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

August 18, 1944
Southern France

No. 41 (conclusion)

Dear Folksies,

          I’m sitting in our tent in a dustless field, between two small vineyards containing rather luscious red and green grapes. The owner of our present area, and very happy to have us here, is a French physician who has been enjoying himself making rounds in our wards and in surgery most of the day.

          Have just finished a rather strenuous 24 hours working steadily from 10 P.M. to 2:30 A.M. last night and from 8:00 A.M. to 7:30 P.M. today. Last night I was giving anesthetics for most everyone and today only for Roy or Chuck. In fact, gave an intra-tracheal for Roy on a lung case today – the first I have given and ‘twas most successful.

          I am anesthetist for our surgical team attached to this other Evac.  And ‘tho I’m not at all keen on anesthesia, it has been more than worth it to come on this deal. We got some pretty good cases today and we actually did one-quarter of the cases done today.

         We have realized the glaring differences between us and this outfit, which incidentally was the first Evac. Hospital set up and taking patients in Southern France — beating the others by 24 hours. They have a great deal less equipment than we do, and have a Colonel who is not regular Army, and who considers himself and staff primarily as doctors rather than Army puppets.

         Another difference is that each department works together and there are not a whole bunch of potential bosses, all wanting their stuff done first or changing the ideas or orders of others as has happened in our unit. This place was set up and functioning in a matter of a few hours and they are a little more than half as large as we are. The big difference in surgery, the reason they handle so many patients in such a short time – is the fact that, except for belly cases, brain cases or a big chest case, they drape with nothing but a few hand towels and their cleaning of the patient before draping is considerably less than we are used to. But, of course, we’ve never had to rush like they do. It certainly isn’t that they’re better or faster surgeons, for they are not, but the time saved in lack of extensive drapes and super-cleaning of the areas not close to the wound, accounts for the rapid turnover they have in their surgery.

         The men in this outfit are very nice, particularly their Chief of Surgery, Lt. Col. Frank Patterson. The average age is coincidentally older than in our gang, but despite that, we have 11 men who are members of the American Board of Surgery, while they have but 3 – that’s the way with most all these outfits. Ours is younger and better trained as a group.

         Today’s another day, 7:15 A.M. – have already worked 2-1/2 hours this morning and just finished eating. We’re waiting for this operating room to be cleaned up, following the accumulation from the night’s work. This gang really gets the work to do! We’re enjoying it and Roy’s even champing at the bit because we have to wait this half an hour more.

                                                                                        Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
August 20, 1944


René, Roy Cohn, Paul Stratte and Chuck Schwartz are working in surgery with the first Evac. Hospital that to be set up and taking care of patients in Southern France.




Above: Clint Green, Bill Kioski and Chuck Davis on D-Day
Below: Clint Green, Chuck Davis and Bill Kioski — once they have had a chance to dry off and get dressed.




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August 19, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

No letter from René on August 19, 1944 – the day the Liberation of Paris begins – but here’s a heart-breaking excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl.




         On August 18, I had one of the greatest shocks of my life. Arriving back in the staging area, I saw a letter lying on my bed-roll. The handwriting on the envelope looked strangely familiar, even from a distance. On closer observation it was my own, and observing my brother Dick’s name and address to whom I had addressed this letter I also saw the Army stamp indicating return to the sender. My first reaction was one of impatience with the Army postal system for not having forwarded the letter to Dick even though he may not be with his unit. What I then saw made me sick and weak and puzzled. To the left of the stamp, written in long-hand and signed by an infantry captain was the single, unmistakable word “DECEASED” [followed by] “7-17-44”.

       All I could say was “NO! IT CAN’T BE!” I sat down on my bed roll and stared at the letter, I don’t know how long, trying to piece things together before I could believe what I saw. At the end of that time, I was still bewildered and even at this writing, [two] days later, I am still trying to believe that there must be some error.

       [Since I received the letter,] I have been living in another world. I have recalled all the memories of my dear brother Dick as I remember him in the past, from the times we used to indulge in brotherly childhood fights to the last time I saw him in Carmel, when he had dinner with Georgia and me. I shall always treasure the picture we took that day. Dick and I had grown very fond of each other, as could plainly be felt from our letters to each other during these past two years. How we did look forward to the happy times we would have together after this war!

      Susan and Georgia shared our plans and in my last letter from Susan, she mentioned plans for a reunion on the ranch. How I feel for dear Susan and our dear Mother. They have both been so brave and cheerful through all of this, knowing that Dick was wounded and perhaps at any time would be back in the midst of battle, where an infantry sergeant’s life is in the hands of fate from one moment to the next.

      Words can never tell how proud I am and always will be of my dear brother. He had so much to live for and yet, like so many thousands of our boys, went into battle and gave his life willingly and with the pride of a man doing his duty for his country.

      Oh Lord, grant that those boys may not have given their lives in vain. Grant that those human beings who live on in this world may see the selfishness of their personal wants and make it their individual and collective responsibility to avoid another repetition of this horrible mess we are going through today. Grant that those who represent the world of nations at the peace table may be BIG enough to be guided by the unselfish principles of true Christianity.
 

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Watch for René’s next letter on
August 20, 1944

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August 20, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

August 20, 1944
Southern France

No. 42

Dear Folksies,

            ‘Tis Sunday and looks as if it is going to be a day of rest alright for us – which means that in a very short while we will probably start out for a hike around the country-side or perhaps find George Davis, who we understand is only a matter of a few miles from us.

           We’ve done a lot of work in the last 48 hours – mostly on Germans, thank goodness, and actually we’ve done 1/8 of the total amount of surgery done in this hospital. And, note they started working 12 hours before they asked us to start. We’ve done 27 cases, have been working 33 out of the 48 hours. And, in that bunch, we’ve had 3 chest wounds, 3 bellys (one with lacerated liver, perforated duodenum, 7 perforations of small bowel and 3 larger perforations of transverse colon) 2 femurs and one amputation.

           Roy really cracks the whip – has a case all ready for the table while Chuck is serving up the last one. The longest case we had was 2 hours – most are 15 to 30 minutes in the actual doing. It’s been lots of fun.

           The 59th could do the work just as rapidly and more rapidly if they could ever forget their idea of drapes and everything to perfection – and if they had Roy driving them – but I doubt if they’ll do it with Mattie, as he isn’t the speed demon Roy is. Probably that is more the reason for the 59th being behind so far all this time – possibly more the reason than the Old Man. It’s sort of a vicious circle. In the time we’ve acted more as a station hospital, so maybe the higher-ups feel they should keep us back, as we’d never be able to handle the cases in a forward area. But maybe we shall soon see what they can do if they have to.

           Last night Helen Nelson, who had transferred to this unit from ours, arrived with the rest of the gals of the unit. The Col. of this outfit is giving her a free hand, as apparently he has been dissatisfied with his mess officer and requested a dietician primarily to give variety in the Officers’ and Nurses’ mess. Helen is thrilled so far, and seems to like the gals of this outfit.

           Helen came with news of more transfers from the 59th, including Chaplain Daib to an engineering outfit. After the Old Man and Daib locked horns a few times, the Old Man had turned against him and both got bitter against each other. So, they mutually agreed on only one thing – Daib’s leaving.

           The four of us (Roy, Chuck, Paul and I) are in a pyramidical tent together. And with the paucity of baggage we brought with us, we have oodles of room – however we have to do frequent washing, as we brought so little stuff to change into while washing one set of clothing.

             What a difference between Italy & France! This is civilization again!! People are spotless, towns and buildings are clean. The first nite we had beds of pine needles – and the whole atmosphere just cannot compare with Italy.

            Have talked to a couple of young Frenchmen – both in the area and the patients we’ve gotten – civilian patriots, fighters, etc. They’ve had very very little food – everything rationed and though certain things are listed on the ration tickets, they were unavailable anyway. Apparently, the bigger places were cleared out by the Germans some time ago, so goodness knows where Jeanne or David might be found when their town is taken. Incidentally, my French has at least been understandable, I’ve found, though my vocabulary is limited.

           Quite a storm the other night, but luckily we were under tents shortly before and our things (our few things) did not get wet.

                                                                                        Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
August 21, 1944


René tells his parents that they have done a lot of surgery in the last 48 hours — “mostly on Germans, thank goodness.”



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August 21, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

August 21, 1944
Southern France

No. 43

Dear Folksies,

        We continued very un-busy yesterday – Roy and Chuck went foraging in the nearby country-side, while Paul and I hitched a ride and went to a town some miles away to see if we could find George Davis and maybe bum a vehicle off of him. But we found he had not yet arrived, so after wandering around a little we got a ride back with our friend Bert Borem, a 2nd Lt. who runs the laundry outfit, which did some of our laundry (i.e. hospital laundry) in Sicily and is now doing it for this outfit.

         When we got back from our jaunt, we relaxed again and soon found ourselves fast asleep – no we didn’t sleep through meals!

          Last night the American Red Cross gals in this outfit dished out coca-colas, 2 apiece, but we managed to get 3 apiece. They had gotten them on the ship they came over on – a hospital ship. Boy, the cokes really tasted good!

          We had an interesting experience last night — never a dull moment in this outfit.  We saw a Piper-Cub pilot circle high above the hospital just at dark — apparently unable to land at a field some distance from here because of other activity nearby — fireworks.  So Chuck Schwartz and I got the idea that the poor guy could land in the rather narrow, but 100-yard-long area between the officers’ and nurses’ area.  We got everybody out with flashlights to mark the borders of this “field,” pulled up some posts that were in the way, and guided the plane in.  He over-shot a bit and clipped a wire we had over-looked, put on his brakes, spun around, and stepped out un-scathed.  He had a crack in his propeller and a dent in the plane, but otherwise O.K., and very happy to be on the ground. Never a dull moment!!

                                                                                        Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
August 23, 1944


René tells his parents about “an interesting experience last night” – involving a Piper Cub — maybe like the one pictured above.




René and Paul Stratte (pictured above) hitch a ride to town to see if they could find George Davis (pictured below) and “maybe bum a vehicle off of him.”




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August 22, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

While René, Paul Stratte, Roy Cohn and Chuck Schwartz landed on French soil on August 15, as part of Operation Dragoon, the rest of the 59th didn’t board ships in the Naples harbor until August 19 — with their convoy sailing on the evening of August 22, 1944. Here’s an excerpt from the journal of Dr. Philip Westdahl about life aboard his LST.




         Life on board an LST in convoy is far from enjoyable, consisting of boresome waiting between meals. The trip was as calm as a peace-time Mediterranean cruise. The guns were manned, but mostly as a precaution. Our third day out we sighted Sardinia and Corsica and sailed between them. They were outstanding for their barrenness and lack of interest. While in the straits we passed a hospital ship and a few naval vessels headed back to Naples. The clean white hospital ship with a wide green stripe running around its length and the Red Cross on its side is the only colorful ship we have seen these days — all the others being the drab dark gray of war-time.

           During the evenings we would watch the radar apparatus in operation, a really wonderful instrument. There on the luminous dial, standing out as small bright spots, was the position of every ship in the convoy with our own occupying the center of the screen. Collision even on the blackest or foggiest of nights is now a very remote possibility with this new device. Of course, the value in detecting enemy aircraft, ships or submarines is inestimable.     
 

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Watch for René’s next letter on
August 23, 1944


Philip Westdahl describes the hospital ship he sees, which probably looked like the one pictured above, but with the coloring (as he described) of the one pictured below.




August 23, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

August 23, 1944
Southern France

No. 44

Dear Folksies,

            Am sitting on a little rise in ground slightly above the new location for the hospital. As yet, no business, though our team was complimented by being the only outside team to be in the forward echelon.

             Had a nice ride through the countryside in the late afternoon and evening, and it certainly was a pleasure to be touring this country instead of Africa, Italy, etc.  It’s amazing how nice it is here, how peaceful the countryside appears and how clean and typically French the small towns are. Towns further from the coast apparently were not cleared like those right along the coast, and the people sit around the town square, doing their knitting, etc.

            Stopped in one town and everything seemed normal except for the scattered armed partisans and an occasional French girl with the American Invasion arm-band flag adorning her dress sleeve.

            Another sight for sore eyes has been the fields of true grass — lawns that have even better grass than the Merced Golf Club.  Which reminds me, one of the very first spots we saw was a very nice golf course.  If only we had clubs, and, of course, the time!

                                                                                        Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
August 24, 1944


Various types of “invasion arm-band flags” were worn by paratroopers during World War II to identify them as American forces. Because paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines they risked being mistaken for enemy soldiers by the main U.S. assault forces approaching over land. René says that while he was in a French town near where he was stationed, he saw “an occasional French girl with the American Invasion arm-band flag adorning her dress sleeve.” So, evidently some of the paratroopers gave their armbands to French girls.



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August 24, 1944 – 75 years ago in a WW2 M.A.S.H. Unit

August 24, 1944
Southern France

No. 45

Dear Folksies,

         Last night, under “Cohn‘s whip,” we again turned out the work, doing practically as much work at our one table as was done in the whole neighboring operating room of three tables and three teams.  Actually, we were working so fast and the other team in our operating room was doing O.K. by themselves, so between the two teams we kept the three tables going.

          We’ve done O.K. with all the best officers in this unit, and have been taken in as “one of them” far more so than have any of the other outside teams.  The Chiefs of the Services, and the Registrar particularly, come into our tent and sit down and talk at the drop of a hat.  Of course, the fact that Paul got ahold of a demijohn of very good French wine the second day here, and the darn thing doesn’t seem to have any bottom, may have had something to do with our popularity at the start, but truly they do seem to like us.  In fact, their Colonel asked Roy today whether he would like to “be lost” for a while — meaning that orders for us to return might be considered “too secret” to show us for several days, or maybe a week or so, after they are supposed to be executed.

          As long as this gang stays ahead of the 59th, we would like to stick for a good while — maybe the novelty will wear off, but so far we’ve been enjoying ourselves.  One nice thing is we have very little ward work to do — only our serious cases, such as bellies and chests.  And even then there is an assigned ward officer to their wards, so only a few things have to be done by us on even those few cases.  Of course, we follow our other cases if they are here long enough — but the work of filling out a lot of records is almost nil for us.

           Another good thing is that if there is only a relatively small amount of work, the surgical teams on call try to handle it all – of course, when the rush comes then all work. We worked all night last night – had a helluva time sleeping even 3 hours in the heat this morning. We went for an excursion this afternoon and unless a lot comes in, we won’t be called tonight. It works out pretty well.  Incidentally, we did 17 cases ourselves last night, including a long belly case.

          This afternoon, Paul, Chuck, Henry Work and I went to a nearby town and were greatly pleased with the reactions there.  We went into a bar, talked to a bunch of young and old Frenchmen, and when the proprietor refused to allow us to pay for the one drink we had of Vermouth, the only way we finally were able to pay him something was by buying drinks for all the Frenchmen there — some 10 or 12 of them.  They have certainly all been glad to see the last of the Germans — in fact, in that particular town the Machi are active.  They’ve been out hunting Germans and don’t take prisoners ordinarily!

          We heard there was a river nearby where we could go swimming, so we asked the men about it.  They told us where it was and then sort of as an after-thought told us not to go there, as there were a lot of Germans still in the hills nearby — but by 5P.M. it would be O.K.  We decided to listen to their advice, though we didn’t think their fears were warranted.  Paul and Chuck got haircuts and then we saw a group of the Armed Partisans coming into town.  We asked them about the swimming, and they said — yes, it was O.K. to go there now.

          It was swell swimming in fresh water — the last time I did, I believe, was in our trek across Africa 14 months ago.  The pool in the river was small, however, and not very good for swimming, but it cooled us off swell.  It was most refreshing, and we had some interesting conversations with a group of young men who were there.  One was a former Russian officer who had been in a German labor battalion and who, on D-Day, had shot, by himself, the three German officers stationed in the town.

          Yesterday, while we were standing around our tent, we suddenly saw three Germans come with hands up out from behind some brush that lies behind our row of tents. They were happy to be able to surrender to a hospital — were pitiful looking, without food for three days — unarmed, and glad the French didn’t get ahold of them.

          Wouldn’t you know, a goofy photographer would be here at the time.  She (yes, a she) made it look very dramatic.  She took pictures of the Colonel  searching them (Stratte in the background talking to one prisoner in German, in shorts and nothing more — and not swimming shorts either).  She got some other stupid shots also, which you may eventually see in “Lady’s Home Journal.”  The photographer, Jackie Martin, earlier had tried to get the ship’s captain not to use the pontoon bridges when the nurses de-barked so she could get pictures of them wading chest-high in water!  The nurses love her for that, of course — like poison!  Needless to say, the captain of the ship was far more sensible than to oblige.

                                                                                        Loads of love,

rene-transparent

.

Watch for my next letter
August 25, 1944


René tells his parents that three German soldiers surrendered to the unit he was stationed with and that a “goofy” photographer took photographs of the Colonel searching them — with Paul Stratte in the background, “in shorts and nothing more — and not swimming shorts either.” This isn’t a photograph of that scene, but one taken a week earlier — showing Paul in his shorts, with Tucker and Bob Simpson.




The photographer René mentions was Jackie Martin, who became the first female member of the White House News Photographers Association in 1942. During World War II she was the official photographer for America’s first female army, the WAAC – the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – evidently not the Ladies Home Journal, as René says. Jackie is shown above in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.



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