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,



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 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.


Watch for René’s next letter on
January 21

Funeral service for nurse Violet Bennicks

April 1, 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, written around April 1, 1944…


April 1, 1944

             During March several groups of officers took recreational trips around the island of Sicily. Chuck Schwartz and I took the trip together, which included five days. We started east along the northern coast passing through many of the former scenes of the Sicilian campaign.

            Hardly a railroad or vehicle bridge was left intact by the retreating Germans. Here and there along the coast a beached landing craft gave evidence of “end-run” invasion tactics. Strafed and burned railroad cars littered the stations and disabled tanks lined the streets, both our own and those of the enemy. It made me feel just a little weak in the stomach to realize that some of our boys who manned those tanks will never return to their native land. An American military cemetery near San Stefano also brought forth the same feeling, multiplied many fold.

            Most of the northern coast is quite beautiful. The shoreline in all but a few areas is rock and steep and the mountains rise abruptly a short distance back from the water’s edge. It was quite a thrill to sight the toe of Italy across the Strait of Messina, most similar in appearance to looking over at Sausalito from San Francisco.

            We took a short side-trip over to Reggio in Italy, an act that precipitated a familiar question on the part of the British Captain in charge of the over-burdened transportation facilities, “Say, don’t you American chaps know there’s a war on?” I must confess I felt somewhat ashamed. Reggio was little different from Sicilian towns – a little cleaner perhaps, in the sections we saw. Oxen seem to have replaced the familiar little burro of Sicily.

            Messina is quite a beautiful town in the modern section, with wide spacious streets and fine looking buildings. However, the older sections are typically filthy and crowded. The waterfront area and railroad yards are practically leveled by bombs. As usual, the Fascist state buildings and the churches are by far the most pretentious.

         From Messina (the highlight of which was White Horse Scotch at 7 lire a drink at the British Officers Quarters) we drove south along the east coast to Taormina, a beautiful little resort town set high on the rocky sea shore with a beautiful view of Mt. Etna.

            Farther south we passed through Catania, now under British control, as is the entire east coast. It is interesting that our Italian “co-belligerants” in this area wear British uniforms. It was truly good for the soul to see that Uncle Sam is not the only Santa Claus in this crazy world, and quite surprising I might add.

            Just south of Catania in the low level fields there are innumerable relics of the now well-known battle for Catania – tanks, German “88” guns, abandoned enemy equipment of various types. From Catania we drove on to Syracuse. The country in this part of the island is much more favorable to agriculture than in the north. Orange, lemon, olive and almond orchards stretch for miles over low rolling foothills. Along the coast we could see numerous large convoys making their way to Italy.

            Syracuse was notable for its historic Greek Theater, Roman Coliseum and awe-inspiring ancient quarries known as Latomias. We were more impressed than our GI driver, who summed them up as “Just another pile of rocks.”

            After leaving Syracuse we headed southwest through Ragusa, Comiso, and Gela and there again saw evidence of battle, and here again fertile fields and extensive vineyards. Asphalt and sulfur mines are also located in this vicinity, although not very active at this time.

            From Gela we started inland, passing through Enna, a cold, damp, crowded city perched on a hilltop above the fog.This inland section is the “breadbasket” of the island. It was a beautiful sight to behold the rolling fields of wheat and realize that the island will again become self-subsistant. In spite of the roominess of the country, the gregarious inhabitants live in their typically crowded, narrow, damp, unpaved filthy streets, usually on the hillside.

            From Enna we drove back to our starting point, Palermo.


Watch for René’s next letter on
April 6

Philip Westdahl (above) went on a 5-day road-trip with Chuck Schwartz (below).

Phil particularly enjoyed looking across the Strait of Messina to the toe of Italy.

May 23, 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 commenting about what happened on May 23, 1944. Because of Army regulations, René can’t mention this news in correspondence to his parents until June 13.

            On May 23rd, Bill Drew left this world suddenly and tragically. One of the most likeable, capable and popular young fellows I ever hope to know, his death was profoundly shocking to us and we all felt his loss very keenly. Even as I write this account it is almost unbelievable that he is no longer with us.

            I felt quite close to Bill, having known him since high school days, and was grateful to act as an honorary pall bearer at his funeral. The services were held in a Catholic Church in Palermo, and the presence of the American flag covering Bill’s coffin seemed a fine and fitting tribute to a fine fellow.

          At the military cemetery in Palermo, Bill was given the three gun salute of a military burial. Although I like to think of Bill as he was during life, my last memory of him shall be associated with the flag and salute with which he parted from our presence.


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

Dr. William F. Drew, known as Bill — shown as Dr. Westdahl wanted to remember him.

This is what Gertrude Brazil remembered about the untimely death of Dr. Bill Drew: “He was getting up at five or six o’clock in the morning to go do calisthenics. Part of the place the doctors were living was bombed out. The staircase was bombed and I guess he fell off and was injured and died.”

René will tell his parents more details in his June 13th letter.

Gravesite for Captain William F. Drew at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial in Nettuno, Italy (near Rome).

Photo by John “Jack” Richter

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.


Watch for René’s next letter on
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.