At reunion, World War II vets remember medical missions
While the veterans joked with their comrades, there were serious moments, too.
WASHINGTON -- They are in their 80s now, and for this reunion of World War II veterans, only a handful have been able to travel to Washington. Their numbers have dwindled to seven -- three nurses and four enlisted men -- all part of the Army's 44th Evacuation Hospital.
The hospital, a mobile unit with about 330 officers and enlisted personnel, closely followed the combat troops during the war. They set up tents for wards and operating rooms and moved on short notice, packing and unpacking the hospital with each move.
The 44th landed on Omaha Beach 13 days after the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion. Six months later, they were trapped behind German lines during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans' last-ditch offensive in the Ardennes region of Belgium. In the 11 months after its Normandy landing, the unit treated more than 22,000 patients, according to an account by the unit chaplain. The nurses were dispensing a new wonder drug called penicillin. Personnel often performed surgery near battle lines in France, Belgium and Germany as gunfire sounded nearby.
"We were the same as a MASH unit but without the helicopters," said Bob Owen, 88, a corporal and X-ray technician, referring to the shorthand for the mobile army surgical hospitals associated with the Korean War.
The 44th treated the most seriously wounded; those with injuries that were not life-threatening were transported to hospitals in England.
Gathering in D.C.
Owen, of Hobe Sound, Fla., and six others from the unit gathered this weekend for a small, private reunion, touring the White House and visiting the National World War II Memorial. In the 60 years since the war's end, there have been 15 or 16 reunions, depending on whom you ask. During the earlier reunions, the nurses would get together by themselves, said Annabelle Hayward, 86, of Wellsburg, W.Va. As death and illness took their toll, the nurses began inviting the enlisted men.
This year, the reunion came about because the oldest in the group, Rose Hausman, 89, was having a family reunion here with five of her seven children. When the others found out, they decided to join her. Hausman, of Indianapolis, uses a wheelchair and is not able to travel much, "so we thought we would all get together so that Rose could be with us," Hayward said.
At the WWII Memorial on Saturday, they seemed content to stay in one place, even though most had never visited the memorial. They joked and corrected one another's recollections of events.
A question about the total number of personnel in the unit prompted a lengthy discussion.
"We had 40 nurses and 40 doctors," Owen said.
"No," shot back Dominick Garcia, 84, of Virginia Beach, Va., who was the sergeant in charge of the enlisted men. "We only had about 36 male officers and only about 30 were doctors."
Time to reflect
There were serious moments, too. Mike Kotchick, 87, who worked in the neurosurgery ward and now lives in Endicott, N.Y., stopped to read a plaque honoring veterans and their sacrifices. For a few moments, he was silent. Then his eyes welled up with tears behind his sunglasses.
"All of this is just beautiful," he murmured.
Despite their collective hazy memories, the veterans remembered some things very clearly.
The German buzz bombs, or V-1 bombs, were awful. They made a distinct sound as they flew at low altitudes. When the timing mechanisms expired, the bombs fell to earth and exploded.
Then there was the time they came under shelling during the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, during the Germans' all-out offensive on the western front, many medical units, including the 44th, were forced to evacuate on short notice.
"It was 5 in the morning and we were shelled," recalled Al Kowalski, 84, a sergeant from Rochester, N.Y., who worked in the dental unit. The 44th was ordered to leave immediately. Its members huddled in a horse stable before they eventually found shelter in a convent. They stayed there for several weeks while they waited to be reunited with their hospital equipment.
The 44th was also among the first U.S. units to witness the skeletal survivors at a newly liberated forced labor camp at the rocket factory in Nordhausen, Germany.