Thursday, December 24, 2015

Father Joe's "Most Memorable Christmas"

Cardinal Spellman in Vietnam. Father Joe is on the left.

My Most Memorable Christmas

Excerpted from "Foibles of Father Joe," by the Rev. Connell J. Maguire (1918-2012)
(c) 2012, Chi Chi Press

With the task of choosing my most memorable Christmas came awareness of the strength of memories of Christmases past.  Small wonder of course.  At Halloween we may change our surface appearance, but at Christmas we are transformed in feeling and behavior.  We find ourselves suddenly more loving, more giving and forgiving, kind, warm.  Even hard facts from the business world attest to this transformation.  Stores are jammed with people on a new mission – shopping not for themselves, but for those they love.  The second part of the testimony is even more impressive.  This shopping for others, for love, is far greater than any other shopping spree, for any other motive, year round.

What could cause this outpouring of our best except that deep within our spirits we sense that something of great joy has transpired.  There is a realization that Christmas brings a new relationship with the source of our life.  The Divine has become tangible in the form of a child.  A great outpouring of God’s love occurred which touches and moves us at the core of our being.  “The heart has its reasons the mind knows not of.”  For us at Christmas, heart and mind both embrace a great reality, ever present, everlasting.  And so the noisy, crowded aisles of stores and the quiet, reverent aisles of churches speak in response the same message of overflowing hearts.

That our memories are bright, then, is easy to understand, but choosing one is no less a task.  I remember so vividly a Christmas Midnight Mass on an aircraft carrier at Cannes, France, in 1953.  The decorated hangar deck was jammed with U.S. Navy men singing their hearts out in those first magic moments of Christmas, their voices traveling over the quiet waters of the anchorage to the Riviera hills.  I remember clearly the special quality of Christmas in Japan with all the ships in Sasebo port for the holidays.  We had to use a downtown theater to accommodate the crowd for Midnight Mass.  An all-Japanese choir sang carols in that rarefied, angelic tone of a people who seek their God first in beauty.  But though these are unforgettable, I must choose as the most memorable of all – Christmas 1965, in the land of beauty and terror, Vietnam.

So busy were the news media in reporting the terror that few found space for a description of its scene.  Vietnam is ineffably beautiful.  Mountains of every shade of green rise inland, peeping over each other’s shoulder until lost in a blue haze.  Rivers emerge from the hills, and wind across flat green plains patched with rice paddies.  Daytona-like beaches rim the land.  Our tents were on the instep of a mountain so at night, rather than looking up, you looked directly at the stars.  One Sunday morning as we admired this scenery from our shared jeep, Rabbi Reiner (on the way to his “weekday” service) remarked wistfully, “Everything is order except mankind.”

Christmas had to share in this paradoxical mixture of beauty and terror, joy and sadness, love and hate.  Rifles stuck up from the shoulders of Marines kneeling in prayer or standing to sing “Silent Night.”  This was to be their last Christmas in Vietnam, but Marine infantry casualties were very heavy.  For many a white Christmas was only a dream, never to be.  How would they return to America?  The question was always there.  Would it be on a seat in an airplane or in a box?  The loneliness of perhaps never returning home and the thought of the impact of “the box” on those at home, especially for a father, is a more persistent feeling than fear.

At Christmas 1965, into this scene, came an old man who had traveled the fronts of three wars, Francis Cardinal Spellman.  To some he may be a controversial figure in church history, but no one could deny his great affection for young Americans which motivated him to travel thousands of miles in all kinds of aircraft to assure the troops that they were appreciated and unforgotten.  His heart went out to all those young men, too young to vote on the policies determining their sad fate.  His message assuring them of the dignity of their lives was amplified by his frail condition.  To think he had come so far even though his legs were too weak to climb unaided the platform to the altar.

Father Joe and Cardinal Spellman in Vietnam

 We placed the altar on the same platform Bob Hope would use a few days later.  It could be said we tested it for him.  Early in the Mass, the jerrybuilt sound system went dead.  Chaplain Morton, a Lutheran, and Chaplain Garrett, a Methodist, came to our aid.  They raced to the compound at the end of the mud street of Hua Paat village, known as Dog Patch to the Marines, and came back with a portable lectern and mike in time for the Cardinal’s sermon.  The Cardinal was equal to the task of singing the Mass and in a strong voice expressed his greetings to a grateful assembly.  Shortly after he had given his blessing, one of his last, he was whisked off in a helicopter to Chu Lai Hospital to visit the wounded.

The monsoon rains which had held off during the Mass started again.  Protestant and Catholic chaplains had a cup of coffee together in the shelter of a tent and exchanged our own season’s wishes.  We were all a bit exhausted.  Conducting eve and midnight services and an early morning schedule in isolated areas had used up a lot of energy.  It was afternoon now on that Christmas of intense joy and sadness.  We would all remember that its light had shone brightly against the dark background.

The Vietnam War is far behind us, thank God.  A prayer that our land will lead the way to peace and justice is on our lips with every Christmas.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The angels of Bastogne

Augusta Chiwy

   Augusta Chiwy, a nurse who cared for the wounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, passed away in Belgium Sunday at age 94. In 2005, while I was in Syracuse, I was fortunate to interview Dr. Jack Prior, the 10th Armored Division battalion surgeon with whom she and Renee LeMaire worked. The following interview is excerpted from my book "The D-Day Dozen," available at Amazon and in the Kindle store.

Dr. John T. “Jack”  Prior
Manlius, N.Y., Feb. 18, 2005      
Battalion surgeon, 10th Armored Division

Aaron Elson: How did you end up in the 10th Armored Division?

Jack Prior: From the Carlisle Barracks, we were given orders to report to various units around the country. My assignment was to Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and I was assigned to an armored division.
An armored division has a lot of battalions. There are three infantry battalions, three tank battalions, three artillery battalions, an engineer battalion, a medical battalion, an antiaircraft battalion, an antitank battalion, a cannon and recon squadron, and then an engineer battalion. Then you have the aid unit, you have division headquarters with the finance officer and the quartermaster, the judge advocate general, and the band. Every armored division had a band.

Aaron Elson: You said you remember when General Newgarden was killed. [General Paul Newgarden, the original commanding officer of the 10th Armored Division, died in a plane crash in 1944.]

Jack Prior: Yes I do. I hadn’t been there very long when he was killed, but we did meet him. He had all the new medical officers over for a meeting and introduced himself and he was a very dynamic personality. It  seemed to me that maybe he told us his father or some relative was a physician. He was worshiped by the men in his armored division. He had a little bit of Patton in him and I think he gave that unit an esprit that made it a good outfit. And his widow still, I think she died within the last year, Priscilla was her name, Priscilla Newgarden, she turned up at all the alumni reunions of the division. When he was killed in a plane crash they had a big ceremony and I can remember, that was the first time I’d seen her, she rode in the caisson with the casket and they had a big funeral there at Fort Gordon. And apparently everybody loved her like they loved her husband, a great girl.
This was a good armored division. They’d been anxious to get into the fray. People have a hard time to understand that sometimes, but they’d been in Fort Gordon quite a while before I got there. They’d been in the wartime games called the Tennessee Maneuvers. No matter how bad things were in Bastogne, there would be somebody there that said, “Captain, it was a hell of a lot worse in the Louisiana and the Tennessee maneuvers.” Apparently they got cold, and they got snakes and bugs. I got there just in time to miss the maneuvers. I’m glad I did.

Aaron Elson: How did you cross the Atlantic?

Jack Prior: That was interesting. We went to Camp Shanks for the staging. We were there a couple of weeks. We immunized everybody. And then we were trucked to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where we got on a ship called the Brazil I think is the name of it, and it was a luxury liner. And they loaded up, it couldn’t have been all the division, but several thousand people were on that, and we were jam-packed. And I can remember waking up when the ship took off, it shuddered a little bit, then I went back to sleep. Woke up in the morning and we were about 50 or 100 yards out from Brooklyn, and we had run aground.
[Actually, the 10th Armored boarded the USS Alexander, which ran aground in the Brooklyn Narrows, and the troops were transferred to the USS Brazil.]
Here are all these troops on this ship, and the rumor got around that once you were shipwrecked they couldn’t send you to Europe. But of course nothing could be more false. They had admirals out there and engineers and divers and they decided the ship couldn’t go on. So they got out barges, put us all on the barges, took us back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where we slept on the floor for probably two or three days while they found another ship, loaded it up with food, and then this ship took off all by itself. In the meantime, the convoy had gone ahead and we were going along with absolutely no protection. Then one morning we woke up and we went on deck and here we were right in the middle of the convoy, so we caught up with it. There were convoy scares, they said there was a submarine at one time, but I don’t know whether it was a rumor or whether it actually was. We ended up landing at Cherbourg. The whole division came into Cherbourg, and from Cherbourg we stayed in apple orchards in pup tents, this was [in September]. D-Day was in June. So the fighting was somewhere around St. Lo at the time. We weren’t exposed to that.
Our first action was to take the city of Metz. Metz had a lot of outlying small fortifications, and our first action was taking one of these small towns, and ultimately Metz fell rather quickly. So we’d had some action when we got dispatched in the Ardennes.

Aaron Elson: What was your first casualty like?

Jack Prior: I don’t remember the first, but I remember the first action  that I got really involved in was in Noville, which is northeast of Bastogne, and we were overrun there. That was like an old-time Western. They were fighting in the streets. And all of a sudden I began to see head wounds, I saw belly wounds, and I saw chest wounds, lots of fractures. We were overwhelmed with casualties, and because I couldn’t treat them all at the time I began sending them back. But then all of a sudden we had no transportation. My halftrack was hit, so I had no way to get people back to the hospital. I assumed there was a hospital in Bastogne. I didn’t know whether it would be army or civilian, but my objective was to get these people back there. And the casualties kept increasing. They blew the second story off the building. We were crawling along on the floor to treat these patients.
The aid station was in a bar. We used a bar usually for our aid station because there was a big room and you could put litters on the floor and take care of people. I had a dental officer with me who outranked me, really, and he and I were doing the first aid and they sent a messenger over from across the street, somehow he got across the street, and he said, “We’re leaving. We’re going back to Bastogne.”
Here I was with probably 15 to 20 seriously injured on the floor, no litters, and I said, “I won’t be going. I’m gonna stay with these people. They’re my patients and I want to see that they get in good German hands for their medical care.” In the meantime I burned up all our records, all the paperwork in this unit, who was there, what they had, the time we gave them morphine, who had tourniquets. Everything was on fire. I burned it up in a corner of the room, because we were instructed to get rid of all records if you’re overwhelmed.
I went down to the basement to see most of my detachment. I had 30 men, they were aid men, litter bearers and truck drivers, not skilled in taking care of people. I went down in the cellar and there was an old man and his wife down there. It was their bar and restaurant. They’d been saying their beads all the time this was going on. And I said, “I need some volunteers.” The silence was deafening. We didn’t get any. So I went back up, and just at that time some of the tank crews were leaving the town. They ran in, “Doc, we’re leaving,”
I said, “I can’t go. I haven’t got any litters.”
They pulled the doors off all the rooms, made litters, put these doors onto their vehicles, they were on jeeps, they were on halftracks, they were on tanks, and they went down the road to go back to Bastogne [which was about five miles away].
We got down that road and it was dark. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It gets dark pretty early in the Ardennes. It doesn’t get daylight till 8 o’clock in the morning, but it was beginning darkness. The Germans had infiltrated both sides of the road. They moved into Noville and began dumping their artillery on us on this road. So we jumped into the ditches, and in the meantime these fellows on the tanks and on those doors are screaming, “Get us off!” But the Germans were sweeping the road with machine gun and small arms fire. The dentist and I were in the same ditch,  he’d been in the unit a little longer than I had. I said to him, “Matt” – his name was Maitland, they called him Matt – I said, “Matt, do you think we’re gonna get out of this?”
He said, “We would if you take off your helmet” – medical officers wore helmets, as did aid men, with a big red cross. He said, “They can see that.”
In the meantime, they were chipping at a fencepost over my head, and I didn’t listen to him. I kept my helmet on.
About that time, the 101st Airborne arrived. They came in when we were in the ditches and when we were taking these people off the vehicles. And the 101st Airborne came in on foot, they didn’t jump, they had jumped into D-Day and the Netherlands, but they came in on foot. They had been on leave after the Holland episode, and they were poorly equipped. Some of them had their dress uniforms on. They had low-cut shoes. They didn’t have overcoats. And many of them didn’t have weapons. They picked up weapons as they came in. They’d been on leave and they got the urgent message, “Get into Bastogne.” And that they did. They drove the trucks through the streets of Paris, these guys were on leave, and they hollered “101st Airborne!” And these fellows would run into the trucks, they trucked them right into Bastogne. And I’ve often said that had not the 101st Airborne arrived, on foot, I’d still be there, there wouldn’t be any way we were gonna get out of there.
But they got us back to Bastogne, and the 101st Airborne was at one end of the town and the 10th Armored was at the other end. I have great respect for those guys. An outstanding unit and they still are. It’s one of the best units in the Army today.

Aaron Elson: Was your aid station combined in Bastogne with the 101st?
Jack Prior: No, that was very interesting. I maintained my own. I had a garage at first and I couldn’t heat it. I kept getting casualties. So I went to a three-story building. I was probably holding somewhere around 80 patients. I took two buildings. In one building I had the worst cases, the most severely injured, and in the other one I had the walking wounded, the fractures, and the psycho cases, which we called combat fatigue in those days. I had a lot of that.
And at this time, I’ve told the story many times, two Belgian nurses appeared. They were in their twenties, and they asked if they could help. And I want to tell you, help we needed. They were welcomed. One was Renee Lemaire, and the other was Augusta Chiwy. I still hear from Augusta, and Renee was in the building on Christmas Eve, December 24. I was in the building next door where the walking wounded were, preparing to go into the building where the serious people were which was next door, when one of my men said, “Do you know what day today is?” and I said “No.”
He said, “This is Christmas Eve.”
He said, “I’ve got a bottle of champagne here, would you like some?” So we got out our canteen cups and we each had a couple swigs of champagne.
Then, just as I walked out the door to go where I was going, I heard the whistle of a bomb, which was the first bomb I’d ever heard. We hadn’t been bombed before. And it hit the building where all the most seriously injured were, and it became a pile of flaming rubbish, just collapsed.
We ran to the building, or what was left of it, and threw off timbers. We still could hear some noise in there, but the bomber that was up there, and it must have been a smaller plane, he came back and machine-gunned us as we stood out against the snow. It was cold. There was probably two feet of snow in Bastogne all the time we were there. He could see us moving around. He threw flares out so that the night was just like daylight, very bright. So he saw us and he would strafe us. And we’d slide under vehicles, he’d lace the area with machine gun fire, then he’d go back, and then he’d come down again. The result was we didn’t salvage anybody.  Renee Lemaire was in the basement I think. Most people think that’s where she was. We recovered her body when the road opened and we began dissecting this building and we found and identified I think everyone that was in there. A terrible task, but we did it.
There’s a story about Renee. About the 22nd or 23rd, they began parachuting supplies into Bastogne, 500 tons of equipment was parachuted into Bastogne, with different colored parachutes. White might be ammunition. Blue might be food. Medical supplies were another color, and these parachutes came in. There were 1,500 packages that came into Bastogne. Some of the equipment went to the Germans, because they were all around us. But those that came were not centralized, nobody said we’re gonna distribute this equally. The 101st got more because they had more men in there. And we got what we could. But Renee, when she would be working with me, taking care of these people, would leave me when the parachutes came down because she wanted a parachute. She was engaged to be married, and she was going to take this parachute for her wedding dress. Of course, Renee, when we uncovered her body I wrapped it in a white parachute. Her family was still there, they had elected to stay in Bastogne, and I met her mother and father there.
They have a sizable monument to Renee, and when we went back for the 50th anniversary we dedicated a plaque which I had made here, a bronze plaque at the site of the building that was bombed, and Renee’s name is there along with the 30-odd that I think were in that building at the time.
Now, there are other stories, I thought of a lot after I gave the talk the other day that I didn’t talk about, but there are other stories about things going on in Bastogne. People say, “Were you discouraged?” No. There was not discouragement there. Everybody felt we’re gonna get out of this. In fact, the attitude was, “They’ve got us surrounded, those bastards, now we can attack them on all sides.” We did get an offer to surrender, and I kept a copy of the surrender offer from the Germans. Four Germans came in, two officers and two enlisted men with a white flag, and they said in essence, this: The fortune of war is changing. This is a copy of what they said, and it was in English. “At this time the United States forces in and around Bastogne are encircled by strong German armored units. German armored units have crossed” – and they listed the rivers they’ve crossed, the towns they have taken, and then they said there is only one possibility to save the encircled United States troops from annihilation – “That is an honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think this over, a term of two hours will be granted, beginning with the presentation of this note. If this proposal should be rejected, one German artillery corps, six heavy antiaircraft battalions are ready to annihilate U.S. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two-hour term. All the serious civilian losses caused by artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.” Signed, the German commander.
Now, they tell me, I wasn’t there when it happened, but [General Anthony] McAuliffe had been dozing. McAuliffe was not the commanding general of the 101st, he was the artillery commander with one star, and he had been dozing when they woke him up to show him this thing. He read it, and he threw it down and said, “Nuts.” Then he looked at his staff and said, “How will we answer this?”
They said, “Why don’t you say what you just said?”
He said, “What did I say?”
They said, “You said, ‘Nuts.’”
He said, “Well, that’s good enough. Send it back.”
Now I made the point that “Nuts” was kind of confusing, because that was a term we used when I was growing up when you were frustrated, when you hit your finger with a hammer, or when you got back a C minus on your French test. But it didn’t really fit, I don’t think. But anyway, they went back to the Germans and said “Nuts.”
So they said, “Is this affirmative or negative?” And they were assured it was negative. And they wanted more amplification, so one of the Americans said, “It means ‘Go to hell.’”
Now, I never knew this until years later, there was a magazine named Colliers, and they had an interview with Field Marshal Von Runstedt, who was the overall German commander; he was a fine soldier in the tradition of Frederick the Great, he was the best the Germans had, and he was not a member of the Nazi party and he had no use for Hitler. He always referred to Hitler as corporal, that was Hitler’s rank in the First World War. But anyway, they tell me that he very seldom gave interviews, and he did give an interview, and the upshot was when he read this, he said, “I wish those guys were on our side,” which I think is quite interesting.
The other thing the Germans did, they parachuted in, or sent in by artillery, leaflets like these, which are kind of humorous, telling us to surrender, and these were collected like baseball cards. Everybody wanted a different one, to see how many they could get. They didn’t frighten anybody
Well, the other thing that frightened us, and I made a point of this when I talked to the group that day, was the fact that Hitler created a special unit under the command of a guy named Skorzeny. Skorzeny was a favorite of Hitler’s. He was no more than a colonel, but he had rescued Mussolini from northern Italy in 1943. Mussolini was in the mountains in the north and the partisans were about to kill him, and Skorzeny came in and rescued him and he became a favorite of Hitler’s. And Hitler, when he devised, I didn’t tell you this, but Hitler planned this whole operation, and the operation was to go through the Ardennes on the way to Antwerp where all American supplies and British supplies were coming in. Hitler wanted ammunition, he wanted weapons, he wanted gasoline. And that was where they were going.
Skorzeny apparently spoke fine English, and he was ordered to put together a unit that spoke English. So they ended up with probably 100 or 150 people who were dressed in American uniforms. As they overran us, they took the uniforms off our people, put them on, took our vehicles, drove into our lines, and these were English-speaking Germans. So if you bumped into somebody you didn’t know and there were plenty of them in Bastogne that you didn’t know, you had concern, was this one of us or one of them? And what they did – usually you had a password but there was no way to get a password out,  the 101st was in one end of the town and we were in the other, and it was impossible, the shelling was continual, you didn’t go out and move around much – but since you didn’t know the password, the only way you could identify them, they would ask, “Who was Harry James married to?” That was Betty Grable. “What’s the name of Mickey Mouse’s wife?” Minnie. Or the questions they’d say, “Are the Cubs in the American or the National League?” And they tell the story, and I don’t know whether this is true, but General Bradley was stopped by one of the sentries, the sentry asked him what the capital of Illinois was, and Bradley promptly answered “It is Springfield.” The sentry was convinced it was Chicago. I don’t know if it’s true, but it is a good story.
So anyway, Skorzeny was there, and Hitler also had some paratroopers in there. He was not a fan of paratroopers, he had bad luck with them in Crete. Somehow or other he had very little use for them, but he put paratroopers in there, and the Germans of course were all garbed in white, which was great camouflage, and he parachuted in these German paratroopers. He brought them in at night, the Ardennes is a very thick forest, and they came into this thick forest which isn’t good for jumping, and they were to disrupt communications, they were to blow up bridges, turn around road signs, cut all our lines, our cables. They never amounted to much other than psychological. The psychological effect of Skorzeny’s men and these paratroopers was quite impressive, because you were always concerned that they were in the town with us, and we had to know that.
The Ardennes is a very thick forest. It looks mostly like our Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley down there. It’s beautiful country. The roads are narrow. There are peat bogs. There are gorges. There are streams and some of the best trout fishing in the world I guess is in the Ardennes. It is continual fog from the North Sea that comes in. As I said, it doesn’t get daylight until 8 o’clock. It gets dark early. So it was a failure of the American intelligence to appreciate that even though this was not desirable country to fight, it had been done before. The Kaiser went through there in 1914, and Rommel took some troops through it in 1941 when he took over the low countries there and got into France. So it was possible to get in there, but the American intelligence said nobody will come in through there, the Germans don’t have any troops in that area. There are a few, someone characterized them as dwindling firefighters and young boys. That’s all that’s in there, you don’t need to worry about the Ardennes.
In the movie, I think if you’ve seen the movie “Battle of the Bulge,” Henry Fonda rides a Piper Cub over there and sees the Germans massing this tremendous force, 600,000 troops, 28 divisions were in there. Can you imagine? And we had four divisions to stop them. Twenty-eight divisions they brought in, and these were skilled troops. They had been fighting, they knew their officers, they knew how to handle battle. They had superior equipment. And they moved this mass of troops in there without our knowing it, and they did it somehow by having low-flying planes in the area making noise so you wouldn’t hear the tracks of the vehicles. They put pine boughs on the road and straw to stop the noise of the vehicles going over. So they amassed this great force and apparently at Army headquarters of the Third Army at least, there was a General Strong, he was the chief of intelligence, he was convinced there was nobody there. There was one man on his staff by the name of Monk Dixon, I can’t remember his first name, they called him Monk [Benjamin “Monk” Dixon, thank you Wikipedia]. He had talked with  Belgian civilians who were coming through the area, and they told him, “There’s something going on there, the Germans are massing a tremendous force,” but nobody paid attention to Monk. They laughed at him. They used to say he sees a Nazi in back of every bush. So they downplayed it. He was the only guy that I can ever remember that really sensed that our intelligence wasn’t worth a darn. Sort of like what’s going on today.

Aaron Elson: Going back to the aid station, you had said that there were some psycho cases, the combat fatigue. Could you describe how some of those manifested themselves, what they did or what they looked like?

Jack Prior: Yes. Mostly I remember them sitting in a corner, crying, or with their head down, trying to sleep. No communication. You couldn’t talk to them. Of course this is how Patton got in trouble, slapping one of those fellows. But there was a lot of it. And it’s understandable, because  two of the divisions had had no combat whatsoever. They didn’t even know their fellow soldiers, to say nothing of their leaders, and the best thing they could do when they were hit was run. And some of these troops ran, left their vehicles with the tank motor running, the lights on, just get the hell out of here, and a whole division, the 106th Division, was the worst. They ran first and fastest. And the commanding general of the 106th was relieved on the spot. Right on the spot he developed a coronary as he was relieved. Allen Jones his name was. A two-star general. He was evacuated immediately to England with his coronary and that was the end of his career.

Aaron Elson: Were you there when the 4th Armored broke through?

Jack Prior: I was there when they came in.

Aaron Elson: What was that like?

Jack Prior: That’s a story that I haven’t told too much. They came in to Bastogne, and what troops do sometimes when they took towns, they would kick in the window of a store, and if there was some clothing in there they might put a top hat on, or they might find a woman’s dress for sale, they’d dress up once in a while. And when the 4th Armored came in, we were still dissecting the building, trying to get the bodies.
Along with the 4th Armored came General Maxwell Taylor, who was the two-star general who should have been in Bastogne but who had gone home during that leave allegedly for a conference but more probably to have a nice Christmas with the family. Anyway, he missed the boat.
So there we were working, and all of a sudden I turned around and here was a tall guy, he was taller than I was, with a helmet with two stars on it. So I went over, saluted him and told him who I was. He said, “What are you doing?”
So I explained to him. In the meantime, all these enlisted men, these GIs, were walking by, looking him up and down, not saluting – you know, they’d never seen a general, I’m sure, and some of them had a top hat on, some of them were walking with a cane they found, and they weren’t paying a bit of attention to Taylor. And one of them, he grabbed on the shoulder and turned him around, and he said, “Soldier, do you salute officers?”
And this guy said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Salute me.”
You know, there hadn’t been any saluting in Bastogne I might say. So the guy saluted him. And then Taylor turned to me and said, “Who is that? Is this one of your men?”
And I said, “No, Sir. They are not my men. I have nothing to do with them.”
He said, “I want you to find their commanding officer and I want him back here and I’m coming back in ten minutes!” This is Taylor doing this.
So I did what I think was probably a good plan. My first sergeant saw all this.
“Sergeant, you heard that. Find him.” So I didn’t expect that he would turn him up. A few minutes later, the sergeant came back. He said, “I know where he is.”
I said, “Where is he?”
He said, “He’s in a cellar down this road.”
So I walk down the road. And here was a brand new second lieutenant. He’d just arrived. He had some maps he was looking at. And I said, “Have you ever heard of a guy named General Taylor?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t know anything about General Taylor.”
I said, “He wants to meet you.” So I told him what had happened.
He said, “Well, you aren’t going back there, are you?”
I said, “Yeah, I’m going back. But what I’ll do is tell him I can’t find you. I don’t know what’s gonna happen then.”
So, he thanked me very much. I left and I went back and continued the job. Never saw Taylor again. I had forgotten that story.

Aaron Elson: Now were you a battalion surgeon?

Jack Prior: Right.

Aaron Elson: Did you do a lot of amputations?

Jack Prior: There were some amputations, a lot of them, being done in Bastogne. Even before the road opened, there was a surgeon who came in in a Piper Cub. They brought him into Bastogne, and the plane was shot a little bit when they landed in a field, but he was unscathed. He got out of that plane and he had a sack with a basic instrument set, and he had been told by wireless communication that there were 60 seriously ill in Bastogne. The figure should have been 600, but it went out as 60. So this guy got out, and I met him, and this was about the first time I had been in the 101st Airborne’s area. They’d taken over what was a Belgian army barracks. The Belgian army didn’t exist anymore. But they took over this barracks and there was a riding hall there, and on this riding hall floor, you can imagine the bacteria because they had no litters. They had 600 litter cases, and all these litter cases that had extremity wounds were developing gas gangrene. I saw gas gangrene for the first time there. And this surgeon, I had a letter from him after the war, we corresponded a couple of times, but he decided that in all the time it would take him to do a chest or a head wound, he’d better do these amputations. So around the clock he amputated, and I went in and helped him. I did a number myself and helped him. My people, we found some hydrogen peroxide, somehow, in Bastogne, probably in a drugstore, and we irrigated our wounds with hydrogen peroxide, figuring that getting oxygen to these wounds would keep down the clostridia bacteria. I don’t know whether it did or not but I didn’t see in my own people gas gangrene. Tetanus is a close relative and I didn’t see any tetanus. Of course we were all immunized against tetanus, so maybe that protected them.

Aaron Elson: What was it like? Do you remember any specific cases, when these young men would learn that they had lost a limb?

Jack Prior: I remember in that riding hall they announced to this group, they had just been talking with the general, there was moaning and groaning and crying, it was terrible to live with, and they were not able, there was no morphine. There was plasma. The plasma froze and wouldn’t run most of the time, but they announced, all of a sudden it got quiet, and they said, “We’ve just been talking with General Patton. He is now ten miles out of town. He’ll be here within minutes.” And they hollered and whooped and shouted and cheered. Here were guys that were dying waiting for help.
Before we left Bastogne – we stayed in Bastogne until the end of January, we had to get refitted and we needed vehicles and needed people, but before we left, each unit commander, and I had probably the smallest unit with 30 guys, was given situation maps, and I think these are interesting and explains why the Bulge got its name. This is in the beginning of the Bulge, here you see where the Germans are coming from. And this is my unit here, in Noville. And they blew our lines, and there’s not a bulge at this time, but the Germans are massing here, here, they’re coming from the north, they’re coming from the south. I’ll show you what happens as day by day goes by.
Here, let’s skip a little. This is on the 21st. Now, you can see still, they aren’t getting in, there’s not much of a bulge here, most of the action is here. Now it gets interesting. Our lines are shrinking, we’re pulling back. Here’s Bastogne in the center. Bastogne was important to the Germans because it had five highways, and rail lines that they thought they’d need on their way to Antwerp. You can see where the Germans are massing. This is the first time the Air Force appeared. Some of our planes got up there and they would catch these Germans on the road, and napalm them.

Aaron Elson: Really?

Jack Prior: They had napalm, set them on fire. As you can see, they had done a great job here on the 23rd. And then we’ll skip again to the 26th, and this is an interesting thing because they identified the German units here. They tell you which units are, and how many of them are, as you can see we’re shrinking. And this was the day after Christmas.
At this time, we’re beginning to see some movement here, and this is Patton coming in here from the southwest, and this is the breakthrough that he got. He had to go 100 miles and fight all the way. Nobody thought he could do it, except Patton.
In fact, when he was called in to see Eisenhower as this thing was developing, Eisenhower explained what happened, the terrible situation, and he said, “George, how long would it take you to get into Bastogne?”
And Patton without batting an eyelash said “Forty-eight hours and I’ll be there.”
And Eisenhower was angry. He said to him, “George, this is not a time to be facetious. How long?”
He said “Forty-eight hours.”
And he did it! He’s buried there. Have you been over there?

Aaron Elson: No, not to the Ardennes.

Jack Prior: He’s buried just outside of Luxembourg in the village of Hamm. There’s an American cemetery there, and there are 5,000 white crosses and stars of David. And then one-quarter of a mile down the road there’s a German cemetery with 10,000 of them, and they’re all black crosses. But here they are, two old enemies, sleeping together.

Aaron Elson: You said you had 30 men in your unit?

Jack Prior: About 30.

Aaron Elson: And were many of those killed?

Jack Prior: No. Interestingly enough, the dentist was the first casualty. He was in the kitchen when the bomb hit, where the girl that survived, Augusta Chiwy, I hear from her, in fact I got a box of candy from her for Christmas. We exchange gifts, and I’ve seen Augusta twice. I’ve been over there twice. She was apparently in the kitchen and one wall of the kitchen was glass, there were glass doors, and she and the dentist were blown out. The dentist I found as soon as we could get to him. He was hollering that “I’m blind! I’m blind!” And when we got to look at him, what had happened, he had a bad scalp laceration going through the glass, and his eyes were coated, filled up with blood. He became a casualty, psychiatric, he was worthless after that. I evacuated him with the rest of the people before we left Bastogne. I saw him after the war, he stopped by here one time ten years after the war, he looked me up, and he’s fine, he had a good dental practice. He recovered nicely, and he became a very active guy in our alumni association.

Aaron Elson: Now, after Bastogne, what did you do, in February and March?

Jack Prior: We went on, moving I think south from Germany, taking village after village. There weren’t very many big ones. Trier was one of them. There wasn’t much fighting in Trier. The Germans were retreating and we were following them.

Aaron Elson: Did you treat many German wounded?

Jack Prior: Yup. Now I have a story, do you want to hear that one?
All right. After the war, I did – first of all, let me say we did treat the Germans. We didn’t give them first priority. We took care of our own but we also took care of them.
 In my 30 men I had probably 10 or so who were Jewish. They were good soldiers, but they didn’t like the fact that I was giving the Germans plasma. So once I got the plasma running it wasn’t unusual for one of them to walk over to the German who’s lying there getting the plasma and say, “Jude blood, Jude blood.” To make them miserable.
Now, the one story that I think is interesting is when I got home and was working at the hospitals, I got a letter probably five years after I’d been home from a guy named Hans Dorscheid, and he lived in a little town outside of Munich. He wrote me that I took care of him when he was wounded, and he wanted to strike up a penpal I guess. He got my name off the emergency medical tag. We tagged people with the name, the site they were hit, or the location, and what unit they belonged to. So I didn’t particularly care about carrying on a penpal, but I got two or three letters, and I didn’t answer.
He showed up at our reunions a couple times, I heard about that. He wanted to join the 10th Armored alumni association. So they took a vote and they brought him in as an emeritus or honorary member. I didn’t see it. But when I went back the first time to Bastogne, I dug out his letters and I thought, I wasn’t nice to Hans Dorscheid. Maybe I should tell him I’m gonna be in Germany and I’d like to meet him. So I wrote a letter to Hans and said on a certain day I will be in Munich in such and such a hotel, with a group of our alumni. The guys I was traveling with all knew this story about Hans, and they were kind of anxious to see him too. So no sooner had I gotten in the hotel when the phone rang. It was Hans. And he said, “I’m here. I’m at the railroad station, and I’m coming to your hotel.”
So I said, “Well Hans, how will I know you?”
And he said, “I walk with a stick.”
And I thought, stick? I said, “Hans, what are you going to do with that stick?” All of a sudden it occurred to me that this guy might not like what I did, that maybe this is malpractice after all these years. So I said, “What are you gonna do with that stick, Hans? Are you gonna hit me with it?”
He said, “Oh, no, no, Doctor” – he called me Doctor, spoke good English – he said, “I want to see you.”
Well, of course all the guys in my unit who were on this trip with us all sat around the lobby, we all sat there, I sat there. This man comes in, he’s tall, good looking, handsome, taller than I am, and walked across the lobby, limping, and he had a cane, the stick. So I let him walk a little bit, and then I went over, and I said, “Hans, I’m Dr. Prior.”
Well, he was so glad to see me, he said, “I want to thank you for what you did.”
It seems, though, he was 14 years old, and he was a messenger boy, and he was in a field, and we shelled the field, and his captain he told me was killed instantly in front of him. Here’s a 14-year-old kid, and he said, “I was brought to your aid station,” and he said, “You took time to take care of me, and you left me in a farmhouse where you knew the troops were coming along and they would pick me up.”
Well, what happened is they picked up Hans, and he apparently traveled right along with the American wounded and in the same ward he got to learn English, and he got to be very fond of the American troops. He loved Americans. And they brought him back to London. He had severed a perineal nerve in the back of his leg and they sent him to London to be seen by a well-known English neurosurgeon to see if they could  repair the nerve. He had foot drop, he couldn’t walk with one leg. So he sat down then and talked to all of us and told us what it was like being a German veteran. It was quite interesting. He had a lousy pension. He said he didn’t get enough, he could hardly feed his family. They had no car. He traveled on the railroad. He had no television. He was well-dressed but he said this was his only suit. He didn’t have many clothes. And we were all fascinated to hear what it was like to be a German after the war.
So I left him and he said “I’ll look you up. I’m coming to America.” So I gave him directions where I would be, what town I was in. He said he’d come, but he never did.

Aaron Elson: What a wonderful story.

Jack Prior: Isn’t that interesting?

Aaron Elson: Now tell me a little bit about yourself after the war, when you came back. You married after the war?

Jack Prior: I came back and opened the mail and there was a Dear John letter. I was engaged to be married. Which shook me up quite a little. I had planned to get married the minute I got off the boat. But she found a fighter pilot. I didn’t fly. But anyway, I went into my residency and found a lovely girl, and we’ve been happily married sixty-odd years. So the story ends up all right.

Aaron Elson: And your children?

Jack Prior: We’ve got six children. They’re quite an interesting lot. One is a retired Navy SEAL. One is a lieutenant colonel now at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He’s a careerist, and he’s slated to even go to Carlisle for the War College. I think he’s good. He’ll be a good officer. I think he’ll go all the way. If he doesn’t go there, he’s going to Iraq, which has got us kind of concerned.
One of our kids is a Ph. D. chemist, runs the genetic laboratory at Ohio State University medical school, he runs their DNA lab. One is married to a doctor in town, Dr. Stramp, whose father developed this whole area out here, he’s an internist. One is married to a forester, he works for a big paper company in Maine. They met in college. And, let’s see...

Aaron Elson: That’s five.

Jack Prior: Finally, I’ve got one who’s a cytotechnologist. He works in Springfield, Mass. A cytotechnologist screens slides for tumor cells, pap smears, and he’s been in that business for ten or fifteen years. I guess that covers it.

Jennifer Horvath [Jennifer was a student at Syracuse University who accompanied me on the interview]: How many grandchildren do you have?

Jack Prior: Nineteen.

Jennifer Horvath: Nineteen!!!

Jack Prior: And my wife sends them all presents for Christmas and their birthdays and graduation. I fight it, but they all get it.

Aaron Elson: Do you have any great-grandchildren?

Jack Prior: No. I’m waiting for that. I’d like to see one.

Jennifer Horvath: How old is the oldest grandchild?

Jack Prior: Oh, the oldest grandchild graduated from college one or two years ago. He went to Lewis and Clark out there in Seattle. I kidded him about that school, they don’t know anything about it, I call it “Sacagawea University.”

Aaron Elson: Did any of your sons go to Vietnam?

Jack Prior: No. The one that’s a lieutenant colonel was in Korea, but there wasn’t any fighting. I’m very proud of him. I think he’ll get a star. He looks good. And he’s good at what he does, and he loves his work and he gets outstanding efficiency reports, so I think he’ll go.

Aaron Elson: Is he the one who went to Manlius?

Jack Prior: No. The one at Manlius became the SEAL.

Aaron Elson: And how old is he?

Jack Prior: Well, let’s see, he’s got to be, probably 53 or 54. And he teaches ROTC to high school students in San Diego. They don’t have much of that around here, ROTC in high school.

Jennifer Horvath: No, not in high school.

Jack Prior: There’s one in Mexico, New York, for some reason there was a unit there, but it didn’t work.

Jennifer Horvath: They have Civil Air Patrol, it’s like for younger ...

Jack Prior: It’s a good thing for kids. These kids love it, and it’s a way for them to get scholarships, get into college, and it keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. And they’re very active out there in San Diego, they go to all the parades, and they have a color guard for everything. John loves it out there.

Jennifer Horvath: How did you end up in Manlius?

Jack Prior: We lived 40 years in DeWitt, and we sold that house and decided everybody’s gone, it was just me and my wife, so we came here. We’ve been here 18 years.

Aaron Elson: How did you wind up working in this area?

Jack Prior: When I got out of the service I first of all didn’t want to stay in the Army as a doctor, but I felt I hadn’t done any real medicine, that I’d regressed in the two and a half years that I was in Europe, so I thought what I’ll do is get a residency in pathology. Pathology is the basis for all medicine. It’s a good place to get refreshed. So I came back here, I was still in the Army, still waiting to get out. They put me on an induction team which traveled between Buffalo, Albany and Syracuse doing physical exams on inductees, which was not a very stimulating job, except I would go to the medical schools in each town to see if they had an opening. This was a little late getting home, because a lot of the residencies were gone. I came here and the residency was full, but they said there might be a job in Binghamton. They had a residency in Binghamton General. So I went down to Binghamton, took a year there, and then came back here for the three years in Syracuse. I wanted a teaching environment, and when I came back I brought the boss’s secretary, who is the redhead that I married.

Aaron Elson: When you were giving physicals, did you do that during the war also?

Jack Prior: A lot of physicals.

Aaron Elson: Tell me about syphilis. Did you encounter any soldiers who failed that, what was it called?

Jack Prior: There’s an interesting story too. Gee, I hope I’m not going on here too long. One of the things that battalion surgeons had to do was go out and talk to the troops about venereal disease, and anything else you wanted to talk about, but you had so many lectures that you were commanded to give, and one of the lectures along with venereal disease, I would talk about what to do when you’re hit. When you’re hit, I was finding that these guys, immediately they were hit they’d scream, “Medic! Medic! Medic!” Scream and holler. Sometimes it took minutes or even sometimes even longer before an aid man could get to them, and I said, “In that interval, instead of hollering ‘Medic!’ all the time, we’ll find you, but check your own problems. And if you’re bleeding, put pressure on it,” and I explained about tourniquets, what to do. I said, “Do something on your own until we can get to you.” That was part of my lecture.
Well, one day in Bastogne, I was standing in a doorway watching the shelling, watching the town being reduced to rubble, I think it goes back to when I was a kid I used to watch lightning, I liked to see lightning. I was standing there, watching this town being destroyed, and I was in the garage that we had initially in Bastogne. All of a sudden, I was on the back wall. A shell had landed right in front of me and picked me up and carried me probably 30 yards and I ended up on the back wall of the garage. And my chest hurt. So I hollered, “Medic!” I hollered, “Talbert!” He was an officer with me. I said, “Talbert, I’ve been hit!” I didn’t look, I didn’t do anything that I told everybody else to do. So he came running to me, and my mother had sent me a vest, I had a vest which was leather on the outside and had sheepskin on it, the most valuable thing I owned. And I wore that all the time under my jacket to stay warm. And the first thing we did with wounded is get the clothes off them, to see where they’re hit. We did that with scissors, right through the clothing to get at the wound. Well, he got out these scissors and started to cut my jacket and I said, “Wait! Wait just a minute, now, Talbert, let’s take a look first!” So they took a look. Didn’t cut my vest. Rolled it up, here’s a piece of shrapnel about the size of a half-dollar resting on my chest, a little red underneath it, didn’t break the skin, no bleeding, and there I was, doing just what I told them not to do. Well, that story got around, I tell you.

Aaron Elson: Now, were you interviewed on a documentary once? I’ve seen that story about Renee on TV.

Jack Prior: Yes. I was interviewed twice. I was interviewed by ABC, I guess on the 50th anniversary. They flew Liz and me to New York and put us up in a hotel on Central Park and I told the story, and I talked for an hour and a half like I have here. And the night it was to go on, David Brinkley met us in a stretch limousine. We were treated pretty nicely, I wanted tickets for the theater but they wouldn’t do that. But anyway, the night it was to come on, we invited our friends in, we had the television on, had a party, and it started like at 10 o’clock at night, got to be 10:30, they had a lot of other people interviewed but I wasn’t there. Finally it came on about a quarter of 11 and it was a very quick one, so that an hour and a half boiled down to probably ten minutes.

Aaron Elson: But did they tell the story of Renee, was that on TV?

Jack Prior: Not only did he tell it, David Brinkley did it. And he read the citation that I wrote, I wrote a citation to give her the highest decoration that you can give to a person who’s not a member of the armed forces. Of course I never heard what happened, but I would hope that was taken care of, but I never heard whether she got it or not. See, they were in danger, anybody that helped us was in danger. What they did, the Germans had what they called suppression units who would move into the town after they took it, anybody that helped the American forces was summarily executed. After we left Noville they lined up nine people against a wall, including the village priest, and shot them all. And these nurses would have been both shot. And they knew that. Their father was very upset, the one that lived, Augusta, he didn’t want Augusta to go, but she defied him and she helped us. He came in later, when we were leaving, and he said, “I want you to take her with you.” And I said, “We don’t have any women in the armored division.” He insisted. I didn’t at the time realize what the Germans had been doing. But they did. They killed people who helped.

Jennifer Horvath: Did you ever, like, moving through Germany, did you ever see any of the concentration camps?

Jack Prior: Did I? Yes. Our division moved through Dachau about two or three days after it had been taken. We weren’t the first troops in there. So I did tour Dachau. I saw it. What the troops did when they took it, they made everybody in the town of Dachau, every citizen, the Americans made them walk through it. They claimed total ignorance of what was going on there. Nobody believed it. But they made them all see the horrible sights that were in that place. So we did see it. And the other camps were just as bad or worse. I guess it couldn’t be worse than Dachau. Awful.

Aaron Elson: What kind of decorations did you get? Did you get a Purple Heart for that ...

Jack Prior: I didn’t take a Purple Heart because I saw too many things that were deserving of Purple Hearts. You know, the kids always say, “What did you get for medals, Dad?” They give you medals for being there, a lot of them, Army of Occupation, European Theater, Victory medals. I tell the kids, “What you have to do, it’s like going to the bank, you have to figure out which medal you want and get in the right line.” And then you line up and get them. Yeah, I got enough of them.

Aaron Elson: Did you get a Bronze or a Silver Star?

Jack Prior: I have both. I have the Legion of Merit, and Croix de Guerre with one palm. What else? Oh, I’ve got a medal of the City of Bastogne, and a medal from the City of Metz, which we took. So I got enough.

Jennifer Horvath: Now I know you were a medic, but did you ever carry a gun?

Jack Prior: Oh, I had done all that. I was an infantry officer in ROTC.

Jennifer Horvath: Like, in combat, you never had to ...

Jack Prior: Most of my men decided they would carry a weapon. I didn’t like it, but they did, and they all carried a pistol. And I guess I didn’t try to stop it because we’d all heard what happened in Malmedy. There was a massacre in Malmedy, this was even before Bastogne. Just as Bastogne was being surrounded the Germans took Malmedy and there was a field artillery observation battalion in there, and they took 84 of these people and brought them out in a field and then a truck came in with a machine gun in the back and machine gunned them all. So they were lying there and some of them pretended to be dead and must have held their breath a long time because it was cold, but after they were all prone on the ground, a German enlisted man went by with a pistol and if he thought anybody was still alive, shot him in the head. Now there were 84 or 85 roughly killed in there, but those who pretended to be dead or survived with not terrible wounds dragged themselves back, and the word got out very quickly the Germans are not taking prisoners. So some of my men said, well, I’m gonna be ready when they try to get me as a prisoner. So they did carry guns. Also, when I was at that big riding hall where the 101st were, I saw a Catholic chaplain going to the individual guys on the ground with a shoulder holster and a pistol. I’d never seen an armed chaplain before. So they did arm.

Aaron Elson: Did you ever find yourself in a position where you would have used a gun if you had it?

Jack Prior: I don’t think so. I had a pistol. I carried a pistol in my pocket. I would have used it I guess but I don’t think I got that close. Fortunately.

Aaron Elson: Okay, we’ve taken up a lot of your time...

Jack Prior: Do you know a Sam Gurwitz?

Aaron Elson: No, who’s he?

Jack Prior: Well, he’s in a medical club I belong to. He’s on the faculty at Syracuse.

Aaron Elson: I talked to somebody at the talk, Irving, I forget his last name, but he was with you in the Reserves...

Jack Prior: Oh, Irving Goldman. You know him?

Aaron Elson: Well, I met him at the talk, and he said for 12 years you had been his superior officer in the Reserves.

Jack Prior: I had a Reserve unit after I got out. I had this combat support hospital over on Electronics Parkway. And it was a good experience. I commanded it for about 10 years. It was a good unit. Well, okay. It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?

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