05 March 2010

Friday Flashback

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.

Originally posted 10 January 2007


  1. omigosh I think I would have had to leave the room and not go back in. if you finished taking care of the guy, i'm impressed.

  2. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Talking to the WWII vets was one of the things I loved about working Interfacility Transfers. So much knowledge and history and they usually were glad someone asked and actually listened to them.

  4. Good story. Reminds me of this doc's story:

  5. I have talked to several WW2 vets, the stories are amazing. Some almost start crying when they bring up memories, like the one that was at D-Day. Terrible things they went through.
    Being from the Netherlands I always thank them for what they did! I grew up hearing my uncle's stories about the Americans and Canadians that liberated them.

  6. Fortunately, i had my fair share of patients who served in WWII.
    1. I scoped a gentleman who was in 101st airborne at the battle of the Bulge and he was one of the few patients who refused to receive sedation for their endoscopy.

    2. During my residency, when i was rotating on the cards consult service. I received a consult for A fib.. the patient told me that the first time he was made aware of his A fib was on the eve of the invasion of Okinawa. but they overlooked it in view of the situation back then

    3. I had a patient who was the driver of one of the amphibian vessels which stormed into Omaha Beach on D-day june 1944.

    these are the most impressive ones I know... These people are amazing.. and it is a shame that many are starting to lose their memories and forget that they wrote a major chapter of history..

  7. I did a year long internship at the VA for my Master's in Social Work. One of the support groups I was honored to sit on was the WWII POW group. I heard firsthand accounts of some of the horrors talked about in textbooks. Interestingly, I heard of the absolute horrors the Japanese inflcited on our POWS, and was reminded that they never signed the Geneva Convention. I heard that the German POW camps were not as horrible, as they were run by the "normal" german army. I heard the story of how some people freed by the Russians were never heard from again, and how some had to escape their freedom. I even met a Polish vet who escaped from two concentration camps and was a spy for the allies. I was blessed to get to know these men. One of the things that we did was to write very detailed accounts on our clinical group notes. It was our small way of recording history.

  8. re"Wehrmacht"
    My grandfather was highly educated and not especially bigoted. He served in the SS under Hitler in the late 30's up to end of WW2. He said that he had no choice, he did not want to leave his native country and he needed to provide for his family.

  9. It is possible that veterans of the German forces have interesting stories as well.

    My children's grandfather was in the German army, and it wasn't an easy time for anyone to stay out of it (especially as a 14 year old near the end of the war). His first 'battle' was well towards the end of the war, and he convinced his unit to surrender to the Canadians rather than fighting. Was sent as a prisoner to a camp in Canada, later worked here for a few years, and then was allowed to immigrate.

    My father volunteers at his local Legion as a bartender, and they even have some veterans from the German forces there. We don't gain anything by assuming that all of the opposing forces were evil, no matter how heinous the actions of some of them were (and still are). I don't think that 100% of our veterans (of all wars) would likely be in full agreement of everything that their 'leaders' did either.

    So often the soldiers have little control over anything, and I think that collecting everyone's stories (before they are all gone) can only help our understanding.

  10. A couple of years ago I took care of a retired general surgeon who was a medic on Omaha Beach on D-Day. I can't even imagine...

  11. I got to officiate a memorial service for a veteran who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. He was a terrific gentleman and his family adored him. His children told me that when they were young he did not discuss his war experiences--but he told his grandchildren much more, and some of them did school projects related to Pearl Harbor.

  12. I have to agree with Anonymous and I take offense with what Webhill and Dr. Shadow said in regards to German war vets. Many of the Germans just didn't have a choice. They were just normal people in a hellish situation, forced to join the army. The point is yes, there are bad people in all armies, look at some of the stuff that went on with civilians in Vietnam with the American army or in Somalia with the Canadian army. However, that doesn't make an entire nation 'evil'. If we are to get past bigotry, there needs to be more understanding.

  13. That is one of the advantages to nursing. I almost always have a chance to have these conversations with my patients while I start the IV's and administer meds. Its my favorite part of my job.

    The war stories are amazing. I've looked after survivors of the Bantaan death march, the Battle of Bulge, D Day, all the great battles.

    A Serbian man said to me once during the height of the war there when I said I hoped there would soon be peace "if only the world would quit interfering and let us finish the job".

    Another time a German patient said something to me about the strength of the German character that allowed a small country like hers to practically take over all of Europe. Ugh.

    But we're so used to looking after drunks that may have wiped out families on the highway or any other kind of criminal without being judgmental you really could care less about someone's past. Sociopaths are us, when it comes to ER patients. If you can't treat people you don't like decently you need to find another line of work.

    I also love the stories of the elderly working class who came west during the dust bowl and depression. There are some great stories there. The African Americans who came out to work in the Kaiser ship yards and live in VanPort and lived through the flood.

  14. And yes, every soldier needs to be judged on an individual basis.

    Our invasion of Iraq was an illegal war but I have many good friends that our good people that are in the military that have fought in that war. I would hate to think that if 40 years from now they needed medical care they would be treated poorly for having been an American soldier in Iraq.

  15. Great post...there seems to be a spark in a vet after you acknowledge and thank them, and I for one, will gladly do that. They are all true heroes regardless of wartime service or not.

  16. Soma,

    I take offense with what Webhill and Dr. Shadow said in regards to German war vets. Many of the Germans just didn't have a choice.

    Don't mischaracterize me here. I would have been fascinated and eager to hear this old man's history. But I take my cues from the patient and he *clearly* did not want to talk further about it. So I dropped it.

  17. Many WW II US vets would greet the German veteran amicably. The war is over, and there is grace, esp. if sought.

    I had the blessing of hearing my father's combat stories from WW II.

    WW II vets are opening up more - age and the passing of the generation, may be the reasons.

    The best way to open up conversations with veterans is with two simple questions.

    What was your job? Where did you go? By the time they answer these two, they will often start filling in much more.

  18. I thought it was a funny story, with a great punchline!

  19. @ Anon 3/06/2010 4:01 AM

    "My grandfather was highly educated and not especially bigoted. He served in the SS under Hitler in the late 30's up to end of WW2. He said that he had no choice, he did not want to leave his native country and he needed to provide for his family."

    The SS? That was like the German equivalent of the USO, right? It was more like a fraternal organization, and all the members were a bunch of sweethearts. Oh yeah.

    @Soma - "no choice, just following orders."
    Sorry, that cop-out was pretty well destroyed at Nuremberg...hence the term, "the Nuremberg Defense" - which didn't fly.

  20. Own it,

    I interpreted Soma's point being that they didn't have a choice whether to enlist in the German Army, conscription being pretty much universal especially later in the war. Certainly nobody with a passing knowledge of WWII history would argue that the average german soldier was involved in atrocities -- most of the rank & file were just carrying a pack, driving a tank, and getting slaughtered by Russkies.

    Now the Schutzstaffel, well, that *is* a little different, isn't it?


  21. Hmm. Interesting what you learn from wikipedia. Apparently the Waffen-SS also used forced conscription, too. I never knew that. So never mind what I said before.


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