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Report of Medical Department Activities in European Theater of Operations

Operation Overlord

OFFICE OF THE SURGEON GENERAL

Report  of

Medical Department Activities

in

EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS

by

FRANK DAVIS, JR.
1st LT,  M. C.

Officer in Charge of Medical Service
LST 496 – D-Day

24 November 1944


Interview with Lt. Frank Davis, M.C.

24 November 1944

1.    General Information

The following remarks were made by 1st Lieut. Frank Davis, Jr., M.C., who departed for overseas duty 1 March 1944 with the 68th General Hospital. Lt. Davis was classified as an orthopedist and general surgeon and was assigned to the surgical service. The hospital opened its wards on 10 May at Whitchurch, Shropshire, England. A few days later orders were received, which requested a Major and Captain be sent to the 316th Station Hospital, near Teingrace, Devonshire, for detached service. The specified officers were then on detached service in Ireland. Lt. Davis’ name was submitted as a substitute and accepted, inasmuch as he had held an assistant residency in Baltimore prior to entering the Army. He left for Devonshire 15 May with two surgical technicians of the 68th. Thirty-three medical officers, with two enlisted men each, were oriented at the 316th. Most of the officers selected were experienced surgeons and several grades higher in rank than Lt. Davis. Each of the medical officers was to have charge of the medical service aboard an 1ST. These boats were to transport combat units to France on D-Day and return to England with casualties from the beaches. At the same time this group of surgeons wore being trained, there were two similar groups of the same size being oriented at two other places in England. Lt. Davis and his group proceeded to Plymouth on 26 May where he and his two surgical technicians boarded Ship 496. At this time he was introduced to the two Navy doctors who were to work with them.

2.    Operations

After we boarded the ship we began making preparations. The Army furnished us with a complete set of surgical instruments, which was supplemented with a kit issued by the Navy. Our first task was to improvise a method of sterilization. Above our operating room, in the galley, there was a large steam table. This was equipped with 20 gallon cans which were water tight. We planned to use these for sterilizing our sheets and drapes. For our drapes we used a material called “Baptis”. It is a rubberized airplane cloth which can be reboiled so that wet technique wasn’t necessary. Just before we departed refrigerated ambulances drove up to the docks and unloaded the blood and plasma. We put it in a large cooler just below the crew’s quarters. We had a sufficient quantity of plasma and whole blood.

We used a large open tank deck for our operating room. We also fixed an operating table. We had two large regular hospital type operating room flood lights which required special globes. We had no x-ray machines


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nor microscopes; however, the former would have been advantageous.

Our ship departed on the fourth for Plymouth and then started across the channel. After we were out a short distance from shore we received orders to return because of the bad weather. The trip to Plymouth was not intended to be a dry run, We returned to Weymouth on the fifth and made the actual departure the next morning about l a.m. We carried troops of the Cannon Company of the 29th Infantry Division and the 115th Infantry Regiment. The 1st Infantry Division also sailed in our convoy. We were traveling at about four knots an hour but the tide in the channel was about  25 knots so it was difficult for the ship to maintain that speed. We also had to cross in a lane which had previously been cleared by mine sweepers. Flags were used for day identification and green lights for night. The flag ship was the first in the convoy. Our assault groups were supposed to go in about  H + 9 or approximately 6:45 a.m., but they hit Omaha Beach a little later, about 3 pm. in the afternoon. It was a tricky beach and the sea was rough. At the same time the DUKWS were bringing in casualties and the waves averaged from 8 to 10 feet. The twenty Navy corpsmen went to work and did a fine job of getting the men from the DUKWS to the deck. We used the Stokes litter and had very little trouble with them collapsing. We put four strong ropes on them - one on each corner. The beach patrols, who were to bring the casualties from the beaches to our boat, took these litters with them in small boats. These patrols also carried beach provisions to the beach battalions. We found that one valise of sterile dressings was enough to serve 2 casualties.

We used the 1-10 ration on board ship and found it to be very good. The Infantrymen had the K rations with them when they hit the beaches. They lived on them for several days and after they were in far enough cooking units were brought in to supply hot food.

LCVP’s were also used to evacuate casualties. They have a capacity of 20 to 25 men or 12 to 11. ambulatory cases. The Navy corpsmen knew how to handle these cases.

We had only the two surgical technicians from the Army. They had been assigned by name and the orders came through for those two men. They were both Pfcs and neither had ever scrubbed on a major operation before. However, after several lessons and some instruction, they were all right. I relied on the two Navy surgeons for anesthesia and the Chief Pharmacist’s Mate for scrubbing on the EENT cases.

Our ship was not marked with a Red Gross. There were three hospital ships in the invasion and as far as I know they were not bothered. I strong1y object to carrying casualties on board a ship that is not marked because they have no chance of survival if the ship is lost.

After the landing on Omaha Beach we began receiving patients and our decks were loaded with vehicles. We started our minor operations immediately. Of course, after we unloaded and the vehicles were cleared from the decks, it was a simple thing. We used both sides of the ship to unload


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the patients from the small boats and transfer them to the tank deck. We averaged approximately one patient a minute. We carried them on each side of the gang plank. It was difficult to get them down to the tank deck. We thought of using the forward elevator, but that was impossible the first night, because the vehicles here piled there. We took our patients through the crew’s quarters.

After three days and three nights, on the ninth, we departed for Weymouth. At that time we had over 100 patients. About 96 men had been returned to the beaches after initial treatment. The beachmaster was in charge of the evacuation and troops coming in, and in the confusion and hurriedness, it was often difficult for him to determine whether or not the casualties were severely wounded. The battalion aid stations applied simple dressings and first aid. When we had German prisoners on board as casualties we took care of our men first. The capacity of our boat was 250. Most of the patients we took back to England were litter patients and we had very few ambulatory cases. Some of the ships returned with German prisoners who were not casualties. That is the chief complaint I have.

When we reached Weymouth we stayed in the harbor all day and still had no orders to come in. I had one appendectomy on the way back. There were two cases of gas gangrene on board and when the orders were delayed for us to unload I urgently requested the Navy to send orders so the other patients would not become infected. The ship next to us in the harbor had about 1,200 German prisoners on board, I think that happened a lot.

The story I heard about the first ship with casualties returning to Eng1and was this — General Hawley arranged for a band to meet it and then German prisoners marched off the boat.

When we started unloading we were met by an evacuation team with ambulances. I had classified the casualties as 30 non-transportable, 40 transportable litter and the rest ambulatory cases. The non-transportable cases were to go about a mile or closer from the ship, the transportable litter patients were to go about 30 miles and the ambulatory cases could go the same distance.  About 60% to 70% of the wounds were of the extremities and machine gun wounds were most prevalent. I have often wondered how we got along without plasma in the last war.

The only death was one of our Navy Corpsmen. An elevator fell and his head was smashed.

We had 300,000,000 units of penicillin on the ship. We used 40,000 units in one shot for the serious cases and about 20,000 units in the less serious cases.

On our first trip back to England we used eight units of whole blood in transfusions. We used it for shock and it was very effective. We used about 30 to 40 units of plasma, in fact, we used all we took over. We did numerous debridements. That took more time than anything else. We also had a lot of fractures. Penicillin is wonderful. I believe we are going to have difficulty in seeing how valuable it is because most cases


4

receiving penicillin have been initially treated with sulfadiazine.

On the second trip back to France we loaded up with armored tanks, spent the night in the harbor end departed about 1 a.m. We went straight across the channel in convoy as had been done the first time. The German E-boats, which are similar to our PT boats, were in the channel but they wouldn’t come out in the daylight. The waters were mined and our ship happened to be the unlucky one. The ships in front and in hack of us were safe. We were about a mile from shore when the ship was hit. At the time I was standing on the condeck. A Major was standing near me and he had been talking about the equipment we had on board and how glad Jerry would be if he could get it. About fifteen minutes later the ship hit the nine. It took about seventeen minutes for the ship to settle after being blown up. I was protected to a certain extent by the thick Navy raincoat I wore. All our small boats were blown into the water. Out of the eight to ten men standing on the deck, three are alive today. Some of the officers were in the lower deck playing cards and were thrown from their chairs. When they hit the ceiling their skulls were cracked open. My operating technician was also killed. The Navy corpsmen risked their lives by going down to attempt to save the officers. The Captain of the ship was also killed.

Before we were hit the LST crew numbered 200 men and we had about 3/4 of a tank battalion, which would be about 500 men. I can’t estimate the number saved. I was picked up by a PC boat, taken to the beach for treatment and put on a boat like ours. I returned to England on 13 June. We came in at eight in the morning and weren’t unloaded until four or five that afternoon. I was put in an ambulance and taken to the 228th Station Hospital which was acting as an evacuation hospital. I thought my back was only sprained but when they x-rayed it they discovered several fractured vertebrae. They gave me pentothal the next morning. I was transferred to the 185th General Hospital, near Taunton, on 17 June. I had written to the C.O. asking to be sent back as a patient.  After convalescing I tried to do some surgery. Although I wore a cast, it was difficult and I gave up shortly. I expected to get a back brace and be placed on duty but according to Army Regulations I was to be returned to the States. I left on 2 October and landed in Charleston on 13 October.

3.    Comments and Recommendations

A fact worthy of mention is that no matter how much the other components of the Army joke about the Medics while in the States, when they get overseas the Air Corps, Paratroopers, Infantrymen, etc., all give due praise to the Medics.