September 2, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

September 2, 1943
No 53
Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,          

            Yesterday I was kept plenty busy all day long, doing spinals for the most part, but also some pentothals. Nothing big, but just kept doing something all day and the early evening. Did get a chance, however, to get off a couple of short letters, and also sent you a whole pile of postcards. The latter were mostly showing the cathedral we had the opportunity to visit the other day. It was quite an historic place, built by Normans, Moors and Byzantines. The gold that had been used in the mosaics alone was valued at some tremendous price. The thing that got me, however, was when our guide told us that the heart and guts of Louis IX were entombed there, the rest of the poor guy being spread around in Paris, Tunis, etc.

            I am feeling really pretty good now, no more diarrhea or cramps. Really about 99.44% and should be able to gain back the .56% in another day or two. Martha Morris has been pretty ill the last couple of days, but is lots better today. She apparently had the prevalent “sand-fly fever”. Some of them get plenty sick with it, running temps all the way up the scale and having pretty severe headache, backaches, etc. Really the only difference between that and Malaria is the presence of the malaria bugs on the slides, and the fact that the temp in malaria goes up and down, while in the other it seems to stay high longer and then drop gradually. Both get bad headaches and pain behind the eyes.

            I bought an Italian grammar and dictionary the other day, when Lois and I were downtown with the Col., but as yet haven’t had any time to look at it. Thank goodness a great number of Sicilians have spent a lot of time in the U.S. Tho’ we’ve only been to a couple of shops, we have been lucky in finding ex-American residents present there.

Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter on
September 9

Photographs of the Cathedral in Monreale, which René visited, but wasn’t able to mention by name.






On September 1, Phil Westdahl, MD, wrote in his journal: “During the 3 weeks we have been functioning here, we have handled about 3500 patients, almost 2/3 of our total in 7 months at Casablanca. It is amazing and discouraging to note the number of accidental injuries from firearms and shell explosions due to pure carelessness. ‘I didn’t know it was loaded’ has become more than a time-worn explanation. One fellow even asked his friend to shoot him with an Italian pistol to demonstrate to an Italian prisoner that the Italian ammunition was no good. (He thought he had taken the bullet out of the casing, but he hadn’t.) Fortunately it went through his left arm, about 6 inches from his heart.
We see innumerable very mutilating injuries to large groups of men at one time  because of carelessness in handling high explosive shells. Just yesterday we had several  boys brought in with multiple extensive shell fragment wounds because one of them had picked up a shell-fuse and after examining it carelessly threw it on the ground.
In this connection, I recall that before leaving Casablanca, we noted that of the 200 odd American boys’ graves, about half of them had been killed on the original invasion, the remainder being accidental deaths.”



September 8, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René between September 2 & 9.

Fortunately, we can get some important news – and local reactions to it – from Philip Westdahl‘s journal entry on September 8, 1943




ITALY SURRENDERS!!

            What news! It came while I was on my ward and even my sickest patients shouted for joy – all but one poor chap still unconscious on his 5th day following a cerebral contusion. The Italian prisoners working in the hospital waved their brooms and mops in the air and wanted to hug and kiss us.

              Beyond the hospital grounds in the adjoining streets the Sicilians are singing and dancing and caressing each other. The Italian prisoners in their tents in the hospital courtyard have assembled in a great circle and are singing beautiful and gay Italian folks songs at the top of their voices. The old organ grinder in yon village street is grinding at double-time. The air is filled with music and laughter and there is happiness in hearts that have long forgotten the true meaning of happiness.  

            As for ourselves, we have long ago learned not to be too optimistic about interpreting good news, but this has been a great boost to our spirits and a cause for such speculation as to its consequences. We cannot help but join in the laughter and happiness.

.

Watch for René’s next letter on
September 9



Newspaper headlines shout the news that Italy has surrendered!



September 9, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

September 9, 1943
No 55
Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,          

           On September 8, Lois had her first day off, so we left here shortly after lunch and took one of my dispensary boys with us for an interpreter. His name is Syracuse and he has some relatives nearby, but strangely enough, not in the town from which he got his name. He speaks the lingo fluently and is swell at haggling. He’s an awful nice kid and we had lots of fun just wandering around with him.

            We then hopped into a native carriage, with the screwiest horse drawing it — he seemed to always be going sidewise instead of straight ahead, and the front wheels of the carriage seemed to be coming back and going under the back wheels every so often. Anyway, the three of us trotted out to the catacombs. ‘Twas down under the ground, however ‘twas somewhat ventilated in one spot as a result of what the Italian guide we had said was “American bomb.” He explained, “Americans good, bomb no good!” The place had bones hanging from the wall, stored in boxes and niches, with their shrouds hanging loosely over the bones. There were hundreds of skeletons there, the place having been started in 1599 and the last person having been deposited there around 1870 or so. Most of the skeletons had their name plates still intact — everybody from rich to poor, princesses and babies, and even the great Garibaldi, so the guide said.

            After that little visit, we left Syracuse and we went our way and he went his way. Our way took us to George Sterba’s place where one of his boys gave Lois a gift of a couple of cups and saucers with the Italian Navy crown embossed on them. We stayed for dinner and then came home – getting a ride in an Italian jeep that makes as much noise as an army opening fire on the enemy at close range.

            Later that same evening, Lois, Paul, George Davis and I went up to the home of one of our Italian civilian workers — a plumber. The latter actually lives in town but owns this place out a ways in the country, and he gave George the use of the place so it is a good party place. We went out that night to inspect it and make plans for the future. We got out there about 7 P.M., after a nice ride in the cool evening air, in our favorite jeep “Bonnie Blue Eyes.” The place is on a hill with a lovely big balcony overlooking adjoining hills, which are covered with orchards. It also overlooks a nice cove — the blue Mediterranean. We were standing admiring the view and we thought we were about the only living souls for miles around.

            Then, all of a sudden out of the still country-side we heard wild whoops and hollers from all sides. The people started coming out of their houses and yelling at us, “Finito la guerre, finito la guerre.” They were jumping up and down all over the place, and we couldn’t believe that it was true. Finally some of them calmed down enough and we understood enough of their Italian to get that they had heard on the radio that Italy had signed an armistice. Well, we still didn’t know whether or not to believe them, but when we heard sounds of hooraying from all the places around, and could even hear hollering for miles down the road, we got as excited as anyone and pranced around like mad.

            We’d planned to stay up there until around 10 P.M., but with that news we tore wildly down the hill, amid cheering and waving throngs of natives. Paul drove and waved his hand to all “just like F.D.R.” as he said. George was riding his motorcycle and we followed right behind him and it really made quite a sight. The people all along were just wildly happy and were yelling at us all the way back into town. There was a lot more celebrating among the natives than there was by the Allies. And, our Italian prisoners were just wild — they were singing way into the night.

Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my more of this letter on
September 12


Catacombs in Palermo




Lois and René out and about in Palermo




George Davis on his motorcycle.



September 12, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

September 12, 1943
No 55 (continued)
Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,          

          Al Jolson was here a few nights ago and put on a one-man show. He was fairly good — sang a few of his old songs, made a few cracks of the Bohemian Low Jinx type. In general he was entertaining for the patients and men, but it wasn’t the type of thing that anyone would pay money to see or hear. Don’t mistake me — I think it’s swell that men and women like Jolson, Hope, etc. are making the tours that they are. It is a pretty nerve wracking business for them, just as it is for the soldiers, for they get to places that are being bombed on and off very frequently. For a man who has been on the stage as long as Al Jolson, and at his age, to be giving two to four shows a day and making rapid-fire hops all over, it is really remarkable. Also, I was surprised at how short Jolson was — he’s really tiny.

          Night before last, we had planned to have a party up at the “Villa” as we have called it. However, Lois had to work late and I felt kind of on the seedy side, having a bit of diarrhea again. So, until the last minute, tho’ we had planned the party with George, the two of us were not going to go. Nevertheless, Lois got off a little earlier than expected and my guts quit rumbling, so we decided to at least put in an appearance at the party. So, one of the boys drove us up in “Bonnie”, the others having gone up in a small truck. Bishop, Helen, Hal, Fran, Liz, Kuzell, Russell, Bennek, Paul and one of our new girls, Betty Klarr, and George were all there.

          One of the transportation boys helped out and fixed up some food for the gang of us and it was very nice. We stayed a very short time and then hi-tailed it back for some sleep. The night ride apparently did me some good, however, for I awoke the next morning feeling perfect. Still feel swell now.

          Last night we were invited to a big party given by Col. Westmoreland’s outfit. It was a nice party, but the only difficulty was that we couldn’t leave until shortly after 7:30 P.M. and the place where the party was was about 25 miles up the road, and consequently it took about an hour to go up and an hour to get back, and just a little more than that time to stay there. We went up in a command car with Westy and Bam and had a nice time. The moon was bright, the scenery nice (despite the fact that it was night), and the cool breeze felt swell.

Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my the rest of this letter on
September 13


Al Jolson performing a one-man show for the patients and men.




September 13, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

September 13, 1943
No 55 (final portion)
Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,

            Yesterday turned out to be quite a gala day. Fran, Hal (Harold Williams), Lois and I left here about 2 P.M. going in a truck with several others, to the beach. Fran and I had arranged with some of the mess men to have sandwiches, peaches and tomato juice. So we stuck all the food, our swimming suits, towels, a blanket and the rest of our stuff in a barracks bag, and we were all set up for the afternoon and evening. The beach turned out to be a wonderful spot, the best we have hit to date. The sand was a trifle sea-weedy, but we found some spots where it was clear and the sand was clean. The beach sloped gradually into the Mediterranean and one could walk out quite a ways before finding oneself in deep water. However, it was most deceptive, for the water was so clear that when you were out quite a ways you looked down and thought that surely you could touch bottom, only to be surprised that the bottom was actually quite a bit further away than you had anticipated.

            At the beach there is a big clubhouse that has been taken over by the Red Cross and there are bath-houses, showers, and a two-floor recreation building. The lower floor is for the enlisted men and the top, with swell balconies overlooking the Sea, is for officers. They have a couple of pianos, a victrola and a library of a sorts.

            We baked on the beach for a while, swam for a while and then we hired a Sicilian boatman to take us for a ride for about an hour. After our boat ride we returned to the beach and ate our repast, which consisted of beef and cheese sandwiches and native peaches. The latter are a little bigger than our apricots and were not quite ripe enough, but one that I did manage to get was just right and tasted swell. It’s funny how really good fresh fruit tastes after one hasn’t had any for so long. After our dinner we loafed around the clubhouse until we got a ride back around 7:30 P.M.

            Then on our return home, we continued to have a good time. The 59th Officers have now opened a club of their own, and since we are in buildings it is perfect. We have a bar, and are going to have a reading and a card room and a dance hall. We have a piano and have purchased a good radio. And, of course, we still have the records we brought with us from the U.S. Wally Greene and Pete Joseph were the instigators of the club and with opening night last night it showed itself to be a howling success. Only the officers can belong but despite Roy Cohn’s objections, it was voted that guests of members could be allowed into the club. So, the four of us (Fran, Hal Williams, Lois and I) joined in the festivities last night and all had a wonderful time.

            The opening of the club was sort of a farewell for Bert Halter, as he left us today. He has gone to a unit of the same type as we are, but a little more than half the size. He is going to be their orthopod.

            The party that night was really quite something, what with Wally Green and Pete Joseph acting as bartenders. We took some pictures of them behind the bar and hope that they come out for they ought to be perfect black-mail pictures. Now, Wally has trained one of our little Italianos in the fine art of bar-tending, and tonight he is doing the honors with great gusto. The latter is the one who is a first cousin of Rudolph Valentino, and he’s a pretty good-looking kid, himself. He really is funny the way he has picked up English so rapidly. He only has to be told a word once before he had incorporated it into his vocabulary. He even answers the phone over at the nurses quarters nowadays and is not too hard to understand. Now, he has himself the permanent job of bartender and steward of the “Club” from 4 P.M. to 11 P.M. every night.

            Right now Lois and I are in George’s supply section, each banging away at a separate typer, and we’ve been at it now for almost two hours. We had planned to have an educational evening with Lois doing the teaching. You see, she has quite a reputation as a fudge maker and as a consequence our baker petitioned us the other night to make a date for Lois to teach him how to make fudge. He had all the things essential for making it, but unfortunately tonight, we find that there is no chocolate in the hospital area, so it has to be put off for another day.

            Our baker, Ehrbacher, incidentally, is quite a character. He is a Swede and if that wasn’t enough to make him difficult to understand, God was unkind enough to have given him a speech defect, so one has a devil’s own time trying to understand him. When he’s had a little vino – well, you can just imagine. But he is a swell baker.

Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter on
September 21


Fran Trembley, Hal Williams and Lois McFarland enjoying the Red Cross Clubhouse at the Beach in Palermo




Pete Williams, Rudolfo (bartender), Bret Smart, George Arminini and Bob Treadwell at the bar at the 59th Evac’s Officers’ Club




Marv Hodgson, René and Cy Kiernan at the Officers’ Club




George Davis, Sewell Brown, Pete Joseph, Russell Klein and Eddie Welles enjoying the 59th Evac Unit’s Officers’ Club



September 18, 1943 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René on September 18, 1943, so we will keep up on the news of the 59th thanks to some excerpts from the journal of Dr. Phil Westdahl.





 

            We have been quite busy during these past few weeks. Our highest peak was about 1200 patients, about 3/4 of which were medical cases. We are still seeing a goodly amount of malaria and also sand fly or pappataci fever. This latter disease is characterized by abrupt onset of fever, which climbs to about 103 and occasionally to 104-105 and usually remains for 3 days. During this time the patient complains of headache, backache, pain on moving eyes and pains in arms and legs. Patients are uncomfortable for 2-3 days and then feel quite well. Treatment is purely symptomatic.

            The surgical side is for the most part doing the same elective surgery we had at Casablanca, acting in the capacity of a station hospital. Occasionally a bomb explosion or other accident in the vicinity brings a rush of traumatic work.

            As for extra-curricular activities – the town of Palermo is really coming to life these days. The streets are crowded with returning civilians and soldiers and sailors, British and U.S. on pass. Hundreds of little shops are opening and as usual the gullible souvenir-hunting Americans are paying tremendous prices for worthless junk. On practically every street we see families digging the brick and plaster debris out of their homes, if they may be called that. We had a terrific cloud burst the other night and I shudder to think what those poor people went through. Hardly a house in town has any semblance of a roof.

            Took a walk into more remote parts of town at the foot of the surrounding mountains and saw families living in the worst poverty I have known to date. Actually as bad as the filthy overcrowded Arab villages in Africa. Many families are living in natural caves on the sides of river banks. I met one character who had been living thusly for 5 years who greeted us in fairly good American. We learned he had lived in New York 10 years ago. Came to Italy at that time and because of antifascist ideas was imprisoned in Italy for 5 years. Then came to Palermo to his cave where he has spent the past 5 years.

.

Watch for René’s next letter on
September 21


Patients in the 59th Evac Hospital receive care. Note Nurse Gert Brazil in the right hand corner of the frame, lighting a patient’s cigarette.




Bombed buildings in Palermo




Palermo street scene