Tag Archives: Medical Corps

A Wartime Diary – Part 7

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5 here.

Part 6 here.

This will be the seventh and final chapter. I hope you have enjoyed it.

In our little story, it is early December 1944, and the war is drawing to a close. There was much estimating of an early end, as suggested by MB’s guess of the war ending in late November and noted in the last post, but that didn’t happen. Hitler had one more effort up his sleeve, and the war in Europe dragged on for another five months. Japan went a bit longer. Later that month, Hitler began his drive into Belgium in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It caught the Allies off guard and, except for the lack of fuel for the German tanks, it might have been even more successful than it was. Of course, the Allies ultimately pushed the Germans back across the Rhine River and followed them into Germany.

In this final post of the series, events come together that are both sad and happy, events that changed my father’s life forever. Let’s begin.

MB wrote two letters home in October 1944 that I am in possession of. One was to his sister and the other was to his father. You might want to go read the one to his father here.

Then back to his diary and we find this entry: “6 Dec – Learned today of Dad’s death on Nov 20. I’ve lost my Rock of Gibraltar. Good luck Dad, and may God keep you.”

Martial B Casteix, Sr.

I can’t read that without tearing up. His mother died before the war of a disease that they developed a cure for only a couple of years later. He was close to his dad and worried about him back home having to work for K&B Drug Stores as a druggist after losing his own chain of stores during the Depression.

“Received orders to report home on T.D. If only I had been able to see Dad again.” The war was over for MB. Men in his unit gave up “points” they had earned toward going home so MB could have enough points to go home to attend to his dad’s affairs. He arrived in the New Orleans area on 26 January. His sister, Margie, had already handled most of their dad’s affairs and buried him. MB remained with her and her young daughter, Melanie, in Kenner where she lived. He eventually settled there.

Meanwhile, the war dragged on, and MB was supposed to report back to Italy. There were rumors his unit would be sent to the Pacific Theatre. That never happened, and MB never returned to his unit, which leads to another story, the last in this series.

While the war in Europe was still raging, MB got orders to report dockside for passage back to Italy. When he showed up, they had no papers on him and sent him home. He received more orders to report for shipping out to Italy. He reported, and once again they said they didn’t have him on the manifest and sent him home. I don’t recall how many times this happened. It was at least twice and probably three times, possibly more. Meanwhile, the war ends, first Europe and then Japan, and everyone is coming home and getting discharged.

But the Army seemed to forget about MB, leaving him in limbo, and he never goes back. Technically, he is AWOL – Absent Without Leave. Meanwhile, MB set up practice in Kenner. He was never paid for any of his time in the service after December 1944. My mother wanted him to go after the government for back pay and interest! She was convinced it must be in the hundreds of thousands by then. MB would just laugh and reply, “But they might put me in Leavenworth?” That usually ended it, but the story was told and retold so many times when I was a kid that it became a joke that the Army would eventually come after MB.

And then they did.

My sister Martia was working as a receptionist in MB’s office. She was an adult by then. This was some thirty years or more after the war. And one afternoon in walks a U.S. Army officer in uniform. “Is Major Casteix in?” Don’t know when, but somewhere along the way MB got promoted to major. No mention of it in his diary. Knowing the AWOL story well, Martia’s reaction was “Oh shit!” She went back to the examining room where MB was and told him, “The Army has come for you!”

“What are you talking about?” And she explained there was an Army officer in the waiting room asking for Major Casteix.

MB went out to meet the officer and identified himself. “I have something for you,” the officer replied, and he reached into his briefcase and pulled out an envelope. MB opened it, and it was his honorable discharge certificate.

That did it! My mother pushed even harder for MB to go after the Army for that back pay and the (by then she was convinced) multi-millions of dollars of interest that had accumulated in over thirty years. He never did.

Bass fishing in Alabama.

After the war, MB never traveled much or very far when he did travel. We frequently went to our summer house on Waveland, MS (and MB fished) and once to Panama City, FL on a short vacation (he fished there, too). Fishing was his second love (next to being a doctor). He spent countless days fishing in the Louisiana marshes and offshore. He loved to fish so much he even wrote a poem to fishing. You might get him to travel if there would be fish and a pole to use at the end of the journey. I took him bass fishing in Alabama a few times, and once we got him all the way to Abilene, TX, but that was for his grandson’s wedding (he didn’t fish there). He always said there was really only one place he wanted to visit—Italy, but he never made it back. He died in 2003.

I will close this series with the eulogy I gave at his funeral.

There are many ways to take the measure of a man. One is by the way he touches others. Some do this on a massive scale, through some discovery or invention that impacts the lives of millions. But some touch lives in a very personal way – one person at a time.

MB was just that sort of person. He touched others professionally as a physician.

Do you know how he came to practice medicine in Kenner? He wanted to go into pediatrics, but a war got in the way. After the war, MB continued his studies and lived in Kenner with his sister, Margie and her husband Robert Manard (most knew him as Son). But word got around in doctor-poor Kenner that there was a new one in town, and people began showing up on Son’s doorstep any time of the day or night looking for the doctor. Son finally had enough and took MB aside and told him, “I can deal with the sick kids throwing up on my rug, and the wounded bleeding on my sofa, but I just can’t handle it when people go into convulsions on my living room floor! GET AN OFFICE!”

He did and he practiced medicine as an old-fashioned family doctor in Kenner for more than fifty years.

But MB touched people in a way that was more than just the professional caring of a physician. He was the kind of person you liked being around, the kind of person who made the world a better place. He was the kind of person that you had no choice but to love.

There are some here today who did not personally know MB, but most of you here did know him. How many of you who did can say that he impacted your life, that your life would have been different had he not been a part of it? Either as a physician or personally? Raise your hands! Now, look around you.

MB (“Doc”) was not tall of stature, only about 5’6”, but if you accept the premise that a man can be measured by the lives he touches, then we have gathered here today to bid farewell to a giant.

And we were greatly blessed by the fact that this giant walked among us for 85 years. He will be sorely missed!

This is from a newspaper article about his retirement fifty years after the war.

 

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A Wartime Diary – Part 1

This will begin a seven-part series of posts that were taken from the WWII diary of my father, Dr. M.B. Casteix, Jr. It will also draw upon his WWII photo album for some of the images you will see here. My plan is to release the seven “chapters” over the next two weeks, concluding it on Memorial Day

Why am I doing this? Because it needs to be done. We ought to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, sacrifices that gave us the freedom we enjoy today and how precious that freedom is. We also need to understand that we, like them, might be called upon to make similar sacrifices to maintain that liberty.

Before we start, some background on the man:

MB, as we called him (even his kids did), was Martial Bruno Casteix, Jr. His French grandfather immigrated to America, landing in New Orleans in the mid-1860s. His grandmother was also French as was his mother. We can safely say he was French, yes? Yes. He spoke very little French, which I find surprising considering his French background and all the time he spent in support of French units during the war. Maybe he spoke more than I realized because I found some French grammar studies/notes in the back of his diary.

Technically, MB was my stepfather, but he was the only “father” I ever really knew—and he was a good one. My mother married him after divorcing my birth father. I was five at the time. They had two girls together, Jeanne and Martia.

MB was born in New Orleans and lived all of his life there up until WWII. After the war, he resided in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, but that’s another story. His father, Martial, was a pharmacist and owned several drug stores in New Orleans but lost them during the depression. Martial and MB’s mother, May, were bona fide New Orleans characters. Go here if you would like to read about some of their antics.

MB was very bright as was his younger sister, Marguerite called “Margie.” She was born on MB’s birthday exactly two years after he was born. For a while, the family resided above one of the drug stores in a building on Bourbon Street that is now the Famous Door Bar. If you are ever in New Orleans, drop into this famous French Quarter haunt and have a drink where MB lived as a child. I told some tales of that period in his life here so I won’t repeat myself now.

As I said, MB was a very bright kid; he skipped two grades in school and entered LSU medical school two years younger than most of his classmates. (See UPDATE below.) He graduated in 1941 and since he spent his schooling in New Orleans he claims he never set foot on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Upon graduation, he immediately went into the Army. He was 22 years old at the time.

The image above was taken before the war and probably while he was in med school.

Lt. M. B. Casteix

Co. D

16th Med. Regt.

That is what the first page says. After several pages of addresses for friends and family, we find the first date in his diary, 18 Aug 1942, and that is for an entry made in England. MB was inducted into the Army right after graduation. He once told me he received no formal military training. He got uniforms, a commission, and orders that took him to Camp Carlyle, PA and then England and ultimately to North Africa and Italy. Because of that lack of military training, he said he was never quite sure who he was supposed to salute while touring Washington DC.

Unfortunately, I never took notes during our many discussions about his wartime service, which were usually in the nature of short comments or brief “war stories” over the 50+ years of our time together. Later in life when we went on fishing trips to Alabama, after a day of fishing on the private lake of my hunting club and with a few adult beverages under his belt, MB would often tell a story or two. But I never recorded those either for which I kick myself because he told many wonderful stories.

MB served during the North African, Sicilian, and Italian Campaigns all the way to Rome and beyond. His experiences were many and varied. For a period he was attached to Darby’s Rangers has his surgeon when Darby’s regimental surgeon was wounded. He spoke of the “crazy” Rangers forming up for chow in the middle of an artillery barrage—they were on the receiving end, not the giving.

He once mentioned an orderly who came down with VD, and he treated him with sulfur, the usual treatment for that before penicillin became common. Unfortunately, the man turned out to be allergic to sulfur and almost died. “But I cured him of syphilis,” was his closing comment on that story.

He told another story of yet another orderly (the same one?) who wasn’t all that right in the head (MB’s description). He disappeared one day during an artillery barrage—incoming again. They found him a few days later. He had burrowed into the side of a hill and sealed himself in along with a case of Italian wine. He was passed-out drunk.

The image above is of the Company D, 3rd Platoon officers. Front – Bob Sharoff, MB, Sal Iraci (Platoon Leader); Back – Tom Sherman, Son Carroll.

There aren’t many stories in his diary, and the few we do find there are rather sketchy, leaving much to your imagination. In fact, his diary doesn’t follow any normal format we would associate with a wartime diary, especially in the beginning. Mostly it consists of names of towns, sights, events, happenings, people, and those are limited to only one or two words as if he intended them merely as a reminder to recall the details later. Later he did get just a bit more descriptive and reveal some of his inner thoughts and feelings as he described the amazing things he was experiencing. We get just a taste of what life was like for him. Unfortunately, it leaves us wanting to know more.

In addition to his diary, I have his photo album. Based on one contact print in the album, I concluded that he used a 35mm camera. I never knew him to own a camera when I was growing up and I don’t know what happened to it. I do recall him telling me “they” developed the film in the chemicals for processing x-ray negatives, but I can’t figure out how he printed them without a proper enlarger to do that. A mystery like many in his diary…

Like the diary, the pictures leave us wanting a context to put them in. There are no notes in the album next to the images, and the backs of most had no comments there either. The few comments on pictures were often very brief with names of people I know nothing of. I’m not even sure where most were taken and will have to draw conclusions from their place in the album and the few images that do have dates on the back, assuming they are in order.

In this series, I will attempt to take what I can from his diary and photo album and turn it into some sort of a story. I hope you enjoy this little peek into the private life of M.B. Casteix.

UPDATE: I got a message from my sister, Jeanne, that adds more detail to MB skipping grades. I had heard he skipped two grades. Jeanne says it was three. The third one was 8th grade. She tells me this is what she recalls: “On the first day of 8th grade, his first year at St. Aloysius, he was playing and bonding with some boys. When the bell rang for them to line up, he lined up with his new friends and went to class. The next part is what I find hard to believe. It took St Aloysius three months to figure out where MB was. He was in class with his buddies in 9th grade! Making A’s, they left him there. Hence, he skipped 8th grade too!”

Continued

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