10 January 2007


At our ER, we have a pretty huge geriatric population. We are the only hospital in the county of any reasonable size, so we get most of the nursing home traffic, and I guess that there are a lot of old people out there living in our catchment area. It's a mixed blessing -- lots of interesting pathology, but often challenging and not always in a good way. One happy consequence, however, is that I see a lot of World War II vets.

I am not unusual among males of my age group in that I am a huge WWII buff. I have avidly consumed histories of the "Last Good War," watched "Band of Brothers" and made countless models of Spitfires and Mustangs. But I have never had the pleasure of personally knowing anyone who actually served in the war.

So, when I note that I am interviewing someone who is of an age that they might have seen service, I make it a point to inquire whether they served. It's a little off topic, so I slip the question into the social history. Usually, the patient will let me know whether it is a topic they feel comfortable discussing. With surprising frequency, they seem almost eager to talk about it. I've been lucky enough to hear some pretty cool stories. This is one of the few things I'm willing to sit down and "waste time" on when the ED is going to hell around me. Frankly, the vets seem pretty gratified that I thought of it and cared enough to ask and listen.

There was one guy the other day whose knee was swollen and bothering him. He told me how he was on a destroyer in the Leyte Gulf, and he was up on the observation mast and saw a Japanese sub surface and fire a torpedo at them. He sounded the alert, and his skipper executed a hard turn away from the torpedo, causing it to miss. But the evasive maneuver caused them to run hard onto a reef, and the shock threw my patient off the mast, and he wrenched his knee badly landing on the deck. The destroyer was undamaged, the submarine got away, and my patient was evacuated for medical care. His ship went down in a hurricane while he was in the hospital and his knee bothered him off and on for the rest of his life.

Amazing stuff.

There was another guy recently who answered in the affirmative when I asked whether he had served in WWII. I asked which branch of the service he had been in and there was a pause before he replied almost apologetically, "Well, you see, I was in the Wehrmacht."

I didn't ask him any more questions.


  1. I'll bet he had some stories, too.


  2. I am sure he did, and I would have loved to hear them. He didn't much seem like he wanted to talk about him. But how do you begin that conversation?

    So, were those SS guys as mean as I heard?"

    Um, maybe not. But it was clear that the subject did not bring back good memories for him, so i let it drop.

  3. I run into WW2 vets quite frequently in my ER, and I agree, they are a pleasure to talk to.I love to hear about their experiences. I too was a bit of a WW2 buff in my youth.

    I actually had a patient recently, who unfortunately died in the ER, and I wanted to tell the story of him on my blog, but I forgot about it. So your post is a fortuitous one for me.

    Incredible that you treated a Wehhrmacht soldier! Hell, in the end, most soldiers are very much alike, they just foought on different sides. The Germans still have a pretty bad taste in their mouths too about the war. most regret Germany's role in it to a fault.

    If you haven't read it, I recommend reading All Quiet on the Western Front. As a former soldier and veteran of the first Gulf War, It is one of only a few war novels that made me laugh and cry on the same page. Another being The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.

    Finally, even further off topic, if you're into poetry, as I am, a comparison of WW1 vs. WW2 poetry is interesting. WW1 poetry was all about the "body": the physical, the pain, the blood, the trenches. Whereas WW2 poetry was all about the "soul": good and evil, right and wrong, finding your way home. A good modern example of these two different ways to examine war (though both are WW2) are the films Saving Private Ryan (the body) and The Thin Red Line (the soul).

  4. I was dragged to a Senior Center Chritsmas party as a volunteer by a girlfriend once.
    There I met an old guy sitting by himself wearing a USS Arizona hat. I asked if he was on the Arizona and his face lit up... he made me swear to never trust the Japanese and then he talked about it for 2 hours. I will never forget it.

  5. I just sort of recently found your blog. This was a good post. Really enjoyed it.


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