Tag Archives: Army Medical Corps

A Wartime Diary – Part 4

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Continuing MB Casteix’s wartime diary/experiences…

MB and his company left Bizerte on a British LST, HMS Bruiser, on 25 September 1943 and arrived at the Salerno, Italy beachhead on 28 September. He describes a storm “the first night” at Salerno that “flattened to the ground” their hospital tent. The wounded were moved to a barn, and none were injured further by the incident. He goes on to say, “The boys worked like Trojans,” setting up the hospital. “By the second day things going smoothly. Malaria is rampant – we clean up the barn and make a ward out of it.”

He then goes on to tell of the Italian family that owned the barn. “They are destitute and almost all are sick except 67-year-old grandmother. No doctors around. We take care of them. Grandmother has one tooth & says she is saving it to bite Mussolini’s nose off!” Go granny!

Back to the landing on the 28th– MB was quartered in a compartment at the very stern of the ship. For those who don’t know, the LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was designed for beach landings to transport heavy equipment ashore such as tanks and trucks. They were 380 feet long with “barn doors” that opened in the bow and a ramp behind them that was lowered once the doors were open. They were flat-bottomed and very shallow draft to allow them to get right up next to the beach—but miserable places to be in rough seas. Running up to the beach sometimes left them stuck there. The one in the image above is totally beached and will have to wait for high tide to get off. To get off the beach, as they approached it, they dropped an anchor from the stern in the deeper water behind them and ran out the chain as they neared the beach. They later used that to winch the ship into water deep enough to navigate under engine power.

MB was not expecting any of that. He said when they dropped that stern anchor, which was right over their heads, it made so much noise in that confined compartment it sounded like they had been bombed. It scared the occupants so much they thought they might be about to sink.

Along about here in his diary, MB begins to give more details. He speaks more of what he is observing and feeling like “rain and mud again – beginning to get cold.” His entries aren’t complete stories but do give a few more details that help flesh-out what is happening. We still have to speculate on some of it, and I might not be totally accurate with that.

Then under the heading “Sights of War-Torn Italy,” we get the following, “People eat black bread and spaghetti – No meat!. No water in big cities. Battipaglia (a town near the landing beaches at Salerno) worse that Bizerte  – shells holes along the road – burned out G tanks – Docks at Naples shambles – No H2O in Naples – Altavilla – Agropoli.” The war has had its very negative effect on Italy. The retreating Germans destroy anything of any military value not already destroyed by the fighting. Keep in mind the fighting isn’t some distant event out in the open country away from the towns. It is taking place everywhere, including in the towns. Citizens are being displaced from their homes and later returning to find them destroyed, assuming they weren’t killed in the process. Food is particularly hard to come by in the combat zones. So is clean safe drinking water.

“Second platoon sets up Air Evac Hospital right next to the airport. In sound of artillery – Germans shell spot we are to move in!”

There was some interaction with Italian civilians. “Italian family invites Kirk and me to supper: spaghetti, potatoes, and wine.” That an Italian family was able to do this is astounding, but they obviously wanted to show their gratitude to their liberators in some way. This food and wine are probably some they had hidden away, and only with liberation can they afford to be so generous. MB didn’t say, but I would be willing to bet they brought some Army “delicacies” like canned Spam and chocolate for their hosts.

On the Italian countryside, “People apparently poor. Dirt and filth almost like Arabs, but houses are clean inside. Vallo Lucania clean little town in mountains. So many Italians speak English and many have been to U. S., usually Brooklyn! Kids all over.”

“Apples and nuts – cheap and good.”

“Naples – Kids begging & trying to sell anything & everything … Plenty of jewelry and gloves. Girls at any price – One boy got it for a cigarette & the next one for a match! Bomb damage – Buildings blown up by Germans.”

It wasn’t all horror: “Dinner in Italian restaurant & singers.” I’m guessing that was in Naples? Makes you wonder how they managed to have enough to stay in business.

“Rail yards at Caserta – supply train bombed: Ammo & airplane parts & motors … Cars blown 30 yards …”

He then goes on to describe Pompeii: “… Huge city, well laid out …”

He mentions a dinner with “Palmieri’s relatives,” which I am guessing are the Italian relations of an Italian-American in his unit? This was quite common. Many Americans had relatives back in Europe and they often had a chance to encounter them even during the war.

An Italian doctor (at the dinner?) describes the horrors of the German occupation, “The Germans destroyed the country, railroads, and bridges…” Then MB gets personal with this comment, “They took the doctor’s shaving kit and spectacles!” To quote the frustrated doctor, “What can they do with my spectacles?” He also says, “They destroyed homes in the village of no military value.” The doctor didn’t understand, but without his glasses, he could not render aid to the enemy (Allied wounded)  or even his fellow Italians, which would force that problem on the Americans, French, and British to deal with.

Hospital Italy

Battle of Volturno

Volturno is north of Naples and on the road to Rome. Of the battle, he says, “Terrible fight. Germans almost push British back. A-36s deciding factor & B-26s & 75mm cannon clean out German positions.” The A-36 was a ground attack version of the P-51 Mustang. The B-26 was a two engine medium bomber.

MB’s next entry says simply, “Upfront with 45th Division Rangers … Germans over hill popping shell over & by us.” This must be the period I mentioned in the first post of this series when he was temporarily assigned to Darby’s Rangers as their surgeon. If you have seen the movie Darby’s Rangers with James Gardner playing Col Darby … MB isn’t in it. Evidently, his part ended up on the cutting room floor. 😉 He did tell one story about that time, besides the one about the Rangers lined up for chow while under fire. (They musta been hungry?) After recovering from his wounds, Darby’s surgeon that MB had replaced temporarily returned to the outfit one morning. Darby turned to MB and said, “Captain, you’re relieved now. You can return to your unit, but you are welcome to stay and join us for breakfast.” I suppose, recalling that the Rangers got shot at a lot and having had his fill of “rangering,” MB replied, “Thank you, Colonel, I’ll be leaving now.” As in RIGHT now.

Evacuating Wounded

The war must have eased up some because the next entry says: “Dances at Caserta – pretty Italian girls and lots of fun.” It isn’t what you think because the next entry says simply, “Custom of chaperone” and no explanation. Sorry. I’m guessing some stern-eyed Italian mother was there to make sure everything stayed on the up-and-up.  Then he names the fun, “Sara, Rosina, Giovanna, Wanda.” Sorry, no pics of the “fun.” I wonder where they are now?

OK, enough fun—back to the war—albeit only briefly.

MB goes on to describe a 250-bed hospital they set up at Caserta and the first patient is a VD—and it quickly fills up with, I am guessing more VD patients?

Then he mentions more “fun” and operas and a dinner at the Falcone home. I don’t know who that is, but it may be the home mentioned earlier? Guess who shows up? Yep. Sara, Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. He spells it “Rosina” in the first entry and “Rosella” in the second. But this time wine got mentioned along with the “fun.” And no mention of chaperones. Hummmm…

He also observes that the battle is still raging, and Italy is the worse place in the world to fight a war—but he is with Sara, Rosina/Rosella, Giovanna, & Wanda. War is hell.

To be continued…

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A Wartime Diary – Part 3

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily began on the night of 9-10 July 1943. The British landed at the southeastern tip of the Island, and the Americans landed to the west of them along Sicily’s southern coast. The landings went off with a few significant problems, mainly the American C-47 transports carrying paratroopers and pulling gliders being misidentified as German by the invasion fleet and fired upon. A number of these aircraft were shot down (friendly fire is never friendly) and most of the rest scattered to avoid being shot down with many dropping their paratroopers far from the designated drop zones. This incident repeated itself a few days later up the east coast of Sicily when American C-47s carrying British paratroopers were shot-up crossing over the invasion fleet. My father-in-law was flying that mission. Details here.

Flies?

Meanwhile, back in North Africa MB was running a VD clinic and being told they were to shut it down, and he was wondering what they would do with their patients. They stop taking patients on 23 July and close the clinic on 3 August, rejoining the regiment on 5 August at Tinka, Tunisia, which is northwest of Tunis and southwest of Bizerte. “Not a building standing…” was his comment about Bizerte.

It was right about here that he had the “little red wagon” incident I spoke of in earlier posts. Details here.

The infamous “little red wagon.” AKA sleeping bag.

 

The entries along here also mention he was promoted to captain on 28 July followed by paradoxical entries about multiple air raids and swimming in the Med.

On 5 Sept 43, the 16thMed Regt was reorganized into two medical battalions, the 161stand the 162nd. Company D was reduced to two platoons and all their vehicles taken away. Company D became the 601stCollection Company.

Medical battalions were reorganized to give each collecting company a clearing element, the two platoons of the clearing company being supplemented for this purpose by a third clearing platoon. Each regimental combat team in the assault was to be accompanied by one of these collecting-clearing companies, which had demonstrated their efficiency in training exercises. Each task force was to have one ambulance platoon in addition to those of the medical battalions, and at least one field hospital unit. The field hospital platoons were to be used for forward-area surgery and as holding units for non-transportables, combining the functions performed in Tunisia by the surgical hospital and the corps medical battalion clearing stations. MB has gone from a VD clinic to a collection company assigned to a regimental combat team, collecting and clearing wounded close to the front.

Meanwhile, Sicily has been taken and the invasion of Italy has begun.

 A little soldier’s humor I found stuck in MB’s photo album.

He then mentions that Italy capitulated, but the Germans were still very much in the war in Italy. MB and his unit were alerted to ship out for Italy. The Fifth Army landed at Salerno, Italy on 9 September 43. MB’s unit boarded an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) and left Bizerte on 25 September 43. He described the experience as “pleasant trip – hot ship.”

Continued…

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A Wartime Diary – Part 2

Part 1 here

England 18 Aug 1942.

MB’s Army experience soon took him to England where the Americans were staging men and equipment for Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. An excellent study on the subject can be found in the book, An Army At Dawn by the historian Rick Atkinson.

SS Orcades

MB’s diary entry begins with the cryptic “Orcades” followed by “England” and the date. I did some research and found there was a ship, the SS Orcades, a passenger liner that was pressed into service during the war as a troopship. I am assuming he traveled to England on the SS Orcades and arrived on 18 August. It was torpedoed and sunk two months later.

What follows that is a long list of things that must have impressed him. “Trains – Underground – Buses – Taxis – Westminster Abby – Buckingham Palace – Piccadilly – Tower and Bridge – Parliament …” The list goes on and on for two pages to mention just about everything you can ever think of related to England. He does mention war-related topics like his first bombing, fire watch, officers club, rationing, and bomb shelters as well as “Lt and Mrs. Cox” (whoever they were), and lastly “English girls.”

See what I mean? I wish I had asked him to elaborate before he died.

MB on left. Caption on back says, “Air Raid – What not to do.”

Africa

24 Nov 1942

His next entry begins as above, but above that is scribbled “Dutchess (SIC) of Bedford.” Some Googling discovered that was a ship, the SS Duchess of Bedford. Further research indicated she carried a regiment of the 1stDivision, US, to North Africa for the Operation Torch D-Day landings. Those landings were on 8 November 1942.

SS Duchess of Bedford

The date of the diary entry seems to be a bit of a disconnect. I found another reference to the Duchess making a second trip in November, but she carried some British troops and left Liverpool on 26 November arriving in Oran on 8 December. I do recall MB saying he landed at Oran, which was one of three main landing areas. I am guessing that MB boarded the Duchess with the Brits a couple of days before she set sail, and he saw that as the beginning of his African adventure. During the war, MB developed a real fondness for the British and often spoke highly of them. He didn’t like their plum pudding, however.

They set up a bivouac area at Hassi Ameur about 8 miles east of Oran. From here on to the end of the North African campaign he seems to be running a VD clinic much of the time. It gets mentioned often.

What then follows in his diary is another long list of names and observations that must have had some meaning to him. I will list only some that seem significant to his situation. “Mountains against blue sea – Sunrises & Sunsets – Stars – First Air Raid – Veiled Women, Jackasses, Woman pulling cart after ass died…”

That last point was a story he told several times. It seems the Arabs were evacuating a forward area and passing by the front gate of their camp. The jackass pulling an over-loaded cart died right at the front gate. The Arab simply unhitched the deceased ass, hooked up his wife to the cart, and continued on their merry way, leaving the corpse of his jackass to rot in the North African sun.

He goes on to mention other sights like olive trees, mountains, pup tents (small two man tents), and rifles—rifles? The Medical Corps was not normally issued small arms and were considered non-combatants with the red cross emblem emblazoned on tents, vehicles, and helmets, giving them some level of protection from being bombed or shot at. War can sometimes be “civilized,” you know?

In their “infinite wisdom,” the Army decided to arm the medics and issued them M1 rifles, and their Jeeps were equipped with scabbards to carry them in. The Germans captured one of the “armed” Jeeps and sent it back with a note that said, to the effect, that unless this practice was immediately stopped they would no longer honor the red cross. The rifles were promptly confiscated, ending that misadventure.

Hard to see, but the caption says, “Hospital Africa.”

The comedian, Martha Raye, must have visited them on a USO tour because she got mentioned in the diary, but only her name shows up, nothing about how much he enjoyed—or not—her show. Hollywood types were very active during the war, doing USO tours. This gets mentioned often in the diary.

MB goes on to refer to the heat and a sandstorm called the “Sirocco,” which he explains in greater detail in a later entry as “60-mile wind, scorching hot off Sahara, sears everything … carries dust that clouds the sky & obscures the horizon.”

I then found an entry that said only “resupplied.” I believe that is a reference to a story he told several times of how the ship carrying most of their equipment was sunk off Gibraltar by a German sub, and they were left to depend on the British to supply and feed them until they could get new equipment.

The Germans were pushed back east toward Tunis during the rest of the winter of 1943 with Tunis taken on 13 May. The invasion of Sicily was already in the planning at that point.

This photo was dated 7 July 1943 (three days before the Sicily landings) and was probably taken in Tinja, Tunisia. The drinks were orange-aid, according to the comments on the back, which also said, “War is Hell!” That is MB in the middle.

Continued…

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