I can remember the wounded, coming out of battle in Europe. We—the members of 14th Field Ambulance of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division—were among the first to treat them. There were men from all ranks, and sometimes friend and foe would arrive in the same ambulance. Some wept while others were silent, suffering from shock. Many waited quietly, and often we would be with them for only a few minutes—intensely close as men ever get to men—before they would slip away and be gone. Part of them became part of us, and through the years I have found myself thinking about them—seeing their faces again.
I wondered what became of the German boy of 16 or so, a fanatic from the 12th S.S. Panzer Div.—the Hitler Youth. He came to us with a wound in his leg, and because he could speak English I told him I thought it strange he was going where I would like to go—to Canada (but as a prisoner of war)—while I was heading to where he would like to go—to Germany. He sat up and sneered. “You’ll never get to Berlin!”
“Yes we will,” I said. “And we will be there in a year.” And we were.
He winced when I gave his stretcher a little nudge, and soon he was gone—back for more elaborate healthcare down the line.
I’ve also wondered about the sort of life that awaited the Canadian soldier whose wounds left little doubt about whether he would be able to father children after the war. How did he fare? Did he have someone to take care of him—to love him through the years?
The sight of German casualties injured during the closing of the Falaise Gap in August 1944 is also something I shall never forget. Most of their wounds had reached an advanced stage of infection, and I can still see the stark look on their faces as they came to us for treatment and evacuation. The grimness of war was truly upon us, and I found myself cast in a role that I never dreamed I would be in. At that time, about four years had passed since our unit was formed at Moncton, N.B.
Moncton was where I had been employed in my first job as a nursing orderly. Joining a medical outfit seemed the natural thing to do, and I knew some of the doctors who would head up the unit.
I trained at Sussex, N.B., but before I had fully grasped the significance of it all, I was headed overseas on a large, slow-moving convoy. It was 1941, and the night we docked at Liverpool we experienced our first blackout.
Time passed slowly in the U.K., and I suspect that a certain amount of trauma goes with being away from home for such a long time. But there was, at that time, no end in sight. As the training became more and more intense, we began to really think about what our particular role might be and how it might play out. Prior to June 1944 I participated in amphibious landing craft exercises that were carried out on the south coast of England.
Finally, a great day came. D-Day, June 6, 1944. The day Allied forces landed in Normandy, France. We became part of the mightiest fleet the world had known. Thousands of vessels left England and deposited more than 130,000 soldiers on the invasion beaches, part of a massive effort to liberate Europe from the Nazis. This Second-Front invasion would be one of the greatest feats in history—a masterpiece in organization and co-ordination. In addition to the army and navy, the air force played a huge role as Operation Overlord unfolded and gained a foothold in Northwest Europe.
I was aboard a Landing Ship Tank that arrived on the morning of June 6. We remained on board until late that night. Indeed, it was still dark when we headed to shore on what I remember was a very large raft that had been towed by LST. It may have been after midnight when we stepped ashore.
One of the most important objectives was the city of Caen, but it remained in German hands and proved difficult to take in the face of violent German resistance. But it was around Caen when Major Conn Smythe was brought to us with a severe wound in his thigh. During the First World War he had earned the Military Cross, and had gone on to become a very successful businessman who helped establish Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931. Four years prior to that, he and some associates purchased the Toronto St. Pats hockey team, and changed the name to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe’s prominence was to be assured for many more years after the war until his death in 1980.
From that time I also remember a German soldier who was peppered with small fragments—most likely the result of a grenade explosion. None of his wounds appeared serious. More significantly, however, was another injury that has to be described in order to show cause for wonderment. This fellow was part of what we termed the “walking wounded.” He was capable of walking on his own from the ambulance, but the lower part of his face below the nose was missing. His wounds were something that bordered on the miraculous. Although his teeth, chin and mouth were gone, his jugular veins were untouched. Years of plastic surgery would have to follow, and so there is a possibility he is alive today.
This was one of the many types of horrific wounds we saw in Northwest Europe. Our job was to administer aid to the more seriously injured first, be they friend or foe, and this was emphasized during training.
In the main, a medic’s duty resembles what one learns while taking first aid. Priorities were given to the treatment of shock, alleviation of pain, and perhaps most important of all, the arrestment of bleeding. For obvious reasons the availability or use of whole blood was almost totally impractical. It was here that a substitute called dried plasma came into such good use. Units, including ours, were the first available source for this truly life-saving product. Often its administration continued in transit, back to the nearest casualty clearing station, field dressing station or field hospital.
And then there were the men who were going nowhere. Among them was the only quadriplegic I was to see. His four wounds had been dressed at the front, and he had become my assignment. When I first saw him I could not say for sure whether I had found a pulse. I summoned a medical officer who made a brief examination before hurrying off without a word to render valued assistance elsewhere. I thought I could find a temple pulse, but did I? And so I followed the doctor’s example, and rushed off to the assistance of another casualty.
Later, when things had quieted, the officer confirmed that this man had not been alive. He added that if there had been life, there was not the faintest hope of saving him. The finale was when we agreed that had there indeed been a chance to save him, he may not have thanked us.
I also wonder about the personnel I worked with. Quite a number of them were discharged after the war to various parts of the country, not to see one another again. There was Percy Fletcher, the only black man we had in our unit. He was a stretcher-bearer. Percy was a hard worker and we got along well. It seemed that whenever we were in a dangerous situation and had to seek cover, he was always ending up by my side. In retrospect, Percy was like a good luck charm, and perhaps he regarded me in the same way. Somehow I got it into my head that he was from Montreal, and so many years ago—while passing through that city—I phoned every Fletcher that had an initial ‘P’ after it. But it was to no avail.
Getting together with many of the old gang was, however, not always a lost cause by any means. Every September, reunions were held in either Moncton or Saint John. Invitations went out far in advance to every member whose address was known. Our reunion was a time for sharing our more current experiences; things related to the war were rarely mentioned. The comradeship at these gatherings was rich, quite unique actually—and hard to explain. But what was a picture of diversity—as men met from all walks of life—had been a combined group during the war—bonded and working as a team. Doctors, assistants, store men, clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers—to name a few—united in a task of compassion. For us, the ability to destroy life was not required, but the desire to save it was.
And so generations later, my mind keeps going back to World War II in Europe. How can one help but to remember and wonder? The truth is that much of it will always remain a mystery. But perhaps there are those still living today who can testify that if it were not for the services rendered by certain medical personnel, many additional families would have received that shocking telegram informing them—with regret—about a lost loved one.