May 28, 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 about what the 59th was up to on May 28, 1944.




            Shortly after noon on May 28rd, we steamed out of Palermo harbor on a Liberty ship as part of a small convoy accompanied by special sub-chasers, a comfort to all aboard. We weren’t sure of our destination, but felt that it would be Naples. We couldn’t have asked for a more calm or uneventful voyage and at about 9 o’clock on May 29th passed between the Isle of Capri and the Italian mainland and entered the harbor of Naples.

       I had no regrets about leaving Palermo. We had been comfortable, to be sure, but quite out of the war for many months. It was a decided relief to get out on the water away from the filth and squalor so characteristic of Sicily. Even though the valley and mountains looked beautiful from the ship, the unpleasantness of the city itself stood foremost in my mind as Sicily.

       Capri was a disappointment, as we passed it about a mile or two off shore. It arose abruptly out of the sea, quite mountainous on its southern shore. On the north there was an inlet with the more populated section of the isle sloping down to the shore. From this casual observation it held none of the romance with which it has always been associated. 

       As we came closer to Naples, Vesuvius became more distinct through the haze which overhung the harbor. A faint cloud of smoke was slowly rising from the crater, quite in contrast to the eruption several weeks ago. I began to feel at this point that I had had enough of world traveling. When this war is over and I am back with Georgia and Laurie, I shall be content to stay in California for the rest of my days.

       As Naples itself came more clearly into view, I was impressed by its size, being much larger than I anticipated. The harbor was quite crowded, with many ships lying out in the bay waiting to unload. Several ships lay partially sunk or turned on their side at the wharves, and many of the latter (those on their side) were being used to unload cargo upon. We tied up along-side of one, a former Italian hospital ship that had been scuttled by the retreating Germans.

          The buildings adjacent to the waterfront had the familiar hollow appearance of bombed buildings, but in contrast to Palermo, were not leveled to the ground in  many areas. It’s strange, but this has become an almost normal sight by now, and we look upon destruction with a peculiar casualness. The city rose gradually from the waterfront on a rather low hill, church steeples being a prominent feature of the skyline. On the whole, the buildings were much larger than those in Sicily, although not very high.  We were whisked through town in a truck convoy so that my observation was quite brief. I gathered a quick impression that, as a whole, the streets were wider and cleaner than those in Palermo, and a greater percentage of them were paved. The civilians also looked cleaner and better clothed. There was less outward evidence of destruction in the portions of the city away from the harbor. I am certain that my impressions would be altered by a more extensive survey.

        Activity was at a great height with trucks zooming to and from the waterfront and through the city. The streets were crowded with civilians and soldiers. It was particularly interesting to see the various types of uniforms – American, British, South Africans with their red distinguishing shoulder insignia, Australians with their broad-brimmed hats turned up on one side, Ghoumies in their striped robes and turbans, French Africans with their red fez, Frenchmen, Italians – all these made up the Allied forces fighting in Italy.

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June 5, 1944

During the 261 days that the 59th Evac Hospital was located in Palermo, they performed a total of 2,078 surgical cases – for an average of 7.96 cases per day. On October 23, 1943, their surgeons performed 21 cases –  the greatest number of procedures in a 24-hour period while stationed in Palermo.




Dr. Westdahl was not impressed by the island of Capri – as he saw it from about a mile or two off shore. Maybe he would have been more impressed if he had seen it from the air.




As they came closer to Naples, Vesuvius became more distinct.




Several ships lay partially sunk or turned on their side in the Naples harbor.



May 29, 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 about what the 59th was up to on May 29, 1944 — including details René can’t tell his parents because his letters are subject to censorship in ways that Phil’s journal is not.




            We left Naples behind us and headed out into the country in a northerly direction. The countryside was quite beautiful at this time of year, all of the fields green and well cared for. It almost seemed as though we were riding through the Santa Clara Valley. Except for occasional groups of British and American troops bivouaced along the way and the destruction of bridges and small towns, there was little evidence of war; no wrecked tanks and guns such as we saw south of Catania, Sicily.

       We crossed the now famous Volturno River where a railroad bridge was down. The small villages along the way showed evidence of a terrific shelling or bombing. Most of the buildings were a mass of plaster and shattered building-stone. Even a single building in a field, probably a former command post, would be hollowed or crumbled. Yet the civilians had returned and were doing their best to reconstruct their homes.

       Activity along the road was at a peak, a continuous stream of trucks, guns and equipment heading for the front; everyone seemed to be on the move. 

       Along the way we were stopped for a few minutes by a traffic jam up ahead and found ourselves along side a few truck loads of German prisoners. I was impressed by their youth, most of them appearing to be in their teens. They seemed not unhappy and had none of the arrogance of the German prisoners we took care of back at Casablanca during the Tunisian campaign. I later verified this by a tough sergeant, an American casualty whom I talked to at the 616th holding hospital. There was also a truck load of civilian casualties, men, women and children, who were a pitiful looking lot. One man was holding the stump of his amputated leg with an expression of painful patience; another man lay in the bottom of the truck with an amputated arm and looked very bad. We were suddenly, in that short stop of a few minutes, brought very close to the reality of war once again.

 

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 5, 1944


Volturno River with one of its bombed bridges (above). Shown below as it was under reconstruction.




May 30, 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 with his observations of the 616th hospital where the 59th is temporarily bivouaced on May 30, 1944.




            The 616th was acting as a holding hospital just a mile away from the advance point of the hospital train that took patients to the hospitals in the Naples area. The patients had received their primary treatment at hospitals closer to the front and were held at the 616th overnight and loaded on the train the following morning.

         The second day we were there the 616th received about 1000 casualties, most of whom were Americans, but also many Ghoumies and French Africans and an occasional German prisoner. One of these German prisoners was looking forward to being sent to the United States and inquired about getting a job there after the war, and sending for his wife and baby.

        The wounds varied all the way from minor superficial shell fragment woulds to severe compound fractures, chest wounds and abdominal woulds with colostomies.

       When one realizes that 1000 patients a day are coming through this one hospital, it immediately becomes apparent that it is a terrific problem to keep up an army on the fighting front. It will be at least 2 weeks before even the minor wounded cases are back in the fight, and the majority will be out for a period of months. An American graveyard in the vicinity serves as a grim reminder that many of our boys don’t even reach the hospital. Life becomes much too cheap in this game of war. I can’t help thinking of the thousands of families whose dreams for the future are completely shattered in one brief moment.

      The Ghoumies are an amusing group. They fight for the love of fighting and the money they are paid, as well as the valuables they can pick off their victims. It was hard to keep even the badly wounded ones in bed – they insist on hobbling to the mess line with their blood soaked bandages from head to foot. They describe their fighting with gestures similar to a ten-year-old boy playing cops and robbers. They love to imitate machine guns mowing down the Germans. We can surely be glad that they are fighting with us rather than against us.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 5, 1944


Moroccan Goumiers – were soldiers who served in auxiliary units attached to the French Army of Africa and served under French offices. During World War II, they fought in Italy and France.

Dr. Westdahl says that the “‘Ghoumies’ are an amusing group.”





May 31, 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 with his comments about visiting Gaeta and Formia with Chuck Schwartz on or about May 31, 1944.




           While waiting for our equipment to catch up with us at Sessa, Chuck Schwartz and I took a side jaunt up toward the front as far as Formia and Gaeta. We rode along the Appian Way and witnessed nothing but destruction over every mile. The retreating Jerries had done a very thorough job of destroying every bridge and every foot of railroad. The rails were twisted and bent and even the ties were blown out of the roadbed.

            Our engineers were doing a marvelous job of restoring the bridges and clearing the highway so that there remained very little obstruction to motor traffic. It was truly gratifying to see the equipment they used and the efficiency with which they operated it – huge bulldozers, scrapers, tractors, steam-shovels, cranes, portable sections for steel bridges. One realizes fully the tremendous problems of supply and engineer that go to make up an efficient war machine.

            Most of the civilians in Gaeta were quite friendly, a reaction which we couldn’t quite understand or reconcile with the bombing and shelling which we presumed the allies must have administered to their town. Upon closer observation, however, we noticed that most of the destruction was confined to the street of houses adjoining the waterfront, and was far too uniform and complete to have been done by either shelling or bombing. The mystery was solved by one of the local civilians who explained that the ”Tedesci” had dynamited these buildings. The mass of plaster, steel and splintered building blocks formed an imposing defensive wall about 15 to 20 feet high and 20 feet long along almost the entire waterfront. Atop this wall the Germans had strung barbed wrie entanglements on which were hanging wooden signs: “Achtung! Attention! Mines!”

     AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory) was already functioning in Gaeta. British officials were supervising the unloading of flour, canned milk and a few other food essentials from small fishing schooners tied up to the remaining wharves. Here and there carts piled high with freshly baked bread could be seen leaving a makeshift bakery or proceeding to the distribution points where long lines of men, women and children waited patiently for their ration. All was done quite orderly. The bread carts squeaked easily through the streets unmolested by the civilians, quite in contrast to the early days in Sicily. The people waiting in line seemed contented, chatting and smiling most of the time.

            A large scraper operated by an American GI engineer was busily scraping the plaster and bricks from the streets and the men, women and children of the town were busy sweeping out their little homes and even the adjoining sidewalk and street – a thing unheard of in Sicily, and extremely gratifying to us as onlookers. We left Gaeta far more optimistic about post-war conditions in Italy than we ever dreamed of from our observations in Sicily.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 5, 1944


Dr. Westdahl is surprised that most of the civilians he and Chuck Schwartz encountered in the countryside were “quite friendly.”




June 3, 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 about one morning during their stay in Sessa – perhaps June 3, 1944.




         One morning during our stay in Sessa, we became aware of a continuous and gradually increasing drone approaching overhead from the direction of Naples and heading in a northwesterly direction. Here was one of the tremendous formations of Fortresses and Liberators of which we had so often heard and read of, on its way to a target which we later learned was Toulon.

         Wave after wave of them flew over during a half hour period, a terrifically impressive sight. It was difficult to make an accurate count because some of the squadrons were far to the east or west, but there were in the neighborhood of 900 in all. A few formations of P-38 Lightnings accompanied them.

         During the next hour, an occasional lone bomber returned – presumably due to engine or other difficulty. It wasn’t till four hours later that the great mass of them began to return, some in formations such as came over earlier, but many in smaller groups. We couldn’t help but wonder how many “of our bombers failed to return.”

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 5, 1944


Dr. Westdahl describes seeing “tremendous formations of Fortresses and Liberators” flying overhead while they were bivouaced at Sessa.




And on the ground…Roy Cohn bathing in a field during the 59th’s stay at Sessa.



June 6, 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 about their journey to and arrival at Anzio on June 6, 1944 — the same day as the Allied Invasion of Normandy — D-Day.




       On June 6, we headed for Anzio by truck convoy. Traveling along Route #7, the famous Appian Way, we passed through Formia, Fondi, Terracina, Littoria and finally came into the now famous beach head at Nettuna. All of these cities were in complete ruins. It almost made us sick to the stomach to see the terribly wasteful destruction that is part of war. Without seeing it first hand one can never fully appreciate the full significance of the destructive aspect of war.

       There was very little destroyed war equipment along the route, undoubtedly due to the rapid, but orderly, retreat by the Germans. Here and there a destroyed tank, truck or gun could be seen.

       Everywhere the engineers were busily repairing railroads and bridges and the signal corps was attempting to restore the power lines.

       Finally we reached the beach head and I must say I have never seen a more impressive sight. Only now can I fully appreciate what these men have been through. Here is a narrow stretch of flat land surrounded by hills from which the German artillery could see every move of the troops on the beach. This was the target of the famous “Anzio Express,” a 175 mm, self-propelled cannon that was responsible for so much of the pounding of the beach head. We saw this gun in the ordinance yard when we came in – it had been captured intact on May 29. 

       The most remarkable sight was to see the way that everyone and everything was “dug in.” Even the hospitals were all partially below ground with gunnysack barricades over the roofs of the surgical tents. The hospital personnel all slept in dug-outs within their pyramidal tents, also covered by sacks of sand.

       Even trucks and ambulances were driven in to dug-outs at night or when not in use. We were told of numerous instances in which shells had landed within the hospital area and personnel, including officers and nurses and patients, were killed. The 95th Evac. was pulled off the beach head because of a direct hit. It was after this that the hospitals were dug-in and with this protection no further deaths occurred, except by an occasional direct hit.

       All hospitals, ambulance and clearing companies were centered in one area about a mile square. These included the 3rd Division Medical and many Evac Hospitals, including the 15th, with Bert Halter, whom we saw during our first week at Nettuno. Another was the 38th Evac, which we replaced.

       Bert looks fine and give us a most interesting account of what they had been through. They had done a tremendous amount of work and taken a terrific pounding. The general feeling of the medical officers was one of not wanting any further front-line work, and here we were dying to get into it. The situation was no help to our already lowered morale to think that we came in after it was all over and were once again to be left sitting behind.

       We had a short and uneventful air-raid on the night of our arrival.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 11, 1944


Dr. Westdahl describes seeing “the famous ‘Anzio Express,’ – a 175mm, self-propelled cannon that was responsible for so much of the pounding of the beach head [by the Germans].”





Dr. Westdahl said that the “most remarkable sight was to see the way that everyone and everything was ‘dug in.'” René took this picture when they were getting ready to leave Anzio…after the tents had been taken down…to show how things had been dug in.



June 9, 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 about their early days at Anzio – June 8 and June 9, 1944.




       On June 8, we started receiving patients by the carload figuratively, the majority of which were battle casualties being evacuated from forward hospitals. Most of these poor boys were exhausted by their repeated ambulance rides and transferal from cot to litter to ambulance to litter to cot. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil in order to keep the forward hospitals empty enough to receive new casualties. Ours is their last top till they reach the base hospitals in Naples.

         Most of our patients leave the following day by air or L.S.T. The latter is a 12-hour boat ride. This will continue until air fields and water ports can be secured up ahead, from which evacuation direct to Naples will be available. In due time, the base hospitals will be moved to Rome.

         The patients coming through include our own boys, primarily, but also British, French and French colonials, and German prisoners. The latter are mostly youngsters from 17 to 20 years.

         Actual battle casualties consisted of every possible known battle injury. Shell fragment wounds outnumbered the gunshot wounds almost 2 to 1. A moderate number of arm and leg amputations were encountered, a good many of these caused by mine explosions. Several civilians, men and women and children, had met this fate.

         We also had a sudden influx of fresh casualties from air raids and mine injuries in the immediate vicinity, which kept surgery busy from early morning to darkness.

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Watch for René’s next letter on
June 11, 1944


Anzio hospital from the air.