Every time I read about some gutless dim-bulb who advocates
surrender rather than serving his country in a time of need I
am reminded of our pill rollers. There is little doubt that many
of the gentlemen who served as medics in WWII were conscientious
objectors, but they didn't run and they were major contributors
to our ultimate victory.
Admittedly, back in the states (where every rookie is a self-appointed
hero) those of us who were silly enough to think war a glorious
adventure made bad jokes about the moral fiber of aid-men. We
should have had our mouths washed out with yellow, GI soap!
Much later, in combat, our definition of bravery underwent
some startling changes. It turned out that 90 per cent of us
were scared blue; we performed our duties, but it was no piece
of cake. I'm sure the medics were scared too, but I never saw
Indeed, if comparisons are necessary, then I held these crusaders
of the red cross on an absolute par with the crazy, wonderful
gladiators of The Big Red One, the Ninth, the Screaming Eagles
- and the best of our own superb Spearhead warriors. Today I'll
buy drinks for any aging character who admits that he was a medic
in the big leagues.
Whether they were company aid-men or battalion, we got to
know our pill rollers in combat. They were gentle men. Few of
them wanted to kill, yet they lacked no intestinal fortitude.
They were as beat-up and dirty as any of us, but they were angels
of mercy toting plasma and sulphanil-amide and bandages - and
Ever stop to think that the medics are directly responsible
for the fact that many Spearhead veterans are getting old? One
of Woolner's sage maxims is an observation that aging is an alternative;
otherwise one dies young.
A certain company aid-man I knew rather intimately, due to
mutual suffering in basic training and later operations in assorted
beer joints, may have been typical. Maybe I should name him,
but I won't - other than to say his first name was John and he
originated away back East. This guy was well-read and cultured,
really officer material, yet he shook his head at the thought
of killing other human beings. John went AWOL out of Camp Hood,
Texas, eluded all of the MP's, thumbed his way back East and
married "that girl" in his life. Then he returned to
face the music.
They gave him a month of hard labor, and he took it in stride,
Hard labor wasn't much fun. On several occasions I had to
be watch-dog and, once, having fouled-up a given task, I had
a day of it myself. You dug latrines, broke rocks and raked sand.
It was dawn to dusk under armed guard. The hard labor boys were
temporary second-class citizens, and you'd better believe it.
John felt that his "crime" was worth the punishment.
Laughing it off, he served his sentence and went back to company
duty, a buck private with no immediate dream of advancement.
That man served with distinction when the guns began to pound;
he was a hell of a great soldier.
Spearhead brats must realize that a red cross on arm and helmet
was no armor, yet these characters scurried out under the heaviest
of fire to rescue the wounded. Lots of them were killed in action,
daring too much. Some were slaughtered by the spiteful SS, but
more caught it because machinegun fire and artillery is indiscriminate.
The rank and file of the German Army respected aid-men. Often,
in surrounded pockets. Kraut and GI medics worked together to
save the lives of soldiers of both sides.
There may have been medics who dogged it, but I never saw
one. To those of us up front they were all heroes, and I might
add that our standards were pretty high. How else do you rate
a man who darts out of cover during a tremendous bombardment
to succor the wounded? While brave infantrymen were crouching
in foxholes and tank commanders tried to get hull-down and inconspicuous,
these wonderful bastards answered every call for help.
In the Third Armored Division, as in every true lighting formation,
we swiftly reached a point where "pill-roller" was
uttered only if, like Owen Wister's Virginian, "you smile
when you say that!"
Commanders reap most of the glory and combat troops harvest
a lion's share of medals, but talk to "old soldiers, broke
in the wars," and you'll find their greatest praise reserved
for the unarmed medics who didn't want to kill anybody, but who
had the guts to conquer fear, to dive into a furnace and save
the lives of comrades. No braver men ever served America.