Saturday, November 2, 2013

An Okie from Muskogie

Doc Reiff

    I would often see Jack Reiff, one of two medical officers in the 712th Tank Battalion, at reunions. I recorded this impromptu interview in the hospitality room at the 1993 reunion in Orlando, Fla.

   Jack Reiff: I was born July 24, 1918, in Muskogie, Oklahoma. A genuine Okie from Muskogie. And when I was about 11 or 12 years old I moved to Oklahoma City. My father was superintendent of schools in Muskogie, and then he was superintendent of schools in Oklahoma City, from about 1929 to 1940. I went to Oklahoma City High School Central, graduated first in my class of about 500, and then I went to the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and got a B.S. degree. I was first in my class when I got my B.S. degree. I graduated first in my class when I went to medical school, also, at the University of Oklahoma.
   I was in the ROTC when I was in college and med school, in horse-drawn artillery. My first contact with the Army was in horse-drawn artillery in 1934 and '35, and I could have been a second lieutenant in artillery with the ROTC.
   In medical school, our dean was Robert U. Patterson, who had been surgeon general in the United States Army for many years back before that, and he encouraged everybody to join the Reserves, so we did. Then just about that time, the war came along. But I did finish my internship at the University of Michigan, and then went back and did it at the medical field service school in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., where they had basic training in company administration, like OCS, for the medics. There were 1,300 in my class, so they started fanning them out to combat units, and I was sent to the 11th Armored Regiment in Fort Benning. The 10th Armored Division, the 11th Armored Regiment. The 11th Armored Regiment had been the 11th Cavalry, but they only had about 24 cavalry men as I can remember. A couple of them were medics. And one medical sergeant, one medical technician, and three or four officers, and then about twenty other enlisted men were spread out through the whole regiment.
   We spent our whole time training the medics and giving physical exams, physical inspections, and immunizations, which was a horrendous thing. We had 3,000 recruits, and I was in charge of the thing. Every one had to have three typhoid shots, three tetanus shots, and they had to be at specified intervals. If you didn't make it between the five and seven days, they had to start over. And the tetanus was three weeks, so there wasn't any way to coordinate it. And the smallpox had to be read in ten days. So seven days, ten days and two weeks, and then, of course, you've got all kind of things, you just had to go individually, this guy needs so-and-so, so then you get a big long list and send it to the first sergeant of the company, and he would be on KP or on guard or on furlough. It was just real hard to get them all there. I mean, it was a nightmare.
   And then I was with the 712th from the very time it started, when they decreased the size of the armored division. They didn't have armored regiments anymore, just separate battalions, so I went with the 712th when it split off. They split off another battalion at the same time, and that battalion went to school troops at Fort Knox.
    We were in a very small ship in a big convoy, the USS Exchequer, just our battalion plus just a few other people. I don't think it carried a thousand people. It was a banana boat that had been used just in South America up here into Florida or someplace, and had never been out on the ocean. Then we were crowded. Most of the men were down in the hold. The officers had nine guys in a room that was just the size of, one cot, and one cot, and one cot, three high, no place to put your stuff but in bed with you. And, oh, sick, sick, sick. I'm scared. I did a lot of physical inspections then, too, to be sure they didn't have the measles. That was another thing, when we first had all of those recruits, they had a lot of epidemics, because throwing all these guys together, they had measles, chicken pox and all that kind of stuff, especially measles was very bad. That's about the only time I ever worked in the Army hospital at Fort Benning was during a measles epidemic.
   I was what they later called a combat medic. They didn't call them medics at that time, it was a medical detachment. And we just went with the tanks.
    We crossed the English Channel in LSTs. Getting on them was a funny thing. These two tank battalions, we got the message to go to Southampton on the 6th of June. We had practiced, we had dry runs, but this was sort of a surprise, and when we got down there they held us several days. And that was a scary time. We didn't know what was going on. So then we went on LSTs, and we were on the ship several days.
   And then, very tough slogging, hard going, heavy casualties and everything until about the 24th of July, that was when they had that 1,000-bomber raid.

You said there were a lot of people scared. How did that manifest itself?
   Oh, I don't know. I think that anybody that said they weren't scared were the ones that got combat fatigue. We just didn't know what was going on at all.

 When you got inland a little bit, what did you do?
    Usually, well, you've talked to [Forrest] Dixon a lot. The funny thing is the Army had us medics set up, we had 20-year-old halftracks, like a mortar halftrack, pulling great big trailers like the tankers use for ammunition. That was really unhandy for us. I mean, those doors on a halftrack aren't very wide, and if you tried to put somebody in a litter, you'd bust your knuckles, and you had to push them up above your head to one side. It was very difficult to use it.
   And I actually lost a jeep in the drink coming in on the beach, so we got a three-quarter ton jeep, a weapons carrier, it looked like a jeep but it was a weapons carrier. So we used that for our supplies, and it had seats along the side. We put the litters and long stuff along the side, supplies and blankets and all that in there. And the medical sergeant, Sergeant Lingeman, built a cabinet that had space for everything.
   We didn't go in buildings, we were living in foxholes.

What do you remember about the first day, the first casualties that came in?
   Actually, the first casualties that I saw were Germans. They kept bringing them in. That was a little scary, too. There was one German lieutenant that we talked to, they carried their service records with them, where we had our service records in the company, so he had the picture, and the ID, and this guy's got a monocle, and he just looked like a typical version of a German lieutenant.
   He had the monocle in his picture in his service book, of course he didn't have it on him.
   Our tank battalion was fragmented a lot. This company went out with this unit, and this company went with that unit. So our battalion headquarters, our battalion command and so forth and service company, we really had a problem going out and finding out and giving immunizations and so forth. We took care of the casualties that were close, whatever medics were close to our people.
   I took care of a lot of paratroopers and British soldiers and infantrymen, and people from other units, because our battalion really didn't function like a battalion, like they did in Africa, where the whole battalion was fighting as a battalion. We had this company out with this regiment, and this platoon with this company, and they kept switching around, and our headquarters company didn't really command the whole battalion, they were more or less under the command of the infantry people that they were supporting. So it was kind of a situation, but then we always had people sick with colds...

Les O'Riley was saying that you and Doc Wojtowich had a wounded German, and Wojtowich accidentally snipped off a piece of his liver. Do you remember that?
Yes, that was at the Falaise Gap. We had encircled the Germans, and had them in a pocket, and just mass destruction, so many casualties. So we had gone out picking everybody up, and the Germans had used paper bandages. We used gauze. I don't know if it was a medical thing, or just financial necessity. Anyway, this guy had a big wound, and of course, a wound of entrance is always smaller than a wound of exit, so the wound was in the front and he had a big bandage on. Yet the German medics had put a big bandage on the wound of entrance, but the wound of exit was much bigger, and the tails of the bandage and everything were back, sticking out the back, and messed up a little trying to cut off the bandages.
   He [O'Riley] called us the liver-snipper. Hepatectomy.
  Oh, what a deal. After that, see, there was so much death and destruction, dead horses and everything, we decided we were gonna have to have immunizations again. So all of our guys had to have tetanus and typhoid and all that. So there was always something going on.
Do any cases, individuals stand out?
   Oh, yes. I remember very vividly, the hardest thing to take care of medically, the mortar, shell fragment wounds. Those mortar, shrapnel, just jagged, razor-sharp, all different shapes. And whether to take it out and run the chance of cutting someone on the way out. I don't know whether you've ever seen a piece of shrapnel, some of them just twisted, split, sharp knife edges.
   Well, anyway, I eased ... it was an American. ... Well, of course, Jim Flowers was our prize patient. I didn't work on him. I did go back to see him when he was in a field hospital.
   That was something else, keeping records was real tough. We started keeping a record of who was wounded and all that, it was quite a chore. Of course, the Army is so gung-ho on reports, that's how I got some of those notes.
   We always had sick, quite a few people that really were so sick they had to be evacuated, I mean like bleeding ulcer and all that kind of stuff that you had in civilian life. Stress.

What about frostbite?
   Yes, a lot of that. Trenchfoot and frostbite. And a lot of what we called combat fatigue, psychiatric casualties.

How did some of these manifest themselves?
   I don't know, it was just one of these, you know that you know. Gestalt. You know what gestalt means?
  There's several different things, but more than anything they were very agitated, so what they needed was just a little sleep, for a couple of weeks.
Somebody said there was something called a Green 88?
   Sodium amitol. It was a barbiturate. We didn't have a tranquilizer. It was sleeping pills, it would just put them to sleep, just get 'em out of their misery for a while. In fact, I went to a school of military psychiatry, and that's what they recommended.
   We had quite a few cases of frostbite, but not as many as the infantry. But as I say, I did take care of a lot of infantry people.
   The system of a battalion aid station is to send people to the rear, the impetus, to evacuation. I'd go to my tanks and bring them back to me, then somebody comes to me and brings them back. The people that are supposed to come up, pick up from the battalion aid stations, are collecting companies. Medical collecting companies are primarily ambulance drivers, but they had the same problem with me that I had with my tank platoons. We were so far out in front of things, there wasn't a static line, we were moving, they didn't know where we were. So we got in the habit of taking the cases back to the rear echelons.

What were some of the other shrapnel cases?
   Oh, gosh, everywhere. Legs mostly, abdomen, you couldn't do much with that, we just evacuated those guys. As a matter of fact, do you know what definitive treatment means, in other words we didn't do any amputations or abdominal surgery or anything like that. We gave them plasma and put on bandages and stopped their bleeding, and stopped their pain, and get them back to the hospital.

Did you have many who died while you were treating them?
   Oh gosh, yes. A couple of the officers, one that I'd played cards with. Remember Cliff Merrill? He didn't die, did he? The way he tells it, it was hysterical, it was a big joke. Have you talked to him? He was so tough

It wasn't like that?
   I think that was combat fatigue in both of us!

You said that toward the end of the war, you thought you had combat fatigue?
   I don't know, I just got so shook up.

What was the name of the lieutenant who you played cards with?
   I can't remember, but boy, he had severe, very early, down in Normandy. He just, "You've got to give me a drink of water," or something. That's really hard on the medics, of course.

What were the signs that you can think of that would indicate you had combat fatigue?
  Who, me? I never did get turned in, it was nothing official. I was numb after awhile. See, I was in the whole thing all the way. A lot of medics got rotated. I got rotated, but not very much. This really wasn't a good idea, but along just about the time they got through with the Battle of the Bulge, somebody in the hierarchy decided that the guys that had been combat medics in the medical detachments should be given a break, they're doctors, too, they ought to be put in the hospitals, and guys in the hospitals should be put up at the front. Well, that's ridiculous. We spent our time knowing where the tanks were and knowing how to find tanks, knowing how to take care of ourselves, knowing how to dig foxholes. I wouldn't have done any good in a hospital, and they wouldn't do any good down there because they would have got killed the first time because they wouldn't know how to take care of themselves. So that was a dumb idea. But I got rotated to one of these collecting companies, which was just an ambulance company, just behind us. And this Hamilton guy (Colonel Ed Hamilton), I was transferred to his outfit. He was wounded way ahead of when I got there.

In your notes, you said there was one time when you came close to getting the Purple Heart.
   Oh, yeah. Several. Joe Diorio, I had one medic killed and another one wounded and a couple of patients were killed just after I had left an aid station, and then I also got a mortar shell in the back of the jeep. I wasn't in the jeep, I'd just jumped out of the jeep. And then down at the Falaise Gap, I got covered up by the dirt from a shell. Not hurt. I got my hand mashed, but that was just with a stick that got lodged in between the handle of the jeep and the body of the jeep, ground that little finger. That was very early.
   The medical colonel gave me a shot of morphine, I couldn't even feel it. That was in Tennessee maneuvers. I'm just now thinking about it. When I said colonel, it was Colonel Hansen, it was the 10th Armored Division, that was before we even left the 10th Armored Division. Okay, that's what made me remember that.
   And then in the hedgerows, well, I lost a jeep just coming into the beachhead, it just sunk and we got a replacement. And then a mortar shell just dropped in, I had a big radio, I don't know why the medics, they thought the medics had to have one of these big tank radios, you're riding along behind this hedgerow and the Germans would see that aerial, uh-oh, boom. But we got out.

You had mentioned seeing a German lieutenant come out of a tank when they surrendered...
   Oh, that was funny. It's a long story. Okay. Big story. We're on our way out across France someplace, and the people back as far as division headquarters and corps headquarters seemed to think that there was the front line, and this is friendly, and this is enemy territory. Our battalion was out here like those arrows sticking around, and way out in front, this infantry comes charging through our place after we've been there for a day. I had to go and report or something, and I went back to division headquarters, which was quite a ways back, and the division surgeon said, "Oh, you're with a tank battalion, yes? Where's your battalion?" And I had my map, I showed him, he said, "Come and show me on the big map." Then he says, "You can't be there. That's all enemy territory."
  And I said, "Colonel, I've been in combat for X days, if I didn't know how to read a map I'd be dead."
  So I said, "Let's go in to G-3," the big operations map. And sure enough it's just red, red, red, enemy territory.
  So when I went back, I guess it was that night, during the night sometime, this tank comes just charging right down through battalion headquarters, medics and the maintenance. And Dixon got in that disabled tank and just fired point blank with a 105-millimeter or whatever it was, I think it was an assault gun, a 105-millimeter assault gun just point-blank into the tank, and just, of course, knocked it out.
   The lieutenant came out, you know, he's this kid, he was just wounded in the arm, I mean, it wasn't real bad. So I got to talking to him in German, and saying "Germany's kaput."
   "'No, nein, nein.'"
   I said, "Well, you're kaput."
   And he said, "What are you going to do with me?"
   We're still speaking in German. I said, "I'm gonna send you to Amerikanische hospital." Okay, so then we got to arguing. I said, "Well, you're kaput."
   And he says, "What's the matter?"
   And I says, "It's your arm. You've got a compound fracture there."
   He says, in perfect English, just like he was from Harvard or something, he says, "Which bone is it, Doctor, the radius or the ulna?"
     I didn't have too much trouble. Up in Falaise, this major, German medical officer, he was gonna help take care of the casualties. He was a PW, we put him to work. He didn't want his men to have morphine sulfate, he wanted them to have morphine hydrochloride, a different kind of preparation than we used, and kept arguing. So I called for the MPs to come and get him, I can't put up with it.
Describe the POWs that the battalion liberated
   Oh, good gosh. I think mostly Jewish. They were American soldiers, but I think they were mostly Jewish. I think the Germans had segregated them out. Maybe that was just a suspicion, I don't know whether that's founded or not. Oh, they were just absolutely skin and bones. Somebody came down from Stars & Stripes and took my picture, I think somebody has a picture somewhere.

What was it like at Flossenburg?
   Oh, that was a very calm thing. They just rolled in the front door, the tank, and that was the end of that. They just gave up.

What was your reaction to the inmates?
   Again, as I say, we didn't get too involved with trying to treat them. First they had to identify them.

How big a staff did you have?
   I think I had 25 enlisted men, and I usually had one more officer, Wojtowich. And for a while, there were three of us. Medical supply drivers, surgical technician and aid men.

Do you remember anything about Colonel Miller?
   I know the whole story.
  He was a West Pointer. He was a captain, and when the war broke out, he was suddenly promoted to lieutenant colonel. I told you that the 11th Armored Regiment had about 24 cadre men. He was one of them. Beverley Simms, who was a lieutenant. Colonel Morrow, I think his name was, a full bird colonel. Old man. Of course, we were 25 years old, 23. But he was a full colonel, probably 60 years old. Miller, lieutenant colonel, and a lieutenant. And I think that was about it, I think there were three or four officers, and 24 enlisted men.
   Well, because he was a West Pointer, he was made a battalion commander. And he was an obsessive, compulsive, extreme nit-picker personality. He did some real horrible things. I mean, like, here we are, as I say, everybody's scared to death, everybody's trying to do the best they can. When we got to England, we all had  new equipment, all new uniforms, all new vehicles, and everybody in the battalion was a specialist. Medics, tanker, tank driver, gunner, radio operator, tank mechanic, whatever. And he decides we're gonna have a 25-mile hike. I mean, none of those guys should have to walk a step in combat unless they got captured or something. They're gonna have a 25-mile hike. And whoever drops out, why, his platoon sergeant has to carry his weapon and his platoon leader his pack or vice versa, and the medics have to carry him.
   And then they're gonna do it over again, some other time. Just unreasonable things like that. And having staff do something over on Sundays. Did you see "The Caine Mutiny"? Do you remember, Fred MacMurray was the bumbling exec officer? The captain, the skipper, was nutty with the balls, and then the second in command was just... well, we had one of those guys in our outfit, Major Davis. He was a very inept,  kind of reminds you of Jimmy Carter, you know, with the smile and all that but doesn't know how to do anything. He just didn't. Major Davis just didn't know the war was on, I mean, really. But Colonel Miller bawls him out in front of all the troops. You know, if I had some GI, if I had some private that didn't do something, I'd say, "Hey, come here, how do you think I ought to handle this?" He says, "Well, captain, what do you think about 30 days KP?" And I'd say "Okay." What I'm trying to say is if I had a disciplinary problem, I didn't swear at him, I didn't do anything, I talked to him like he was a man. But Whitside just bawled poor old Davis out in front of the whole battalion, the officers, the men and everybody, embarrassed everybody.
Was that when he made him doubletime?
   Oh, I don't know. The specific incidents, probably everybody can remember at least one. But I mean, it was just bad. Twenty-five mile hikes. Oh, he was going to reclassify, I don't know whether you know what that means, reclassify, somebody's a tank driver, he's got all this schooling and everything, we're gonna send him back to the States and make him a foot soldier, infantryman, reclassify him because he can't make a 25-mile hike. It was just one thing like that after another. He was just an obsessive, compulsive, neurotic, trying to do his best, and had that West Point background.

Did he actually reclassify anybody?
   I think by that time we got a little control of the situation and wouldn't let him do some of these dumb things. But he did make, on some of these hikes, if a guy couldn't make the march, the lieutenant had to carry his weapon and the sergeant's gonna carry his pack. And the medics are gonna carry him, and if you think that isn't fun to carry somebody for 25 miles. I mean...
   I stood up for him. I think I was the only one that did. I wrote a great long letter, and I told them that I thought it was unfortunate. [Col. Whitside Miller was relieved of his command before the 712th Tank Battalion left England, and was replaced by Lt. Col. George B. Randolph. Col. Randolph was killed during the Battle of the Bulge.]

- - - 
Now Available in print and for Kindle

No comments:

Post a Comment