March 15, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René on March 15, 1945. Here’s an excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl, describing his visit to the grave of his brother, Dick, in Normandy.




Before returning to duty I had the good fortune of being able to fly to Normandy to visit my brother Dick’s grave. The flight from Paris to Cherbourg took us over many of the recent battlefields and the destruction of small villages, towns, bridges and railroads and airports could be plainly seen from the air. Actually the evidence, unmistakably visible, did not speak well for our so-called “pin-point bombing.”

Along the channel coast, we could see the concrete implacements and the spike-like obstacles, the latter plainly visible at the water’s edge during the low tide. I couldn’t help but think of Dick hitting that beach on D-Day, June 6th. Now I wish he were alive to tell us proudly of the part he and his men played. I learned that his division landed near the base of the Cherbourg peninsula.

Dick’s cemetery is one of three American cemeteries in the vicinity of St Mere Eglise. There is an air of impressive dignity about a military cemetery which, when added to the realization of the significance of all those small white crosses in their neat rows, brings a lump to one’s throat. 

I can’t begin to describe my feelings as I came to that single grave with its clean white cross and the name Richard F. Westdahl so clearly printed on it in neat black letters. Here was my brother. This was not the meeting we had planned in our letters to each other. All of those happy plans and the plans of our future at home with our families flashed through my mind. I thought of Mom and Susan and Lor and wished they could have been there with me. It was a good feeling to know that I was so close to dear Dick. It was as though he were not alone so far from home and those he loved. I’m sure he must have felt my presence there. For want of something tangible, I touched his dog tag, which was nailed to the cross; he had actually worn that and for the moment it was something that had been a part of him. There is no way in the world of repaying Dick and the thousands of boys who have made such a sacrifice, but before I left his grave I knelt before his cross and prayed that he and his fellow soldiers may not have died in vain.

I really felt hollow and a little sick inside as I left Dick behind and headed back to Cherbourg. Oh Lord, if only he could have come with me.

 

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Watch for René’s next letter on
March 21, 1945


The American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, where Philip Westdahl went to visit the grave of his brother, Richard Westdahl, who had died on June 13, 1944, as the result of injuries sustained during the D-Day Invasion.




March 17, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René on March 17, 1945. Here’s an excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl, describing the 59th’s move from Epinal to St. Avold, France.




On March 17, we finally left Epinal and headed north to take part in the push of the 7th Army into Germany. After 2 months of inactivity it was a great boost to our spirits to feel that we were to be back in the fold once more. None of us regretted leaving Epinal. For me, Epinal spelled retreat and delay in the war’s ending.

Our route north took us through Nancy and into the French province of Lorraine. It must have been quite a sight to see our truck moving along the highway. From time to time during our previous moves, we had acquired various odds and ends of furniture to add to the comfort of living. When the day of departure arrived, we would all do our best to load our odds and ends on our truck to the extent of its capacity. Consequently it was a common sight to see a truckload of officers sitting in overstuffed red cushioned chairs rolling along the road.

Our destination was a small Lorrainian town named St. Avold, about 20 miles south of the German border city of Saarbrucken. We set up our tents on a knoll overlooking the town. The engineers had previously constructed roads according to our ground plan, and we lost no time in starting to work.

On the night of March 17, we received our first casualties from the troops fighting for Saarbrucken.

 

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Watch for René’s next letter on
March 21, 1945


The tents at St. Avold, France.



March 21, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

March 21, 1945
St. Avold, France

No. 22

Dear Folksies,        

            It’s good to be working again!  We’ve been plenty busy, are tenting it once again and enjoying it.  Of course, we are still forced to keep our long woolens on for, even with our oil-burning stoves, things are a bit cool.  The first nite in the surgery tent was really a dilly!  Around 3 A.M. it really got frosty inside and everyone was working like mad primarily to keep warm.

            The “Gang-Greene” is once again functioning as usual, that is, missing or at least getting to meals late. The only meals we’ve gotten to on time are those that are served before we go on shift, that is, breakfast. Why does it always happen to us? And, of course, too, we never get off at the supposed 8 P.M. shift time. A couple of nites ago Mattie stuck us with a longie and had to start it at 7:30 P.M. We could have throttled him, but actually we were so glad to be working again that it didn’t bother us as much as it would have a few months ago, when we were on the tail end of our working period.

            At present Helen Baker (one of our anesthetists) is on leave in England. She has some relatives there and when the unit became eligible for someone to go to England on that 7-day leave business, she was given the opportunity. Gert Brazil is on her 2-dayer in Paris, and as a consequence, we are a bit short on anesthetists at the moment. Schmitty, having little dental work as yet is filling in for Helen. (Gert is still in the learning stage.)

            Have two new officers, Capt. Baldwin and Capt. Stokes. The former is a Medical Officer who, however, used to give a lot of anesthesias before coming into the Army. He has been, before coming to us, Medical officer for some Ack-Ack outfit. Stokes came from some General Hospital in England, I believe, and he is a surgeon. They both just joined us a few days ago, so don’t know more than that about them.

            I’m living with Gil Bishop and Jack Dunlap and we happen to be lucky in that there are only three in our tent, whereas most of the others have four.  It gives us enough room for a decent table, on which I am now typing.  Gil, coming up in the command car with a trailer, managed to cart along quite a bit of extra stuff that has served to make the tent more comfortable and convenient.

            We’re on quite a little rise and we hope that when it starts raining, if it does, and it probably will, that we won’t be washed down into the flats.  The engineer did a nice job of putting in a couple of main roads, blasting a sump pit, and a few other things. Will be taking some pictures when the sun deigns to come out.

            We’ve been getting nothing but the big stuff since we opened up, the little stuff being sent to some other gang —  I think to the bunch I was with in August.  Since we’ve been opened and until this morning, we’ve been so busy that we haven’t had much time to find out things and the only thing that awakens us at night is the cold.  The noise that has been almost constant day and night hasn’t phased us a bit.

            Had a mighty interesting time one night — the night I spent with Bill Reiss, as I was up to his spot on PX business for Fadley.  Bill is in a radar gang and I got to see their center where they can follow the planes over the map – moving miniatures along as the planes are known to move from area to area.  The place looked something like a stock-exchange plus this big central, flat map.  I was there some time after the big show started and things were really as wild as a stock-exchange on its busiest day.  Some time I’ll be able to tell you more about it all.

            Ann Dunn darn near went wild with joy yesterday, for she got a cable from her Mom that her brother was safe – they had had a letter from him from a prison camp! Gee, everyone was so happy for her. Ann was a good friend of Lois’ from Fort Ord.

                         Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
March 24, 1945

René took photographs of how their special surgery tent was put up at St. Avold, France and added captions to each one.




First step – smoothing terrain so flooring can be level.




Second step – Ridge poles hooked together at metal ends.




Third step – sections put together.




Fourth – Ready to have canvas sections fitted and laced together over supports.




Surgery tent going up – one side lifted at a time.



March 24, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

March 24, 1945
St. Avold, France

No. 23

Dear Folksies,        

            I can see that this is going to be some letter. I’m trying to type this in our tent and it is 7 P.M., and it looks as if Bish, Jack & Roy are contemplating consuming most of what is left of the last liquor ration, since there’s nutting doing. Tonight was the night that the “Gang-Greene” was supposed to go on nites but…

            We have had some wonderful weather the last few days and today managed to get a start on the season’s sun-tan while waiting in line for a haircut. However, the nites are still considerably on the chilly side.

            Yesterday morn, Bish, when he finally got up, had to toss Jack’s and my shoes back to us, for – Bish had awakened and yelled at us, “Hey you guys, aren’t you going to get up! It’s time to get up! Time for breakfast! “ And then, in a lower tone, “My watch has stopped. What time is it?” Well, it was only 6 A.M. !!! Nuts!

            Several of the gang have wandered around a bit and quite a few got into Saarbrucken the day after it fell. The stories they brought back about its being a complete wreck were, in a way, good to hear. Don’t have anything against the city, of course, but when we remember the wrecks that were Bizerte, Formia, Cassino, and other spots, it’s good to know that all that has at last come home to roost in Germany itself. The boys say that Bizerte was nothing compared to this town. Had I not been on duty, I probably would have accompanied some of them there, but may get there some other time.

            Some more of the bunch have been getting to Paris of late – Paul and Kuzell went together and now Bell and Hodgson are there with a group of the men. However, the latter were lucky enough to go by train. In this weather, however, going by truck wouldn’t be bad – I’d rather go that way anytime, but the train deal is, of course, the cleanest and easiest.

            Yesterday was cosmopolitan day as far as letters received was concerned. One from George in Marseille, one from Claudine in Paris and one from Jacqueline in London.

                         Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
March 29, 1945


Ambulances bringing patients to Receiving.




Officers’ and Nurses’ Mess Tent with Officers’ Area in back.




Road between Surgery and Red Cross Tent. Supply in background.



March 26, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

This excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl tells the story about the unit’s short stay at St. Avold, which René couldn’t tell his parents due to censorship rules…




We worked day and night for six days before the breakthrough into Germany and our casualties became light. The casualties consisted for the most part of mine and shell fragment injuries resulting in multiple and frequently mutilating wounds. Being the first Evac. Hospital in the chain of evacuation from the front, we received the most severely wounded men, while others were sent further back. Consequently we had a good many chest and abdominal wounds.

Every night during our stay in St. Avold we could hear the continuous pounding of the artillery and see the sudden quick flash from the muzzle of guns that momentarily lighted the sky on the horizon. Now and then a German plane would come over, but only for observation. Air raids were almost a thing of the past. However, we operated under blackout conditions to be on the safe side. During the day, of course, our huge red cross identified us as a hospital. 

On March 26, we were on the move again, this time into Germany.

.

Watch for René’s next letter on
March 29, 1945


René’s caption for this photo reads: “Generators mounted on trucks next to x-ray tent and supplying power to whole camp. Town of St. Avold in the background.”




René’s caption for this photo reads: “The convoy lines up at St. Avold before leaving for first German set-up.”



March 29, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

March 29, 1945
Tiefenthal, Germany
No. 24

Dear Folksies,        

       Have been plenty busy the last five days.  As you see by the above, we have hopped again and no sooner got a tent or two thrown up than we were up to our necks in work, and since only part of us were here at the time, we had beaucoup work to do and no sleep until the others got here, several hours later than expected.  Have, as a result, just managed to catch up on sleep today.  The “Gang-Greene” [surgical team of Wally Greene, Carroll Russell and René] is on the nite shift now, you see.

       I again managed to do a good deal of traveling a few days ago. Being in Germany we are no longer able to have our wonderful French Chef along with us — business of crossing borders, visas, safety for him, etc.  So, naturally, he and his family, the other cook, the laundry gals, and their kids — all had to be taken to their homes. They lived at the spot where we spent the majority of our time from October to March.  As it happened, I wanted to go there too because when Jack had picked me up, en route the week before, my laundry had been left behind since I had expected to return there, not expecting Jack to pick me up and whisk me off as he did. So, I planned to accompany the French people down in our truck, pick up my laundry and do some business down there for the outfit, also picking up some things on a requisition on the way back for Fadley.  Bob Escamilla decided he had to go down part of the way also, because he wanted to find out what the score was on his “temporary duty home” deal.

       The only available transportation being a weapons-carrier and a trailer, we had quite a load.  There were 12 of the French in the back of that poor weapons-carrier (seats eight) of whom one was a baby, one a two-year-old and one eight years old. And, on top of that, they had more baggage than you can imagine, including a baby-carriage, etc., etc.  Of course, all the latter was crowded into the trailer.  Clint Green (Sgt.) who was with us on the invasion, was the driver, and we had Escamilla between us. We finally took off after lunch and after the Chef and Henri (the pastry cook) had very weepily said good-bye to all the officers and nurses.  They really hated to go, every bit as much and maybe more than we hated to see them go.

       It was quite a ride.  The roads we had to go on are rough, but with the truck so jam-packed loaded, the vehicle held the road nicely and we didn’t seem to mind the bumps at all.  In fact, the truck was so loaded that it seemed as if the front end was up off the road most of the time and riding in the air.

       We dumped Escamilla off where he needed to go and then went on and took the French home – golly they lived all over the place — and we had to take them to their respective homes.  After that, seeing one of our gals who was left behind in the hospital down there and who is returning in a few days, Clint and I took off again. Got to Lois’ spot about 9 P.M., but tho’ she is still in the hospital, she was not in – being out on pass for the evening!!

       Went over to get Fadley’s requisition filled, with only a faint hope of succeeding, as the place, I knew, closed around 5 or 6 P.M.  We had hoped to get down there by that time but, having to make the circle, leaving Bob off, could not get there by that time and thought we would have to skip it altogether.  But, imagine our surprise and pleasure when, at 9:30 P.M. I was able to talk the “Charge of Quarters” into filling our requisition in view of the great distance we had come and still had to go, etc., etc. (Shades of some of the stuff George Davis and I pulled way back when in Africa!)

       Finally started off to pick up Bob, who we had arranged with to pick up at one of the hospitals in the town where he had been left.  We had no map but, tho’ I had only been on the road once (on return from Paris) and Clint had never been on it, we saw no reason why we should have any trouble finding our way, even at night.  We kept going on the road until we were stopped by an officer who had a small convoy stopped on the side of the road.  He asked us if that was the road to such-and-such — he apparently didn’t think it was for there had been no signs naming that town for several miles.  We said, “Sure it is!” and went on.  But, imagine our embarrassment when, about five minutes later we realized that it was the wrong road at that — at least a road that was not the main one, though it would eventually, we thought take us to where we wanted to go.  We wound around some small towns and soon realized about where we must be and were able to head for the place we wanted – we wondered, however, whether the poor officer with his convoy would be swearing at us — particularly if he didn’t take the correct turns as we managed to do after we left him.

       Strangely enough, we were hailed by some soldiers who wanted a ride just to their headquarters (they were guarding a gas dump) and when they climbed aboard I wondered what nationality they were – they all talked the same, sort of unintelligibly, until I realized the accent. I asked one of the fellows where he was from – and of course he said “Puerto Rico”.

       Picked up Bob and then started out on the real bumpy road that had been O.K. on the way down with the load — but golly what a road it was when we had nothing but Bob in the back of the truck!!  We jounced all over the place and how Bob managed to fall asleep in the back, I know not, but he did. And, incidentally, he told me he is to go home Monday – he gets 45 days in S.F. – probably before he starts back this way the war will be over!

       From the time we picked up Bob (as Clint was tired) I drove – we stopped and picked up the truck we needed to take back to the unit, and kept barreling on, arriving back well after midnight.

                         Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for more of this letter
March 30, 1945


René in Tiefenthal, Germany




Bob Escamilla rode with René and his driver, Clint Green, on their way to Tiefenthal.




Tents of the 59th with the village of Tiefenthal in the background.



March 30, 1945 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

March 30, 1945
Tiefenthal, Germany
No. 24 (continued)

Dear Folksies,        

      Next A.M., up bright and early, and then at noontime we got word that we were going to have to take patients that night, despite the fact that the vehicles that were supposed to move us had just arrived in the area an hour before (we had sent our own trucks up the night before with a small amount of basic stuff).  So the Col. decided he better go up and warn Gerbode and Roy who were setting up in this new area.  I had been scheduled to take the next convoy out with Stan Jobe, but instead went with the Col. in his jeep and arrived here in time to help Roy and Frank get things in shape, put up signs, contact headquarters, etc.

        Three teams of officers and a few of the nurses arrived by supper time and the first part of the convoy got here a little after that, and by golly, we were ready to take patients, and did, at 7:30 P.M., tho’ actually they didn’t start shoving many to us until midnight. Our team was first on call, so we did all the work until 5 A.M., when the slew of patients arrived, and then all three teams worked until 4 P.M., when the rest of the officers arrived.  We tumbled into bed, and instead of the 8 P.M. that our shift was supposed to begin again at, we were allowed two hours grace and didn’t come on until 10 P.M.

        So, you can see why yesterday and today we were trying to make up for lost sleep.  Isn’t it funny how one can sleep almost for days on end, as we did when loafing, but a couple of nights of lost sleep still makes you plenty tired — you can’t seem to build up sleep like a reserve fund.

        Yes, the “Gang-Greene” is still in it’s old form – missed midnight chow last nite and resorted to some of my deviled ham on toast with some of Dottie Merrill’s soup that she cooked up for us at 2:30 A.M. in Surgery. And then, today, we got to breakfast at 10 A.M. Same old routine of missed meals!!

        Golly, last nite the wind howled thru that Surgery tent something terrific. We have to have doors so litters can be brought in and out – and those doors consist of just flaps and blankets across the openings and they are not heavy enough to withstand this March wind. “Twas mighty breezy!

        Helen Nelson just arrived… Time to go to work.

                         Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
April 2, 1945


In today’s letter, René mentions Dr. Frank Gerbode (shown above, standing at right) and “the Gang-Greene” — the surgical team led by Dr. Wally Greene, shown seated at right in the officers’ area at  Tiefenthal, Germany. Also shown (seated at left) is Dr. David Waugh.




René also mentions Dr. Roy Cohn, who along with Frank Gerbode had set up their new area at Tiefenthal.