(c) 2014, Aaron Elson
Aaron Elson: What happened when you first saw the German paratroopers?
Bob Levine: First the grenade went off, and suddenly they started to shout, because they came right up to us.
Aaron Elson: Had you dug the foxhole?
Bob Levine: No, they were not ours. There was a little cover. It must have been made by the Germans; we had no time. We were advancing. So they may have been just dug in their on their own, and thatís why it wasnít deep enough. If it had been mine Iíd have dug it deeper.
Aaron Elson: Now youíre in this little hole, your leg was exposed, you got a sliver of shrapnel in your hip.
Bob Levine: In my thigh. In my right thigh. And then I suddenly saw this guy standing with a tommy gun pointing right at me, and I looked up, and he looked he was 20 feet tall, and these soldiers had all shrubs all over them; they were very well camouflaged. And they had that interesting uniform. They were powder blue, which I understand was an elite group. And I was fascinated with the gun, because it was polished. I would assume that he had taken it from one of our guys. It looked like one of ours. And they all had them. And the moment he came up to me, the guy to my left broke and ran, and immediately they just shot him. The kid had panicked. And when I saw that, and here I had the wound, I just automatically threw my hands up.
Aaron Elson: Did you say anything? Or did you expect to be shot?
Bob Levine: No. I donít know. And here again, the training was so bad, because there was never any training about what if you got captured. And thatís why I was not even aware of my dogtags having the identification. At that point it didnít occur to me that Iím walking around with an H on my dogtag. But the walk back was short, and suddenly it was dark, so the battle must have happened late in the afternoon. We never knew what time. Suddenly it was dark, and we were just huddled together and didnít do anything. And all night, Iíd say every five minutes, the artillery would fire. They were shelling the German positions. These guys never slept. I could hear their troops moving. They did all their moving at night.
Aaron Elson: Where did you sleep that night?
Bob Levine: We didnít sleep. We were just huddled together in this little wooded area.
Aaron Elson: And was Mike still with you at that time?
Bob Levine: Yes, he was. He was with me until the next day, when we were marched down the road, and our 90th artillery shelled the road. I was walking wounded, so I was up front, and he was pacing right behind me. And when the road was shelled I was knocked unconscious, and when I woke up everybody was gone. I was in a ditch, and as I saw these Germans coming down the road, I just raised my arm. And sure enough, they stopped, and loaded me onto this little cart.
Aaron Elson: Were they soldiers or civilians?
Bob Levine: They were soldiers, but they were not German. I thought they were from one of the satellite countries. And they were drunk. They were all drinking Calvados. They were not drunk, but they were all loose, and maybe that was good. They got me up on their shoulders, and then I saw my foot flopping, and I knew I was in trouble.
Aaron Elson: Were you in pain?
Bob Levine: No. I didnít feel a thing. The body goes into shock. And there was no blood. Later, when I finally was undressed, I had bled from the rectum, a lot of blood. But I couldnít see any blood when we were moving, and fortunately this little two-wheeled farmerís cart came along. They threw me up on that, and walked me to a little farmhouse. And from there I went to the medics.
Aaron Elson: Were there other wounded people in the farmhouse?
Bob Levine: Well, the first first-aid station was all German. I was the only American. I can remember coming into the courtyard and looking around and seeing the Germans, it was like a German barracks, and the guys were forming up. I could see the squads. And then they took me into this little room, and there a guy gave me a shot of something. And from there I was transferred to the surgery unit, by some kind of a truck. And I was never with any other American soldier. Everybody around me was a German wounded.
Aaron Elson: Did you say earlier that one of the Germans died during the night?
Bob Levine: No. When I came into the first aid station, there was a guy lying on the floor against the wall, and he was gray. I looked at the first aid guy and he made a gesture like heís gone. His stomach was all open. And the Germans, by the way, all the German wounded, they had no minor wounds. They were major wounds from our shells. Everybody had huge casts and bandages. They were badly wounded. But I felt I was not badly wounded; all I had was a little wound. And then from that point, I was treated amazingly well. The truck came up and they put me on with all the others, a guy would yell "Amerikane." They knew that I was there. And he gave me a shot while I was in the truck. I really felt my wound wasnít bad, and that I had nothing to worry about. Then I got to the other aid station where the surgery unit was, and lined up outside with all the guys Ė all German Ė on a stretcher. I was lying on the sidewalk outside this farmhouse, and I was so surprised that thereíd be a sidewalk in this little village, so when I went back years later, I kept looking for the sidewalk, and sure enough, we found it.
When I went in for the surgery, they put me on the table, and the doctor came over. He picked up the leg, and he made an indication like it was broken. So I assumed that Iíd wake up with a cast. And then he walked over to me and said, "For you the war is over," in this very guttural English. And grabbed my dogtag. At that point, I donít know if he knew what he was looking for or what, but he said, to me, "Vas ist H?"
And I suddenly realized that I had a small problem, because I just never had been aware of the fact that this would be Ö that Iíd ever have to face that. And while I was deciding what to say about it, they put the gas mask on Ö and then I woke up. So the good news was I woke up, and the bad news was that my leg was gone.
Aaron Elson: What was your first reaction? Had anyone told you or prepared you?
Bob Levine: No. The last thing I remember was that the doctor made a sign that I thought meant my leg was broken. So when I woke up Ė and the light was very dim because it was a barn Ė I said, the bastard took it off. That was my first reaction: The bastard took it off. But I was so relieved to even wake up; you have to understand where youíre coming from, that at least youíre alive. Okay, so the leg is gone. That was my next reaction. It was a surprise because I really wasnít prepared. And then I felt around, just checking everything around my body, and I felt my pocket in the shirt, and here was this card, a postcard, which I just felt, and I let it sit there. A month later, after I was liberated, I was able to read the result, that the doctor had really, I felt, done something very special. He told me what he had done, because he knew that I wasnít prepared, I think. He said in the note, "I know I told you this, but the leg was such that I had to do this." And from that card I realized that this was a man that I would have loved to meet someday and thank him, because he allayed my fears that it didnít have to come off. I had thought for a while that maybe he took the leg off because of the H on my dogtag.
Aaron Elson: How did you adjust to the loss of the leg?
Bob Levine: Well, you see, you have to understand that when youíre on the front line and youíre in combat, you really donít think youíre going to make it. I had come to the conclusion that I would never survive. And I can remember Ė this is very interesting Ė when that happened, there was a sudden sort of calm that comes over you Ö you become a fatalist. And so when you wake up and all it is is an amputation, you think, "Thatís all it is." Itís very hard to explain that. I know my mother never could understand it. But you were alive. You survived. And from here on in I could handle it.
It was like growing up real quick, just suddenly. Nobodyís going to sit there and hold your hand. No counseling. No nothing. There was that fear that you had, and now itís behind you.
Aaron Elson: But you were still a prisoner of war.
Bob Levine: Yes. But I had no fear about being a POW. It never occurred to me Ė in later years when I found out what happened to POWs, maybe they were saved, and to die as POWs, I that to me would have been horrible. I had a different experience because I was never sent to a POW camp, and I wasnít marched and beaten and starved.
Aaron Elson: How did you wind up in the hospital at Rennes?
Bob Levine: Iíve been traveling back and forth to Normandy quite a few times. Every time I do this trip, weíve been to Rennes. Itís a huge trip from where we were in the farmhouse to Brittany. I spoke to Henri Levaufre about it, and Henri said the chances are that Brittany was a supply depot, and what the trucks were doing, they were going back empty, so they were throwing the wounded on them. Because I canít see an ambulance making that trip with an American GI.
And I was not alone. I donít remember how many guys were with me, but we were all Americans because it was all American POWs. So Rennes was a big trip, but obviously on their supply route.
Aaron Elson: How long were you there before you were liberated?
Bob Levine: A little over a month. By the time we got out of there it was early August. I was wounded in early July, so it was thirty-plus days I guess.
Aaron Elson: Had they given you a wooden leg or anything at this point.
Bob Levine: No.
Aaron Elson: So you were bedridden?
Bob Levine: Yes. The wounds were cleaned and tended to by the French nurses. And the medical personnel were all captured American, French and English medical personnel.
Aaron Elson: Did you have contact with any other patients when you were a POW?
Bob Levine: I was in a ward with 30 guys. I was in a big room. I later found out that the hospital was a schoolhouse that had been converted, and I was in the lunchroom. I had a guy next to me who was starting to hemorrhage during the night. I suddenly looked down and I saw this puddle under his bed, and I called the nurse, and right in the middle of the night they gave him a transfusion, one-on-one, they got somebody with the same blood type.
Aaron Elson: They saved him?
Bob Levine: Yes. I had a British guy next to me who had been at Dunkirk. His body was riddled with .50-caliber wounds. Not a bone broken. Incredible. And I learned a little about the British. The guy was from the Queenís Own Regiment, and he just couldnít wait to get back in a uniform and fight. They had a spirit that I donít think many of us had. We wanted to get home. They wanted to get back to their unit. But it was an interesting period at Rennes, because the Germans did nothing but patrol the exterior and left the whole tending to the wounded to the American and French. So they had everybody in there, we had Russians, the whole gamut. We had black colonials, French colonials.
Iíll never forget, one time a guy poked his head in the window, a big black guy, and started to talk French. And I just wasnít prepared. He sounded just like music. Beautiful. I was very impressed with the fact that he spoke something that I couldnít. And we had a wonderful French nurse, who I still write to to this day. Gizelle. Henri found her for me. And then of course we went back to Renne, Edith and I, and found the exact spot where my bed was.
Aaron Elson: What can you remember about some of the other patients? Did you talk to any of them, or get close to any?
Bob Levine: We had conversations all day long. And all we could talk about was food. "My mother made this." No sex. No women. Just talk about food. And we had a ration of a piece of bread and some soup every day, so soup was a major item. We did a lot of chatting.
Aaron Elson: Did they bomb the complex where the hospital was?
Bob Levine: Every afternoon at 3 oíclock, dive bombers came because we were very close to the railroad station in Rennes. Rennes was a major railroad, the capital of Brittany, and we could tell it was 3 oíclock because here they come. One time a piece of shrapnel came right through the window, it came right above my bed, and I was convinced at that point that somebody was after me, that I wasnít out of this yet. I meant to look for that when I went back there, but they probably fixed the wall. But it fluttered right into the wall above my bed. But the hospital was marked with a red cross. It was scary, though, to be bombed every day. You realize what it is to be on the ground, under your own planes.
But in the middle of August, the Germans suddenly packed up and took off. Left us alone. And it was a day or two before the 8th Division came in, because it was still a no manís land. And then finally they came in and took us. So it was a month plus of difficult days, because they had no real medicine. Whenever they changed your bandages, there were no pain killers. They just would rip the bandages off.
Aaron Elson: Were you in a lot of pain?
Bob Levine: The healing was painful. But as I say, we were fortunate because we did have our own personnel taking care of us, and even though the food was meager, you had nowhere to get, so you laid in bed for a month plus. The same sheets. At least they were sheets. Itís better than a foxhole.
Edith Levine: Did you remember to tell him how you lay in bed and used to see the guys walking in the sun outside, the walking wounded, and what it meant when you were there with Nancy?
Bob Levine: My bed faced a wall of windows, and weíd see the walking wounded outside in the courtyard, like this black guy who popped his head in the window, and I always tried to figure out what was going on out there. These lucky guys who were up and walking. And when we went back and took my daughter Nancy, and they took us to the back, and I was standing there looking in, I suddenly remembered, and then I knew exactly where my bed was, because I could see what I was looking at. It was a big building, a schoolhouse, and I asked the headmistress, "Have many people come back?"
And she said, "A lot of Canadians have come back to visit."
But it really was an experience to stand there at this bed site with my daughter.
Aaron Elson: When was that?
Bob Levine: That was in 1996. We went back two years after the 50th anniversary, and we were able to get an appointment to get into the school.
Aaron Elson: Is it still used as a school?
Bob Levine: Yes. Itís quite a school.
Edith Levine: We had gone back in 1991, but it was during the summer vacation, and the school was closed. I went down to the post office and got paper and we left a note. And in October we got a letter from the headmistress. We saw the bulletholes all over the front of the building, and the headmistress wrote to us, "Thank you for what you did." It was the sweetest note. We had it framed for the longest time. Then when we went back in í94, the building had just been redone a couple of years before. All the bulletholes were gone. The school had been redone, and there were children eating in the cafeteria where he had been.
Bob Levine: They did quite a job on the renovation. It was like a private high school.
Edith Levine: You should tell him how sick you were in England, and how you wrote to your parents?
Bob Levine: I was trying to tell them what happened. I told them I was wounded, but I didnít tell them how badly wounded.
Edith Levine: They were big athletes, his family. His mother played golf when almost no women played golf.
Bob Levine: Anyway, I finally was being shipped home; they put a little cast on my leg to protect it, and on this long trip home on the hospital ship, because of the movement of the ship, and the cast was irritating my leg and created dermatitis, a skin infection. So I had to come back to the States into Walter Reed, and at that point they decided to reamputate the leg seven inches below the knee.
Edith Levine: When he wrote to his parents, they said, "Well, he has at least one eye," because he could see. "He has his right hand," because his handwriting was okay. But he skirted around the whole thing.
Aaron Elson: At Walter Read, did you have contact with other wounded soldiers?
Bob Levine: Yes. I spent a lot of time at Walter Reed.
Aaron Elson: What kind of people would you encounter?
Bob Levine: First of all, fellow amputees. We were thrown together in the same ward. Then youíd just sort of wander around and do things together, but nothing really in depth. By the way, when I was in Walter Read Ė I got there in September and I wasnít going to be operated on until the spring, so I decided to go back, to start my first semester at George Washington or Washington University in D.C. I took three credits. I used to go down on the bus, on crutches, and I went to school. That was an activity that was very interesting.
Aaron Elson: What course did you take?
Bob Levine: A history course. And in my class was Margaret Truman; Harry was president and she was going to college. And I went to the White House, with Eleanor Roosevelt. Just before President Roosevelt died. A group of us signed up to go on a tour of the White House, and Eleanor took us upstairs and we had tea with Eleanor. That was fascinating. As a matter of fact, he was in Warm Springs. I donít remember when it was exactly, but it was about the time that he passed away. He died in April.
Edith Levine: How did you get downtown?
Bob Levine: In Washington we traveled by bus, on crutches. I stayed in Walter Read for quite a while.
Edith Levine: Tell him why you were at Walter Read.
Bob Levine: I had this skin problem. So they sent me down to this lieutenant. He was a dermatologist. And I walk into his office, heís got this room full of jars, all over. They had no antibiotics. He said, "Okay, weíll start with this." He couldnít figure out what it was. So he started with this jar, and then tried another. By the time I got through with him that he had become a major. Months went by. And every time, Iíd come down and heíd try another one, and another one, and all of a sudden, he took one jar off the shelf and it worked. And they were able to do the revision, they call it. So I came in September, and I was discharged the following August.
Edith Levine: Tell him who was in your ward. Harold Russell.
Bob Levine: Yes. Do you know the story about my first movie experience?
Aaron Elson: No.
Bob Levine: You know Harold Russell?
Edith Levine: "The Best Years of Our Lives."
Bob Levine: He was in my ward. I came into the ward, and I went into the bathroom one morning, and this guy comes in with two hooks and a little kit under his arm, and I said nothing. The guy opens up the kit, takes out his razor, and Iím standing watching Ö fantastic. Anyway, it turns out that the Signal Corps was going to use him in a training film for amputees. So they decided to use everybody in the ward as a background, and they set down the dolly in the middle and they went back and forth with the camera. And I have a picture of me. They took a still shot of everybody. There was Harold Russell in his first movie, and I was part of the supporting cast. And they did something on Harold Russell on TV one night, and they showed a clip of that film from Walter Read.
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