Injuries treated differently on the battlefield in wartimes

Herb Peppard
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If a man was injured today in civilian life what treatment would he receive? If a man was injured in action, in war time, what treatment would he receive?

I’d just like to give you a comparison of the care these two people would receive. Of course times and circumstances would be entirely different between the two.

If a man was injured today, such as in a car accident, people would immediately call 9-1-1. The person they called at 9-1-1 would guide them through this very difficult time. They would call an ambulance and paramedics would get him to the hospital as soon as possible. There, the doctors would diagnose his case, and decide the best solution to his recovery. He would get the best care that modern medicine could provide.

Now we’ll go to a different experience, a different time in the year 1944. It was during the war in the mountains of Italy. I was serving with the First Special Service Force. It was an elite unit and we’d gone through a lot of intensive training before we were exposed to combat. We were fighting just south of Rome in the mountains of Italy. Our objective: To liberate Rome.

It was surprising and comforting to have our medical officer, Major Neeseman, travel with us into action. I wouldn’t have thought they would let such an important  person be exposed to enemy fire.

The major would usually give us a talk, each time before we went into action. Sometimes he was very serious, but other times he was on the humorous side. One day he told us the importance of a tourniquet. This was a device, usually a rope, you would put on the body where the wound was. It should go between the wound and the heart. When pressure was put on with this device it would stop the blood flowing from the heart and save the injured man from bleeding to death. The more pressure you put on the tourniquet, the less blood would flow.

“However,” he told us, “Don’t do as one soldier did. His buddy had a head wound, and he put a tourniquet around his neck and started to tighten it!” Then, he added, “Don’t ever put a tourniquet around a wounded man’s neck.”  Of course this was not the truth but we got a laugh out of it anyway.

However, sometimes the major was very serious. I remember on one occasion he gave us some very important advice. This advice was how to protect your feet. We didn’t have a name for it but in the First World War it was called “Trench Foot.”  The trouble started when you were confined to a trench or fox-hole for a long period of time. Your feet would get wet, and cold and lose circulation. Then your feet would become raw and infected, and also you would have a great deal of pain. So, this is what our doctor advised us to do: “Twice a day, remove your boots and stockings. If your stockings are wet wring them out as best you can. Then rub your feet as vigorously as you can to get the circulation back into those cold feet.” I followed these instructions faithfully, and thank God, I had very little trouble with my feet.

We were trudging up a mountain one day. Somebody said it was Hill 170 but it was no hill. It was more like a mountain to me!. I heard one of the officers tell his buddy, “We’re about 20 miles from Rome.” My excitement was mounting. Rome, ‘The Eternal City.’ I could just see myself as one of the liberators of this historical city. Marching proudly with my buddies to the joyous applause of a happy exhilarated audience.

However the dream of my heroic entrance into this wonderful city was short lived. I felt a terrific smash on my right thigh. My God! I thought, I’d been shot! And that’s just what had happened.

No more dreams of entering the city as a conquering hero. I had to lay on the ground and watch my buddies hurry toward Rome. I was very disappointed.

Still, I realized now I had to get help as soon as I could. There was no telephone, no calling 9-1-I started to yell: “Medic! Medic! Medic!” After awhile, two medics did appear. One was carrying a stretcher, doing the best they could. One came to me, the other went to my buddy, George Wright, who had been shot in the stomach. The medic who came to me whispered, “Where ‘ya hit?”  I really don’t know why he whispered because the noise was deafening around us. The machine guns and the artillery shells exploding all around us gave him no reason to have to whisper. I told him where I was hit and then he went to work; the tourniquet was not needed, I guess I wasn’t bleeding enough. However, he sprinkled some sort of powder on the wound and bandaged it up. It was a very neat job under the circumstances. Then he told me his plan, “We’ll have to take your buddy out first ‘cause he’s hit worse than you are, and we’ll be back for you in a couple of hours.” So, putting Wright on a stretcher they made off toward the rear.

I had to lay and wait with a painful but not too serious a wound. The things  that went through  my mind were unbelievable. I reviewed my entire life, (all 24 years of it). If I had paper and pencil I could have written an entire autobiography of ‘Herb Peppard.’ I didn’t have paper and pencil so I just laid there in that muddy fox-hole and waited.

After a couple of hours the exhausted same two medics showed up, loaded me on the stretcher and started away from the battlefield. I always admired these medics - going into the battlefield unarmed, with only one goal in mind - to rescue the wounded.

The rest of the day was kind of blurry to me. However, at last I was loaded on a jeep and taken on a bumpy ride to a hospital. The hospital was an unusual  enclosure. If you ever watched the TV show MASH you would get a pretty good idea what the building was like. It was a huge canvas tent. On the roof was painted a couple of large red crosses to identify this building was a hospital, a place where wounded soldiers were taken care of. It was an unwritten law that neither side would ever bomb or shell this sacred place - a hospital.

There was one difference between this building and the TV counterpart. This one was on the Anzio Beach-head. It was inevitable that someone would make an error and a bomb or a shell would land close to the hospital. To compensate for this there was a wall of sand bags about four-feet high all around the hospital.

The doctors were very good but they didn’t have enough instruments.

The first night I was in hospital I heard a lot of moaning and groaning. However, the thing that bothered me most was a soldier about five beds from me. He was crying and sobbing most of the night. He had one of his legs blown off. He was worried about returning home to his family and loved ones. He felt he would just be a burden to them. The rest of his buddies tried to console him but to no avail. I talked with one of the doctors I had become friendly with. He whispered to me, “He’s going to lose the other leg also.” In my hearts I couldn’t help cursing this terrible war.

In this hospital if your condition was considered pretty serious you were sent to a hospital in Naples, which is where they eventually sent me. Here they had better equipment and more staff to provide better care. The reason they felt my wound was quite serious was the length of time I spend laying on the battlefield during which an infection had set in my wounded leg.

When I got to this huge hospital I was immediately put on a new drug. I feel that is the reason I have both legs because of this ‘wonder drug,’ Penicillin. It had just been discovered a year or two earlier. It soon became a very important and necessary medicine for fighting infection. I was given a needle, of penicillin, every three hours for a month. My shoulders got very sore, because of the needles and then they concentrated on my hips. I didn’t complain because I knew it was saving my leg.

When I looked out of the hospital window it was a sight to behold. People would pay big money today to have a room like this just for the view. Perched on a huge hill the hospital overlooked the beautiful Bay of Naples, with the sparkling ocean and boats leisurely plying their way over the peaceful waters. Beyond this beautiful bay was the towering cone of Mount Vesuvious with smoke continuously billowing out of its peak.

This hospital was a joy. A treat with a warm dry bed, hot food, clean hospital clothes, pretty nurses. What more could a man ask?

I stayed in hospital for five months. I was fortunate to have wonderful caring doctors and nurses.

Through the ages doctors and nurses have had many difficulties to overcome. But they have passed through many barriers.

One period may have been much harder than another, comparing then and now. However, they always kept their shining goal in view -

“Save the precious life of the patient!”  

Herb Peppard is a longtime Truro resident. His column appears regularly in the Truro Daily News.

Organizations: First Special Service Force, Truro Daily News

Geographic location: Rome, Italy, Naples Anzio Beach Truro

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