War and History Fiction posted December 24, 2007


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Desperate times during the Ardennes Offensive.

Christmas was on a Monday that Year

by Allezw2


The cold and shock of a wound could kill a man in half an hour
241207-220814

Auditorium
Saint Paul and Saint Christopher Church
20 November 2007 Tuesday
0800
.
I was one of the WWII vets asked to tell of my experiences in the war. After I was introduced, and the applause died away, I stood alone at the lectern for a moment, and considered my audience. They were rapt and expectant with a sprinkling of the young among the more elderly. I thought they were unlikely to ever undergo what I and my fellows experienced at their age. It made me consider what I was going to say more carefully.

So I began.

"My most vivid memory of the war is of Christmas 1944. It was in the midst of the German Ardennes Offensive, what we now call, The Battle of the Bulge.

“It was a hard winter, one of the coldest in recorded history. It was also a major cause of many of the casualties and complicated the treatment of their wounds.

"I was a Navy Pharmicists Mate petty officer, and a combat medic assigned to the 34th Army Field Hospital in northeastern France when the German offensive began Saturday, 16 December, 1944.

"I became directly involved when the high rate of combat casualties, with losses among the medical personnel in the battle zone, prevented prompt care for our wounded. Our passage overland was blocked by the Germans, so a group of us volunteered to be flown into the zone by glider. We landed in a relatively secure area near Bastogne early Saturday morning, 23 December, 1944."

Ardennes Region
Southwest of St. Vith
24 December 1944 Sunday
0740

“Hold it there, soldier.” The two men aiming their M-1s at me stepped out into the road. They had my full attention. Infiltrators in American and British uniforms were rumored to be everywhere. So, everyone unknown was immediately suspect. I had been subjected to these impromptu halts and interrogations ever since leaving the HQ on my way forward.

I raised my hands hoping it would be over quickly.

“Where’s your weapon?” The other man, younger, was aggressively antagonistic.

“I'm a combat medic. I am forbidden to carry arms while wearing the IRC. I came in with the medical relief party yesterday morning.”

The older man was the first to begin the questioning. “What’s the capital of Vermont?” He had a New England down easter’s twang, so it might well be his home town.

“Montpelier.”

The younger was next. “Who wrote the Gettysburg Address?”

“Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States.”

“What’s it say?”

“Christ man, are you just playing a game trying to find a question I can’t answer or do you want to let me get to work? They flew me into Bastogne by glider yesterday morning because you guys are short of medics and needed replacements. I’m supposed to report to  the Company A commander, Captain Lengl."

“What’s it say?” Now he was sure I was a German spy.

“It tells about the founding of the United States and says that a house divided against itself, one supporting slavery and the other rejecting it, cannot stand.”

“What’s Gettysburg?”

“A town, a civil war battlefield and a national cemetery.

“What’s the first words.”

Resignedly, I began. “Fourscore and seven years ago our ... .”

“That ain’t right, it’s four score and ten. Keep your hands up, Kraut.”

The other man spoke, “Ease off. It’s seven. He knows it.”

“I ain’t so sure.”

“Put your pack down, soldier, and step back.” The older man seemed less antagonistic, though still cautious.

I shrugged out of the straps and set it down in front of me before I stepped back as ordered.

“Frisk’im,” he ordered the kid.

Staying out of the line of fire, he came up behind me and prodded damned hard, patting me down.

“He ain’t got no weapons.”

“Unbutton yer coat n' git yer ID n’ tags out,” the old timer ordered. I understood why. I had heard that some of the infiltrators were wearing their German uniforms under the GI clothes.

I unbuttoned my jacket and pulled my wallet with my ID card out. Sliding the card out of the pocket, I held it away from me with my dog tags to be compared.

His companion took the card and compared it to the metal tags.

“It says he’s Navy. What’s a sailor doin’ here?”

“Let me see it.”

When he had it, he compared me with the picture. “Where you from, Navy?”

“Wyoming.”

“What’s on the state flag?”

“A buffalo bull.”

Looking at the card, he told me to state my service number, name, and rank.

“U.S. Navy 439 64 03, Drake, Frederick A., Pharmicists Mate Petty Officer Second Class."

"Spell your name."

"Capital D-r-a-k-e, capital F-r-e-d-e-r-i-c-k-, middle initial, capital A."

“Whatcha got in the pack?”

“Medical supplies.”

“Bring it here and check it out,” he told his subordinate.

I watched as he knelt next to his partner to open the pack and begin laying out the materials: my tool kit, the morphine syrettes, the bandages, the sulfa packets, and the bag of instruments. He shook the bottle of alcohol and opened it.

“Don’t try to drink it. It’s not grain alcohol.” He sniffed it before screwing the cap on again.

The older guy was still watching me while glancing at my gear his partner was scattering all over the road.

The kid opened its case and pulled out my Rosary. “What kinda necklace is this?” he asked, as he let it fall out to its full length with the crucifix dangling below his hand.

 “Put it back, nicely. It’s his Rosary,” his partner said before I could answer.

“Catholic!”

"Never mind, just put it back, nicely."

I felt the kid’s disdain as he complied and set it down.The last items were the chocolate bar and carton of cigarettes..

“Where’d ya git these?”

“My mother sent them to me.”

“Looks okay," he said. He looked and sounded disappointed.

“Okay, Doc,” the old timer relaxed with his weapon at port arms, “you have your own way'a packin’ it or I’d hav’im do it."

I put my hands down and slipped my dog tags back between my skivvie shirt and blouse. They still chilled the skin through the thin cotton before they began to warm up. Then I came forward to replace my materials into the pack. I pointedly loosened, then retightened the cap on my bottle of alcohol. When I finished, the old timer handed my ID card back and I put it away.

 "Did you know what was on the Wyoming state flag?" I asked, looking up and directly at him.

He grinned before answering. "Nah, but you answered it right smartly. So, you were either real quick thinkin' figgerin' any answer would do, or you were real. Is it really a buffalo?"

I nodded an affirmative.

”What’s a sailor like you doin’ here.”

“Like I said, you needed medics so I was sent up. I came in with the party flown in yesterday morning.”

“Bout two hun’erd yards up this road 's tha' brigade HQ. They c’n give ya tha' directions ya need. If ya get stopped, tell'm Hazeltine n' Jackson said yer okay.”

"Thanks," I nodded and went on.

I expected at least a light colonel, but was introduced to a harried-looking captain instead.

His runner took me to the improvised aid station. It was a tent sunken into the deep snow. More had been shoveled up to form a berm around it to hold out the wind; worthless against any shrapnel or bullets.

It was a quick ,“Howdy,” from Sergeant Steiner before I went to work on the casualties. It was all frostbite and trench foot at first before a couple of them arrived with shrapnel and bullet wounds. Then the flood gates opened. The two of us were frantic with triage. We worked as fast as we could to stop the bleeding and prepping the men for transport to the field hospital. The stretcher bearers were bringing them in and taking the others out in a stream. Some went to an ambulance, others went into our annex. They were the ones we couldn’t save; sedated and put aside so we could focus our attention on the less seriously wounded.

Too many were coming in with wounds complicated by frostbite. It happened when the wound was exposed too long by the incident or their own attempts at first aid.

“Steiner, don’t we have anyone out there checking these guys in the field?”

“Hey man, we are it, no more, nothing. Whatever they get is what we can give them before they get sent on to the hospital.”

“Damn,” and I finished cutting away the frozen, blood-caked clothes from what appeared to be an abdominal wound.. The entrance in front was relatively small and clean. The exit was larger and the fluid draining from it stank. It had cut through the intestines internally. There was no way we could work on that here. No way to irrigate or disinfect it either. I dumped sulfa into the cavity, closed the wounds with a dressing, and tagged him for immediate attention.

Then it was on to the next one.

We finally had a break on the incoming and time to drink a cup of coffee while the orderlies stoked and refilled the coal stove. It was glowing, but the air was still cold as hell in the tent.

Stretcher bearers came in with more casualties and it took another hour before we could take a breather. It gave us a chance to clean up the triage and operating areas.

Luckily, there were enough ambulances on the road to carry them away quickly.

“Steiner, I’m going out with the next stretcher bearers. We need to get to these guys quicker than we are.”

He had his doubts, but I re-packed and set myself on the track out to the front at the first lull. The ambulance ran me as close to the line as they could drive. Then it was shank’s mare from there on in. The stretcher bearers gave me directions to the command post and began their trek to retrieve the wounded and carry them back to the aid station.

A lieutenant there had a runner take me up to another point. A tough looking non-com nodded when I explained who I was. He looked doubtfully at me and my helmet and the brassard's IRC insignia.

“Just point me toward your forward positions, Sarge. I can do the rest.”

“Kinsey, take him up to the second platoon,” and I was dismissed.

Off the road, the dense forest was intimidating.

“Ya gotta be careful here, Doc. You almost never see the Germans or one of our people before they are ready to take a shot at you. They just pop out from behind a tree, or you come around one n’ you’re face ta face, n’ you'll be dead unless they see your red cross first.”

“I’m glad you know where we're going!”

“Sort of,” he answered. “I follow my tracks at night, and hope I don’t get shot all the time.”

A grizzled sergeant greeted me when Kinsey dropped me off.

“Good to see you, Doc. It’ll sure make the guys feel better to know you’re here. For now, just stay out of the wind. The Jerries like to try us on just before dawn, so maybe you can get a little sleep first.”

“Later, Sarge. I need to get the lay of the land around here.” He shrugged and picked up the phone when it rang..

The artillery barrage began later that afternoon after a flight of our planes flew low over us, bombing and strafing. I had been walking among the men, checking them for frostbite and assessing their swollen feet. They were spongy from the soaking endured in flooded foxholes for the last several days . There was a grave danger of gangrene.

Most of them had only recently been issued overshoes. It was a tragic snafu.

In the initial quiet, it was hard to get them to take their shoes off in the cold while facing the threat of imminent combat. I hammered on the fact that they needed to change to dry socks after drying off their feet and the insides of their boots, as soon as possible.

Now that was the least of their worries. They rose to follow the barrage toward the German positions. I had two pairs of stretcher bearers with me and we were busy checking out the men calling for help.

In the darkness, I followed the cries, and used my flashlight in the race against the cold to find them among the trees. Unbelievably, I stumbled onto an intact building similar to the line shacks on my uncle’s ranch. About twelve feet square, it gave me a chance to put the wounded men down on a sheltered surface.

Garrison, Creighton, Sawyer, Crampton and the other bearers I hadn’t been introduced to yet, were doing yeoman work, finding and bringing our men in before carrying them back to the rear when I was done. It was an hour back to the road, but at least they would not bleed to death, or fade away from the shock of the wounds before they were in the ambulances on their way to help.

During a lull, they took my folding saw and went out to break off some deadwood to set a fire in the cabin’s fireplace.

I used the candles I had packed and was able to use their illumination to handle some really tricky cases that would have been difficult otherwise.

My back was to the door when it opened. Thinking it was one of the bearers, I was shocked to see a German soldier, rifle at the ready, enter.

I pointed to my brassard. He pushed the muzzle of his rifle forward toward me, gesturing me to move back.

Another man came in and I realized they were bringing in a stretcher with a casualty.

The soldier stood back and they set the stretcher down near the others already there.

I went to the injured German and knelt to assess his wounds. The two stretcher bearers were watching me as I undid his coat. One of them came forward and motioned me away. He undid the clothing and bared the bullet hole in his chest. I hadn’t heard the hissing before.

Now it was too apparent. He had a chest wound that opened his lung cavity to the atmosphere. The diaphragm was pumping air in and out of the hole instead of filling the lungs. That condition made it difficult for him to breathe.

Turning him onto his side, I saw no exit wound. The bullet was still in his chest. It might not have hit a lung. There was no bubbling or blood running from his nostrils or mouth, so maybe he was lucky.

I put a tube into the cavity and sucked out air and the blood that had been pooling there. I plugged the hole with a sulfa compress and listened. He began breathing much easier and was saying something to the armed soldier.

The bearer redressed him and they left. The soldier with the rifle nodded to me before he backed out of the door and closed it.

My guys made it back soon after and were preparing to take away the two men I had waiting for them. They were ready to walk out when the same soldier opened the door.

We all froze. He came in and motioned us to move against the wall. He was followed by another casualty and his bearers.

“What the hell is going on here, Doc?”

“I must be the closest med station and they are taking advantage of it.”

“We’re at least a mile from any help,” Liston said, eyeing the soldier.

“It’s okay. It’s my job and he hasn’t threatened anyone.”

“Yet.”

“Don’t ask for trouble. Just stay out of the way until they leave.”

They set the stretcher down and one of them began pulling off the man’s right boot and cutting away the pant leg.

There was an ugly wound in the lower leg that left a flap of cloth and leather not quite covering the bloody wound in his right calf. With the boot removed, I could see the chunk of muscle was still attached, though only by a strip of the skin. I lifted the compress away and loosened the tourniquet carefully. Arterial blood began pulsing out of the gaping hole.

I re-tightened the tourniquet above the wound and removed the remnant of tissue to clear my way.

Cleaning out the wound was a matter of sponging away the blood to find the bleeders. I was able to clamp off the big ones and remove the tourniquet. He was going to lose that part of it. There was no way to replace the mass of tissue torn away or repair the damage of the lost circulation. Removing the debris, I sutured the bleeders and bandaged the wound as best I could. Then it was a syrette of morphine injected above the wound. I pushed the needle into his collar so there was a record of the injection. The wounded man was quiet, though tears were running down his face. They wrapped the trouser leg around the wound before wringing out the blood-soaked sock and putting it and his boot back on. Finished, they buttoned him up against the cold and carried him out. The soldier backed out of the room again, keeping us covered until he closed the door after himself.

Our guys were ready to move.

"Creighton, a favor, too.” He, and the new man, Liston, waited with the others.

“Let’s keep this to ourselves. If our guys come racing up here, someone is going to get hurt, and It will most likely be the wounded. Got it?”

They looked at each other and then me. “Got it. Just be careful.”

“Have the ambulance driver bring me up some more supplies, too, alcohol, bandages, thread and morphine. Carry it in for me will you?”

“Reet, neat, Doc."“

"Take off, you guys.".

"Take care of yourself, Doc.” Then they were gone.

Two more of ours were brought in. I had them ready right quick for the guys to take out for the long trip to safety and advanced care. They came in intermittently during the rest of the night.


 Belgian Ardennes
Southeast of St. Vith
Monday 25 December 1944
0325


I would have given a lot for a hot cup of coffee after I cleaned off the floor with snow and more of the pine boughs. It was warm enough inside now that the blood did not freeze to the floor before I could sweep it away.

I was feeding the fire a little at a time to keep it lit when the door banged open. It was another German soldier, one I hadn’t seen before. He charged across the room toward me. Another one behind him yelled something and the guy stopped. I stood and this time it was one of their medics who came through the door with a patient on a litter right behind him.

This medic had a white tabard with a red cross front and back, and a large flag on a staff he could carry to identify himself. It was miles better than the small Geneva crosses on our helmets and brassards.

He quickly ran a check on his patient. Abdominal gunshot wounds were apparent after he stripped the clothes away.

He pointed at my rucksack and the materials I had standing against the wall.

I picked up the alcohol and my disinfected instruments. The medic growled at the soldier when he took umbrage at me moving closer to his comrade. We looked the patient over and then I carefully turned him to check his back.

It was in and out with unknown internal injuries. There was no apparent pressure in the abdomen or bleeding from the two wounds. They had to have torn up the bowels on their way through, though there was no evidence here. I handed him the gauze pads and the alcohol. He cleansed the area, then disinfected and bandaged it after I dumped the sulfa in.

With his patient covered again, he stood, waved the others out ahead, and left, closing the door.

I cleaned up again and waited, wondering who would be the next in through the door.

Sometimes there were teams from both sides waiting for me to finish one, to have room before bringing the next casualty in, letting me decide which was next. We had a truce here, uneasy as sometimes armed men faced each other before respecting what we were doing and stood down.

Dawn came, clear and cold. Some of the German stretcher bearers went out scavenging wood for the fire, and stacking it outside the door before they left.

The respite was short.

It was the Germans, the same ones who had come through first last night. Only the two stretcher bearers came through the door with the soldier. He was the casualty this time.

He was in deep shock, pale and with a sheen of perspiration over his face even in this still-cold room.

Blood dripped onto the floor fast enough that I knew he needed an immediate IV and blood transfusion.

I had neither, nor plasma as a stop gap.

We opened his clothes to expose a terrible wound in the abdomen that stank of a barnyard slaughterhouse.

Whatever it was had avulsed the intestines as well as shearing through the abdominal muscles. Turning him to the side permitted the cavity to drain and I could see that the liver was badly torn as well.

He needed blood and a full scale operating room staffed by well-experienced technicians and surgeons.

I couldn’t hide my dismay and the other men saw it, too. I was frantically clamping and suturing, but I knew there was no hope. I closed the gaping hole with sterile guaze, and a couple of sutures to hold it in place, before I wiped away the blood on his skin and finished the bandaging.

One of them leaned over to whisper to him. He shook his head and said a few words.

The other took his hand and bowed his head. In unison they crossed themselves and began what had to be a prayer..

“Oh mein Gott, Ich bedauere herzlich, thee habend verletzt ... .”

The first words gave me pause before I recognized what they must be saying. I knew it as a prayer asking forgiveness, the Catholic Act of Perfect Contrition.

I scrambled for my Rosary and held it out to him. He reached for it, and my hand, too.

We continued together, the three of us with the other man standing quietly by. The cadence of our recitation was similar; the words were different, though with the same meaning..

“... with the help of thy grace, ... .”

We were quiet after finishing. Still with my hand in his, I said, "Let me help."

He released my hand and watched as I came back with the morphine. I held it up and showed him how I would use it. He understood.

“Danke.”

I started it into the vein in his elbow, and continued until he relaxed.

“Danke für ihre Hilfe,” he whispered

His breathing was slowing and his hand slid off his chest onto the floor. One of the men checked his carotid for the pulse. He held there for a couple of minutes before lifting his hand away. He looked up at us. “Er ist weg.” He closed the half-open eyes, and held my rosary up to me.

I shook my head. "No, for him. Keep it with him."

That seemed to confuse them. The other said,"Er will, dass wir es, für ihn behalten."

"It's for him. Keep it with him."

He looked at me , then his comrade said, "Für ihn."

He was still looking doubtfully at me before he accepted and tucked the rosary into a pocket of the soldier's blouse.

They redressed him and I held the door open. One was crying, the other nodded as he left. saying,"Danke chien." Then, “Fröhlicher Weihnachten - Amerikaner,”

More came.

It was only after I had worked through the waiting casualties that there was a chance to clean up the room again. I took a break to stand outside and look up through the trees at the clear and cloudless sky.

It was a traditional white Christmas morning, too. The evergreens were beautiful with their dusting of snow.

I didn’t hear any cracks of rifle fire or the crump of bombs or artillery. Maybe it was supposed to be quiet for a little while on a day like this, even here.

A movement caught my eye. It was one of the German medics walking toward me, alone. Against the snow, his uniform made him visible only by the blaze of the red cross, or when he passed in front of a tree. His breath was visible in the chill air as he exhaled.

So the temperature has to be well below freezing, I thought..

I did not spit to see if Jack London knew what he was talking about.

“Amerikaner,” he called. I waved back. Closer, he grinned and put out his hand. We shook hands as he greeted me with, “Frolicher Weihnacten,” gesturing at the woods around us.

Hearing the ‘Vaynockten’ , it dawned that he might be saying the same thing the other German had earlier.

Guessing at the meaning, I said, “Merry Christmas.”

He grinned, “Danke. Nehmen Sie bitte das.”

He handed me the extra pack he was carrying. “Für was Sie verwendeten, sie zu ersetzen.”

I motioned for him to come inside with me, I opened the pack and saw the well-equipped store of supplies. It was far more comprehensive than our standard issue. I had enhanced mine by experience, but this one was very well done.

I looked at him. “Thank you. Danke?”

He grinned, nodded, and offered me a cigarette from a case.

I shook my head. He raised an eyebrow.

I pantomimed smoking, made a face, and shook my head.

He was puzzled and pointed to the open pack of cigarettes I had on the window sill. “Was diese ist?”

“For the wounded, the men who want one.” It was obvious that he did not understand.

I mimicked putting a cigarette in my mouth, lighting it, and then handing it to another.

"Ah". He nodded his understanding. Patting me on my shoulder, he said, “Sie sind ein guter Mann.” He took one of his out and lit it, blowing the exhaled smoke away from me.

I pointed to his tabard with the Geneva Cross and then the one on my brassard. “We are the same.”

He repeated the gesture, and we both laughed.

Then he shook his head, tapped my helmet and then his. We both grinned, acknowledging the obvious differences even if we served the same function.

He held out his hand again, “Auf Wiedersehen.”

“Good luck, chum.”

He had walked out and I had closed the door before I remembered the chocolate bar Mom had sent me.

I dug it out from the bottom of my pack and ran outside. I whistled and he stopped about twenty feet away. I went to him as he waited, not understanding what I wanted.

I handed him the candy bar. “Merry Christmas.”

He looked it over, and then into my eyes, searching. “Hershey," he said. "Danke.”

He put it into an outer pocket, waved, and walked away.

*****
Auditorium
Saint Paul and Saint Christopher Church
20 November 2007 Tuesday
0830

“I never saw him again.

“Later that day, the lines moved farther east. From then on, the only German casualties I treated were prisoners of war."

I paused then, and realized there was nothing more I wanted to say.

“Thank you for this opportunity to meet and tell you my story.”

I felt better for the remembrance and sharing of this extraordinary experience.

Their applause followed me to my seat.



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