Memorial Day: Thoughts from a World War II battlefield
A now anonymous ambulance driver’s letter home offers glimpses into war’s hell, and the courage of those honored on Memorial Day.
The letter was among many written in World War II and stored for decades in files The Press gave to the Ridgefield Historical Society last year.
The author signed only the initial “B.” He appears to have served in the ambulance corps in Italy. Notes by the late Press owners Karl and Betty Grace Nash suggest the writer lived part time in New York and may have attended the Ridgefield Boys School.
Here are excerpts:
“...There has been one week of the worst hell that I have ever been through, and everyone who has been with the battalion for this week will agree. Just after I wrote that last word to you a week ago, a stonking began which lasted almost 24 hours. Practically the first shell killed the lad who was driving our stretcher jeep. I got a couple of holes through the ambulance, but no other damage...
“It was all right for those who could stay dug in all the time, but Jimmy, my orderly, and I had to go out with casualties on the track that was being steadily stonked. Luckily they decided to give me about 48 hours off. I didn’t really want to go, but I was getting damn jumpy. Pete Sloane relieved me, and I went back to see a little girl that I knew in a town just behind the line. It was heaven walking in the fields, not continually dodging into trenches, feeling for even a short time somewhat like a human being.
“The morning after, I was shaken out of a sound sleep to be informed that Pete’s ambulance had been knocked out, and that I was to report back ... I found that they had succeeded in driving off a counter-attack, and that they had had one hell of stonking...
“I cannot describe the feeling of day after day feeling that the next one might smack in right at your feet, the terrible shock of having them hit so close that you can feel the blast, and can’t understand why you’re not riddled with shrapnel, the stink of the dead that you don’t feel like risking your neck to drag in, huddling in a dank hole wishing you could move around, and then when you do have to go out wishing you were back in the dugout where there is at least some protection.
“There is nothing on this earth as awful as the evacuation of a very serious case. You have to creep over the track so as not to aggravate the already painful wounds of your patient. When they land close, your first impulse is to jump for cover. Obviously, you can’t. You just have to keep on driving ahead, slowly and steadily, and any one who says he isn’t terrified is lying.
“You know that I have sometimes wished that the ambulance would be hit, and that I could pick up some small wound, but that feeling is always short-lived for when each evacuation is over, and Jimmy and I are safely back in this miserable dugout, there is the most wonderful feeling of satisfaction, and you are glad that you are still in one piece, and ready to go out when the next wounded come in.
“Apart from the harrowing and tragic moments when I saw my friends knocked off beside me I am glad that I have had the chance to serve with the infantry ... I have seen how the infantry take terrific pounding, and when it’s over get ready to counter-attack ... I am now convinced that it is the infantry man and the infantry man alone who really knows war...
“...Though Jerry shells us on the road in an ambulance, often because he can’t quite see what it is, he is most respectful concerning the Red Cross when he recognizes it; and several times his men have come over to help us out in carrying out our wounded. Once he even lent us some morphine and pencils for marking foreheads...
(I have never heard of this before)
“In two days I’ll be out of the line for a three-day rest and then on to Florence, I hope. I’m going back to the town where I got this typewriter out of a Fascist’s house. We entered there right behind Jerry. As we came streaming in the front of the town he went out the rear. The people welcomed us as ‘Liberatore’ and gave us the town. The women kissed us and everyone was out in the street showering us with garlands and plying us with every kind of native ‘vino...’
“It was there I met the little girl who I am going back to see.”