or haul them around. Perhaps it was just the luck of the draw...different leaders, different troops on the scene.
In another instance, the headquarters of 27th Armored Infantry Battalion in a farmhouse at Neubrueck near St. Vith -- surprised, surrounded and low-on-ammunition -- had to surrender on Dec. 22. The wounded German commander demanded medical care for himself and other wounded Germans from the American battalion aid station captured nearby.
The battalion surgeon, Capt. Paul J. Russomano, convinced them he was low on supplies and had to send an ambulance to get more. When the ambulance returned (after warning higher headquarters about the capture), the German commander insisted that the Americans -- including Russomano -- must evacuate himself and his wounded to German lines under flag of truce. The ambulance carried them all away just before American forces arrived to recapture the farmhouse.
The interesting thing is that the Germans returned Russomano to American lines under flag of truce a couple of months later.
One of the critical reserve blocking forces in the
A medic named Pvt. R. Edward O'Brien was sleeping when he was
unexpectedly summoned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment aid station at
"There was an awesome feeling of urgency in the air," O'Brien wrote. "People were running everywhere, trucks were moving to and fro, and sergeants were constantly yelling at some slow-moving bastard."
At , the 501st convoy set out with most of the soldiers not even knowing whereto. O'Brien and two other medics bedded down in the back of the truck amidst blankets and munched hard cookies from one of the medics' Christmas packages.
On arrival near
Under the direction of division surgeon Lt. Col. David Gold, the
101st's 326th Airborne Medical Company (commanded by Maj. William E. Barfield)
set up its clearing station about on Dec. 19. The station was in tents
in the division service area at the Mande-St. Etienne crossroads about seven or
eight miles west-northwest of
With this unit was a 3rd ASG surgical team under Maj. Crandall, less one man who -- blessed in disguise -- had fallen out of a truck, broken his leg, and been sent to the rear.
It sent out four or five ambulance jeeps to each of the division's four
paratrooper regiment to collect casualties, got its first patients about 11
a.m., and late that afternoon sent Barfield out with an ambulance convoy to
evacuate patients to the 107th Evac Hospital at Libin. Barfield also asked the 64th
Med Group for more ambulances, but his group was blocked from returning to
Meanwhile, the 501st regimental headquarters pulled into the courtyard
of a large, multistory seminary building, surrounded by a fortress-like
10-foot-high, 3-foot-thick wall, in the center of
O'Brien and his comrades installed their aid station in the chapel on the east end, later removing the pews to make room for litters. O'Brien got a corner of the chapel for his supply point and spent an hour unloading the truck. Late in the morning they got their first wounded, treated them and swiftly evacuated them to the division clearing station.
(This seems to violate the normal World War II evacuation chain, in which evacuation went directly from battalion aid stations to division clearing stations. The regimental aid station was just a first-aid facility for rear-echelon elements around the command post, not a separate stage in the evacuation chain. It seems airborne divisions worked a little differently than straight infantry divisions, in this as in other regards. In early stages of a confused, dispersed, still fluid and locally mobile airborne battle, combat battalions would want to unload their wounded on somebody, anybody, as quickly as possible. That couldn't be the collecting companies, because there were none (an airborne division had a medical company to run its clearing station and that company had a few collecting jeeps, but unlike infantry divisions an airborne division had no medical battalion with three ambulance-equipped collecting companies). And it couldn't be the clearing station, because (1) that came by glider and often landed hours after the fighting started and (2) even after it landed, it might be hard to find and too far away to move casualties to with the crude transport usually available, e.g., litters, wheelbarrows, horse carts, and a few jeeps. By default then, the airborne medics must have naturally looked to the relatively stable, relatively nearby, relatively safe regimental aid station as a logical interim collection point for front-line casualties.)
In the first rush of uncertainty, the 101st threw out task forces to block road and other approach routes wherever it was suspected the Germans might show. These penny parcels would succeed in slowing the Germans enough to save Bastogne, but some of them got battered pretty badly when the Germans first showed up and started nipping at the 101st's embryonic perimeter.
Maj. William Desobry was sent out with 400 men to hold Noville four
miles northeast of
(Not long after, the 101st decided to withdraw the hard-pressed task force from Noville. Among other problems, its two aid stations had reached the limits of their capacity...which was shrinking rapidly as more and more medics themselves became casualties. Some 50 wounded were crammed onto whatever vehicles were available to get them out of Noville.)
Medics put Desobry in a jeep and raced to the 506th Parachute
Infantry's regimental aid station, whence an ambulance took him to the division
clearing station. Desobry's damaged eye was saved by the division surgeons, and
he was loaded onto an ambulance for evacuation. But when he finally awoke from
the anesthesia, he would find himself headed into the German lines, not to a
The clearing station's supposedly safe rear-area position turned out
not to be so rear-area, as the Germans aggressively swarmed all around
That night, about , just such a German probe captured the division clearing station with many medical personnel and supplies. The capture started when three tanks, three halftracks and a hundred infantry (some sources say there were also armored cars) came down the road from Bertogne and Houffalize, rumbled up to the intersection and opened a devastating fire on the clearing station and a 12-truck convoy of trucks arriving from Bastogne to pick up supplies (some sources say they were just passing through towards the division base at Mourmelon, France, for supplies).
Sources differ on the timing. Some say the trucks were already passing through the area when the Germans arrived and came under fire at the same time as the hospital. Others say the trucks blundered into the middle of the attack after the Germans fired on the hospital. The official medical history of the European theater says the trucks arrived after the hospital had already surrendered, causing firing to break out for a second time.
In any event, there was a 15-minute firefight as the truck crews fought back with machineguns, but the heavily gunned enemy quickly won. Every truck in the convoy was destroyed. Additionally, a truck carrying wounded to the clearing station -- apparently separate from the 12-truck convoy and already parked on the scene when the Germans and the 12-truck convoy arrived -- was shot up and burned, with every casualty in it killed. Several medical people standing behind the truck jumped into a ditch as the hail of fire opened and survived, but were unable to help the wounded in the truck due to the intense fire. The crossfire killed or wounded some medics, but enabled a few others to sneak away and avoid capture.
Some sources imply the Germans shot up the hospital on purpose, noting
that the burning trucks and ambulances illuminated the red crosses on the
hospital tents. It is possible, however, that the Germans did not get enough
light from that source until after the damage was done. The German units around
(Sources vary on which German unit might have been involved. O'Brien suspected the reconnaissance battalion of 2nd Panzer Division. A 3rd ASG witness, Tech-5 Emil K. Natalle, called the attackers Panzergrenadiers, but didn't say why. Local expert Andre Meurisse, however, believes the 2nd Panzer was too tied up at Noville. He concluded that the 116th Panzer Division, trying to regain its proper route after running far south of course, was actually closest to the scene and stumbled across the medical company in the dark. The 116th's own unofficial history offers some details that tend to support Meurisse's view. For example, a 116th advance element is reported to have moved southwest from Bertogne to the Ourtheville bridge area, which would carry them past the 101st clearing station site, and the war diary of a 116th artillery unit mentions an element reaching Herbaimont and taking a truck column by surprise. Some American sources use Herbaimont as the name for a forest near the clearing station site, apparently the same woods some of the Americans escaped into. Unfortunately, the 116th's history does not mention anything about a captured American hospital, and it is extremely difficult to picture the methodical German staff officers failing to record such an unusual and politically/militarily significant incident. Also, other details of the incident, discovered later and discussed below, raise serious doubts about the 116th being the author of the affair.)
The official medical history of the European theater says the Germans first realized it was a medical facility after several minutes of firing and then promptly demanded its surrender. In addition, the official history says that the Germans and Americans worked together trying in vain to save "screaming wounded" trapped in the trucks. On the other hand, Pvt. Dobbins' eyewitness account -- see below -- states specifically that the wounded in his truck did not cry out because they apparently were already dead. Perhaps the official history refers to the newly arrived supply trucks.
In any case and at whatever point in time, a German officer entered the hospital and told division surgeon Gold that he had 30 minutes to load his patients, medical staff, equipment and supplies onto American trucks for removal as prisoners. Powerless to resist, the American hospital -- 11 doctors and 119 medics from the 101st's 326th Airborne Medical Company; three officers and two enlisted men from the division surgeon's office; four officers and three medics from 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group; and the patients -- headed northeast into captivity. A handfull of officers and medics on the west side of the area managed to slip away into the woods.
(The official Army history of the
When a patrol from B Company, 3rd Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry Regiment arrived about to investigate reports of firing, it found the burned remains of the hospital. The medical people were gone. Most of the medical supplies had been destroyed or carried off, though some reports say some trucks with medical and other supplies were found.
By one account, two soldiers believed to have been patients in the hospital were found in the woods with their throats cut. This must be taken with a lot of salt. Most reports mention no such thing, the one that does gives no reason for thinking these men had been patients, and there is no testimony from survivors (including medics taken prisoner and liberated at the end of the war) that the Germans brutalized or murdered anyone at this site.
The patrol also found 11 enemy dead in civilian clothing, but wearing German dogtags. The civilian garb helped spawn rumors that the attack had been made by Belgian Nazis (some of whom did accompany the German offensive). One British historian reported that German Maj. Gen. von Wegener, the 5th Panzer Army chief of staff, believed the Belgian guerrillas had captured the American hospital. However, the German dogtags and the unmistakable German identity of the officer who talked to Gold certainly suggest that the attackers were Germans, some of whom may have been wearing civilian clothes to gain a tactical advantage or to support some propaganda claim. The official Army campaign history refers to the attackers as "raiding parties (some reported in civilian garb)." On the other hand, the use of civilian clothing does not sound like something Andre Meurisse's prime "suspect" -- the 116th Panzer Division -- would do. The 116th was a veteran division, mentioned with great respect in Allied sources for both its fighting skills and its honorable behavior. While putting a few soldiers in civilian clothes is not necessarily a war crime, such commando-type tactics just don't seem the style of a conventional armored outfit like the 116th. The identity of the people who captured the 326th Airborne Medical Company may just remain one of the minor mysteries of World War II.
Interestingly, the patrol reportedly found no American bodies, though descriptions of the fight suggest there must have been American fatalities -- including the highly specific report of a truckfull of wounded all being slain in the firefight.
Starting the next day and continuing until the end of the siege and beyond, some of the medics who succeeded in evading the Germans made it back into American lines to report the incident in detail.
Among these were:
-- Surgeon Capt. Roy H. Moore, Jr., and dental officers Capt. Jacob
Pearl and Capt. John Breiner, who ducked into some woods to escaped and got to
-- Pfc. Don M. Dobbins, who may or may not have been a medic but was
the driver for the truck full of casualties that got shot up. Dobbins was
standing by the truck when the fight began, took shelter in the ditch and
escaped in the confusion after the fight. Dobbins headed the wrong way and
could not reach
-- Dentist Capt. Samuel C. Feiler, of the 506th Parachute Infantry
Regiment, who was with Dobbins. Feiler took charge of some wounded escapees, handed them over to a vehicle from the 10th
Armored Division for evacuation (presumably into
One medic who escaped capture at the clearing station gave the 101st Airborne's acting commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe a bottle of bourbon to show his gratitude. Sources are unclear on (1) what he thought McAuliffe had to do with his escape and (2) where he got the bourbon.
By coincidence, the 501st medical supply sergeant O'Brien also witnessed this attack. That night he had been ordered to accompany regimental dentist Capt. Lancaster to the clearing station with an ambulance and truck full of patients and to return with blankets, plasma and morphine. They arrived without incident and O'Brien found the 326th's supply sergeant. The latter took O'Brien to some supply trucks to show him where the blankets and plasma were, then they returned to the main tent to get the morphine.
At that point, the German attack began. A medic rushed in to report Germans "all over the place," whereupon an officer told everyone that they were protected by the Geneva Convention and should continue working.
However, not being a 326th member, O'Brien decided to take his chances in flight to the woods. Coming under fire, he hit the ground, lost his helmet, and crawled to shelter as tracers lit the sky. Once he played dead as unidentified figures silently passed.
Crawling with a knife in each hand, he encountered one of the black truck drivers also crawling away from the disaster. The two men crawled towards the wood line, where they heard American voices and discovered the 326th's off-duty medics wondering loudly what was going on. O'Brien told them about the attack and suggested they head into the woods. (Hearing that most of the 326th was captured, he assumed these men did not follow his advice. But the official history's estimate that some 40 enlisted medics did escape capture would suggest that either they did or the Germans did not bother with the little camo in the woodline.)
In turn, the 326th men told him that a 501st dentist and driver had
just entered the woods -- obviously Lancaster and Acord. O'Brien raced into the
woods and caught up with them. After heading deeper in the woods, to a point a
half mile from the fight, they decided to head away from the Germans (i.e.,
away from Bastogne). This took them to the
Alerted to recent developments by
The engineers drove through several checkpoints. At one, the challenge sounded too guttural to O'Brien, who leaped from the trailer into a ditch and was left behind when the driver gave the right password and drove on.
After some hesitation and fearful of getting shot, O'Brien finally approached the sentry yelling "Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio" and every other all-American words he could think of. A jeep later came for him from the engineers' chateau command post. After telling his story to a colonel who at first found it hard to believe that the Germans had struck so close, O'Brien got a K-ration and a corner of the engineers' aid station to sleep in.
He awoke the next morning, feeling miserable and dirty, and witnessed a literal fog-of-war incident. Engineers took up battle stations as machinegun fire chattered through a thick fog. But the firing soon died and nothing came of it.
Another first-hand account was given after the war by a member of Crandall's 3rd ASG team, Tech-5 Emil K. Natalle.
Natalle related that he had gone to sleep in a foxhole about 50 yards from the operating-room tent. He awoke to find machinegun bullets flying over his head. Soon burning vehicles lighted the area. When the firing stopped, Natalle crawled to the OR, where he found people lying on the ground, some shaking, moaning or crying. Natalle said he couldn't think clearly enough to get scared until an hour or so later.
Crandall commented that it looked like
Natalle described the German officer who entered the operating tent as immaculate, with a monocle! Natalle recalled trying to rescue screaming men from the burning trucks and being unable to do so because of the heat. Natalle had to drive one of the trucks used to take the medical company away, with a machinegun-toting German sitting next to him.
This incident again reveals the vital importance of effective battlefield care and evacuation in "clearing the decks" so that other soldiers and their commanders can focus on the battle. However much logic may argue that a minority of wounded must take third priority behind accomplishment of the mission and the safety of the still-unwounded, the fact is that combat soldiers are distracted by untended wounded and make many tactical decisions -- even decisions to surrender -- based on their concern for the wounded rather than on other, more vital considerations.
While it did not come to that in Bastogne, John Eisenhower's book on the Battle of the Bulge does say that care of the wounded and sick -- along with civilians in Bastogne -- became McAuliffe's "biggest concern" after the clearing station was captured.
"This loss of doctors, aid men, and medical supplies was one of the most severe blows dealt the 101st," agrees the Army's official history of the Ardennes campaign, adding later that "Perhaps the most depressing burden the defense had had to bear during the siege was the large number of seriously wounded and the lack of medical facilities for their care."
(And remember, this is the campaign history, not the medical history, that makes this estimate.)
In response to this medical crisis, a council of war involving medical leaders in Bastogne -- Barfield as acting division surgeon, regimental surgeons, and evacuation officers (the 326th personnel distributed to the regiments?) -- and the division G-4 (logistics) officer devised a new system.
The main step was to designate the 501st aid station as the collecting point to accept wounded from all 101st aid stations. This station became the 101st's ad-hoc clearing station/division hospital for the duration of the siege. It would not be so easy to replace the missing medical personnel and supplies, as the 326th had been the source of supply for other divisional medical sites.
Awaking from a good night's sleep on Dec. 21, O'Brien found the aid station filling fast with wounded. That's when he and other medics got to work carrying the pews out to make more room, stacking them on the snow-covered courtyard ground.
For a brief time, the 101st had help from VIII Corps, in the form of a platoon of 429th Medical Collecting Company at Jodenville (a mile west of Sibret). Equipped with five ambulances and two weapons carriers, it evacuated some 101st wounded (170, says the official history) to 635th Medical Clearing Company on Dec. 20.
(The official medical history says the VIII Corps surgeon deployed the corps medical battalion's clearing company and one of its collecting companies to support the 101st. It does not specify but presumably those were the 635th and 429th.)
The front was vaguely defined. On Dec. 20, medic Ralph Spina and Pvt.
Ed Heffron of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, went into
Then, by Dec.
20-21, the Germans completely surrounded
In these circumstances, a medic uttered one of the memorable phrases of the siege. A corporal from E Company, 506th PIR, went to the aid station for treatment of some shrapnel in his foot and was stunned by the number of wounded he saw. He asked why no one was being evacuated.
"Haven't you heard?" responded an unidentified medic with his share of airborne pride. "They've got us surrounded -- the poor bastards."
Despite such fierceness, at
(There is evidence some wounded slipped through the still-porous German
cordon as late as Dec. 21. A 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment casualty, Pvt.
Donald B. Straith wrote that he and 13 other walking wounded left
As a result, wounded piled up far beyond the usual capacity of a division clearing station (if the 101st had even still had one). By evening of Dec. 21, the division had an estimated total casualty list of 1,300. Its improvised church hospital had 150 serious cases in need of surgery stacked up. These and future patients suffered much hardship. Many lay on concrete floors with little shelter.
In general, of course, airborne units expect to be isolated and are organized and equipped for this. But this was not a planned airborne landing; it was a hasty movement from a reserve position, with some people and supplies missing.
Although the official medical history of the European theater says that the 101st went into action with its medical detachments at full strength and with extra supplies of litters and blankets, one might wonder if this was true considering the description of hasty efforts to make up for other supply deficiencies even as the troops rolled along towards Bastogne. Also, it must be remembered that airborne self-sufficiency is at an extremely austere standard of living, considering how lightly they must travel. They can go it alone for a day or two, but then they really fall off a cliff -- even more so than an isolated infantry or armored division might.
In any case, with the situation aggravated by the capture of the clearing station, by the third day of the siege the 101st was facing critical shortages not only of surgeons and medics but also of medical supplies: blankets, litters, surgical instruments and dressings, morphine, plasma, penicillin, etc.
Fortunately, the defenders discovered two depots in Bastogne, including a small 1st Medical Depot Company facility (which, according to the official history, was still manned and functioning noirmally), the aforementioned field-hospital stocks, and an abandoned VIII Corps medical supply point. These held blankets, litters, splint baskets, etc.
As acting supply sergeant for the 501st medics, O'Brien was sent to the abandoned supply dump near division headquarters with a jeep to scrounge any medical supplies he could find. He also was to look for kerosene, to improve illumination for the surgeons who were working by the light of candles found behind the chapel altar. O'Brien did find some medical supplies -- dressings, morphine, medicines, but no kerosene or penicillin -- in one of the shell-damaged two-story brick buildings constituting the supply dump.
He took that stuff to the chapel, then went hunting all over town for kerosene. He finally spotted a kerosene tank at the railhead and, by tapping it, found some fuel left near the bottom. By tilting the tank, he was able to drain off a little fuel at a time into a small container, which he then transferred to jerry
cans. He eventually collected about 20 gallons.
Such finds -- even combined with looting of
Starvation was never a threat, but food shortages deprived patients -- not to mention medical personnel and fighting troops -- of nutritional variety, despite the division's order to reserve sugar, coffee, Ovaltine, and 10-in-1 rations.
A tank destroyer unit donated 45 cases of 10-in-1 rations for the seriously wounded, a much-appreciated source of some tiny extra portions for men who needed them most. Pancakes became an every-day item when a large supply of flour was found in a civilian warehouse (the Army's campaign history says it was donut flour from a Red Cross dump). A medic thumping on basement walls to discover secret rooms hit the jackpot: a hidden room containing sugar, coffee...and an American carbine. Other explorers uncovered food supplements on occasion: oatmeal, candy, even grapes. Christmas Eve, the supply folks broke out some confiscated cognac for the hospital.
(O'Brien discovered a cache of hard candy in a boxcar during a return
foray to the raidhead. He delivered a box to each aid station in the 501st.
Another time, he discovered women's clothing and cosmetics left by nurses who
had been in
In time, according to litter officer Lt. Charles S. Phalen of the 326th Med Company, the 501st's church site became grossly overcrowded. The 501st packed wounded in rows on the floor so close together that medics had trouble walking between them. Surgery went on endlessly in a side chapel, in front of an altar.
O'Brien said the temperature in the crowded room remained tolerant, despite the lack of heating, thanks to the occupants' body heat. Ventilation was adequate because German shells had blown out some windows.
Dead were stacked outside the front door, a morale-crippler that led Waldmann to assign O'Brien to move the bodies away. He was directed to carry the six dead men to the division graves-registration site. Having no help, O'Brien would lift one end of each frozen-stiff corpse, drag it to his vehicle, lift one end onto the trailer, then lift the other end. Despite the cold, the grueling chore left him panting and sweating.
With one end of each body overhanging the short trailer, he drove to the designated spot, where an MP pointed to an open field lined with rows of dead.
"It was a gruesome scene," he wrote. "It was deathly quiet, the largest morgue I'd ever seen."
At least the cold prevented decomposition, he thought. As he unloaded bodies, some enemy shells landed about 500 yards away and he hit the dirt among the dead. The thought occurred to him that, if he got hit, they wouldn't have to move him far. He finished his task and "tore ass" back to the aid station.
By now, they had heard they were surrounded, but O'Brien saw no morale problems nor any doubt of their eventual success.
There were strains, however. A soldier was brought in that same night, without a wound on him but raving madly. He was given a sedative and restrained in a sleeping bag till it took effect. (Helping to hold the man was the heroic paratrooper chaplain, Father Sampson.)
After several days of siege, fatigue began to hamper the 501st's surgical work -- which was being done wholly by Waldmann, because regimental surgeon Maj. Carrel had fallen too ill to work. Yet, O'Brien says, Waldmann refused to quit working to rest.
An armored-unit surgeon arrived to assist, but he had some things to learn about paratroopers. He chewed out O'Brien for inserting a plasma needle, until O'Brien explained that paratrooper medics often had to do procedures that other units might reserve for physicians. (In truth, however, the armored unit's rule must have been unusual, as many accounts refer to enlisted medics in all kinds of units giving plasma to casualties.)
After a few days of sleeping in the chapel, the medics found living quarters in the basement rooms of a roofless house across the street. O'Brien got a single in the middle with a full-sized bed, and found a number of jars of fruit that considerably improved the medics' diet.
Not all was grueling medical labor in the besieged town. Somewhere Carrel scrounged an aluminum bathtub, which became the vehicle for currying favor with the brass. O'Brien once made many round trips with a 5-gallon can to fetch hot water from the mess to fill up that tub, as the regimental commander had been invited over for a bath! Not to be outdone, Waldmann hosted the regimental executive officer over for a candlelight dinner with wine.
German prisoners were treated at the chapel, too. O'Brien wrote that the greatest act of courage by a medic that he ever witnessed was a German medic with a wounded shoulder who walked into the aid station carrying on his back a German soldier with frozen feet.
This aid station got so crowded -- and was so exposed to fire due to its proximity to a main intersection, two ambulances and two jeeps in the courtyard having already been damaged -- that the 501st opened a second station in a basement garage of a former Belgian Army barracks.
This facility -- lacking a latrine, with only one electric light, and relying on a field kitchen at one end to feed staff and patients -- was commanded by Maj. Martin S. Wisely, the 327th Glider Infantry's regimental surgeon, assisted by battalion surgeons and medics from artillery, antiaircraft, engineer and tank-destroyer units.
(The official medical history of the European theater states that Wisely headed the convent aid station and moved the whole show to the garage when the church got crowded. However, this is clearly incorrect as medic R. Edward O'Brien's memoir states the 501st PIR aid station -- in which he worked -- remained in the chapel until the beginning of 1945. Also, why would Wisely -- surgeon of the 327th Glider Infantry -- be in charge of the 501st PIR aid station.)
In the garage's tool-storage room, surgery was set up, though apparently no major surgery was attempted according to the official history. In the larger vehicle-storage room, medics put wounded men in rows according to their triage status, on blankets over sawdust. Those expected to die -- including many who would surely have lived had they been evacuated to proper hospitals -- were simply left beside a wall in back to die. When they did, they were carried to a graves-registration office in a nearby building.
Another separate structure was used for trenchfoot cases, who were laid out with cover from neck to ankle but with their bare feet exposed to the air.
When this building was also filled, walking wounded were sent to a frigid old rifle range nearby. It had a sand floor and incomplete roof, but thick reinforced-concrete walls offered excellent protection against enemy fire. Later still other basements were used for dispersing less seriously wounded.
In addition to the 501st aid station, there was a de-facto hospital improvised by elements of 10th Armored Division, after it got cut off from the 10th's medical company.
This station was located near the railroad station, in the Sarma
department store on the intersection of roads leading to Neufchâteau,
(Sources vary enormously on precise identification of the 10th AD unit that set up this station. One source says it was the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion. Another says the 25th AIB. Sources cannot even agree whether it was Combat Command A or B.)
During the siege, the fighting was concentrated at outlying villages,
Each battalion had two jeeps -- often reduced to one as the siege
continued -- to evacuate wounded with. But the jeeps often could not reach
wounded in the dense forests where the paratroopers were dug in...and airborne
regiments had no organic litter bearers. Metal sheets from shed roofs proved to
make very useful tobaggan-style litters for dragging wounded away from the
front. The 326th's collecting jeeps took the patients from battalion aid
stations to the facility inside
All the same, it was often impossible to get wounded "away"
from the front. At least one regimental surgeon, Maj. Douglas T. Davidson of
502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, didn't even see much point in it since the
On Christmas Day, German tanks and troops attacked the Rolle Chateau. Davidson not only armed the walking wounded and sent them to help the headquarters personnel fight off the attack, but he led them into battle himself!
Perhaps the most famous incident in the siege of
It is less well known is that, when the German parliamentaries first appeared with their flag of truce before the lines of the 327th Glider Infantry, one of the three American enlisted men who went out to meet them was a medic named Pfc. Ernest D. Permetz -- or Premetz??? -- who spoke German.
On Christmas Eve, in one of the 501st's collecting sites in
"By God, if you saw that in a movie you'd think it was the corniest scene since Sonny Boy died," remarked a surgeon looking out the operating room at the scene.
The evening of Christmas Eve, medical facilities in
According to Phalen's account, an incendiary bomb hit a collecting point (Phalen does not indicate which one, but it was presumably one of the 501st ones) and killed about half the patients. The medics labored through the night to rescue the rest, who were carried to the upper floor of a nearby building for lack of any place else to take them. Most needed burn treatments.
A bomb hit next to the new site early Christmas Day, but it was a dud and no one was hurt.
What happened to the 10th Armored is more precisely recorded.
Surgeon Prior may have narrowly avoided death. He was just getting ready to step out of a building next door to walk to the Sarma (to write a letter for a dying soldier), when a medic invited him to open a bottle of champage in observance of the holiday.
He was still in that building when the German bombs -- the first they had ever heard in the generally air-threat-free campaign -- screamed into the Sarma next door. Prior and the medic hit the floor.
The blast blew a number of people out a large plate glass mirror, buried a number more in the cellar and left the Sarma burning. Prior and others raced to dig people out of the ruins despite follow-on strafings by a German plane. Several heroes volunteered to be lowered into the cellar through a street-level window. They got three wounded out, but then the building collapsed. Twenty casualties died in the bombing.
Aerial Resupply A Lifer Saver
As the siege dragged on, aerial resupply became a critical element in preventing a medical disaster -- once the weather cleared enough to permit it.
On Dec. 23, C-47s plowed courageously through effective German flak to drop color-coded parachute bundles of food, ordnance and medical supplies.
"Men stood up in their foxholes and cheered....," wrote 501st medic O'Brien about the reaction to this spectacle.
About 60 of the bundles contained desperately-needed Carlisles, morphine and plasma, but none of the also badly-needed blankets, litters and penicillin. The division G-4 requested these items early on Christmas Eve. Additional supplies were dropped Christmas Eve, but weather was unflyable on Christmas Day.
Fortunately, the parabundles themselves helped relieve the blanket shortage. Not only did the parachute silk made good blankets, but the airdropped packaging consisted of large canvas strips lined with a felt-like substance.
When the next batch of medical supplies was airdropped in, they included collapsible litters in addition to resupplies of the other items. There was even some whole blood, but some of the bottles broke on landing and the rest were destroyed when a German shell burst in the room where they were stored.
According to the official history, airdropped supplies included penicillin, other medicines, plasma, vaseline gauze, anesthetics, morphine, distilled water, syringes, sterilizers, litters and blankets -- and essentially solved the supply deficiency problem.
Even though the 4th Armored Division arrived from the south the next day to technically lift the siege, the link was so fragile that aerial resupply continued despite considerable losses to German fire.
Besides air drops, there were also landings inside the lines by L-4
artillery spotter aircraft. On Christmas Eve, Lt. Kenneth B. Schley of 28th
Infantry Division landed his L-4 at
Supplies were no more critical to the isolated casualties in
They had the equipment, because the 42nd Field Hospital's gear had been
(An example of the kind of desperation surgery that was done occurred when Major Carrel of the 501st, recovering from his illness, discovered a patient with gangrene in his lacerated leg. The only available antibiotics, sulfa drugs, were too slow acting for the case, so Carrel decided to amputate. O'Brien helped a senior technician set up an operating site in a room behind the altar. Perhaps the existing treatment site in front of the altar was in use; or, as O'Brien hints, they might have wanted to do the gruesome amputation out of sight of other patients. A litter was placed on two medical chests to serve as a table, and O'Brien used a squad cooker to heat two trench knives cherry red and to keep one hot knife ready at all times for use in cauterizing blood vessels. The soldier -- who was angry about the need for amputation -- was anesthetized with sodium pentathol. "I don't know which was worse, the smell of burning flesh or the sound of bone being sawed," O'Brien wrote. O'Brien said later the surgeon received letters from a Paris-based general hospital, one from the soldier apologizing for his anger and thanking the surgeon and one from the hospital commander praising the quality of the work under bad conditions.)
On Dec. 26, two things were done about the situation. First, the 3rd
Army surgeon's office sent 10 volunteers -- six surgeons and four enlisted
surgical technicians, from 12th Evac Hospital and the 4th Auxiliary Surgical
Group -- into
The 12th Evac history proudly recalls that the hospital, then at
With volunteers exceeding requirements, Captains Hills and Zinschlag and Sergeants Rethwisch and Donahue were chosen. After putting together a surgical kit from the 12th's own resources, they waited two days. Dec. 26, they went to the Etain air strip where -- much to their relief -- they found they were to go by glider rather than parachute and would be accompanied by other surgical teams.
Reportedly the flight was uneventful -- itself an eventful fact in connection with combat glider operations.
The teams went immediately to the garage hospital, where the odor of gas gangrene from patients who had gone as long as eight days without surgery proved how desperately they were needed. They set up a four-table operating theater on a tool room next to the garage, equipped with 42nd Field gear. (Presumably this was the same tool room where the official history says an operating room was set up earlier but not used for major surgery.)
By nightfall they had started working on 150 severe cases, mainly amputations, with the help of three Belgian women and a 10th Armored Division surgeon qualified as an anesthetist. They continued through the night and up till Dec. 27.
Meanwhile, Major Wisely -- appalled by the deaths of men who could be saved in properly equipped hospitals -- was trying a different tack...cooperation with the enemy.
Wisely got division approval to make contact with the Germans to propose evacuating the most badly wounded men through enemy lines. Driving a jeep draped in a huge, jury-rigged red-cross flag, Wisely went into the enemy lines at on Dec. 26, accompanied by a captured German doctor who had been caring for 50 wounded German prisoners. The German commander promised an answer the next day.
(According to the official history, his initial reaction was favorable
but he postponed the final decision a day. Interestingly, 3rd Army chief of
staff Gen. Gay and his surgeon had had a similar thought: they had been working
on a proposal to send surgeons into
As it happened, the proposed truce proved unnecessary, as the 3rd
One day after the glider-borne surgeons arrived and Wisely made his
daring proposal, that is, on Dec. 27 (some sources say at 6 p.m.; the official
history says it was early in the day, which seems more likely), some 260
seriously wounded men left Bastogne in 22 Dodge ambulances and 10 trucks.
Through repeated trips into the city, the vehicles evacuated all 964 casualties
Dec. 28. (One source says all left the first night, but this seems implausible;
it also specifies that this all occurred Dec. 26, which contradicts most sources...and
indeed itself, because this same source attributes the evacuation of 964
wounded to 70 ambulances "in record time" on Dec. 27. Clearly that is
a reference to the initial "clean-out" of the
Meanwhile, also on Dec. 27, the "visiting surgeons" got a little rest around and then resumed operating for another 20 hours to make more casualties transportable. Once a German bomb blew down their operating-room door and dropped part of the ceiling, but they kept working -- at times using a flashlight for illumination -- and completed a total of 50 major operations with only three deaths.
A 250-kilogram bomb also hit the 501st's seminary site this day, but fortunately it was a dud.
Aerial resupply continued Dec. 27, with 130 C-47s and 32 gliders
serving the city. The 101st's commander, Maj. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, also made it
Next day the 495th Ambulance Company established a regular ambulance service
These facilities were ready and waiting because responsible medical
leaders had begun planning for the relief of
The 3rd Army consequently had set up triage and emergency treatment
sites at Attert and Villers-devant-Orval (sources give various spellings, e.g.,
Villers d'Avant Orval), on likely exit roads south of
As it happened, Villers was the reception site on the route used. The 635th Clearing Company tagged the patients and shifted them to 64th Med Group ambulances for transportation to evac hospitals.
The III Corps threw together a provisional medical battalion for the
101st itself comprising a field-hospital platoon, a collecting company, and a gas-treatment
company serving as a clearing company. These units began moving into
(One source says the 60th Field Hospital was attached to the 101st division, presumably to replace the division's captured medical company, but it does not say when or for how long. The official history does not corroborate this, as one would expect if it were accurate. Perhaps the field-hospital platoon in the provisional medical battalion was from the 60th.)
It seems, however, that the post-relief evacuation was not a completely systematic "pull" system. The 501st medic O'Brien once accompanied a badly wounded officer out, holding a plasma bottle. Perhaps the collecting-company ambulance crew from the outside needed an extra hand that trip because of the plasma requirement.
On Dec. 28, while another truck convoy brought in non-medical supplies, the IX Troop Carrier Command closed out its aerial resuuply effort -- Operation Repulse -- with a glider delivery of 10 tons of medical supplies.
On this same day, the 12th Evac team -- and presumably the 4th ASG team as well -- returned to their own hospital. All of the visiting surgical-team members received the Silver Star.
(One historian says an entire field hospital was glidered into
At this point, with the siege truly effectively lifted, the 101st medical establishment began rebuilding itself. Maj. William E. Barfield was named division surgeon, Capt. Roy H. Moore, Jr., became commander of the division's medical company and left for Mourmelon to train the replacements for the captured medical staff.
The official history praises the medics inside and outside the
The 101st determined that 33 men had died in its medical facilities from Dec. 19-31, surely a small number under the circumstances. And the 3rd Army surgeon, who inspected the casualties after their evacuation, agreed that mortality had been low and opined that, while they had suffered discomfort, most of the casualties had not been seriously damaged by the medical limitations of the besieged facilities.
The relief did not end the fighting around
O'Brien even scrounged wire, a socket and a bulb from the tankers to install electric lights in his room. This sparked an amusing exchange, when Carrel learned about it.
Carrel summoned O'Brien to his room, told the private he was a bright young man, and then solemnly explained that a good soldier always looked after his commander and never missed a chance to enhance the commander's comfort so that the commander could perform his duties properly. He asked if O'Brien understood.
O'Brien did. he scrounged more wire and put lights in the major's room.
While collecting water one day, O'Brien was chastised by a corps staff officer for carrying a captured German pistol, in light of his red-cross armband. O'Brien explained that 101st medics carried weapons for personal protection, and the officer left.
O'Brien might have needed that pistol for protection against other GIs. He admits that, when he spotted an armored car parked by a building with its crew warming themselves inside, he stole a case of 10-in-1 rations from a rack on the armored car and sped away.
On another occasion, O'Brien had enough spare time to drive towards the front and watched fighters bombing German positions. He went a bit further than he should have and had to turn around when he came upon a string of mines across the road.
By O'Brien's account, it was only now -- around New Year's -- that the 501st actually moved its aid station. The new site was a basement room across the street from the seminary. (Presumably, with a lower patient load, the large chapel was no longer needed and they could opt more for comfort.)
The move may have saved some lives. On Jan. 5, a huge blast rocked the seminary as a truck loaded with land mines exploded for unknown reasons. Thirteen 501st headquarters men were literally blown to bits and a 10-foot stretch of the seminary wall was blown down.
By now non-combat injuries such as trenchfoot were dominating work at the 501st aid station. O'Brien, like higher-ranking medical officials, concluded that officers were not sufficiently attentive to the problem until it was too late and did not enforce foot care.
There were still battle wounds, though. O'Brien, promoted by now to Technician 5, found a Jan. 9 case particularly trying. It was a man with shrapnel through the lungs and brain. O'Brien was helping restrain the man from tearing a compress off his head, when the man started murmuring the Lord's Prayer over and over again.
"...before long it started to get to me," O'Brien wrote. "I felt for sure that the man was going to die and that he knew it. The voice got weaker and the words were soon inaudible. He expired in about 10 minutes."
Jan. 18, the 101st was relieved and went into reserve. Its medics had earned the undying gratitude and admiration of their comrades, as eloquently expressed by 2nd Lt. Jack Foley of E Company, 506th PIR, in a paean to medic Pvt. Eugene Roe.
"He was there when he was needed, and how he got there you often wondered," Foley wrote. "He never received recognition for his bravery, his heroic servicing of the wounded. I recommended him for a Silver Star...maybe I didn't use the proper words...if any man who struggled in the snow and the cold, in the many attacks through the open and through the woods, ever deserved such a medal, it was our medic, Gene Roe."
Even in the ceaseless tragedy of war, there always seems to be room for a few stories more heartbreaking than usual. Such was the story of Renée Lemaire.
The 30-year-old Belgian nurse was described by American soldiers who
knew her as strikingly beautiful. Almost a year before the
In late fall 1944, following
As the fighting descended over
She and a Belgian Congolese immigrant woman named Augusta Chiwy began working to exhaustion as volunteers in the station, vastly improving the morale of the wounded according to surgeon Prior.
On Christmas Eve, after aerial resupply began, an American soldier presented Renée with a white silk parachute. She said she would make it into her wedding dress.
But she would never make the dress, or wear it. When the German bombers struck that evening, Renée rushed or was pushed into the cellar. She died when the bombs collapsed the building.
Many days later her body, along with those of the American wounded trapped by the bombs, was dug out of the rubble.
Surgeon Prior personally carried her body to her parents' house, wrapped in a white silk parachute.
If there was tragedy beyond the usual in war at
They were still there when American fighter-bombers accidentally bombed
the village, though it was occupied by
An American medic stopped the bleeding and evacuated the boy to an aid station in Bastogne, whence he was transferred to the 501st's regimental aid station -- which by then was filling in as the 101st's divisional collecting station following the capture of the 326th Airborne Medical Company. Andre went to the aid station daily for treatment, but the slow-acting antibiotics -- there was no penicillin -- could not eliminate the risk of gangrene.
As soon as
The very next day, American surgeons operated and saved his arm. For weeks, nurse Lt. Ruth Puryear cared for the youngster on the 107th's convalescent ward, using a Canadian ambulance driver to interpret for the French-speaking lad. In addition, a few of the doctors knew some French. Sign language helped. But mostly it was human care that built a deep affection between the American nurse and the injured Belgian boy.
Later Andre was transferred to a Belgian hospital. He grew up, served
in the Belgian Air Force (visiting
He never lost his feeling of friendship for the Americans who helped
him. He made himself an expert on the
Meanwhile, Ruth Puryear was discharged from the Army in December 1945. She retired from civilian nursing in 1974. She sometimes wondered what had happened to Andre, but her efforts to track him through former 107th members failed. Meanwhile, he had made similar efforts to find her, also without success.
By happy coincidence, Puryear learned about Andre about 1987 from an acquaintance who was exchanging research correspondence with Andre.
In September 1988, without writing Meurisse, Puryear joined a veterans'
tour of the
When the tour group arrived at a hotel in
"...the first person to enter was a short smiling woman with sparkling eyes...," said Meurisse later. "Hardly was she inside the place when she asked immediately if there was anyone there with the name of Andre Meurisse."
When Meurisse fessed up that he was the very one, Puryear clasped him in a tight hug and explained who she was.
"I almost fell on my behind," Meurisse admitted. "...I got overwhelmed with a big wave of special warmth and I just held her tight for a long time, tears of emotion were rolling down our cheeks."
Medical personnel shared in the tremendous feat of Patton's 3rd Army,
when it switched its axis of attack 90 degrees on short notice to race to the relief
Army surgeon Hurley kept his staff with 3rd Army's rear-echelon
Hurley also had to redeploy a number of medical units to support the attack northward. He had 3rd Army's own 11 evac hospitals and three medical groups (some in the process of moving at the time); newly acquired VIII Corps units (64th Med Group and 107th and 110th Evac Hospitals); the 33rd Medical Depot Company.
Six of the evac hospitals, two of the med groups (65th and 69th), and
the 33rd had to be shifted towards
Roads were jammed, time was short, and the usual bureaucratic hassles were ignored or taken care of later. Medical units moved out based only on broad verbal orders, hastily, grabbing their gear as best they could, borrowing trucks from each other, taking roads on a first-come/first-served basis, sorting out problems as they arose, and making do in often unsuitable buildings in their new sites.
The catch-as-catch-can effort was successful, and Patton's forces had no significant evacuation problems despite heavy casualties (450-500 patients a day for five days through the spearhead 4th Armored Division's clearing station, for example).
Though 60-mile ambulance runs to
Hurley hustled to reequip medical units battered in the early stages of
the German offensive, including 42nd Field Hospital, 107th Evac Hospital, and
medical units of the 28th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions. These units
got new gear directly from 3rd Army depots and the COMMZ dump at
A medically interesting sidelight to this unit's fate was an attempt by its parent division to fire medical supplies into the village in artillery shells -- an effort that unfortunately did not work out.
When the task force was finally ordered to destroy its equipment and exfiltrate on foot, battalion surgeon Capt. Louis Spigelmann and several of his medics volunteered to stay with the wounded. Walking wounded would keep German prisoners under guard until the Germans arrived.
The plan was for the American medics and wounded to try to pass through the German lines to the American side the next day under flag of truce. The Germans, however, would not allow this.
Crushing The Bulge
The stalling of the German attack was not the end of the misery for
American wounded and medics in the
In a Jan. 7 attack near Thies-du-Mont Ridge, for example, many wounded from the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment froze to death in two feet of snow because search parties found some too late and even jeeps had trouble getting to casualties in the pathless area.
In late January, near Deidenberg on the north shoulder of the Bulge, even deeper snow caused similar problems. In a typical case, medics had to wade through 200 yards of waist-deep snow under German observation to reach a wounded man, then lug the casualty back on their shoulders through the same frigid morass -- a two-hour trek that was exhausting beyond belief and could easily have been deadly, too.
Whatever the weather conditions, rescuing wounded demanded courage and the front-line medics were rarely found wanting. During a Jan. 13 attack by the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, two medics were killed while tending to wounded. In the same action, SSgt. William N. Tucker of the regimental medical detachment personally carried five wounded men to safety and then directed the evacuation of 25 more.
During two days of attack, Jan. 13-14, every regimental medical detachment in the 101st Airborne Division suffered casualties.
"...The courage and sacrifice of these men during the freezing days and nights remained in keeping with what the airborne had always expected and received of them," stated the division's unofficial history.
"In garrison, the men and officers of the medical detachment were called pillrollers, but when German steel started landing nearby, the aidman and the surgeon were the doughboy's best friend," wrote the 508th's historian.
Special medical problems
In the shock of the Bulge, it is not surprising that there were a lot of neuropsychiatric casualties, mainly combat fatigue.
This included a certain number of high-ranking officers, some of whom might just as accurately have been charged with plain old-fashioned cowardice.
One colonel, admittedly under great stress as his positions before St. Vith got systematically crushed, turned over command to another colonel and hurried to the rear to "plan alternate positions." He told Brig. Gen. Bruce Clarke in St. Vith that he could not take it any more, was sent to the medics, and was evacuated through medical channels. Such things happened often enough to inspire historian Charles MacDonald to write:
"Soft-hearted medical officers appeared predisposed to soft-hearted treatment of field-grade officers."
Sometimes the results of stress were indubitably medical. Maj. Gen. Alan Jones, Sr., commander of the mangled 106th Division, whose own son was still in peril out in the Schnee Eifel mountains somewhere, suffered an additional blow when Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway decided he was acting strangely and out-of-touch and relieved him of command. Jones suffered a heart attack and was medically evacuated to a Liége hospital.
As seems often to be the case, medical conditions played a big role in
weeding our higher-level American leaders. When the 4th Armored Division
fulfilled its destiny by smashing into the south shoulder of the Bulge to relieve
Also not surprising in view of the exceptionally atrocious winter of 1944-1945, trenchfoot was a major medical problem -- far exceeding expectations during the flood of Bulge casualties. The problem began weeks before the Bulge, however, as troops sloshed through a terribly rainy, muddy autumn.
Though trenchfoot was not fatal, it was painful, required extremely long recuperation times, was easy to catch again, was often frightfully crippling to units (especially the vulnerable front-line units which also suffered the most battle losses), and put a heavy burden on medical resources. For practical purposes, most trenchfoot cases were litter cases.
Oddly, by this time, medical people and troop leaders in Italy had learned how to prevent and treat trenchfoot most effectively; but none of their hard-won wisdom got passed on to the European theater in a timely way. The Mediterranean theater's valuable January 1944 trenchfoot report did not reach Europe until Europe asked for it in January 1945...too late to avoid the worst damage.
But one wonders how much good it would have done. When ETO surgical consultant Col. Cutler warned about trenchfoot, even his theater's medical personnel paid little attention due to the press of other concerns. The OVERLORD medical annex did not mention trenchfoot, an ETO manual of therapy contained only one sentence on it, and a foot-care directive prepared by preventive-medicine personnel was actually barred from publication by theater administrative personnel on grounds the issue was already covered and was a commander's responsibility anyway. A circular was published in late November...too late.
Overconfidence in an early end to the war resulted in failure to requisition and ship cold-weather clothing and footwear to the troops in adequate quantities and timely fashion.
Shoes were inadequate either in design or availability of both. The secret to preventing trenchfoot was loose, water-repellant footwear that could hold heavy socks to absorb moisture. But existing Army shoes and boots were not water-repellant (and gunk provided to waterproof them did not work) and were designed for tight lacing. Boots were too tight for two pairs of socks without cutting blood circulation to the danger point (much less for the paper that some men put between the pairs of socks as extra, but insufficient, insulation). Overshoes over combat boots were useless: one division found that 60 percent of trenchfoot cases had been wearing them.
When useful shoes such as galoshes were available (which was rarely), GIs -- the same guys who managed to lose 5 million jerry cans, bringing the fall pursuit to a halt for lack of fuel -- tended to throw them away at the first sign of decent weather.
An emergency order for shoepacs was placed so late and was so long delayed by production, shipping and distribution gremlins that it did not reach the troops till the worst cold weather was over.
Then shoepac was a winterized boot but not a very good one. It was the
best thing the
The shoepac's top was non-waterproof, its rubber soles wore out fast, most were too big, it could be laced too tight, and there was no ventilation so foot sweat caused "shoepac foot," which was as bad as trenchfoot. The 3rd Infantry Division surgeon wrote how disappointed he was when the shoepac, which had been expected to cut trenchfoot, was instead causing more foot problems.
"The plain truth is that the footwear furnished
GI improvisation came up with the best solution: dump the combat boots and wear either (1) 6-8 pairs of wool socks, (2) "boots" made of blankets filled with straw, or (3) "socks" made of blankets inside the waterproof overshoes. Such gimmicks worked, but could not be used during combat maneuvers requiring mobility or stealth.
When the Bulge offensive increased the GIs exposure in terrible weather, the bottom line was trenchfoot casualties equivalent to the foxhole strength of several divisions.
The 79th Infantry Division lost 210 men to trenchfoot in November already, compared to 1,400 battle casualties. In 3rd Army, there were six cold-injury evacuations for every 10 battle casualties. Units routinely lost 10-15 percent of their strength to cold injuries. (So cold was the weather that one wounded man in the Bastogne siege lines, who lay out exposed all night, was so frozen the next morning that he could only move his head to alert medics to the fact that he was still alive.)
When the Germans attacked, the 328th Infantry Regiment in
The burden reached far into the medical pipeline. Trenchfoot cases, in fact, were exceptionally burdensome since they were by definition litter/bed cases requiring a lot of personal service and for a very long period of time.
The horse was well out of the barn by November, but the Army leadership did try to close the barn door at last. Bradley issued a command directive and sent personal letters to his field-army commanders, who pushed their subordinates in turn. Patton called the weather and the resulting trenchfoot a more dangerous foe than the Germans -- and reportedly relieved one regimental commander because his outfit had too many trenchfoot cases. In January, Eisenhower weighed in with his support, and the Army's information media -- Stars and Stripes, radio broadcasts, brochures -- informed GIs of the necessary measures. Trenchfoot control teams were created.
All was a bit too late and the cold-injury rate actually peaked after these measures were taken, in January, before falling due more to a combat lull and better weather than to any human actions.
While prevention was the most effective approach and much was known
about it, even the doctors didn't always know best how to cure trenchfoot. The
501st medic O'Brien later discussed the issue with a young lieutenant who had
been evacuated to
Sometimes the local guys did just about as well. O'Brien witnessed a successful experiment in his own aid station. When a battalion medic was on the brink of a combat-fatigue breakdown and his battalion surgeon expressed concern, Carrel brought the man into his aid station and put him in charge of the trenchfoot cases.
The medic got heating equipment and large pots for soaking the injured feet. His instructions were to wash or soak the feet daily, dry them thoroughly and massage them vigorously. When sufficiently recovered, the patients did this themselves under his guidance. It worked and about 50 percent of the trenchfoot victims were able to return to duty with their own units. (And incidentally, the medic was spared from neuropsychiatric breakdown by getting useful work close to the front.)
The other Bulge
As the tide turned in the
In the meantime, however, a number of medical units underwent much back-and-forthing
as they followed original withdrawal plans from the Alsatian plains to the
western side of the
The 2nd Convalescent, 9th Evac, 117th Evac, 95th Evac, and 132nd Evac Hospitals retreated over icy roads, respectively from Sarrebourg, Sarrebourg, Phalsbourg, Mutzig (near Strasbourg) and Mutzig. All went to Epinal, except the 9th which went to Rambervillers.
The 95th had barely made it to Epinal before it was recalled by phone to Mutzig to fill 7th Army's urgent need for forward hospitals. That same night the hospital turned around and went back and was in limited operation the next day. A few days later it moved to Sarrebourg to support the hardest hit sector.
The 132nd also hit the road again after one night in Epinal, moving forward to Sarrebourg.
Despite the confusion and winter conditions, medical services functioned smoothly, caring for 9,000 wounded and 17,000 non-battle cases. The situation never got out of hand like it did in the main Bulge offensive. The front remained more or less stable, and units could evacuate casualties, though winter weather was rough on casualties and all the premature hospital withdrawals did result in long ambulance runs for many of them.
The hospitals -- which lost no people or equipment like their counterparts further north -- were able to care for them, though field hospital platoons complained they had trouble keeping up with their clearing stations due to transporation deficiencies and coordination problems.
As stated, the COMMZ saved the day by backing up the battered 1st Army medical system during December 1944, relieving the field armies of their casualties as quickly as possible so that they could maneuver freely to meet the challenge.
The evacuation process was hampered by combat disruption of the phone system, forcing the COMMZ Advance Section (ADSEC) to send our medical liaison teams over icy, sometimes fireswept roads to find out what was going on and where the casualties were.
Fortunately, the Germans never made it far enough to seriously disrupt
the COMMZ hospitals. All but two COMMZ units remained where they were. One
field hospital holding unit had to move due to bomb damage and the 130th
Elsewhere, German long-range weapons -- bombs, artillery and the new
rocket weapons -- did punish some COMMZ medical facilities, especially around
Yet the COMMZ's remarkable support to the fighting armies took everything the COMMZ had, because coincidentally it encountered some serious medical-resource problems during just this period.
The problem sprang ultimately from the hastiness with which the COMMZ had had to develop and move its medical services, as the Allies raced across France to the German border in the summer and fall of 1944, as well as the overall shortages that still persisted despite theater surgeon Hawley's titanic efforts over the past several years.
The COMMZ Advance Section (ADSEC) -- an ever-shifting zone that trailed the advancing combat armies, linking the armies to the permanent base stations further back and laying news base sections behind itself like a train crew putting down rails as it advanced -- had air and rail medical holding sites close behind the armies. It would transfer patients thence to general hospitals further back -- how far back depending on how long patient recovery was expected to take.
There were two major lines of
communication, a northern one behind Bradley's 12th Army Group (1st, 9th and
3rd Armies, facing the Bulge) and a southern one behind Devers' 6th Army Group
The northern ADSEC had holding facilities at
Further back were clusters of general hospitals on major communications
A regulating office in
Evac policy for the continent was 30 days; for the theater, 120 (before
October 1944, the theater policy had been 180 days). In general, patients
requiring less than two weeks' hospitalization went to
(All cross-channel evac was on British hospital carriers to
Southhampton, use of LSTs and the Portland/Weymouth reception station having
stopped in the autumn. A dockside railhead precluded the need for ambulance
shuttles at Cherbourg, assuming a ship was available when the train came in; if
not, patients waited at the 280th Station Hospital or if necessary at Normandy
general hospitals until a carrier came in. In the last quarter of 1944, some
50,000 GIs left
The Southern Line of Communication (SOLOC) evacuation chain ran from holding sites in the Continental ADSEC to general hospitals at Epinal, Besançon and Dijon, and thence to Marseilles which was both a hospital site and the southern evacuation port for patients being shipped home to the U.S.
At first SOLOC had not sent patients to
This whole complex system became very sophisticated and effective, as
its operators gained experience. Organization and methods were refined. For
"Ambulance crews and litter detachments, their every movement precisely choreographed, becamse expert at combining speed and gentleness in this process," states the official medical history of the European theater.
More hospital trains came on line as new equipment arrived from
The cars were usually unheated and trains were often off-schedule due to track damage, continued enemy action, accidents and old-fashioned traffic jams. AMEDD pressure did, however, increase the priority accorded to hospital trains; experience improved the performance of the crews; and practical steps like setting up rest, bath and medical-supply facilities at the terminals also helped. All This drastically cut travel times, e.g., Paris-Cherbourg round trips times were halved (from 96-120 hours down to 47 hours). But trains ran so continuously that maintenance suffered.
Air-evac grew steadily as more planes became available and air-transport officials became more generous about assigning general-use transport planes to air-evac duties. The conversion of the 320th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron -- the only one in the theater -- from single-engine U-64s to more capacious twin-engine C-47s late in 1944 also helped.
During the last three months of 1944, most cross-channel patients went by air, including 3,000 on a single day in November.
Unfortunately, this progess did not prevent a serious medical crunch from arising just about the time the Bulge crisis hit. There were still substantial deficiencies in (1) fixed hospital beds both on the Continent and in England (in the latter case due to the 180-day evac policy) and (2) medical shipping space, both cross-channel (aggravated by inefficient land evac to Cherbourg) and trans-Atlantic (aggravated by squabbles over priorities).
Heroic efforts had been made to push general hospitals steadily forward on the Continent, using the inventive "expeditionary hospital" concept. Dozens of general hospitals were set up in clusters around major cities in France and Belgium, and their work -- like that of the hospitals in the United Kingdom -- was coordinated for maximum efficiency by numbered "hospital center" headquarters unit that consolidated administration and logistics functions and shuffled medical personnel around as needed.
The northern and southern LOCs had 50,000 fixed beds (in general,
station and convalescent hospitals) by the end of 1944, backed by 136,000 beds
Units to staff additional hospitals were always on hand and generally bored to death with nothing to do. The real problem was lack of facilities, due to lagging construction and stiff competition from other U.S. Army, Allied and civilian agencies for existing buildings (especially as winter approached). It was hard to get engineer support and materials to build new facilities or repair the usually damaged existing structures. Some units set up in tents, but this was inefficient and even brutal in 1944's worse-than-usual winter weather.
Many of the existing beds were for support of local troops and not well sited to take battle casualties from the Bulge fighting.
By December, even before the Battle of the Bulge began, some AMEDD officials saw a crisis looming with fixed European theater hospitals already thousands of patients over capacity and backlogs of patients awaiting cross-channel and trans-Atlantic evacuation.
SHAEF chief surgeon Gen. Kenner pressed for more beds, faster
evacuation and a reduction in the theater evacuation policy to empty beds in
But it wasn't much, and it looked even smaller when one considered the
captured German casualties who needed care. The theater had a 30-day policy for
shipping PW patients to the
The most strenuous methods to secure higher priority for hospitals on all fronts (construction, assignment of existing facilities, transportation) yielded results but not fast enough to avoid the crisis entirely.
Though vigorous deal-making got the
To avoid merely transferring the crowding from
One possibility was to expand the capacity or speed the flow-through of
the five rehabilitation and reconditioning centers then operating in the
(To benefit from these services, however, recovering soldiers first had
to escape the clutches of the general hospitals -- which sometimes wanted to watch
their recoveries for medical reasons; often wanted to use their labor
themselves; and often encountered long delays in getting clothing, equipment
and transportation for dischargees even when they were ready to release them.
On the other side, sometimes combat exhaustion centers released patients
prematurely, flooding the replacement system with men who were far from ready
for return to duty. Despite all problems, about 100,000 men returned to duty
The other possibility was to speed evacuations to the
In Europe, Kenner wanted to open beds not only for for any surge in U.S. casualties but also for German prisoners and liberated Allied prisoners expected to flood the AMEDD hospitals after the expected German surrender -- just when ships would get diverted to the Pacific and mass evacuation would get harder.
Hawley insisted on 180 days -- determinedly or obstinately, depending on one's viewpoint -- arguing that, besides needing to conserve manpower in theater, the AMEDD didn't have enough air and sea evac capacity to move any more home anyway. But in October 1944, the War Department ordered a cut to 120 days.
In fact, Hawley was partly right about transportation. Aircraft
shortages, limited in-flight and transit-stop medical care, land transportation
problems to the isolated Scottish embarkation field at
Though direct medevac flights from
At the same time, the War Department's plans for hospital-ship construction
had fallen behind schedule, while the needs of the Pacific left
Thus, despite, Hawley's unbridled hostility to using unmarked transport ships to evacuate any patients who could not completely take care of themselves, the theater was forced to use the now- abundant returning transports for medical evacuation. Port surgeons surveyed vessels to determine their capacity and the ports provided them with medical staffs and gear.
This system was hamstrung with problems, however. The ports where the
ships arrived (especially
As a result, many ships sailed with far less than their capacity of
patients. However, the pressure did boost evacuations from
Finally, on Dec. 3, the War Department issued a direct order to
Arrangements were made with the British to use the SS Queen Elizabeth and SS Queen Mary, with enhanced medical staff
and hospital facilities to care for 1,700 litter patients. Six more British
hospital trains were borrowed (the
In December, 20,800 patients were shipped across the Atlantic, wel over double what the theater was doing before the War Department started pressuring Hawley.
To meet the growing needs of PWs -- and the expected rush of demand
after the German surrender -- and with little hope of getting the additional
100,000 beds they asked for, the European AMEDD leaders decided to use German
medical personnel to care for the PWs in PW hospitals or PW wards of U.S.
Based on local initiatives, some areas were already doing this. SOLOC's
Nevertheless, recognizing that there was simply not enough American
medical manpower to meet all needs, the War Department and European theater
surgeon's office in December approved creation of German-staffed PW hospitals
with minimal American supervision. The 327th
Medical officer Lt. Col. Crawford F. Sams was sent to
Traveling widely during the Bulge battling, Sams found that -- though German doctors trained since the Nazis took over didn't always have top-flight training -- there were ample PW medical personnel to staff PW hospitals and German PWs preferred being treated by their fellow Germans.
(Hawley distrusted Sams, who was working for
The Army decided to send 100,000 beds worth of equipment to
While the increased trans-Atlantic flow and creation of PW hospitals would ultimately solve Continental facilities crisis, they came too late to avoid problems during the surge of casualties caused by the atrocious weather and fighting of the Bulge.
Actually, at first, the situation wasn't too bad for the COMMZ
hospitals. The evacuation system on Dec. 16 was not overloaded and was working
smoothly. There were several thousand empty beds available in the Paris and
By Dec. 19, however, the available slack was almost used up and matters were "becoming tense" in the words of the theater Evacuation Branch. Two thousand old 1st Army patients plus new casualties were flooding the system, tying up hospital trains and ambulances and filling up the hospital beds just as bad weather hampered air and sea evacuation.
"For the rest of the month, the Evacuation Branch and the
The solution was to push patients out the back door as fast as they came in the front -- onto C-47s departing Le Bourget field or onto trains to Cherbourg, where patients waited up to 24 hours for a hospital vessel to arrive.
Fortunately, many of the problems cleared up soon after that.
Evacuation resumed, even as the
Sheer energy and ingenuity kept at least a thin margin of reserve beds
available at all times. No patient ever got turned away, as fixed hospitals
routinely operated at 50 percent or more above their planned capacity. The 21st
U.K. station and general hospitals made use of the supposedly temporary beds set up for the D-Day landings, modifying their expansion set-ups for winter weather. Wards were filled to physical rather than planned capacity, and then more beds were set up in hallways, laboratories, offices and barracks. In station hospitals earlier diverted to convalescent care, recovering patients were now moved out to make room for patients needing more intensive care.
This load taxed utilities, recreational facilities and hospital staffs (who had already been overburdened before the offensive due to repeated levies of people for other duties). Civilian and PW labor took up some of the overload, as did medical people borrowed from hospitals awaiting field duty. The overtaxed 21st General at Mirecourt, for example, was augmented by the staff of a newly landed 1,000-bed unit.
With War Department approval to add 14,400 permanent beds out of its
own hide, the theater converted nine overloaded 1,000-bed general hospitals
Persistent effort finally paid off in additional hospital sites, as Allied
forces and governments reluctantly turned loose facilities. In
January-February, 26 new general hospitals were opened at
To use existing facilities more efficiently, new hospital centers were
created. The 811th and 812th began controlling
Frantic evacuation activity continued through January, as the COMMZ
took an average of 2,000 patients a day from forward hospitals, including a
number from the overloaded SOLOC. On Jan. 21, a record 4,800 patients were sent
In the last days of December alone, flying often in marginal weather, planes took 14,000 patients off the Continent. Thereafter, they carried some 17,000 a month.
A flight nurse, Lt. Ann M. Krueger of 817th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron, was nominated for the Soldier's Medal for her heroic actions in rescueing 27 patients from one C-47 before it caught fire after crash-landing in fog near Le Havre on Dec. 30.
Weather hampered, but did not stop, the sea evacuation. Hospital carriers and ships moved 85,000 patients off the Continent in December-February. Continued efforts to find additional sea routes floundered on the objections of one or another of the involved parties (medical, engineer, transport). Though a Boulogne-Dover route was ordered in February, the need for more corss-channel medical shipping ended before the route could be prepared in March.
The hospital trains were strained to the limits of human and mechanical endurance, working ceaselessly through weeks of frigid weather, breakdowns, accidents and enemy action. A vivid display of Murphy's law occurred Jan. 11 when an ammunition dump exploded, causing 70 casualties and damaging three trains.
AMEDD officials introduced management improvements (unloading incoming
trains and loading outgoing ones at separate stations) and obtained additional
trains (the Continent had 40 hospital trains in operation by January 1945 and a
half dozen more soon arrived...so many that general hospitals had to be levied
for medical personnel to form provisional hospital train units). Yet it was not
till late February did the pressure ease, mainly because freight traffic was
going more to
Patients were deliberately pushed as far rearward as possible, overloading facilities in western France and the U.K. in order to keep beds further east available for new casualties. This slowed returns to duty, of course, but that price was consciously paid.
Bad weather and management decisions sometimes played near-havoc with
this approach, however, by blocking the rearward flow. Hawley twice stopped
cross-Channel movement on purpose because of the crowding in
Hawley continued dragging his feet on shipping patients in ordinary troop-transport ships, but an increase in bona-fide hospital
facilities enabled trans-Atlantic evacuations to rise anyway. The
British expanded the hospital sections of the
By February, Air Transport Command four-engine C-54s flying out of Paris and Scotland, finally reached the promised pace of 2,000 patients a month...so many that additional landing points in the U.S. had to be used. In March, the rate hit 4,700 patients.
Still, the crisis ended in February due to lighter combat, declining
cold injuries, and growing hospital capacity. This time when Hawley briefly
stopped cross-channel movement to unburden the