Soldiers go through hell, and nobody knows that better than field medics, who brave hellish combat scenarios to bring urgently needed medical care to their fellow military comrades. There is no conflict in which combat medics have had it easy, but the fierce ground operations of WW2, combined with shockingly destructive new technologies, made that worldwide event especially harsh.
Field medicine has been a part of combat since the ancient world. Indeed, soldiers in the army of Alexander the Great were given field tourniquets for severed appendages. Later, around the 14th century, wicker stretchers were used to remove hurt soldiers from the field. While combat care was instrumental during many later conflicts, field medicine became a major part of combat operations in the early 20th century. The two world conflicts, with their unprecedented casualty tolls, taught generals the importance of removal and treatment of wounded soldiers not just for medical reasons, but also for the purposes of morale, optics, and sanitation.
As medical science has advanced by leaps and bounds, so has military technology. Today, combat medics must be ready to treat bullet effects, explosion burns, chemical strikes, and anything else an unpredictable enemy might throw at them. Essentially, they perform the jobs of many different medical professionals, and have to do so in the most stressful environment imaginable.
Much has been written about field medicine and its many challenges. However, the best way to understand the true experience of a WW2 field medic is to listen to their own voices in these WW2 combat medic stories.
Bernard L. Rice knew better than anyone the horrors of military conflict. Assigned to be a "pill roller," as some soldiers called medics, he saw the worst of the European theater's combat. He ran across more than a few active battlefields, but some of his worst experiences were in warm, safe aid stations. He recalled a night when the medical staff took on two new patients, but only one survived:
We heard a "clunk" and checked the lieutenant. He was lying on the floor, dead. The GI with the belly wounds, however, lived and returned to his company a few months later. You never bat a thousand when you play God.
Benjamin Cooper started as an aid station medic, but was quickly moved to the front lines, where he was involved in the town-to-town fighting and fierce guerilla combat in France and Germany during the push for Berlin.
Like many soldiers who have been through active combat, Cooper said adrenaline got him through the fighting itself, but the aftermath was another story:
When the shooting was going on, your adrenaline was high. And a lot of times, you don't have time to be scared. You know when I was scared? When the shooting was over. Because you're wondering what the hell you just went through. You never knew from one moment to the next if your time was up.
American combat medics in WW2 had an excellent track record of keeping the wounded alive, particularly in aid stations. But they were up against well-armed and intractable opponents, and it's impossible to save everyone. Combat medic Nick Ventura recalled an incident when, despite their best efforts, medical personnel simply could not save an officer:
[The medical officer] told us to turn the officer over. Of course, the whole front of his belly was gone, so the exit wound was really big. He told us that he was already dead.
In 1944, Benjamin Cooper was shipped off to become part of the liberation of Europe. As a combat medic, his first assignment was an aid station, meaning he was not directly in the action - at first. Aid stations were intermediary medical facilities, meant to treat more serious problems or stabilize soldiers before they were sent off to military hospitals far behind the front lines.
Once the shooting started, the telephones would ring off the wall. We got a call and we got instructions how to get there. The shooting was already going on. You could hear the bullets and you could hear the artillery coming and blowing up.