81st Medical Battalion
The 81st Medical Battalion was organized at Camp Polk, Louisiana on August 15,1942, as part of the 11th Armored Division. Officer and enlisted cadres were drawn from other armored units. Draftees and enlistments brought the battalion up to its combat strength of 400 men, including 27 doctors.
The 81st Battalion was designed to provide essential medical services to the division. It was to collect and treat wounded soldiers from the front, then pass them on to larger field hospitals. The battalion consisted of a headquarters and Headquarters Company plus companies A, B and C.
Commanded by Colonel Sanford W. French III of San Antonio, Texas, the battalion trained at Camp Polk and participated in Third Army's Louisiana-Texas maneuvers in June-August, 1943. In September, the division moved to Camp Barkeley, Texas, in October, the 11th Armored was in the middle of the Mojave Desert at Camp Ibis near Needles, California.
Desert training was hard. The battalion practiced treating battlefield casualties, but also rendered aid to troopers overcome by heat exhaustion and other desert-related casualties.
In February, 1944, the battalion moved west again, to Camp Cooke, California. Gone were tents pitched in the sand and cold latrines; Camp Cooke had barracks cooled by breezes off the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Camp Cooke was the division home until September 1944, when the 11th Armored troops, nicknamed the Thunderbolts, were ordered back east to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Troop trains carried the men and their gear across country, but they were not destined to stay long on the East Coast.
On September 27, the 81st battalion and its precious lifesaving equipment was aboard the U.S.S. Hermitage for the trip to Europe. The Atlantic crossing was uneventful except for the inevitable seasickness among some of the men.
The Thunderbolts arrived at Southampton, then moved inland to bases in Wiltshire. The 81st Battalion ended up in Warminster Barracks.
On December 13, the battalion left Warminster for a staging area outside Weymouth on the channel. Off the men went in a convoy of deuce-and-a half trucks, staff cars, ambulances, jeeps and halftracks. Three days later, they were ordered to France aboard an LST.
Crossing the channel, the men heard bad news from the battlefront. The German army had launched a surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and had driven a deep pocket in the American lines. American commanders feared the lines might break in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The 11th Armored was ordered to the Meuse River, where a German attack was possible. The Thunderbolts were to hold the line between Sedan and Givet.
On the battlefront, Company A of the 81st Battalion was assigned to support Combat Command A of the division. Company B went with CCB; Company C was assigned to Combat Command Reserve.
On Christmas Day, the 81st medics saw the first American stragglers from the front. "God knows where they came from," Company A medic Thomas N. Garvey remembered. "...Tired, hungry and bedraggled they were dawning faint echoes of conflict ahead."
Meanwhile, the 4th Armored Division had broken through and relieved the 101st Airborne Division and other hard-pressed defenders of Bastogne, the key Ardennes town the Germans had bypassed and surrounded. The road to Neufchateau was Bastogne's lifeline; it had to be held. The 11th Armored Division would get the job.
So the Thunderbolts turned over the Meuse River line to the 17th Airborne Division and rushed 85 miles to near Neufchateau. On December 30, the division received its baptism of fire. CC A and CC B attacked and ran headlong into German troops trying to cut off the highway. The 81st Battalion's training was about to be tested.
Casualties streamed into aid stations. "lt was new to all of us," the A Company medic remembered. "The station hospital, the desert, Fitzsimmons were never like this". Doctors and technicians worked for the first of countless times on mangled, pathetic bodies of men caught and damaged in the toils of modem warfare. And there were the strengthless dead.
Most men of the 81st Battalion remembered the Bulge as the toughest fighting they experienced in Europe. Company A set up an aid station in Bastogne. In 1969, company veteran Tom Garvey wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "I can still smell the ether, the bitter coffee, cigarette smoke, and the persistent stench of putrefying flesh from the small heap of amputated arms and legs that had been tossed carelessly into a corner. No one had the time or opportunity to dispose of the pitiful mound."
The aid station was in a schoolhouse. Inside the wounded were stacked in a heap. "Doctors and corpsmen could scarcely move." Garvey wrote. "Asphyxiation became a real danger until the C.O. disregarded air raid security and ordered Gl blankets removed and the windows opened."
It was worse outside in the snow and numbing cold where hundreds more wounded lay silently on icy litters. "Many would not make it alive to the operating table. On the street, ambulances were waiting bumper to bumper with still more. It was my cruel duty to decide which of them were most in need of attention, As I opened the ambulance doors, even my thick gloves gave me no protection against the shock of cold blue metal. Overhead was a never-ending artillery duel, and around me machine guns clattered, mortars whooshed and rifles snapped. The earth was shaking from the pressure and noise of conflict, trembling like myself, before man's capacity to destroy."
Arthur C. Skrable of Company B also remembered the horror of the first wounded men he saw at the Bulge. "The line between life and death is razor thin and many times we helped some lad across that line with whole blood and plasma," he wrote.
GIs had a nickname for medics like those in the 81st Battalion: "Pill Rollers." Medics like Skrabel did not appreciate the moniker. "I think we deserve better than that," he wrote. "No first class fighting unit is complete without the medics, and our division was tops."
Medics of the 81st Battalion provided more than blood, plasma and the lifesaving skills of a combat surgeon. Skrabel remembered the time some Gls showed up at the aid station, tired, wet and bedraggled. Captain Tony Mazzacano, the head doctor, had a special prescription: bourbon whiskey.
Later, General Charles Kilbum, Division Commander, showed up at the aid station and asked Mazzacano if he needed anything. "Some good whiskey for the men in C.C.B, '' the doctor replied. Kilbum returned the next day with 17 cases of whiskey.
In early 1945, the Germans retreated from the Bulge toward the vaunted Westwall, dubbed the Siegfried Line by British and American troops. The 11th Armored would follow.
The division had enjoyed a well-deserved rest in late January. The medics had little to do other than treat ordinary sick-call cases and dental patients. The 81st Battalion also restocked medical supplies, repaired equipment and kept ambulances clean and in good running condition. Ambulances were clearly marked with big white circles and red crosses. It was supposed to ensure that the vehicles and their occupants were not targets.
It did not always work that way, Skrabel said. "Our outfit didnít do any fighting except among ourselves' but some of us were shot at just the same and Jerry couldn't tell the difference between a tank and an ambulance on a dark night."
The 11th Division assaulted the Siegfried Line on February 6. CCR, with Company C of the 81st Battalion, led the way toward the objective Hill 568. The Thunderbolts took the hill and fought through the German defenses.
The next big objective was the Rhine River. On the Division rolled past the Prum and Kyll Rivers. Germans were surrendering in droves. The Thunderbolts reached Andernach and Brohl on the Rhine. There were new victims to treat at Mayen; these had barely survived Nazi brutality in a concentration camp. 'The Germans some weeks before had just stopped feeding them," an A Company vet wrote. "They were starving when they reached Mayen. Many of them had to be carried from the vehicles into the station; feet and tongue swollen, covered with sores, skin like old parchment. These men were perfect textbook examples of malnutrition and dietary deficiency. For the first time we were seeing the result of the treatment of so-called 'inferior races' by the 'Master Race."'
On March 17, the Thunderbolt division swung south and attacked toward historic Worms. On March 28, the division crossed the Rhine and sped deep into the German heartland. The armored units went so fast that service and rear-area units were left behind. Company C of the 81st Battalion found itself in such a bind east of the Rhine.
After an all-day dash, Company C could not catch CC R. So the outfit stopped for the night in a little German town. Before the men bedded down, they set up an aid station just in case.
Radio contact with CC R was lost, so a medical jeep was sent to scout the road ahead. They saw Gls camped along the roadside and evidence of a recent battle, but CC R was way up ahead someplace.
On the way back, the jeep crew spotted five wounded Germans so an ambulance was sent back to retrieve them. Meanwhile, four Gls were hit by sniper fire. "By 7 o'clock the clearing station was a beehive of activity," wrote Lieutenant Bert Heinold. More wounded were brought in; there were a dozen, including two Americans and two Germans suffering serious stomach wounds.
"As they had many times before, the doctors and technicians quickly administered to and dressed the wounds of all casualties and they were then carried to the waiting ambulances for evacuation to the rear and more definitive treatment," Heinold wrote.
The American and German wounded were loaded onto separate ambulances and sent away. The doctors and technicians began cleaning up; they were beat and it was time to hit the sack.
At 11 p.m., the three ambulances were back. They had run into roadblocks and sniper fire. There was no way around it, the casualties had to stay at the aid station for the night.
Captain James P. O'Boyle, the clearing platoon leader, examined the worst two cases, an American and a German with bad stomach wounds. He decided they would not last until morning; he would have to operate.
That was against regulations in an aid station, which did not have the proper equipment. "But this was an emergency," Heinold wrote. "Two lives were at stake."
The Americans hastily created an operating theater in the room of a house. The German was more seriously wounded. He went to the operating table first.
The operation was over at 2 a.m. and it was the American's turn. After coffee and cigarettes, Captain O'Boyle and Captain Werlin went back to work. The American also pulled through.
As dawn broke, the medics made contact with CCR. The Company moved out. The ambulances were reloaded for the trip back to the rear; the way was now clear.
From the Rhine, the Thunderbolts drove even faster. The division turned south into Bavaria, through Bayreuth and Grafenwohr. The Thunderbolts were paralleling the Czech border before dipping down into Austria. The division had reached Linz when the men heard the blessed news the war had ended. "So it was over," an Company A vet wrote. "the greatest conflict in the history of a planet never really free from strife since the beginning of its recorded time."
The 81st Battalion was going home. But not everyone would make the happy trip; three men were killed in action. Another 20 were wounded and 30 injured.Back to Our History