January 1, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René, but on January 1, 1944, Dr. Philip Westdahl takes stock of what the 59th has accomplished since they set up their unit in Casablanca in January 1943. He notes that the largest group of medical cases treated were: (1) malaria, (2) hepatitis and (3) diarrhea. He also reflects on the patients they cared for in November and December 1943 in Sicily, and what they told him about the fighting in Italy.

 




        During the very cold months, November and December, we had hundreds of boys coming back from Italy with severe cases of trench foot. Their tales of the hardships on the line were terrific and I had the greatest respect for them. Most of them had been exposed to a continuous cold rain for several days at a time unable to even remove their shoes. If they did take their shoes off their feet swelled immediately and became numb, blue and often developed blisters. By the time we saw them, usually after 3-4 days, most of the swelling had subsided, but a few had obvious gangrene of 1 or more toes and all could not bear any weight because of pain. Most of them felt better when their feet were left uncovered, but this symptom varied. In some instances as many as 10% of a company were thus disabled.

        These boys described the fighting in Italy as extremely difficult. Apparently the Germans had plenty of time to dig in and even their fox holes were covered by concrete. Their guns were concealed in caves on the hillside and the front concreted in and made to resemble the surrounding rock. The gun was fired through openings in the concrete, which were covered over after firing, thereby making their discovery almost impossible.

        The fighting was all on mountainsides and when our boys would eventually rout the Germans out of one mountain they would retire to fixed positions on another to the rear. As they retreated they mined almost every inch of the terrain, making it terrifically difficult for our boys to advance.

        The German artillery had their guns fixed to fire on all important zones and roads so that they could fire without having to see where their shells landed. The casualties on both sides were high. Our boys had to rely on transporting their equipment, food and ammunition up the mountain at night by mule-back and usually the last 1/3 of the way by foot. Mechanized equipment was out of the question.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
January 8

[Click each to enlarge] Categories of admissions and totals by the 59th Evac. Hospital in 1943 in Casablanca and Palermo.

 





From “Up Front” by Bill Maudlin



January 8, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

January 8, 1944
No. 71 (continued)

Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,

            The trip with the boys was quite a success. We took just one truck and there were 14 boys and myself. Left here at 6:30 A.M. on Monday and returned at 2 A.M. on Thursday, all rather tired but having had a fine time. We visited primarily, Catania, Taormina, and Messina, going through the heart of the island and then using the coastal route at night, for we knew that the latter road was O.K. except for the places where there were supposed to be bridges and then there weren’t any. The interior of the island is interesting primarily because of the type of towns that they have. They are all built on the tops of mountains, as if they were started from the top down, and when you come upon them from a distance they have the appearance of gray ice-cream cones. Some of the towns are even built right out of the rock itself — the houses dug into the rock, i.e. carved out of the solid rock. Most of these towns are pretty small, population probably from a few hundred to a thousand, but they are not very far separated from each other. When they built these towns they had no idea that they would ever run a highway through them, for the main road goes through what seems to be the narrowest of narrow passageways. With a jeep it would be O.K., but with a 2-1/2 ton truck it is another story. We were very glad that we hadn’t taken the trailer along as the other boys did the week before.

            There were some spots where we had to take the truck through rivers and we wondered at times whether we were going to have to dig ourselves out of the center of the river, but it never actually came to that. We brought our own rations along, but managed to only have to cook one full meal and two breakfasts, doing a bit of chiseling here and there for some of the rest and also eating in some of the better Sicilian spots. While in Catania, we ran into a Sicilian who came from Boston, and he gave us the lowdown on some places, so we managed to have a couple of good meals there.

              We got to Messina just in time to see Italy across the straits, for the weather closed in on us and it started to pour, so soon you couldn’t see very far at all. It is really a very short distance from Messina across to Italy — just about like crossing the Bay to Oakland. On the way home we came through all kinds of weather — rain, hail, and snow, but we managed to do all right and arrived safely. We were certainly lucky as far as the weather was concerned for those first 2-1/2 days were just perfect — rather on the cool side, especially when we got near Mt. Etna and the wind came tearing down off its snowy slopes, but we were never really too cold. Of course, we all had been forewarned and wore our woollies, upper and lowers. I made good use of those wool gloves that you sent.

                                                                               Loads of love,

rene-transparent

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Watch for the rest of this letter on
January 9, 1944


René (standing on the running board) and 14 enlisted men take a 2-1/2 ton truck on a 3-day road trip from Palermo through the center of Sicily to visit Messina, Taormina and Catania.




Hill-top town in the distance.






Eddie Accamando cooks up some “C” rations (above) and the gang joins the chow line (below).



Standing are: Charlie Weistenberg “Weisty,” Sparks, Wy Wyzogski, Wilson, Bill Gratopp, Harold Heinzerling, Anderson, René and Bob Jones with Accomando seated.




They have to stop the truck on a descent because of a “cart & stubborn horse” at the creek crossing. (Shown below)




January 9, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

January 9, 1944
No. 71 (conclusion)

Palermo, Sicily

Dear Folksies,

            We spent a full day and two nights in Catania and had fun wandering around the town during the daytime. I had figured that the boys would enjoy themselves and do better by going off in groups of twos or threes, but strangely enough we all ended up in one big group for most of the day. I really was lucky in having a swell group with me. I had two of the boys from the Mess Dept., one of whom (Eddie) talks Italian like a native. Well he should with the name Accomando – and he kept us in hysterics the whole trip with his talking to the natives and trying to get the best for us at all times. Besides those tho, I had Wy and Weistenberg from Supply, a couple of the guards, my ward sgt., the sgt. and cpl. of the guard (both of them swell boys) and Al Querhammer – one of the sgts. in surgery.

            Taormina is a very interesting and historic spot. It is situated on the top of a hill like practically all the other towns, but it is on the coast and is very picturesque with some interesting Greek ruins, including an amphitheater. We spent a few hours there and the boys wished that we could accidentally have the truck break down so that we could stay there longer.

           Recently the boys have organized a basketball team, and as the Navy has a good gym, they have been able to go down and practice occasionally and have some games with a few of the many teams that are around. The boys did fine despite the Christmas and New Year’s spirit that was prevalent, and won their first two games. The third game was against a team that boasted of being the best team in the area and in fact they had organized a tournament to prove it. But, no, our boys weren’t good enough to get into the tournament, soooo, what happens the other night when, as a fill in, we played that team? Yes, the boys beat the pants off them — well, not literally, but the score was 24 to 17 and their manager made a quick disappearing act after the game, as he had boasted so much prior to the game. As a consequence, we hunted them up the next day, and after considerable arguing, I got the boys into the tournament. It should prove interesting.

                                                                                            Loads of love,

rene-transparent

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Watch for my next letter on
January 10, 1944


Maidens, Eddie Accomando, and Jones posing in front of a statue in Catania.




Harold Heinzerling in Catania.




Sam Anderson, Maidens and Eddie Accomando in Taormina.




Greek Amphitheater in Taormina




René and the guys at the Greek Amphitheater in Taormina.




Wy Wyzogski, René, Harold Heinzerling, Charlie Weistenberg, and Wilson at the Greek Amphitheater in Taormina.




Taormina with Mt. Etna in the background.



January 10, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

January 10, 1944
Not numbered

Dear Dad,

        Knowing you as I do I sort of imagine that you have been doing a bit of thinking about the underlying reasons for my admittedly rotten correspondence in the last three and a half weeks. I’ve not only written so little in quantity but I know that the quality has been way below par, and I have been hearing that fertile mind of your going round and round, even way over here. Perhaps you have been on the wrong track, but perhaps you have touched on the right one, at least in a passing fashion, so that what I have to say may not be the shock to you all as it was to me.

        I could have written days ago, but somehow I didn’t believe what was going on and felt that it was all imagination, a passing thing, etc., but I guess I was wrong. The blunt fact is that Lois has told me that she doesn’t love me anymore and that it is all off. Or rather, to be more exact, she believes that she was only kidding herself all along and that she didn’t know what love was, and consequently was never actually in love at all. She said that she had thought about it for months and never had had the guts to reach a decision and act, but finally she did, just before Xmas.

        I had had no inkling of what was going on in her mind and as a consequence was totally unprepared for what she told me that morning. For that matter, it’s been a great shock to most of the men of the detachment, from all I have heard, for, in an outfit like this, such things really get around in rapid-fire fashion.

        When she started going out with others the stories started spreading, just as we knew they would. It’s been awful trying to break the habits I’d gotten into – waiting for her to eat, seeing her every night, etc., etc., too numerous to enumerate. We had sort of become a tradition of some sort to the men (that isn’t quite the word I mean, but I think you know what I mean), and things have now become pretty unbearable for her. As a consequence she is going to attempt to transfer. She hopes to get into the U.C. Unit if possible and as the request for transfer has to come from that end, she is going to wait for that to come after writing to them. Consequently nothing has been said to the Col. or others about her desire to transfer. Liz wants to go with her if it is possible – i.e. to the U.C. unit, partially to be with Lois and also, probably more important, to be with the fellow she is engaged to who at the moment is located near the U.C. gang.

        It’s too difficult, and only like turning the knife in me to put down here how I feel, but suffice it to say that I still have hopes that when this bloomin’ mess of a war is over, things will straighten themselves out and she will realize that perhaps she wasn’t just “acting” for the last year and a half. For, though she “didn’t know what love was” I know I have, and my feelings haven’t changed from what they have been for that year and a half.

        Being way over here it is awfully hard to say anything to folks back home, and I don’t know how to do it or if to do it at all. Whether ‘tis better to just ignore things written concerning her, or what to do I know not. Please advise! About the only one I feel able to say anything to is Therese – the S.F.’ers I shall leave up to you, unless you tell me otherwise.

        I only wish that you had been here during the last weeks – it would have made things much easier and all the problems would have been straightened out in your usual fashion – but you’re not here and we’re not there, soooo.

        I don’t envy you the position I’ve placed you in when you go home with this letter, but I’m sorry I can’t do better.

                                                                                            Loads of love,

rene-transparent

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Watch for the response from René Sr.
on January 20, 1944

January 15, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René today, so here’s an excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl, dated January 15, 1944…

 




            We were greatly shocked by the sudden death of one of our nurses — a most popular and previously healthy girl. She complained of a headache somewhat suggestive of migraine, which became so severe that she was sent into the ward to rest and be quiet. During the following week she noticed a transient numbness of her left arm, which disappeared the following day. For the next few days she felt quite well. Suddenly one night she had a sudden loss of consciousness with respiratory failure and all efforts to revive her proved futile and she expired. She was later found to have a brain tumor with secondary hemorrhage, so it was truly a blessing that she passed away so suddenly.

            She was greatly loved by all who knew her and as a consequence her military funeral was very touching. All officers, nurses and men attended in dress uniform. Flowers were heaped upon the flag-draped coffin as well as the altar. After the service the men lined the halls and staircase standing at attention while the honorary pallbearers, guard of honor and all officers and nurses followed behind.

            I’m sure that many eyes besides my own were filled with emotional tears.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
January 21


Funeral service for nurse Violet Bennicks



January 18, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René today, but here is the letter that Lois wrote to René’s parents on January 18, 1944.
{Click on the letter to enlarge.}

The notation in the upper left corner indicates that it was received in San Francisco on January 27 – a week after René’s father penned his response to René’s January 10th letter telling his father that Lois had broken up with him. And while Lois refers to their “engagement,” they were, in fact, married.

P.S. We don’t know who added the underlining.


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Watch for René’ next letter
January 21, 1944


Lois and René in happier times.