They won a war with only gauze and stainless steel scissors...
On any World War II battlefield, there would be found thousands of men trained and ready to do one thing: take the life of the enemy. But there would also be a few trained and ready to do an entirely different mission: save lives. These were the battlefield medics.
This rare surviving example of a medic's M-1 helmet features the iconic red cross, a vivid symbol of hope for the wounded soldier hoping for medical attention. The symbol was also intended to dissuade enemy fire; however not all enemy soldiers respected that protocol, especially in the Pacific Theater.
Difficult job, difficult choices...
Medics in World War II were the front line of battlefield medicine. In the American army, a battalion of some 400 to 500 men typically would have about thirty medics or aidmen; although sometimes attrition made that number much smaller. Their job was not to conduct extensive treatment of the wounded, but to stabilize them and to prepare them for evacuation to field hospitals or medical centers to the rear. They were trained to stop bleeding, apply dressings, sprinkle sulfa powder on wounds as an antiseptic, and to administer morphine as a sedative. More elaborate medical treatment would wait. Tragically, the medics often had to make the decision of which wounded soldiers were beyond help, and resolutely move on to the next wounded man. Medics from other allied nations, and even Axis nations, performed the same basic functions and displayed comparable courage.
An all-important medic's armband from the American military. These helped identify a medic to wounded men seeking treatment, and in theory protected them from enemy attack. In some cases, however, it made the medic a target.
This pocket sized first aid kit was standard issue for many WWII soldiers, often carried in a pouch on the belt. They contained little more than a dressing, though later versions added sulfa powder as a disinfectant.
Medics on the beaches
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, dozens of medics went into battle on the beaches of Normandy, usually without a weapon. The large red cross on their helmets was supposed to protect them, and Germans usually (but not universally) respected that convention. But even aside from the threat of direct enemy fire, being a combat medic was a dangerous assignment; shell fire and shrapnel drew no distinction between combatants and noncombatants.
On D-Day, and especially on Omaha Beach, evacuation of wounded soldiers was a nearly impossible task. Not only did the number of wounded exceed expectations, but the means to evacuate them did not exist. Landing craft off-loading invasion personnel had no time to carry the wounded back to the fleet, and were not under orders to do so. While some did assist in medical evacuation, most of the wounded on the beaches had to be brought forward to cover, or left where they had fallen. The Normandy Invasion is one of the few battles in history where the wounded were moved forward, into fire, whether than back, away from the fighting.
Valor, fidelity, sacrifice...
Medical teams on D-Day found many challenges in performing their duties. Those who were dropped behind Utah Beach with airborne and glider forces often found their medical supplies lost; the sea-borne forces, especially those at Omaha Beach, found themselves in the wrong places, with little in the way of equipment, and with nowhere to establish aid stations. Nevertheless, the medics of Operation Overlord heroically improvised ways to treat as many wounded as they could, at great personal risk. Illustrating the valor, fidelity and sacrifice of the medics on D-Day is the story of Cecil Breeden. Landing in the first wave at the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach, Breeden was the only one to survive when his landing craft came under intense enemy fire. Reaching safety on the beach, Breeden did not hesitate to turn around to rescue several wounded men from the water, dragging them to safety and stabilizing them as best he could. With virtually all of his own company killed, he joined a group from the 2nd Rangers and fought on through the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Bronze Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters for his bravery as a medic.
Sulfanilamide was an innovative disinfectant widely used in WWII and credited with saving many lives. Infection in previous wars typically killed more men than did bullets; improved knowledge of microbiology began to change this in WWII. These tablets were to be issued orally; the drug was also sprinkled in powder form over a wound.
Medic's surgery kit. While sterility was a concern, rapid life-saving actions were more important and a medic could not take time to ensure a perfect environment for treatment.
The contents of this American medics pouch include several varieties of dressings and an orange, cylindrical snake-bite kit. Medics had to be prepared for any number of situations.
Desmond Doss, Hero
Medics were sometimes chosen for their medical expertise; more often they had to be trained from scratch. Some were conscientious objectors who opposed the taking of life and were assigned this role as an alternative to a combat role. One such medic was PFC Desmond Doss of Lynchburg, VA, who refused to carry arms due to his religious faith, but who wanted to serve his nation in a noncombatant role. On Okinawa in May 1945, Doss single-handedly saved the lives of some 75 men by braving enemy fire to rescue them. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the first conscientious objector and one of only eleven medics in WWII to be so honored.
This roll-out medical kit was for use in jungle conditions in the Pacific Theater. It included such necessities as atabrine tablets for malaria, insect repellent, poison ivy ointment, and foot powder to ward off tropical fungal infections.
Small US Navy surgical kit, well stocked with the all-important safety pins. There was no better way to secure a dressing quickly under fire; in dire cases they could even be used to close a wound.
This first aid kit for a member of an air crew was housed in an aluminum case and included dressings and morphine ampules. An air crew typically did not carry a medic. If an airman were injured during a mission, for instance hit by flak, his fellow crewmen would have to render first aid.
Compare the previous survival kit to this two piece post-war example, designated "PSK-2." It was for use by airmen who bailed out or crash landed. It included chocolate rations, medical supplies, a hacksaw blade, and amphetamine sulfate--a common stimulant offered to servicemen during and for several years after WWII.
Dressings, US Army
A small burner like this could be used for preparing certain medicines or for sterilizing instruments.
A Sgt. Jones used this pouch of surgical tools.
Small US Army surgical instrument kit for use in the field.
This small first aid pouch, probably intended for use in the Pacific, includes insect repellent, atabrine tablets (an anti-malarial drug) and water purification tablets.
Small US Navy surgical kit.
Halazone water purification tablets. Finding sanitary drinking water was a challenge in many WWII battle zones.
Acetyl-Salicylic Acid (better known as aspirin) and salt tablets from a WWII medical kit. The latter would be used to treat dehydration, a frequent problem in areas where adequate drinking water was hard to supply.
Insect repellent for use in the jungles of the Pacific Theater. More than just a matter of comfort, protection from disease-carrying mosquitoes was a matter of life or death. However, the supply of insects was generally greater than the supply of repellent.
Carlisle model Dressing, US Army. This version in a waxed box replaced the early first aid kits in a tin, due to metal shortages.
US Army Medical Department Tin.
Canvas, rope closed first aid bag for a gun crew.
Medical kit to treat exposure to venereal diseases. A wide-spread education effort was utilized by the American army on the prevention of STDs, and in general was successful in lowering the number of patients compared with WWI.
Who knew Chap Stick could help win a war? Such balm was considered an important preventative in the brutal sun of the Pacific Theater or North Africa.
Chap Stick lip balm for treatment of sunburn, manufactured in Lynchburg, VA for the US Navy.
US Navy emergency medical tags, used to identify the condition and initial treatment of a wounded man prior to his evacuation to a hospital. Many Navy corpsmen served alongside Marine Corps units in the thick of battle.
"Aeronautic" first aid kit for use by crews of the US Army Air Force.
US Combat Medic's web gear.
US Combat Medic's Gear, rear view showing canteen and medical bags.
"Shell Dressing" was a British term for a type of long, gauze bandage, usually affixed by safety pins.
British/ Australian Army Medical Service armband and dressings.
German Medic's Bag, with horse hair cover.
A German medic's supply boxes with belt loops.
German "Air Protection Medical Bag" (Luftschutz Sanitätstasche)
This leather medic's kit was used by a Lithuanian Dr. J. Eglajs when he was impressed into service by the German SS in the occupied nation of Latvia.
This leather container from a German medic still retains much of the original contents.
German medic's identification papers, issued to one Otto Wagner in 1945.
This German medic's case, consisting of two compartments, was intended to be hung from a saddle for a horse-mounted soldier.
Contents of the saddle-borne German medical case.
Items, including arm band, from the German Red Cross (Deutsches Rotes Kreuz).
Japanese injection kit in aluminum case.
Items from a Japanese medic's kit, including string tags to describe a patient's wounds.
A rare surviving example of a Japanese medic's uniform. This officer was a lieutenant, and likely served behind the lines in a hospital rather than at the front.
The long straps affixed to wooden pegs in this Japanese kit are tourniquets.
Japanese medic's bag, canvas.
Japanese surgical implements, housed in a canvas roll.
This leather valise was used by a Japanese Army medic.
Japanese combat medic's kit and contents. Note that the red cross emblem was universally recognized, if not universally respected.
This rare American handbook served as a guide to Japanese medicines, presumably so that US medics could make use of any captured enemy supplies.
US Army emergency medical string tags. These tags would be used by a battlefield medic to describe the condition and initial treatment of a wounded prior to his evacuation to a hospital.
Medical String Tags, US Army.
"The bravest man I ever met..."
Historian Stephen Ambrose once noted that after the War, if he ever heard a veteran speak of another soldier as the “bravest man I ever met,” he was usually speaking of a medic.In the maelstrom of combat, they selflessly ran from wounded man to wounded man, bringing a chance at life in the midst of scenes where death reigned. For tens of thousands of wounded men, the combat medics of WWII literally made the difference between life and death.
The Hugh Scrogham Medic's Collection was donated to the National D-Day Memorial in 2016. Mr. Scrogham is a longtime volunteer and supporter of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA.