Immediately upon landing, we received orders to proceed to join various British units, as usual. Three out of six men in my section had reported sick. I wasn't feeling badly, and decided to stick it out for at least a few days, as we were desperately short-handed, and agreed to act as temporary section leader, since that would allow me to sit and direct; instead of driving constantly, although I still retained all my violent objections against being any kind of nabob. It all turned out very well. We made a fast trip straight to the front and my disorganized and re-formed little section by luck drew the assignment of evacuating patients from the most forward A.D.S. (Advanced Dressing Station) that I have ever seen. Normally an A.D.S. is about five miles behind the forward line--- but in this case, after violent counter-attacking, Jerry was at one time, just before we arrived, only 200 yards away. In some ways it was the liveliest assignment of evacuating I have yet had. Amazingly enough, my jaundice condition was ideal for the situation. It was such a wicked spot at times that anyone who did not feel keyed-up and jittery would hardly have been normal. In my condition, however, the excitement round about acted somewhat as a needed tonic, giving me the delusion of being about well at times. I remember going about with a bland equanimity that would have been admirable had it been less stupid and unnatural. One thing did bother me a little, causing a little mental wince of irritation, and that was the painful noisiness and jar of heavy shells crashing into the buildings around the A.D.S. The noise was literally painful. As I say, I felt not too badly all this time, but I was told that I looked like an old parchment lamp shade, and my eyes, bloodshot from sleeplessness reminded one poetical lad of Arizona sunsets, yellow, red and blue. It takes a strong man to look at a well developed jaundice face without shudders and fascinated horror.
After several days of continuous activity and interrupted alarums and excursions, 'the situation was restored to normal!' Meanwhile another of my drivers had gone sick and been sent back, and the only remaining one of the original section had got himself trapped in a mortar barrage, and his car shot full of holes. He himself was undamaged, and had no bad reactions, except for a doctor's attempt to make him drunk and send him back --- he popped up again on the next returning ambulance.
I sent him back again, and again he returned, so I put him to bed in the A.D.S. and let him sleep it off. We now had only three drivers at that point reeling with sleeplessness, besides myself, and I was only good for short local trips. In response to my pleas for drivers, a lad with a wooden leg arrived, and after making one round trip be broke his leg, and he went back. Eventually two other sections arrived, the fighting moved off, all the patients were evacuated, and everything quieted down except for the usual air raids and occasional lonely shell.
AFS Letters, 1943-1944. No. 20. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.
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We "Drivers" of AFS counted ourselves as one with those weary foot soldiers of the forward lines. Our two Car Companies, 485 and 567, were generally in the thick of things all the way through the Italian campaign. Our nimble four-wheel drive Dodge ambulances, except for the smaller jeeps, were the only medical vehicles able to navigate the mud-filled diversions across rivers, the winding and muddy tracks crisscrossing the mountains and valleys.
Both AFS Companies shuttled between the two armies on the west and east, but generally as in Africa were assigned to British Eighth Army units.
Charles P. Edwards. Part 6. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.
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When the wounded had been carried, slowly and painfully, down the tracks over the escarpment, they found ambulances waiting beside the Rapido. Many of these ambulances were driven by tall young men of the American Field Service. This remarkable organization some day may publish its own history, but in view of its long association with the Indian forces, it is essential to record the admiration of all ranks for these volunteers. They had first arrived in Syria in 1941----college men predominating, but with a sprinkling of professional men too old for military service, as well as artists and adventurers. In the Western desert they became known to all. Field Ambulance commanders before battles would speculate and entertain high hopes concerning the number of American ambulances which might be allotted to them.
The Americans themselves would scramble for the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs. In their work they exhibited the courage of lions and the tenderness of women. A doctor who daily traversed the evacuation route across the Rapido Valley, a distance of five miles, wrote as follows:
"The river crossing---Windy Corner---received an unhealthy amount of shelling. Jeeps did not tarry there. Yet in full daylight, an American volunteer halted his ambulance, rescued a wounded man, dressed his wounds, took him to the advance dressing station under continuous fire, and classified it as 'all in the day's work'. Another driver lost his ambulance when a near miss ditched it, but continued on foot and brought in four Indians under a hail of fire. Day and night, and nonstop if necessary, these American boys would carry on. They could always be trusted to get through, no matter how sticky the situation."
Another Indian Army doctor wrote :--
"The unfailing courage, supreme devotion to duty and unquenchable good spirit of these civilians in battle dress. along with their constant thought of the welfare and comfort of the wounded, inspired all with whom they came in contact. Our Medical Services, many thousands of British and Empire wounded, and the people at home who wait for their loved ones, all owe to the American Field Service a debt of gratitude which cannot be measured in words."
(It is interesting to note that a number of these attractive young men, as a result of their contact with Indian forces, abandoned even their documentary neutrality and accepted commissions in Indian regiments. One of them, a man of many adventures, is now adjutant of a Frontier Force Regiment battalion)
The Tiger Triumphs---The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy. Chapter 6. H.M. Stationary Office (for the Government of India), 1946
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Yet the obstinacy of the Germans was a less obstacle than the inclemency of the weather. It was next to impossible to keep roads and tracks open. Mud and slides blocked diversions, hastily repaired demolitions were undermined, stormwater scoured away the footing in the fords. Hour-long traffic jams held up food, water, ammunition, and ambulances. In connection with the evacuation of wounded, old friends of American Field Service reappeared in a graphic letter from a Medical Officer.
"Here as elsewhere," he writes, "the exploits of the American drivers have become the talk of the Division. McKinley, so well known and beloved from Tunisian days, has reappeared and is in the thick of it. Attached to the Sussex Regimental Aid Post he has driven every type of transport except a tank in his efforts to get the wounded across the flooded Rubicon. When he could not get his ambulance forward he deserted it for a jeep or a DUKW. At one stage when evacuation was impossible, he established his own First Aid Post under the noses of the enemy. We felt uneasy that day and we thought we might have lost him, but he soon appeared with his six badly wounded men to inform us that thereafter his Dodge would get through."
"Then there was Jack, with his rows of last-war ribbons, leading any convoy and getting every vehicle through when it seemed impossible to do so. I fell asleep one night with little hope of seeing my unit for twenty-four hours, and then not all of it. I was awakened at 0130 hours by a voice enquiring, 'Where do I put them, Doc? They are all outside.' Jack confessed that he had to ditch a few Brigade vehicles to clear the road, but he didn't appear to be worried. That night I damn nearly kissed him."
The Tiger Triumphs---The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy. Chapter 13. H.M. Stationary Office (for the Government of India), 1946
"Now I'll try to describe the work. There are six of us and we work in shifts, 2 at a time. The day shift goes on for active duty at 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. The night shift from 7 PM to 7 A.M., the latter assignment being the tough one as one has to drive without a light showing. To be sure you have an orderly at this time, who has to walk on the road with a white cloth in his hand to direct you. Your car must make as little noise as possible as the Germans can hear and will open fire --- I almost got stuck in the mud one night. Hank Rose did and had to abandon his car which was picked up the next morning, no patients at the time luckily. Some of us drive right up to the lines, pick up patients at field dressing stations and carry the hastily bandaged wounded back to the field hospital. This is the hardest because you are machine-gunned, shelled, and on occasion, dive-bombed. If you could see my ambulance now, riddled with bullet holes in the back and part of the driving window ripped away. I tell you I've a charmed life; one patient only was hit and he not fatally. Many times when German guns are trained on roads and they open fire, you have to make a quick leap from the car into the nearest ditch, I always manage to pick ones filled with the most mud. There you lie until you think it is over, make a quick dash again for the car and off you go, sometimes with two or three flat tires due to shrapnel. Somehow, shells don't get me at all, it's the damned planes which you can't hear and the only way you can tell if one's coming, is if there's a truck in front of you and you see the occupants diving for cover. It has happened to me only once and luckily the damned German was a poor marksman as he only got the right hand side of the car. It all happens so quickly you don't have a chance to think and your one hope is that the plane won't come back.
"The casualties, as you can imagine, are high and the one thing that does almost break my heart in two is to hear the screams of the mortally wounded and know there isn't one damned thing you can do. They beg you to put them out of their suffering and your only hope is to get them back to the operating table as fast and as best you can. I hope you never see it; and how humans can do the things to each other they do is beyond understanding. But you do see a face twisted in agony and suddenly a peaceful look comes into his face and you know that God has taken him and he is out of this awful mess and has gone to a better place. If you didn't believe this, you couldn't go on. You don't have a feeling of sorrow for the victim but only those at home whom he has left behind. Death isn't so hard to face I'm sure.
"The people who are the real heroes of this war are the surgeons who work night and day with never a complaint. I wish I could begin to describe an operating theatre tent at night. A strong light in a pit at one end where white-frocked man with gauze over their faces are working; the muffled sound of a typewriter as an orderly tells of each operation; at the far end of the other side of the tent, stretchers lined up in rows of men whose turn is shortly coming and stretcher bearers like shadows in the gloom going and coming with new cases. The doctor calling 'next' while the patient is being wrapped in blankets ready to be taken away and another brought down onto the table. The surgeon, so kind, always talking to the new patient while changing his gloves, telling him that all will be o.k. Then he stands over the patient, telling him to count while another doctor injects him in the arm with a new kind of drug which puts him to sleep before the patient has reached 15. And so it goes, one case after another, with the surgeon using all the skill at his command, with bombs crashing down intermittently which rocks the whole tent and sets instruments on trays rattling around like crazy things.
"One night the operating tent caught on fire badly and I stood and watched the surgeon who never once looked up to see what was going on and was removing a large piece of shrapnel lodged near the wall of the patient's lung. These are the unsung heroes of war, facing all kinds of dangers with never a thought of themselves but trying to save others' lives. All you have to do is to look in their faces and talk to them to know that they are men of extraordinary character. As one particular friend who has taken a fancy to me (we sometimes manage to squeeze in time for a quick smoke) said: 'I feel that all these boys are mine, and if I can't save one, it is as if my own son had gone.' And he operates sometimes on 28 cases a night!
"One of our lads had quite an experience. He was told to proceed with an orderly to a front line station at night. When he got there, he walked into the tent to be greeted with pointed tommy guns at the other end of which there were Germans. One Britisher who was there with hands above his head said, "You've had it, chum". The A.F.S. man showed the Germans his Geneva Red Cross card and was told he could go free if he would drive German wounded back to the German lines. This he agreed to do and had to go thru a mine field with a German orderly who didn't speak English. When they got there, the orderly disappeared and he had to drive back thru the mine field alone and nothing happened. Just another case of a charmed life. The Germans immediately released him and he got back safely.
"I could tell you many stories but let me tell you the boys who are younger of our group, I take my hat off to; there isn't an assignment that is too tough for them to handle and altho they know there's danger on every side of them, they're all keen and eager to do their best. I doubt if I could have done it at the age of 20 or 21."
AFS Letters, 1943-1944. No. 24. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.
AFS Letters, 1943-1944. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver
Street, New York.