Veteran’s Testimony – Paul L. Genereux 20th Field Hospital
Induction & Training:
I was drafted into the US Army on 16 September 1943 and sent to Fort Lewis, Tacoma, Washington (Army Ground Forces Training Camp –ed). Once there, I was outfitted with military clothes and gear and was put on a troop train for a seven-day trip through Oregon, Wyoming and on to Camp Barkeley, Abilene, Texas (Medical Replacement Training Center –ed) for basic medical training for a duration of 6 weeks or so, then on to Brooke General Hospital (Army General Hospital activated 29 October 1942 –ed) located at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio Texas. Going from Camp Barkeley, which I considered a hell hole compared to Fort Sam, was like going to heaven. Quarters, food and general atmosphere at Fort Sam Houston were great. I was given training as a field Dental Technician, which was basically to assist an operating Dental Officer in his work, cleaning instruments, handing the dentist the instruments he asked for and some miscellaneous tasks.
The overall training program comprised 13 weeks, including a number of Basic and Technical subjects. Among the technical subjects (representing 144 hours) were:
Anatomy and Physiology
General Care of a Dental Clinic
Medical and Dental Supplies
Care of Medical and Dental Supplies and Equipment
Duties at the Dental Chair
Diagnosis and Dental First Aid
Transporting, Setting Up and Packing of Dental Field Equipment
Sterilization, Dressings and Bandages
Personal Hygiene of Dental Personnel
Inspections and Examinations
In mid-January 1944 I was assigned to go overseas with the “First Provisional Replacement Battalion” in England. From Fort Sam, I went to Camp Reynolds, Greenville, Pennsylvania (Army Service Forces Replacement Depot –ed) which was an Army Camp where soldiers bound for overseas assignment were given additional training, including anti-gas warfare, live fire training, weapons shooting and so forth. After several days there, a number of us were shipped to Fort Slocum, New York. As a permanent Army Fort, the facilities were brick barracks, not crowded, with bunks only 2 high. The day room was also a permanent structure.
The Fort Commander, a Colonel, was a strange man. Each group of incoming GIs, both Enlisted Men and Officers received the same treatment. We were all called into the auditorium, Officers on the main floor and Enlisted in the balconies. He told us he was already the Fort’s Commanding Officer before the war and had been offered a General’s star but turned it down as he liked the Fort so much. He told us we were all on our way overseas, wished us luck, mentioned how proud he was of the Fort facilities and food there and then dismissed us.
About two days before we departed, we were loaded on 6×6 trucks for the 25-mile drive from Fort Slocum through New Rochelle to the shore of the Hudson River, where we detrucked, and with our gear slung over our shoulders we walked toward the wharf to a waiting ferry boat. As I recall, there were about 70 of us on the boat. The ferry sailed down the Hudson River and the GIs from New York were telling the rest of us where we were at. As we sailed down the river, we passed a harbor full of ships being loaded or unloaded. As we approached two very large troop ships, the “Mauretania” and the French liner “Normandie” which the military had taken over for the war’s duration, we were hoping that our ferry would pull in to the wharf they were berthed at and let us board one of them – no such luck!
We continued on down the entire shoreline looking at all the activity going on. At the end of the port, the ferry boat swung into Lower Manhattan. There were no large ships there and we had no idea what was going on. We were led off the boat and walked down the wharf to a ship that we were told to board. This was going to be our transport to England. This ship was not large and I had trouble believing this was ours. The ship was a freighter, not a troop or passenger ship and none of us had any idea what was going on. The NCO led us on board and took us to the front or forecastle of the ship, had us enter the door and told us to go down the ladder to the deck below. When we got in there, we found a large wardroom with quadruple bunks along the bow and port side and room in the center of the ship to walk and long tables on the starboard (right) side that were to serve as our mess and day room area. The bunks had blankets but no pillows as far as I can remember. We were issued a “Mae West” (life saver) jacket which we used for a pillow. We slept in our uniforms, removing only our shoes or keeping them on as we chose.
We spent the next couple of days learning our way around the ship. We walked around the outside of the superstructure, looked into the radio room, saw the heavy blackout curtains that were used at night when anyone came in or left the room, same for the wheel house. The entry outside doors of the entire ship had blackout curtains so that no light would escape at night and alert any submarine out there looking for us.
We stayed in port for a couple of days, wondering when we’d leave as the ship was already loaded. We were told that they were waiting for the convoy to assemble, it was going to be a big one and we couldn’t leave until the convoy Commodore gave the word. Finally on 13 March 1944, in the late afternoon, we got the word to depart and we headed on out the harbor to get into line. We were heading southeast, which was not toward England’s shores which are about 600 miles north latitude of New York.
The next day, when we looked out we saw a huge convoy of ships. We were in the third line in from the right side and as far out to left as we could see and from horizon to horizon. Those first days were not bad, and I remember on the second night being on the fantail with other GIs looking at the phosphorescence of sea creatures stirred up by the ship’s propellers. The trail was so long and bright that someone mentioned that submarines coming astern of us could also see the light and thus know a ship or ships were ahead.
One evening, the Major came down after dinner and talked to us in the mess hall about England. What he told us was true. The English were much poorer than we were, our uniforms were of much better quality than theirs, our pay was much higher, rank for rank, our food rations were of a higher quality, and we were beginning to overwhelm the British in numbers, as so many troops were arriving in the British Isles to participate in the Invasion of the Continent.
The convoy had one contact with submarines that I know of. A couple of days after gunnery practice, I was lying on my bunk in the afternoon when suddenly the ship was pounded with what my uncle, who was a Merchant Marine Officer, had told my folks and me about. It sounded like a giant slamming of a hammer on the side of the ship. I knew what the sounds were, but none of the other guys did and they got excited. I wanted to see what was going on so I grabbed my life jacket, which I was using as a pillow and got out on deck and looked over the distance in front of us. There was a cloud bank in back, but in front of it were several Navy anti-submarine ships known as corvettes, which were smaller than a destroyer and were built for convoy duty, maneuvering around an area about 4-5 miles away and dropping depth charges.
On 26 March 1944, the water changed color from a dark gray or blue to a greenish shade. One of the crew said this was a good thing as we were now in shallow waters where the patroling aircraft could see the subs real easy, and we were heading into the Irish Sea. Our course led our ship between Ireland and Scotland and then down the sea to England. Most of our convoy veered off to Liverpool and only a couple of ships went with us down the English coast to Bristol on 29 March 1944. I recall getting there around midday. As we grabbed our duffel bags and gear and disembarked, we saw an armed GI guard there and one of us asked him if there had been any aircraft activity (this was because of the terrible German Blitz that had been going on) he said that “bed check Charlie” (as they called the German recon planes that flew over at night) had been there 3 nights before, dropped a couple of bombs, but had caused no damage and that everything since then was quiet.
We waited a little while for transportation and some 2 ½-ton trucks came by, with open tops, so we could see. We climbed on board and moved by motor convoy to our next destination, I recall the weather was overcast, like Seattle’s, and I felt comfortable. Some of the GIs complained about the damp and dank weather, but there we were, in Merry Old England. We arrived at our Replacement Depot which turned out to be “Müller’s Orphanage” (founded by George Müller, a Prussian Evangelist, after a severe cholera epidemic –ed), at Ashley Down, in the Bristol area, which the Army had taken over and used to house soldiers coming through the area until they would receive orders for the next movement. The orphanage was quite large, made of gray drab stone, about 3 stories high and had a very large playground and a playroom in the back. We used the playground area for an assembly area, to play baseball or just to stroll around. Even though the building and area were drab, we found it to be quite acceptable. Our quarters were in a large dormitory, with two tiered bunks, cotton mattresses and slats to hold the mattress. The food was good and the mess hall was spacious enough and life there was pretty comfortable.
Towards the end of my stay there, I was assigned as a “dog robber” the duties of which were to make up an Officer’s bed and straighten up his room each morning. I had to be there after 0830 as he then was at his office. I found out from someone from personnel that the man was a West Pointer, in his late 30s and an Infantry Officer looking for a Battalion to command. He was quite distinguished looking, ramrod straight, white hair and dark moustache. I saw him again several months later at the American School Center near Swindon, still waiting for a command. Someone from personnel there told me that the Generals didn’t want him for some reason or other.
About that time, orders came through for several of us to move on. I was part of a group whose overseas orders read to be part of the cadre of the “First Provisional Replacement Battalion”. We got on a train and went to the Birmingham area, where we arrived at one of the premier British Army Bases, known as “Whittington Barracks”, at Lichfield, in Staffordshire. The word concerning the base preceded our arrival. The base had first class facilities, soldiers’ barracks and administrative buildings were in brick, food was reputed to be good and all in all this was known as the 10th Reinforcement Depot. However, the word was out that the Commanding Officer of the Depot, a full Colonel named James A. Killian, was a martinet with great ideas of punishing solders who “deserted in the face of the enemy.” Colonel Killian was one of the bad Army Officers one sometimes hears about. At Retreat (the end of the day – usually sunset – when we all assembled in the parade ground in formation, hear the orders of the day and so forth before being dismissed for the evening) the following inevitably would take place. At Lichfield, the orders of the day always included a reading of a list of all those charged with desertion in the face of the enemy (a most serious military crime) and all Enlisted Men were demoted to Private, regardless of Enlisted rank. Now, there was no desertion at that time, we were still building up for the Invasion, and there was no enemy to desert from. Colonel Killian would court martial and charge with desertion in the face of the enemy any GI (I also recall a couple of Officers’ names being called out) who missed the last truck in town at 2130 in order to get back to “Whittington Barracks”, by the 2200 curfew. The numbers of Sergeants named each day for court martial and reduced to Privates was depressing. I went into town one night, got back very early and never again tried to go off base for any reason. Colonel James A. Killian was court martialed after the war for his excessive actions (he was tried in Germany, 9 September 1946, and received an official reprimand with a $ 500.00 fine for permitting cruel, unusual, and unauthorized punishments upon prisoners held in the stockade –ed).
After we left Lichfield, we moved up toward the northern part of England, and usually debarked from our transportation to spend the night at some other Replacement Depot, have dinner and a place to sleep. Finally, we arrived at a city called Manchester, where trucks were waiting to drive us to our assigned destination. The trucks belonged to the 118th Infantry Regiment (a Separate Regiment, inducted into Federal Service 16 September 1940, which embarked for the British Isles 6 November 1943 –ed) and they were the major part of the personnel at the Base and our group, the “First Provisional Replacement Battalion” was to help them fill out the base personnel requirements as so many troops were coming in that they needed more permanent people, hence our reason for being assigned there. They drove us to an English Army Base located about halfway between Manchester and Chester. The Base was called King’s Standing and was a major stop-over point for troops landing at Liverpool, which was not far from Chester.
One day, I wandered by a hut that had a card game going on. The people playing cards were all from the 1st Infantry Division (which already arrived in England, 7 August 1942 –ed). There was also a 2d Lieutenant playing cards with them. When I walked by and watched for a minute, one of them called out to me, “Hey, medico, how are you?” and they commented on the fact that my field cap had the Medical Department piping colors on it. It turned out that all of them had been wounded at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, in February-March 1943 and had been hospitalized in England since then and were on their way back to their unit. The Lieutenant had been wounded with them, and even though his fellow Officers criticized him for playing cards with Enlisted personnel, they shared a bond and he was part of them. A couple of days later, he moved on and I never saw him again. I think that because he was fraternizing with Enlisted Men that he’d been in combat with, the Officers moved him on quickly.
They all talked to me. Each time I’d be coming back from lunch to my hut, I’d stop and talk to them. They’d all call me “medico” and the acceptance puzzled me at first until the one who was very gregarious and seemed to be the leader told me that they always had respect for the medics as when they were wounded, the medics helped them and treated them to the best of their ability. The leader’s name was Tony Romano, a tall GI from Chicago. His favorite saying was, “Stick with me and I’ll put diamonds on your fingers” and there were other things about him that made me think he was not a Sunday School teacher by vocation, or avocation for all that matter. A few decades later, there was a Chicago mob leader named Tony Romano who was quite a gregarious person. I’ve often wondered…
Tony and the others accepted me as a medic. One time Tony said something about when they go back into combat that they wanted a medic to go with them, looking at me, and I told them that I had no training as a medic, only a Dental Technician and wouldn’t know what to do, and Tony asked me, would I come and get him if he became wounded? I said yes, and that was that.
At King’s Standing, we were providing food and temporary quarters for troops coming in from the port of Liverpool. The fellows would be there for a couple of days and move on, and others would come in. For me, it was pretty good. As the “First Provisional Replacement Battalion” didn’t have a dentist assigned to it, and they had to do something with me, I was appointed as the second assistant to a Dental Officer assigned to the 118th Infantry Regiment. This went on until my Battalion was transferred several weeks later to another assignment.
I recall reporting to the Dentist’s office on a Friday, which turned out to be 2 June 1944. As soon as I came in, I was told to hurry up and get on one of the many trucks waiting for us, because there was need for us in Liverpool to help medically process many thousands of troops that had landed from 3 troop ships and they couldn’t move on until having been examined by medical doctors. It turns out that we spent 2, 3, and 4 June each day processing the troops as they came off the ships. Our group processed some 2,000 GIs over the 3-day period, so I was told later by a personnel Sergeant I knew. My job was to verify the medical records card, check the name of the GI standing in front of the doctor, then the doctor examined the GI, and I would stamp the card and the GI would move on.
A couple of days after D-Day, I ran into the personnel NCO and he told me that those troops that came off the ships at Liverpool, were in such a rush to get processed, that they were loaded on trucks and driven to an airfield about 20 miles away from King’s Standing. There, the gliders were waiting for them to take them on a one way trip to France. They were scheduled to leave at midnight Sunday or early Monday for the trip to the continent, but the weather over the Channel was so bad that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had to delay the Invasion for one day and the troops got at least one more day before leaving. We know that glider troop casualties were heavy due to being shot down, crash landing problems, and the intense fighting. However, I feel that their casualties were not nearly as heavy as the assault troops landing on the beaches at Easy Red (Omaha Beach).
Troops kept coming into King’s Standing and moving on. Things were pretty hectic throughout June 1944 and then with the capture of Cherbourg, Cotentin Peninsula, France, there wasn’t so much ship activity at Liverpool, ships were re-routed to Southern English and French ports. Mid-July 1944, there wasn’t so much activity for us, and our Battalion was ordered to pack up and transfer to the middle southern part of England to the American School Center, located between Swindon and Oxford. This was a very nice English Base that had a different name (it was a former British Officer Candidates School –ed), but the Americans came here in 1942 and set up a Training School for administrative personnel in March 1943 as the US Army had a shortage of clerical people and decided to train more of them. Anyway, we entrained at Manchester and were taken to Swindon where 2 ½-trucks were waiting to transport us to the Center. The Base was well laid out, buildings were of brick and the grounds were spacious. When we got there, it was used as a Replacement Depot and our group took over a small part of the grounds to provide administrative support for troops coming through on their way to France.
Operation “Market Garden” started on 17 September 1944 and matters immediately went from bad to worse. There was a huge glider and paratroop jump on the targets, with a re-supply effort scheduled for the next day, Monday, 18 September. At about noontime on Monday, I was walking back up the hill toward our building and I then became aware of a lot of noise in the air. I usually would look up when a plane flew over and when I turned around (this would have been toward the east) I saw two flights of aircraft heading westward over us. Most of the aircraft were towing a glider, some towing two. The gliders were our CGA-4 Waco gliders and the ungainly looking British Horsa gliders. I seem to recall some B-24s mixed in, not many but some. They would have had to really throttle down their speed as the C-47s towing gliders had to strain to keep airborne. These two lines kept coming and coming, as far as my eye could see to the east. The two columns of planes would continue past the Base and then turn inward, thus facing east again but with the two flights melting into a single line. I watched for many minutes and then went back to work.
The days after seeing the sky train were uneventful for me. Dr. Erskine became too ill for duty and I was assigned to assist at the main Base Clinic, about a quarter of a mile down the hill from our buildings. This went on until sometime toward the end of October – between 15 and 27 October, let’s say. At that time, there were fewer and fewer troops landing in the southern part of England and it was no longer necessary to provide administrative support for troops passing through. This time, the “First Provisional Replacement Battalion” was disbanded and we received orders to report to Portsmouth (near Southampton) on the English Channel for transportation to France and other points.
We entrucked to the railway station at Swindon and then continued by train to Portsmouth. Not a long ride as we got there in the late afternoon. We were assigned to a “packet”, a smallish ship that plied the Channel. I think that maybe 80-100 of us boarded the ship, went into the passenger quarters which had hammocks (I understand this is how the British sailors bunked) and then I think we were issued K-rations for dinner. I went on deck to look the harbor over. It was absolutely jam-packed with ships of every kind and description. Barrage balloons were in the sky to discourage Luftwaffe aircraft from coming in and doing any damage. As some of us were standing on deck, looking out to port, I saw a war ship, it looked like a corvette, smaller than a destroyer, start up to leave the harbor. A small freighter was also moving toward the exit. The corvette was picking up speed and pretty soon it was obvious to us watching that there was going to be a collision. I expected the corvette to reverse engines and try to stop, but it kept gaining speed. Finally, the corvette became aware that the freighter was crossing its bow and the corvette finally reversed its engines, but too late. With a sickening crunch, the corvette rammed the freighter; stove a hole in the freighter’s hull above the water line and the bow of the corvette was really crumpled. The corvette had to back away in reverse to its dock for repairs.
France, Holland, Belgium:
Our ships left port later that night. The next day when we awoke, I think we had a K-ration breakfast, which of the 3 K-rations was second best. I didn’t like the supper, but the dinner box was ok. Anyway, as we were coming into the harbor, I could recognize Le Havre. The small buildings shown in the picture I had seen before were right there, to the south of the quay, or small pier that was to be our landing point. The ship dropped anchor several hundred yards offshore and landing crafts came out to take us on board and ferry us to shore. I think this was pretty much the end of October 1944. It was a very gray, overcast, misty day. What a welcome to France!
Finally, I guess it was about noon, we were once more issued K-rations to take with us. I recall that we hadn’t been issued the new olive drab M-1943 field jackets that the Army now had come up with and that our field jackets were the old style ones that came down to the waist and had two slant open pockets (M-1941 pattern –ed). The new field jackets that had several pockets, came down over the rear, even had a hood, but we weren’t to get them until later. Our uniforms were the olive drab wool, pants and shirt (well made, I might add), canvas leggings and russet brown service shoes that came up over the ankles, and we wore our helmet liners (not the steel pot yet) for a hat. As the Navy landing craft came by we were instructed how to grab the ship’s railing, climb over and down the netting on the side of the ship. We threw our duffel bags over the railing onto the floor of the landing craft (the craft had no top, and was wide open) and climbed over the railing, netting and down onto the landing craft, which was bobbing up and down like a cork with every movement of the waves.
Upon disembarking from the landing craft, we walked up a wooden dock and climbed up a short hill, passing a large fixed coastal artillery gun (perhaps 8-10” diameter) emplaced in the hillside with permanent galleries for the gun crew and ammunition. We walked to a nearby anti-aircraft site (ammunition was stocked in neat piles), and it rained all night. Most of us stayed up all night. The next day, we were ordered to shoulder our gear and walk down to the railroad yards and we boarded the infamous “40 and 8” freight cars that France had during WWI to transport men and horses. The markings were long faded but still readable. We had several short trips, stops, and the locomotive would be disconnected. We then spent time waiting for another locomotive to be hooked and were on our way again. It took us more than two days to reach Le Mans, where the Army had a huge collecting point where all incoming personnel were given hot showers, food and a draughty tent to sleep in. The next day we were loaded up in a 6×6 trucks (2 ½-ton vehicles) which drove up the “Red Ball Express” Highway; a one-way truck convoy route, closed to civilian traffic, that was established to move from Cherbourg to supply inland logistic bases and return to reload (it operated from 25 August to 16 November 1944 –ed). It was a very long way to transport equipment to the combat zones, thus Brussels and Antwerp were critical to capture, in order to set up a shorter supply road to the Armies. That’s precisely why the Germans tried to split the British and American Armies during the Ardennes onslaught by primarily heading for the port of Antwerp.
Upon disembarking, the motor convoy kept pushing along, stopping every couple of hours for a pit stop, and then in the evening, we stopped at a depot and got supper, and then if I recall right, we kept on going through the night stopping every couple of hours to relieve ourselves. I remember that it was very early in the morning, maybe 0200 or 0300 when we stopped at a bridge that had an armed guard. I woke up to hear the fellows ask him where we were. He said that on our side of the bridge, we were leaving the Communications Zone, and on the other side of the bridge was another country, Belgium, and the combat zone, “lots of luck to you!” We moved on to the next Replacement Depot, for food, shower, bed, and then it was on again going to the next stop. Somewhere along the line, we were issued the new olive green M-1943 field jackets, which were a great improvement over the old khaki ones.
Each day people would gather at what passed for the Company CP at the farmer’s house and they’d be loaded on 2 ½-ton trucks and moved off. My turn came on 31 December 1944. I didn’t get on a 6×6 but was put on a small truck with 3 or 4 other people and we were going to Maastricht, Holland, about 20 miles away to the Replacement Depot Collection Point to await orders. We drove on into Maastricht to the Assembly Point. As I was in line, toward the door to the trucks, I recall how somber everyone looked. I saw a fellow who had been at Fort Sam Houston and called out to him, he looked over, waved and went on. While in line, a Lieutenant called out my name, I looked over to him and he called my name again, I said yes, and he said how lucky I was. I didn’t see anything to be lucky about with knowledge of what lie ahead, but he said it twice – that I was being pulled out of line and was to go to an ambulance waiting outside as a replacement for what turned out to be some people killed a week or so before when the Luftwaffe caught a 6×6 truck at night with the personnel in it and shot up the vehicle pretty bad.
As I came out the door and started walking over to the ambulance, a couple of jeeps came up and in the front one were two German pilots of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. They had defected and landed their planes at a local airfield. They were wearing dress uniforms, and looked pretty spiffy, to say the least. They were escorted from the jeeps and led inside for interrogation. I went to the ambulance and was welcomed by the driver and a doctor – Captain Petersen, who was a very down-to-earth individual. Dr. Petersen briefed me on why I and 3 other basic medics had been pulled out of line. We were taken to Fouron-le-Comte, Belgium, located in a jog on the map near the Dutch-Belgian border. I found out that the outfit was the 20th Field Hospital, which at the time was being held in reserve, and we were bivouacked at a Catholic Convent, which under the Geneva Convention was allowable. We were advised neither to talk nor to look at the Sisters. This was fine with me, I was just extremely happy to be offered a spot in the auditorium to place my cot together with the other low-ranking personnel. At least we had a roof over our heads. You have no idea how grateful I felt that day! While the Enlisted personnel were housed in the Convent, most of the Officers were billeted in private homes
That evening, seeing that it was New Year’s Eve, two of the new replacements and I walked over to a local beer café (that’s all they had) and had a couple of weak beers while we sat and talked about who we were and where we came from and thanked our lucky stars that the gods of war had looked kindly upon us. As we were back into buzz bomb alley, a couple of V-1s came over and rattled the women bartenders, they screamed and yelled and opened up the trapdoor to the cellar and went down there. We just sat there and kept talking and drinking beer, insipid though it was. During the war, beer had no alcohol to speak of (2 percent) and no taste, but it was still better than water.
Towards the end of January 1945, we were assigned to set up a Field Hospital in Gangelt, a small German village right across the German border. British troops had recently fought there and forced the German Army back over the Roer River. The civilian population had also mostly left the village. There were still rifle ammunition and hand grenades lying on the pathway from the apartment house to where I slept, which was pretty well torn up inside on the side where the British troops would be coming from. My side had a liveable room on the second floor where another GI and I set up our cots. Gangelt was like a ghost town with only us and a few other soldiers around. The doctors decided to set up the Hospital in an abandoned apartment building.
In WWII, a Field Hospital, such as the 20th was set up in 3 Sections or Platoons, each capable of acting independently and caring for 100 patients; and I was in the First Platoon. Each had 64 Enlisted personnel, 5 Medical Officers, and 6 Nurses. The Headquarters Section consisted of 19 Enlisted and 2 Officers (as per T/O 8-510, dated 28 February 1942 –ed). The ranking Officer was Major Clyde Wilson (later promoted to Lt. Colonel). A Field Hospital’s purpose was to treat chest and stomach wounds, which were the most serious wounds. Patients were selected on the battlefield after initial treatment by the combat unit, then sent on to an Evacuation Hospital where patients were selected for transfer to the type of facility that was best set up to treat the wounded. The basic purpose of each section was to set up the facility, provide support such as quarters, food, surgical and medical supplies, facilities for initial treatment of the wounded, operating room infrastructure, post-operation (ward) area so that wounded could be moved to an evacuation facility for further transportation. A few days after we became established, our Field Hospital was in the building in the background, and the Ninth United States Army medical officials sent us two Teams from the 5th Auxiliary Surgical Group. These teams, which I found out later, had seen a lot of combat duty in France, had two functions. One Team, which I was around with, worked on the patients upon admittance, consisted of 3 Surgeons, 2 Nurses, and 2 very highly trained Surgical Technicians. Their job was to get the patient ready for surgery. The other Team had 3 Surgeons, a couple of operating Nurses and also 2 or 3 highly trained Surgical Technicians. We provided the space, x-ray, laboratory, pharmacy, surgical supply, mess, wards and receiving (which I helped on) and evacuation to other facilities.
I recall Dr. Petersen and Major Shelton talking about where they’d set up a “sterile” area for surgery. There being no sterile room, they decided to just hang sheets up on the wall, and set up the surgical tables, knock out a wall and install the X-ray machine. At the time, I had no idea of what capability a US Army Field Hospital had for self-containment. I found out that there were a couple of large generators for electricity, and they were set up behind the building and the electricians hooked up to the building, and strung out some wires to other buildings we used to sleep in so we could have some light at night. One day, as 110V wasn’t enough, I recall the electricians coming through and putting in 240V lights, he told one of the doctors that there wasn’t enough electric capability in the present system and the change-over to 240V would give light; which it did. Not bright, but light.
Duty was 12 hours one and 12 off, seven days a week. I remember thinking it was not good, but it filled our time and 12 off was enough to eat, sleep and get ready for the next shift. We were amongst Field Artillery units and we’d hear the 105s going off. Once in a while, a large gun, probably a 155mm would go off too – and we’d sure hear that!
After we got set up for operations, I helped offload the wounded and bring them in. The first thing the Surgical Technician did was cut off the boots (the combat service boots with leather cuff had just been issued to combat troops, while we still used shoes and leggings), and when I asked why, the guy told me that it saved time to just cut them off. Then, maybe before, maybe after removing the boots, the Technician would insert a catheter into the patient’s penis to allow the bladder to void. The shock of a chest or stomach wound would cause the bladder muscles to spasm. Also the morphine (a powerful opium derivative) syrettes which we had all been issued in the combat zone, one of which was used immediately by the medic upon reaching a wounded soldier, would put the wounded in “la la land” to alleviate his pain, and the body wouldn’t function correctly. So, the use of the catheter was necessary. Time was critical, and prepping the soldier for surgery as quickly as possible was what the shock team did. As soon as the soldier was ready, we’d move him to surgery in the next building where we’d knocked a hole in one of the walls to allow easy access and then we’d clean up and get ready for the next one. Sometimes, there wouldn’t be many coming in and we’d sit around and talk. Basically, I recall that the days pretty well ran together. One of the GIs did haircuts for $ 0.50, and I recall one of the Nurses telling me I should get my hair cut, so I did. I thought my hair was ok, but orders were orders (Nurses were Officers –ed).
One day followed another, and every 2 or 3 days, we were given the opportunity to be driven to a local coalmine and take a nice shower. The Nurses were in an enclosed area and MPs were stationed to guard them while they were showering. I recall seeing the German miners coming up out of the pit, from the elevator, and how black and grimy they were. They’d shower in a different area than ours. At least it was a shower, and a chance to get clean. This was something the front line troops weren’t getting much of.
By 1 March 1945, our troops had crossed the Roer River and things were quiet in our sector as the troops had moved on. We closed on 6 March, and joined the second platoon in Bracht for a bivouac and rest and exchanging experiences. As we crossed the Roer, the evidence of hard fighting was all over. The roadsides were littered with damaged equipment, dead animals, and the general overall detritus and destruction of war. I was surprised as to how many farm animals littered the side of the roads. Dead horses, destroyed carts, everything – but what we didn’t see was the number of tanks we expected to find. There just weren’t many. The Germans were running out of equipment.
After crossing the Roer River and a little way past München-Gladbach, Germany, we arrived at Bracht where the second Hospital unit (or Platoon) was bivouacked at a tobacco warehouse. I don’t remember much about it as we were told to move on the next day, while the second stayed there. Bracht hadn’t been damaged much by the war, so the other guys had a nice place to stay. We were on our way toward the Rhine River and a town called Lintfort about 4-5 miles from the river to set up the Field Hospital. As we drove along the road to Lintfort, I recall seeing many freshly killed oxen and horses alongside the road, some still hooked up to their wagons or carts. They had been bulldozed to the side of the road. We were surprised as to the absence of tanks and other mobile equipment. We had thought that the Blitzkrieg that the Germans had been such specialists in would contain more mobile equipment. As the roads had been so thoroughly shot up by us, we thought there’d be more alongside the roads, but anyway the enemy was definitely running out of steam.
The next day, as we hadn’t yet opened up for patients, some of us walked outside to the front of the school and around the area a little bit. The German civilians were curious, and as we weren’t combat troops, were friendly to us. General Eisenhower had made it a court martial offense for any GI to fraternize with the Germans, and he had set up a $ 65.00 fine for any GI caught in the act. Despite this stricture, we found that the Candy Store was open. The young German women were there. As many of their men were off fighting the war in other areas, we were there and not crippled. I will say that married as well as we single GIs partook of the goodies available.
One of the most memorable experiences was during the night of 22 March and the early morning hours of 23 March, when our Armies assaulted and crossed the Rhine. The first night was clear, and a full moon was out. One could feel that this was going to be the time. The tension amongst the assault troops was palpable. In the evening, a couple of buddies and I were assigned to escort a few Nurses over to the Navy crews who were loading the landing barges on the flatbed trailers for transport to the Rhine River. It was so clear out, and I commented on it, and one of the crew guys said that there was hopefully going to be a lot of smoke set off to hide them. One of the Nurses, whose husband had been a fighter pilot killed in Italy, commented to the Navy men, “give ‘em hell boys!”. I honestly didn’t think it was appropriate, but she said it. We watched them load the landing craft and then leave and we walked back to the school to wait for what was going to transpire. I was assigned as a basic medic in the receiving room which meant I was to provide the muscle in lifting the litter cases out of the ambulance with another GI and carry the wounded into the receiving room for triage, evaluation, and preparation for surgery.
I’m now going to discuss an experience that has remained close to memory all these years. In this first group of wounded coming in was a tall, about 6′, blonde boy my age, who hailed from Wisconsin. He’d been shot right through the left lung. In those days, combat soldiers did not wear body armor, only Air Corps people had bulky flak jackets with extra armor plates for protection. The GI had a syrette of morphine given him when the medics had gotten to him and he appeared to be in good condition. He and I talked after the Surgical Team people had checked him over and they went on to attend other wounded. I didn’t know why he wasn’t operated on, just assumed that he wasn’t in as bad a shape as other incoming patients, so we waited. He told me that he’d crossed the Rhine, and about ¾ miles inland, he stepped onto the Autobahn to cross it and got shot. We talked about where he was from and made small talk. A while later a Nurse examined him again but he still stayed in receiving. I asked the Nurse why he hadn’t been moved as I was becoming concerned. I forgot what she said, if anything in response. I don’t recall much of an answer. As I watched him taking his last breaths, I thought about writing his parents, but I got busy and didn’t do it. I’ve regretted that oversight to this day.
By the beginning of April, the fighting had proceeded way past the Rhine and the casualties coming in had decreased and we were ordered to load up and proceed across the Rhine to set up at another site. On 9 April we entrucked for another move. We went to the Rhine crossing and saw that we were going to cross on a pontoon bridge resting on rubber boats with planking and held by cables. The so-called driveway was hardly wide enough for a vehicle to cross. I thought that if the driver made a mistake, we’d go over. Fortunately, we got across safely.
Hannover to Halberstadt:
The German Army facilities at Herford were quite nice, atop a small rise in the topography with a commanding view of the area and the barracks were in great condition. We were able to get showers and cleaned up after our trip. We had seen much evidence of the speed with which the Allied Armies had rushed forward, defeating the Germans, who were by this time in full retreat. I was on guard duty for a couple of hours in the evening after showers, and I visited a training area for throwing the German “potato mashers”. I got into one of the training pits and threw a dummy grenade several times for practice. Their grenade looks like a small tin can screwed onto a wooden potato masher handle for throwing. I think our grenades being smaller were perhaps easier to use.
I seem to recall either getting the Stars and Stripes or hearing on the radio that the Germans were falling back, and heading up into the mountains, particularly the SS for a desperate last stand. Our military leaders were concerned about rooting them out before they reached a “redoubt” area, which could be a formidable fortress type of area to overcome as the areas they were going into were around Berchtesgaden which was Hitler’s fortified chalet and very mountainous terrain.
By this time we had all been issued small cans of DDT, which had just come out and were told to use the powder, which looked a lot like talcum powder, and spread it along the seams of our clothing to kill lice and scabies (a mite that gets into the genital area and causes intense itching), and also to spread a little powder on our bedding to kill any bugs, all of which were endemic in Europe at the time.
The news also mentioned the many Concentration Camps (holding political prisoners who had to do hard labor) the Germans had and the question was what to do with the recently liberated inmates as most of them came from other nations and were going to have to be returned home as there was no longer any reason for them to stay in Germany. With this background on our minds we were ordered to proceed to Hannover. When we arrived there, we took over some nice apartments that the residents had only a few hours to leave. They weren’t able to take much of their possessions along, only valuables, with most of the furnishings remaining.
It was here that I had my first contact with some of the foreign laborers or Displaced Persons. There were several areas where they were housed nearby. The whole city was in upheaval. It is difficult to ask anyone not experiencing this to understand just what it’s like to suddenly have one’s world turned upside down. No work, no money, food running out, where does one go? How does one get to where they want to go? No transport available, our military had destroyed everything, the German military in their retreat had taken all transport with them, the city was pretty well smashed up.
I recall that we’d arrived at Hannover around 10 April 1945, and I was wandering around to see what was going on and talked with the DPs, some of whom spoke a little English. I came across some Russian workers who invited me to their camp for a few drinks. Boy, did they drink! I recall getting very drunk that night and a very well-built Russian girl picked me up and put me into a bunk (no, nothing further happened), and let me sleep there for the night. When I got up the next morning, several of them were still celebrating and drinking. I got up, said goodbye and rejoined our bivouac. I do recall getting some black Russian rye bread the night before which was very good and heavy, not like American rye bread. It was good, but I needed other food and went back to where I could get an American breakfast.
First Platoon reached Halberstadt 14 April, and we were thus the first to arrive. We took over a large German Artillery camp (the Germans called their military facilities Kaserne) and there was evidence of a hurried departure of the previous tenants. There were several dead horses (when they were alive, they were well taken care of) and the whole area was full of junk. While waiting for the other two Hospital Platoons to arrive, we cleared out what were going to be our quarters in one building, and took out what we didn’t need and threw it on the large pile of junk in the parade ground.
On 17 April, we were ready to receive and process the former prisoners. Honestly, we had no idea what to expect. Our ambulances went to Langenstein-Zwieberge, liberated 13 April 1945 (a subcamp of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp –ed), about 5 miles away and loaded up some people and came back to offload. I was assigned as a litter bearer to unload the people from the ambulances when they arrived. My memory of the driver’s reactions is clear, they were all upset, and some were crying, with tears running down their face. They said that you couldn’t believe the conditions at the camp, several dozen people had been hanged and left on the trees or wherever they were hung from, and they said the stench was so immense that they had to get gas masks from supply before going back. We were ordered to wear surgical masks when we took the people out of the ambulances. We took these poor individuals out of the ambulance and the stench was horrible, even through the mask. (the camp, located in the vicinity of Halberstadt and activated 7 October 1944, was an underground aircraft factory –ed).
We had them stand up (those that could) off the stretcher and a couple of us sprayed them with delousing (DDT) powder. We found that wasn’t working as these people were so filthy with excrement, sores, and injuries that we tried to wash off the dried feces and dry them before delousing. I recall one poor man when we took him off the ambulance saying “Scheisserei”. They couldn’t speak English, only a smattering of German, or another language, and that’s the first time I heard the word, “scheissen”, and it became a common word from that time on.
There were some combat soldiers looking on as we were offloading the DPs (Displaced Persons) and they were so angry that they had tears in their eyes and wanted to kill Germans. Very angry indeed! These were GIs who were in the process of killing Germans holed up in the Harz Mountains and I think matters did no go well for any German troops they came in contact with at that time.
This went on all day as I remember. The doctors at the camp had selected the sickest for immediate transfer the first days and then those not so ill came later. All in all, we had over 1,100 DPs there by 21 April. If a DP or anyone else was Jewish, they had to wear a yellow star visible on their clothing. Many of the stars had faded to white, but it was common to see people with the star, identifying them as Jews.
By 1 May 1945, the DP population had dropped to 916. I remember walking out from the Kaserne to the west and up the hill about a quarter mile away from the gate where I had noticed several grave markers. I saw crosses and stars of David. I had no idea what the stars represented, so I commented at night about it, and I was told that I was ignorant, that these were the Stars of David, or Jewish markers. As I’d lived in North Seattle, which was either Catholic or Protestant, I had no idea what being a Jew was. I was finding out, when my buddy, Solanch, was crying one day and when I asked him why, he told me about the abuse he was getting from other GIs. I told him I had no idea why this was going on and he said that I was one of the few people who accepted him as a friend, no questions asked.
On 22 June 1945, we received orders to move out and advance toward Kassel. This trip became one of our most unusual trips. We were on the road and stopped for a pit stop, to go off the side of the road and relieve ourselves and this was probably 1100 or so. I recall one of the older fellows putting a mirror up on a tree and starting to shave. Finally, fellows in the lead vehicles started exclaiming about what could be seen down the road. Their comments were along the lines of “what is that?” and “it looks like a graveyard” or something like that. We gathered up front and looked at what they saw. The buildings were of the city of Kassel. What we saw at first were empty shells of houses, businesses and so forth. No one was there. Nothing but total desolation. As we proceeded into town, there just wasn’t much in the way of available housing. What was there – reminded us of a mausoleum, a city of death.
We stayed in Kassel until 5 July, during which time I had many discussions with people I came into contact with, including a Wehrmacht girl who said she had been in Berlin until just before the city fell to the Russians. Interesting stories, if true. She had a ring of truth about what she said. She was on her own and continued on.
I stayed in Germany until June 1946, and subsequently returned home for demobilization. When I came back, most GIs had already been home and no one was interested in my stories. I tried to tell people that Russia was our enemy now and their reaction was, how could they be – they were our Allies? It wasn’t until Winston Churchill’s speech in 1947 or 1948 at a University in Missouri, where he stated that an iron curtain had descended upon Eastern Europe that people started to realize that relations with the Soviets were not hunky-dory and that we had to wake up and accept the truth…
The 20th Field Hospital received a number of Commendations for the excellent manner in which they cared for their casualties and for performing their duty in a superior way throughout the war. Documents were received from and signed respectively by Lieutenant General W. H. Simpson, Ninth United States Army, Commanding, dated 2 May 1945, and by Colonel L. P. Veigel, 1st Medical Group, Commanding, dated 5 May 1945.
The texts and illustrations contained in the Testimony are courtesy of Private First ClassPaul L. Genereux (ASN 39213574), a Dental Technician who served with the 20th Field Hospital in World War 2. The authors would like to thank him for his time in preparing the texts and sharing them with their readers. The MRC staff would also like to thank Tom Toth, son of Tec 4 Lester J. Toth (ASN:42015981) who served with the 111th Evacuation Hospital during WW2, for his precious assistance in providing a number of documents and illustrations relating to his Father’s service. We must not forget the additional documents kindly provided by Vincent Heggen from Belgium.