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2014, Aaron Elson


A Medic's Story

Ed Madden, 90th Infantry Division

    2014, Aaron Elson

    This story is excerpted from an interview with Ed Madden at the 2000 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division in Charlotte, N.C.

    I was an aid man with C Company of the 358th Infantry Regiment when we occupied the little town of Oberwampach, Luxembourg, on January 16, 1945, during the battle of the Bulge.

    Being a medic, I just go where the guys who are going to be doing the fighting go, and we were sent up on the side of a hill so that we could overlook one of the main supply roads that the Germans were using to reinforce their advance troops that had gone onward past Bastogne.

    While we were up there, the guys were directing artillery fire and we had a couple of tank destroyers to fire down onto these troops. The Germans apparently found out where we were, and while we were firing down at them, all of a sudden we started taking some fire from behind us.

    We were in a house, and when we looked out the window we could see off in the distance coming at us were some German tanks, and their guns were down and firing directly at us. This got reported to the people that direct us, and they told us that we should get the hell out of there and get off the hill.

    The fellow whose group I was with, Tommy McGowan – he was a staff sergeant – told us to go ahead and pull back and he would cover us until we got off the hill and then he’d come down. So we left and we got down the hill. A little bit later I saw one of the guys that had stayed up there with McGowan and I said, "Where’s Tommy?"

    And he said, "He got hit pretty bad and he can’t get out of there."

    I told the captain, well, being a medic, "Those tanks were a long ways off, where we could see them, and I’m going to go back up the hill and see if I can get McGowan before the Germans get all the way in."

    So I go back up the hill all by myself, and there are some houses up there. I get to a corner and I turn the corner, and there’s a German tank sitting right in front of me. And they have some SS troopers right there with them. So I’m standing there, my mouth open, and saying, oh God, how did I get into this?

    A couple of the SS troopers stepped out from behind the tank and they motioned me to come, and all that’s going through my mind was that just a few days before the SS had killed a couple of guys carrying litters, carrying our wounded back, and I thought Jesus, I’m in trouble.

    This one guy took me up the hill a little bit, and he took me into a cellar – when I say the cellar this was on a hill, so the cellar was still on the street. He took me into this room in the cellar and he started looking through my stuff. Then he happened to look over in the corner – it was a little bit dark over there – and he sees one of our guys had been shot and killed and he’s laying on the ground over there.

    About this time artillery starts coming in, and this SS trooper, he walks over to where the guy’s laying and he looks around, and he happens to spot the guy’s rifle. He picks it up and he looks at it, and he looks at me, and he picks the damn thing up and he points the rifle at me and pulls the trigger, but it was on safety. And before he could figure anything else out, the artillery came in like crazy, and all of a sudden we could hear some noise outside, and some people running. What it was was that the artillery had hit this tank and knocked it out, so these guys abandoned the tank and they came running back up and they hollered into the house for the guy who was with me, and he goes running out and leaves me there.

    Now, that sounds pretty good but the thing was that they went back further up the hill, and every time I would go over to the door of the house figuring I’d get out of here, they’d fire at me at the corner of the building and keep me in the house. So I had to stay there all this time and the artillery is just going like crazy.

    When it got dark, I thought, I’ve got to get out of here. So I stripped off my overcoat. My medical pouches, he already took those off of me, and I crawled on my belly out through the door and I got through the door and around the corner. Then I had to go back down, there was all this snow around there, and I thought with our brown clothing it’s sure to stand out in the dark. I went back down and I had to climb over a fence and I thought, if anybody’s around here they’re going to get me when I climb over that fence but I got over it, and I got back down to our side.

    The irony of this whole thing was that I never saw McGowan. I never knew what happened to McGowan. In 1990 – this is 45 years later – I get a phone call in my office, and a guy asks me, did I know Tommy McGowan from the 358 and I said, "Yeah, I knew Tommy real well. He was a good close friend of mine, but I think he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge."

    And he said, "Like hell he was." He said, "I’m Tommy McGowan."

    I live right outside of San Jose in California, and he lives in San Francisco, so I went up and visited him, and I found out a lot about what had happened to him. He told me that while we were still up on the hill, I remember being in this house with him and we’ve got guys wounded and Tommy’s helping carry them downstairs and he’s firing at the Germans who were around us, and he was very active in everything that was going on up there, but I found out that he was directing the artillery fire. Now the irony of this whole thing was that I went up there to save Tommy’s life to get him out of there because I was going to carry him on my shoulders, back down that hill. I went up to save his life, but with him directing that artillery fire and knocking that tank out, he saved my life.

    We are working, myself and a few other people that I know are working to try to get Tommy the Congressional Medal of Honor for what he did up there, because when the Germans came in, he got pretty badly wounded, and they must have seen that he had a radio there or a telephone, or whatever it was that he was using to direct the artillery, and they fractured his skull with their rifles and they broke his legs and they pounded the living hell out of him, and it was immediately after this happened that some other of our guys pushed them off of where they were attacking us, and they had to pull back, and some of our troops went up there and they got McGowan. They got him down to the aid station, he was immediately evacuated and he was sent back to England. And he spent about a year and a half in the hospital.

    He calls me now all the time, because Captain [Arnold] Brown put me in for a Bronze Star for going up there to get him, and I showed Tommy that, and he said, "You went up the hill to get me?"

    And I said, "Sure, Tommy." I said, "What the hell, we were good friends."

    And he said, "I know that, but you risked your life to save me?"

    And I said, "Yeah, well, that’s the way it was."

    So he calls me all the time and he just can’t thank me for what I tried to do for him. And that’s it, I never met Tommy until that one day in 1990. Now I see him, I just attended a ceremony down in Los Angeles at which he was awarded a Silver Star. Tommy’s quite a name down in the Los Angeles area. When the state of California came out and issued the Purple Heart license plate, he was issued the first ones in a ceremony by the state of California.

- - - -

    I was raised in Naugatuck, Connecticut. My older brother owned a business there, Connecticut Manufacturing Company. He’s retired now. He was in the merchant marine. My parents had five children – four boys and a girl – and during the war all five of us were in the service. My sister was in the nurse corps. And we were still all alive up until just last year when one of my brothers died.

    I was drafted in August of 1942 and I was inducted at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. In the process of being inducted they give you all kinds of tests, and my IQ was reasonably high, so they told me I should probably be transferred over to where I’d go to officers candidates school. But within a couple of days they told us they’re moving us out, so we moved out and I didn’t know where we were going. We ended up down at a medical training camp in Virginia, at Camp Pickett, so I went through my basic medical training down there. Then I got temporarily transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland. I was only there for a few days and I got transferred to a group they were moving up the East Coast up to Maine, and I ended up in the 26th Infantry Division. We were on coastal patrol. During the war the Germans landed some saboteurs on Long Island, so they decided to outpost the whole coast.

    We got up there on New Year’s Eve, the New Year’s of 1942 to ’43, and I was up there for most of the year, right outside of Old Orchard Beach, on coastal patrol. I got married while I was up there because I used to go home on weekends, I’d take the train to Boston, change from North Station to South Station and then get the train into New Haven, then from New Haven I’d get the bus to go up to where my girlfriend was living. This got to be a pain so I told my girlfriend let’s get married and you can move up here to Maine and we could get a place.

    We got married in September, and right after we got married, before we could move up there, they told us that they’re breaking the outfit up, they don’t need it anymore.

    Then we were transferred to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and in Fort Dix we joined up with the 90th Infantry Division and the 90th was loaded with all the rank and all they needed was grunts. By then I was a Pfc, thank God. So I never did get to officers candidate school, and in a way, I lived through the war, and many times I was in very dire straits during the war, but I made it through, which if I’d gone to officers candidate school, God knows what I might have ended up happening to me. So I can’t complain about it.

    I didn’t land [on Utah Beach] until D-Plus 2 [June 8, 1944]. That was just one of the many, when you go back over your life and you think of the things that you went through; during one of the battles we had, the battle of the Falaise Gap, a German officer under a white flag came over to our side and he requested some help. He said they had so many wounded that he couldn’t take care of them, and he didn’t have any supplies, so he asked if we could give them some help. I was one of the guys that went over with him, behind their lines. I’m over there. They’ve got the infantry dug in with their guns firing at our planes coming over and our planes strafing above and I’m standing there wondering what the hell am I doing here? This is intense. It’s damn crazy. But we loaded a bunch of their guys into some wagons they had and brought them back to our side.

    Being a medic you got into every kind of a goddamn strait that you could possibly get into. Without knowing that you’re going to do things you do them. I was just one of the damn lucky ones. I think of all the medics that went over with the 90th Division that were assigned to infantry companies, I was one of the few that went all the way through the war, and was still alive and not badly wounded at the end of it.

    I did get a Purple Heart. The reason I got it was I got hit in the hand with a little piece of shrapnel and I had to go back to the aid station to get some supplies, and while I was back there, the guy noticed my hand was bleeding a little bit and he said, "What happened?"

    And I told him. So he put a bandage on it and they wrote me into the log. That’s how I got my Purple Heart. Hell, I’d been hit maybe 10 or 15 times where I put my own bandage on in the field and never wrote it up. You don’t think about it. Each time, I could have got a Purple Heart, but I never got them.

    I treated everybody. I treated Germans. I treated Russians. I treated Italians. Anybody that came along, we just wrote ’em up.

    The first experience I had, though, was the one that really got me going. Right after we landed, the first battle we got into, we were going through an orchard and I tripped. I wondered what I’d tripped over. Then I went back and looked, and here was an elbow sticking up out of the ground. I saw the color of the uniform, so I knew it was somebody on our side.

    If we found a body anyplace, we were supposed to write up a tag on it and turn the tag in, so then the guy would not be missing in action and they’d know what happened to him. I thought I’ll find out who the guy is, so I’m rummaging around and uncovering some earth, to find his dogtags, and I finally find his neck and I reach down and pull the dogtags out and when I did there’s a bunch of maggots all there and I just heaved my guts all over the place. That was my first real experience into it. You never know what you’re going to run into. God. You know, when I go back and regress into some of those things, I remember one time we were going out, there was a fellow who was a captain in headquarters company of the first battalion, and we were in an attack, and we had to go across an open field, and artillery had come down and knocked a bunch of the guys out. It got them in this open field. And they wanted to get the guys, to pick up the bodies and get them out of there, and this captain – his name was Autry – we were out there picking up the bodies and picking up parts of bodies, arms and legs and heads and putting them all into a pile, and that’s very discomforting to have to do things like that. It got to the point, though, where you could, we went into some homes over there in Germany where people had died or been killed inside the houses, and one house we were in they had a guy who had been killed and they had a breakfast nook there, and they had him on the seat of the breakfast nook, and when we got there we were eating our breakfast and we were sitting on him, you know, using him as part of the setting. We were very, very callous. But that was just another one of the many, many occurrences. As hard as you try and get them out of your mind, they just stay with you. Some good things you remember and some of the bad ones.

    In the later stages of the war, maybe in March of ’45, we were making an attack across this field, and the Germans were firing these nebelwurfers, these damn screaming meemie things at us. And this one fellow – I don’t remember his name but we were friends, and he was either a telephone line man or a radio man – he got hit very, very badly. Everybody was moving forward so when he got hit, I stopped to treat him, and the rest of them had gone ahead, and we’re all alone there. I’m with the guy and he’s hit so bad that I knew that he wasn’t going to make it, and the guys were hollering for me to keep coming, so all I could do was to shoot him with some morphine, write out a tag on him, and then knowing he was going to die I stayed there with him and I said a prayer with him, and I wrote down the location to go with the copy of the tag that I kept.

    There were so many things. That Captain Brown, he was something. I never went on any of the nighttime operations he went on, but I did go on a patrol one night. The reason I went was that I studied French for four years in high school, so they asked me to go with them because I could speak French. A medic on a patrol, that’s sort of unheard of. We had a bunch of recruits, too, new guys, replacements had come in and they didn’t know much what to do. So we’re on this patrol and we’re going along and all of a sudden we run into some Germans and a firefight starts, and one of our guys got hit bad in the leg. But everybody said, "We’ve got to get out of here!" They took off, and they left this guy and they left me. And I’m treating him. He can’t walk, so I had to like pick him up. Fortunately he was smaller than me, so I picked him up and carried him all the way back. He’s still alive, too, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, surprisingly. I talk to him once in a while. He’s always said how grateful he was that I stayed and picked him up. But what the hell are you gonna do when you’re out there like that? You don’t have much of a chance to do anything but do the best you can with them.

    I was on Seves Island. I was one of the few guys that got off of there. We were there overnight, and the wounded and the dead were a lot, and by morning the ammunition that the guys had was pretty low. My medical supplies had run out. We were in this house and we were looking out the windows away from us, and we could see a hedgerow quite a ways down, and from the house that we were looking out we could see the Germans, these paratroopers, climbing over the hedgerows and some of our new guys, they were outposting and were in foxholes that they dug, and the Germans just came over the top of the hedgerows and pulled them out of the holes and marched them away, took them prisoners. So our captain, Captain Moore – Judge Moore, that’s what his name was – Judge Moore and Clay Adams, who was our first lieutenant, we were in this house and they were talking about what we’re going to do, and finally they told the captain to do whatever you have to do, because they couldn’t get us any help. So he said, "I think the best thing that we can do is to surrender."

    Our lieutenant, Clay Adams, said to him, "I’m not going to surrender. I’m going to try to get out of here."

    And I said to him, "I’m going to go with you."

    So we go out the back of the house and down this road, and there are buildings along the side, and as we got to the back of the house, or just out into the open, unknown to us was one of those tanks that was there. It had pulled up alongside the house and they could see us walking up there. They started firing at us, so we ducked into a little building. I’ve got pictures of that little building. We’re in the building, and there’s no way out but through the door we came in, in direct view of where the tank was. The tank is firing trying to get us inside the building, but we’re behind the counter, and they had very thick walls, so they decided that they’re going to fire a white phosphorous shell in and burn us up. So they fired the white phosphorous shell, and it hit the building just outside the door, and we were encased in a white cloud, so then we came back out the door, we took off and got away.

    But an interesting thing happened. When I returned to Normandy, Henri Levaufre was with me, and we were looking for this house. So we found what I thought was the house and we met the people that owned it. And we’re in the house looking around and I say, "This looks like it, because there’s the window we were looking out that way, but there’s something strange about this room. Something is different."

    And the guy that owned it with his wife said "What’s different?"

    I said, "If I remember correctly," and I pointed to the wall, "over there, on that wall, there used to be a door."

    The guy looked at his wife, and they walked over, they had a big hutch there, and they pulled the hutch back and here’s a door behind the hutch. So now we knew we were in the right house. So we show them what we did, how we went out the back door and all this, and the building we got into, and I said, "Oh, another thing. While we were in this building, and they were firing at us, one of our guys was outside the building ahead of us, and he let out a hell of a scream. And so I glanced out the door while the tank was firing, I glanced out the door a little bit and I could see this guy out there. He’d been hit in the throat and I thought the bullet must have got an artery and the blood was just pumping out of him. And this guy that owned the house told us that a few years back, maybe three or four years before we were there with him, he said that he was there and they were doing some remodeling in the house and they had to run some water lines or something to the house, and he said, "We had to dig in the back yard, and when we dug, we dug up the remains of an American soldier, with the dogtags on, and we reported it."

    I said, "In the back yard?"

    He said, "Yes."

    And I said, "I’ll bet you I can tell you about where you dug that hole then."

    And he said, "Why?"

    I told him why and I said, "Now I’m going to go back into that little room and look out the window, and then I’m going to walk out to where I saw this guy and see."

    So we walked out, I walked out to where it was, I looked around, and I said, "About here is where I think that guy got hit and died."

    And the guy looked at his wife and said, "That’s exactly where we dug the guy up."

    I never did find out from Henri what the guy’s name was and who his family was. I don’t know if it would be appropriate if I did find out to be able to tell them how he died; that would be a horrible thing to do.

    You know, they talk about guys that "lose it." Through all the training that I had, both medical and whatever rifle training they give you, you’re never really prepared for what actual combat is. When we first went into battle, you know they talk about guys that go berserk, they lose it, well, the very first battle that we got into, after I had been treating a bunch of guys, I actually ran. I ran back to the aid station. Because I’d never been exposed to this before, and my mind was just, I couldn’t cope with what the hell was happening, all this gunfire and the shelling and the bullets and treating the wounded. I ran back to the aid station and talked to the captain, and he gave me a shot of booze and sat me down and told me to talk, and he said, "After you get calmed down, you’ll go back and you’ll be all right." And I did. I went back. This was in Normandy, the first battle we were into. Thank god for him that he was very understanding, but later on, some guys just didn’t make it, so they called it battle fatigue and they just shipped them out of there. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I’d have got shipped out from that, because some guys were court-martialed for doing it. But it settled me down and from then on I was okay.

- - - -


    I was on Hill 122, Seves Island, from when we landed I went all the way with them through the Battle of the Bulge and into Czechoslovakia. All five campaigns I was still with the outfit. I was one of the unfortunate ones – you know, which is fortunate or unfortunate? Is it fortunate to have been hit hard enough and damaged enough to be shipped out of there, or was it fortunate to have not had that happen and stay there and have to keep going through it all the time. You know, it’s a question, there’s no answer for that.

    I’m from a small town in Connecticut. I lived in the Irish section of town. And as a kid, I was on the honor roll in high school, but we were always in trouble with the cops. All the time, everything that would happen, they’d be waiting at my house for me or one of my brothers to come home, they’d talk to my mother about what we were doing. The Fourth of July, the cops used to hate to come up into our neighborhood, because we’d hide behind fences and when the cops would be patrolling by we’d throw "salutes’ out underneath them.

    When I got out of the service after being over in Europe, I came home on furlough. There had been two or three writeups about me in the papers. I get home. I’m in uniform because I have to report back, I had a 45-day furlough. And one day I drive down to the center of town and I have to park, the only place I could park was directly across the street from the police station, and I parked there, and by the time I came back there was a cop there writing a parking ticket for me. And here I am in uniform with my medals on and this cop looks at me, and he says, "You know, you’re overparked."

    I said, "I’m just a minute or two late."

    And he said, "Well, I’ve got to give you a ticket."

    So he wrote the goddamn ticket. I took it into the police station to complain about it, and the police chief that was there, he was an Irishman from up the hill that I lived on, he looked at it and he said, "Don’t worry about it," and he tore the ticket up. But I thought to myself, after being in Europe and all that, if I’m going to do anything on my own I want to get the hell away from this town and not have to depend upon anybody, I want to do it myself. So my wife and I – I was working for the Connecticut Light & Power Company as the office manager, I was the first World War II commander of the American Legion post in my town – I thought to myself, "I’ve got to get away from this."

    I spoke to my wife. Her sister had moved to California, and she told us, why don’t we come out there? So I told my wife, let’s pull up stakes here and just move to California, sell everything that we can sell. We were renting a house, for $25 a month then. I had a 1938 four-door Buick Roadmaster. So we piled everything in the car, our dog, the roof was covered, and we took off for California. And I never regretted it because everything worked out fine. I got good jobs. I worked for an appliance manufacturer. I was production control manager, then I was material control manager for them. And then I was in charge of government contracting for them. Then I left them and went to work for an aircraft company for a year, and then I went back with them for another 10 years, so I worked with them for a total of 20 years. Then the company was sold to a bigger company from water heater suppliers, and the company that bought the water heater part of it wanted to move it to Nevada so they hired 11 of us to move with the water heater company to Nevada. We went up there and we had to start from scratch, to build it up from the ground, put all the machinery in. I bought a home in Boulder City. And after we were there for about a year and a half, the 11 guys that went up and got all the groundwork done, then one by one they fired us and brought in their own people. So I said the hell with this. I sold my home and we moved back to California.

    I was going to go to Europe for the 50th anniversary in June of 1994. I had reservations already made but my doctor told me because of my heart that it would be a good idea not to go because if I needed help – I found out, though, that I would have gotten better help there than I would have anyplace in the world, because they had all the medical help they could get. So we went over in August, just my wife and I, and we rented a car. I tried to follow our route across Europe and I took pictures all the way across. I’ve got some good pictures of Normandy and I’ve got some good pictures of the Battle of the Bulge.

    After the Normandy peninsula was cut off, they put us into a holding position and we were put onto this farm. We were there for almost two weeks, in a holding position. And one day, July the 1st, the Germans decided they were going to put some artillery into the place.

    There were two girls who lived on the farm. One was 14 or 15, and her sister was 16 or 17. They were out in the field, milking the cows at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when the Germans put the shells in there. The shells landed real close to them, and a couple of the cows were killed, and some of the shrapnel went through the older sister’s heart and killed her. And the younger girl had both of her legs taken off below the knee, both of them, and one of her arms was pretty badly shattered. And I went out and picked her up and brought her into their house. I treated her, then I called and had her evacuated back.

    The very next day we moved out, and I never heard anything about her until later on in the year, in December or so, the Stars & Stripes came out and there was an article in it showing her with Air Force people. And what they did was they came in, and they built a landing strip right near the farm, and they found out about her, so they went back to the Army hospital that they had her in, and the Air Force took her out of there – with permission – and they brought her back to the farm and they built a tent for her. They had their doctors take care of her, and eventually they ended up buying her prostheses for her legs.

    When the Air Force – these were fighter planes, P-47s – moved forward to keep up with the infantry, they were able to carry her in their planes because they got written permission from General Eisenhower to take her with them. And she met Eisenhower, he came over and talked to her.

    I sent the article home, and I didn’t think anything about it.

    Then in 1985, when I was going to go to Europe, I wrote to Henri Levaufre and I told him about her and asked him to find out if the woman is still alive. He wrote back to me and he said, yes, he found her, that she lives only a few miles from where Henri lived, so he said when you get to the hotel – we told him what hotel in Paris we were going to be at – he said he would leave a message for me so I’d know where she lives. So when we got into Paris we got a message stating that her daughter – without the legs but with the artificial limbs, she married a lawyer, and she had one daughter, and the daughter was going to come by in the morning and pick us up and take us to the big hospital in Paris where they take care of the people. So they took us over and we met for the first time. And she didn’t know that it was the infantry that was stationed at her farm – she didn’t remember that it was infantry, she thought there were artillery people, and she didn’t know who I was or that I had taken care of her until I explained to her, I told her that one day one of our officers was going through their barn, and he moved some hay aside and he found a German motorcycle that her brother had hidden, that he’d stolen from the Germans, I told her about that and she said, "Oh, my God, you were there, on the farm."

    And I said, "Yes, I was the one that took care of you."

    Well, with all of this the Air Force had adopted her and they’ve had her come over to some of their reunions. And if you ever go to the Airborne Museum in Ste. Mere Eglise, they have a whole display about her there.

    I met her in 1985, and then when I went over in 1994 we stayed with her at her home for a few days and she took us around and she introduced us to the curator of the museum at Ste. Mere Eglise. So it is a very interesting story.

    Her name is Yvette Hamel. Incidentally, there’s a book, one of the fliers, he’s a doctor now, his wife met her and his wife wrote a book about her called "Sunward I’ve Climbed," and it’s been translated into French, too, it’s an interesting book. I’ve got it. She sent me a copy, signed and all.

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