February 1944

The message from Dr. Maurice Harvey, Monmouth, U.K., in the discussion of socialized medicine (Bulletin February 1964) brought back memories of our experiences together on the Anzio beachhead in 1944.

Functioning medically as a lowly Battalion Surgeon with the 2nd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment, we had undergone an interesting 10-day ordeal by combat that saw the battalion strength reduced from nearly a thousand men to a battered and sleepless group of two hundred survivors. Unfortunately for us we were surviving still in our original position, which by then was about two miles on the wrong side of the German front line. Psychologically there were many reasons why the battalion remnant found itself in such an awkward spot, but boiled down, our predicament was due to a new commanding officer who was too inexperienced in combat, too bull-headed for his own (and our) good and too scared to retreat. We were cut-off, isolated, bone-tired and slap-happy.

On the evening of February 22, Captain Maurice Harvey of the Royal Army Medical Corps joined us in the cave positions we occupied. He came as part of the Queen's Regiment of the British Black Cat Division that somehow had fought its way through to rescue us. Unfortunately again, in getting up to us, the Queen's had lost half of its men and almost all of its equipment, which only compounded the predicament by adding their misery to our own. One day later we were captured while attempting a daylight evacuation of wounded through the German positions, and about 12 hours later Harvey was captured when the British tried to fight their way back.

On February 24, along with Captain Harvey and two of our own aid-station men, Sergeant "Red" Watkins and Corporal Louie Caronti, we found ourselves snugly situated in a straw-floored, reinforced bunker dug into the side bank of a dry river bed. The Germans had appropriated our services as "noncombatants" and installed our small group in the aid station of the 1027 Panzer Grenadiers to help take care of casualties. This did not really suit any of us, particularly since the 1027 Panzer Grenadiers were occupying front-line positions and were being plastered daily and nightly by the very impressive Allied artillery and naval gunfire. However, we were not in a position where our arguments seemed to carry much weight, so for the next two weeks we ran their aid station and learned how the other half lived.

In civilian days prior to 1940, "Red" Watkins had been the morgue attendant at the Denver General Hospital; Lou Caronti had worked in the Shirley Temple Doll Factory in East Brooklyn. Watkins was a cheerful, red-faced boozer who suffered loudly about being separated from his regular, daily supply of American grain alcohol. Lou Caronti was a pudgy comic with an infectious good humor and a practical approach to any disaster. The one German medic, Feldwebel Herbert Mihler from Chemnitz-am-Sachsen, who shared the tight quarters with us, was a delightful and impressionable veteran of about 50 who had spent two unhappy years on the Russian front. Whenever Mihler would speak of his experiences there, he would roll his eyes heavenward and mutter, "Ooooo, Doktors. Barbarians! Barbarians!" Watkins and Caronti somehow conned the pleasant Mihler into obtaining extra rations of the daily schnapps, which at least alleviated some of Watkins' withdrawal symptoms and helped our general morale.

For two weeks we led a confined but relatively comfortable life. Any venture away from the protection of the dugout was necessarily brief because of the constant and unmerciful Allied shelling. A trip to the nearby latrine area was always a precarious adventure, and all of us, more than once, had the experience of being caught with our pants down in the middle of a rolling barrage. Harvey was not fond of Germans in any form, and after it became apparent that the all-out German offensive, which had boastfully expected to push the entire Allied beachhead into the sea within a matter of hours, had stalled for good, he took pleasure in needling Mihler and the other Germans who occasionally stopped by to visit. Mihler's often expressed hope that we all would stop fighting each other and join forces to fight the Bolshevik enemy failed to impress any of us. Harvey sported a disorderly, bush-like mustache that had been growing since he had been pushed off the beach at Dunkirk, and although Maurice detested it, he had vowed never to shave it off until Hitler and Germany were no more. Despite the needling, Mihler was fascinated with Harvey, and he never tired of the daily ritual of nudging us slyly, then banging on his metal canister and shouting, "Essen, Doktors! Essen!" Whereupon he would double up with laughter as the usually supine and somnolent Harvey would jerk to his feet and, with helmet askew and mess-tin in hand, bolt through the bunker entrance for the chow line.

The equipment in a German aid station was meager and in no way comparable to the profusion of stuff in a similar American set-up. By that time in the war, the German shortage of supply was already evident; bandages were of paper, morphia was scarce and plasma was nonexistent. Aside from the leaden loaves of sour, black bread that apparently stayed edible forever, a currant jam and some cheese, the food ration came from whatever was available in the local area of German occupation; their ersatz coffee looked and tasted like a sawdust brew. The little medical work we were called upon to do was limited to doling out the German version of APC, giving an infrequent shot for pain and bandaging shrapnel wounds. The German troops were disciplined and stoic. If there was anything comparable to the American goof-off and sick-book rider in the German Army, none ever appeared at the 1027 Panzer Grenadier aid station. Maybe that's why they didn't need much equipment.

After two weeks, and through the efforts of an understanding German, Catholic Chaplain, we were finally permitted to leave the front lines. As we climbed aboard the supply truck that was to evacuate us to Rome, old Mihler, disconsolate at our departure, assured us that we would get special treatment as prisoners because of our work. He would have been happy to go with us. In a touching scene and with a sentimental tear in his eye, he told us not to worry and sent us off with a nostalgic parting we were to hear repeated many times, "Alles ist besser in Deutschland."

(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XI, No. 2, 1964, p13

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