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The Story of a WWII Combat Surgeon

83rd Recon Bn & 36th Armored Infantry Regiment
3rd Armored Division

Researched & written by Vic Damon, Staff, in 2012

Click for photos provided by his family


Probably because of his own modesty, the facts behind Capt. Rabson's receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart have never been included in 3rd Armored Division annals until now. Known to the Division as "Capt. Moses Rabinowitz, M.D." (he changed his name legally to Rabson after the war), he had graduated from Temple University school of Medicine in Philadelphia in 1941 and entered the Army in 1942 at age 25.

He landed with D Co, 83rd Recon Bn in Normandy in June, 1944 and served with the Division through all five campaigns - ending at Dessau on the Elbe River. In December, 1944, at the start of the Battle of the Bulge, Rabson was reassigned to the 36th Armored Infantry as a battalion surgeon.

Of his time with 83rd Recon, Rabson wrote in 1968, "We were the ones up front. Actually, there was seldom a front. We'd just get into a town before the Germans had left it. I was assistant battalion surgeon. We were so much on the move that we seldom even set up an aid station. I worked out of a half-track ... My job as a combat surgeon was to stop the bleeding, set a fracture with anything handy, pack up a chest wound so the fella could breath and send him back to a hospital."

Rabson's Bronze Star was awarded for continuous "heroism under fire" over a two-day period in early August, 1944, in Normandy's hedgerow country. His unit came under repeated artillery and small arms fire, during which Rabson continued treating wounded soldiers at great risk to himself.

On September 6, in the battle for Mons, Belgium, Rabson's "gallantry in action" would result in a Silver Star with a citation that reads " ... While his unit was engaged with the enemy, Capt. Rabinowitz displayed unusual courage and daring while administering first aid to the wounded. After one of the tanks was knocked out by a deadly barrage from an enemy anti-aircraft position, Captain Rabinowitz, upon hearing violent screams coming from the tank, left his covered position and transversed 100 yards of open terrain to go to the aid of the wounded men. [Editors note: the vehicle was tank-like in appearance but was actually a 105mm self-propelled howitzer.]

Arriving at the damaged tank, under a continuous barrage of gun fire, he found that one of the men was wounded so seriously that it was necessary to complete the amputation of the wounded man's leg before removing him from the vehicle ... further first aid was administered and resulted in the saving of his life."

From Rabson's 1968 writing, he added further details of that incident. There is no mention of what happened to the rest of the howitzer crew, if some had been killed or were attended to after the firing stopped. He described that the howitzer looked as if it had ben hit with a German 88mm and that the seriously wounded man was deep down inside the vehicle. Rabson pulled him up and said of his shattered leg, "It's never going to be of any use to you; I should cut it off," and he said "OK." Rabson wrote that he carried the man in his arms for about 40 yards, but he was too heavy and Rabson had to put him down.

While still under fire from German vehicles, a G.I. ran forward to help and he and Rabson and carried the patient to a covered position where a tourniquet was applied and a clean pad taped over his stump. That soldier who helped would receive a Bronze Star. Rabson wrote, "I know the wounded G.I. lived, because three years later, by remarkable coincidence, he was being fitted for a prosthesis at the VA clinic in Manhattan [NYC] where I was taking orthopedic training."

Rabson's Purple Heart came when he was wounded on September 20, 1944, two miles south of Stolberg, Germany. He wrote, "I was going to help a wounded soldier, and a burst of machine-gun fire hit my half-track and me too. The half-track had 4-foot red crosses on both sides and the back. I was wearing a cross on my helmet and one on each arm. At that time, I was the last of 10 original officers in 83rd Recon who had come over from England together, with every one of us having been casualties."

Rabson's own writings vaguely describe that he was treated, apparently at a field hospital, which included a shot of penicillin, but make no mention of how soon he returned to duty. Although the Army did telegram his father that he was "slightly wounded," his family would eventually learn that it was a single bullet in the side of the abdomen that went completely through his body. As evidenced by Rabson's character, he probably considered such a wound to be no excuse to leave his men for very long.

When the Battle of the Bulge started in December, 1944, Rabson wrote that the Division surgeon, a colonel, promoted him to a battalion surgeon in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment. However that meant that he went from the half-track, with some protection, to an open jeep. And there's no doubt that his workload would only increase, as the 36th A.I.R. took by far more casualties throughout the war than any other 3rd Armored regiment. There are no known writings by Rabson of his time with the 36th except his living for five days during the Bulge in a foxhole with tree trunks over the top for protection from shrapnel, from which he would go out and treat the wounded. No doubt, that subsequent time between the Bulge and Dessau saw even more acts of devotion and selflessness by this remarkable doctor-soldier.

Brief bio. of Dr. Rabson: Born Philadelphia 1917. Passed away in 2008 at age 91. Life member of the 3rd Armored Division Association. Long-time resident of Cheltenham, Pa. Married to wife Frances for 62 years. M.D. from Temple University in 1941. U.S. Army service '42-46. Orthopedic training at V.A., NYC, '46-49 and residency at Hospital for Special Surgery, NYC, '49-50. Private practice in Philadelphia area '50-87. A daughter and a son, both physicians: Sylvia R. Karasu, M.D., Psychiatry, NYC; and Joseph A. Rabson, M.D., Plymouth Meeting, Pa., Plastic Surgery.

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