The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
The angel of mercy
There was this angel of mercy, this Army nurse, she was about forty years old. After they got me settled in a bed, she came and said, "Lieutenant, how long as it been since youve been bathed?"
"You mean a real bath?" I said. "Well, they wiped me off down at the field hospital at Southampton."
She said, "Soap and water."
"Hmmm. I think the last real bath I had was on board the LST going from Weymouth over to Utah Beach, and thats been six weeks ago now."
And she says, "M-hm. How long has it been since youve been off of your back?"
"Since the 12th of July."
"How long have you been wearing that catheter?"
"Since the 12th of July."
"Well be back in a bit. Were gonna get you off of your back. Were gonna scrub you good, and were going to remove that catheter and all that adhesive tape."
I said, "Ill be grateful if you will."
She was a gal of her word. In a bit she and a younger nurse came back and they partially pulled the curtain around my bed, and she said, "Now were going to turn you on your side. Its going to hurt. Well be as gentle as we can. We just want to warn you, though, that youre going to have some discomfort."
They put out a draw sheet, and they gently rolled me up on my left side, and everything was exposed on my right side. They scrubbed me good, like they were scraping hair off a hog.
First, they took the catheter out. I thought shed pulled my guts out, but boy, it was a blessing to have it all done quickly.
After they finished bathing me, they made me as comfortable as Id been in quite some time.
As I think back, Im looking at some of the fellows that are in that ward with me. I especially remember one boy who was right across the aisle from me and down several beds, he was moaning about the low blow that fate had dealt him. Before the war, he was a pianist. He had aspirations of being a concert pianist. His left arm was completely paralyzed. I suppose that he eventually lost that arm. Imagine a pianist with only one arm. Its hard to accept that.
I stayed in that hospital several days, and then they moved me to Salisbury, to a hospital group. Two medical-surgical units and one convalescent or rehabilitation unit.
There I saw Paul Hamilton. He was across the aisle and down two or three beds. He was ambulatory by then. He walked over and said, "Youre the tanker."
I said, "I sure am."
He told me who he was. We were glad to see each other.
On the same side of the ward that I was on, down about four beds, was one J.Q. Lynd from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He was a University of Arkansas ROTC product, and had been a 90th Division officer also. He got hit in the first three or four days after the landing.
In the bed next to me on my right hand side was a young captain who had a terrible wound. He had been shot through his left foot. The top of his foot. Ruined his shoe.
I was sympathizing with him, and some of the other patients looked at me. I asked him how he got that wound, and he started telling how he got shot through the left foot, and somebody said, "Thats an SIW," a self-inflicted wound.
I looked at him and said, "Did you do that?"
He said, "It was an accident."
"You yellow cowardly sonofabitch!" Everything that I could get my hands on off the bedside table I threw at him.
One of the nurses heard the commotion and she came down to see what the problem was. Then they took that old boys bed, wheeled him out of there, and she came back and said, "Youll not be bothered with him anymore."
J.Q. Lynd, hes a professor of agronomy at Oklahoma State University, he remembered that incident a hell of a lot better than I did, and he enjoys telling about it.
Over on the bed next to me on the left side was a young fellow who had a through-and-through wound in his chest. Through his chest, lung, everything, and out the back. It was almost a foregone conclusion that this man was a terminal case. Hed lay there and hed cough and spit up blood. They had a four-by-four gauze bandage over him. Hed smoke cigarettes, and smoke would come out under this bandage. Isnt that a hell of a thing? He wanted to live, though, he really wanted to. It wasnt a matter of just three or four days, he was gone.
Another one that I recall on that ward was a big, handsome fellow who had a spinal cord injury. He was finding it not just difficult but almost impossible to accept the fact that he was going to be a paraplegic. The moment he got hit, that altered the rest of his life. Theres no repair for spinal cords. He sure took it hard. But a lot of people took it hard.
They took me to a big farmhouse, and in back of it there was a barn with a lot of manure, some cows, and a couple of wounded guys were laying there. I went over and sat down, then I lay down. I was feeling lousy.
While I was laying there, Tony DArpino and one of the other boys came up to see how I was, and about that time an ambulance started backing in. So I got up and got in the ambulance, and there were some German guys in there that had been badly wounded. There were six or seven of us in that ambulance. The war was over for both of us. One German guy was carrying on kind of bad, and wed try to comfort him. You know, even though he was the enemy, you become a human being when you get into the hospital.
We went back to Luxembourg, and we went to the main hospital, and they unloaded us there. Some of the guys were on stretchers. I was a walking patient, and then, when I got into the hospital, I fell down, and they put me on a stretcher.
There was a big, wide staircase going up to the second floor, it was probably ten feet wide. It circled up. There was a veranda up there, and every single step had a stretcher case on it.
They put me on one of those steps, and the German soldiers were on other steps, and the doctors and nurses were all running around, they were trying to evaluate who was wounded, who to wait on first and second, because they were pouring into that hospital from the whole front, and they were overwhelmed with wounded. Guys were laying there, some of them died, some of them had half their leg off and a tourniquet, it was a mess, and they were working like crazy, those doctors and nurses, all of them deserved medals, they were really doing their best.
Because of my bullet in the head, they took me right up to an operating room. There was a doctor from Long Island, I dont know what his name was at one time I remembered, Ive forgotten it now I was on the operating table, and two or three doctors were looking at my eye, and they were saying, "Take the eye out, get the bullet and take the eye out." And I was just laying there, whatever they do, thats it, they know more than I do about it, and the one from Long Island said, "No, we can save this eye."
The next thing, I was in a room. Whatever clothes we had on when we were operated on were the clothes that we wore. There was no such thing as going into a hospital and getting out of your clothes and getting into something else. Ive got a blank from the time they operated on me until I ended up in a room somewhere, so they must have knocked me out, because I dont even remember them operating on my head. But then I had patches, the side of my head was all patched.
They put me in an ambulance and took me down to a field hospital. Then they transferred me, the next hospital I was in was in Paris. How I got there I think I went by train, I dont remember. I was in bad shape. But I ended up in a hospital in Paris. Oh, no wonder I dont remember by the time I got to Paris I was blind. I went blind somewhere after the operation.
I was laying in the head injuries ward in the hospital in Paris, and they had ropes going from behind your bed to different locations. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you followed the rope that was thickest. Whatever the size of the rope was told you where you were going to end up. If they allowed you out of bed, you could do that. They allowed me to follow those ropes to the bathroom so I didnt have to use bedpans.
Then one day I was laying in bed, and everything was grey, and all of a sudden I saw something up above me, a square. And the next thing, I saw a grill. And I just hollered, I didnt move my head or move my body, I just hollered to the guy in the bed next to me, "Tell the doctors I can see! I can see a square!"They came running in and they propped my head. They said, "Dont move." The coagulation of the blood behind the optic nerve was breaking up. So they immobilized my head for the rest of the day and into the night, and the vision came back in my left eye.
Up until then, I was prepared to study braille. I thought I was going to be blind for the rest of my life.
So it cleared up. And then I stayed there for a few days.
There was a guy in the bed next to me that came in with me, he had been hit in the face with a hand grenade, and he was all bandaged up.
The doctor came in one night, and hes got the flashlight, you know, the wars on, at night there are no lights in the hospital, so the doctor came in and hes got the flishlight in his armpit, and hes trying to redo the bandages on this guys head. So I got up and said, "Give me the flashlight, Doc, Ill help you."
He said, "Good, okay, hold it right there." So he starts unraveling this guys the guy was 19 years old, Ill never forget it he started taking the bandages off, and I have never gotten sick at the sight of anything in my life, never, but standing there, when he took those bandages off and I saw this kids face, there was no nose, no left eye, no cheek, no upper teeth, a couple of broken bottom teeth, and I looked right down into his lungs practically, he was a mess, he was a mess. And his tongue was there, and he was saying, "Im scared."
I said to the doctor, "Doc, do you want to hold this light a minute?" And he took one look at me, I guess he knew I was, I said, "Just hold it a minute."
He said, "Oh yeah, its okay." He understood. I walked over, there was a door there and I stepped out into the snow and took some deep breaths, and then I came back and I was all right. I held the light, and he bandaged him up.
In the hospital, they put me on intravenous feeding. That was in July. I didnt eat solid food until ten days after Thanksgiving, I got one egg. When I went to France, I was a pretty strapping fellow, I weighed 191 pounds. Then I went down to 122. I never got back to 140.
After quite a few months in England, they took me into a dental unit. They had operated on my leg and fixed that up, and they had to operate on that again on Thanksgiving morning, because it grew a great big piece of flesh, half the size of a tomato, and green. So they operated again. Then they put me in a dental unit and I had bridgework done. You wont believe this, but the thing that ran the drill was a foot pedal. There was a GI sitting on a bicycle. That was the GIs duty. But the dentist did a beautiful job.
When I was in the hospital in England, I was looking around for people that I knew. It was a huge place, and on the end of every bed was a tag, with name, rank, serial number and religion. And they gave the units also. So I was looking for guys from the 712th, or the 90th Infantry Division, or the 82nd Airborne. I was going back and forth there, and one day, by God, I ran into a guy from my company. A fellow by the name of Coleman [Guy T. Coleman]. He was the second cook in the kitchen all the while we were in Benning.
I said, "What the hell happened to you?" He had a big cast all the way down his leg.
"Well," he said, "them sonofabitches. One day they got short a loader and they stuck me in a tank." He never was in a tank. He said, "They showed me what the hell to do," and he got his knee in the way of the recoil from the breach, and it smashed his leg. It smashed his whole knee up.
Another guy I got to know in the hospital, his name was Fred Czarny. He was in the bed next to me. I was already married at the time. I had gone home on a furlough in 1943 and gotten married. And my fingers were stiff, like pieces of board. I couldnt write. I couldnt bend them for a long time. This Fred Czarny, I would dictate to him, and he would write for me.
He was kind of heavyset, and he got hit by an artillery shell that made a rut, like an indentation, on his right side, and he lost control on that side, so he wrote with his left hand.
He stayed over there in the hospital, and he said, "When you get back to the States, send me a fifth of whiskey." He even named the kind he wanted. So when I got to Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island, I was going to keep my promise. I said to the nurses and doctors, "By God, I want to send this guy a fifth of whiskey." But there was a rule, you cant send whiskey overseas. "You cant do it," the doctor said. I begged him, but I couldnt do it.
We still have a lot of letters that I wrote. They were mostly love letters. I did write one serious letter home, though. Not to my wife, but to my younger brother. I had an older brother, Fred, who was in the service, but he didnt get overseas. And I had a younger brother, Richard, he wrote me one letter when I was in the hospital in England. He said, "All my friends are going in the Army," and all this sort of stuff. He said, "Im going to go in the Army." And of course I knew what hell it was over there. Well, I wrote him a letter. And he saved it. He showed it to me after the war. The censors really blocked it out. Oh, God, they massacred it. Because I was going to discuss it and disillusion him. I had been laying in the hospital for months, and at the time, instead of grafting skin, they used a live tissue culture. My mouth was burned real bad, and they wanted it to grow back, they had a hell of a time with that. Twice a day theyd put this live culture on. One of my buddies was laying there, he was burned worse than I was. They did his whole face, over the months, and then one morning, before they shipped me home, I noticed something different about him. His body rejected it. He was purple and green and red and white. They scraped the whole damn thing off. About 40 percent of the guys they used that process on it worked, but on about 60 percent it didnt, so eventually they went back to skin grafts.
I wrote this letter to my brother, and its funny they didnt toss me in the hoosegow. I told him to stay the hell out of it. I said theres two of us brothers in here now, thats enough.
I told him, "Dont do it." And I told him some of the things that happened and how bad it is, and how cruel humans can be to one another. Its terrible. The censors butchered the letter, but he got the understanding of it. He didnt sign up. Of course, by the time he would have got trained the war would have been over.
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