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Studded with memorable vignettes—of a friend who “smells” the Germans long before they appear, the dog that acts as an artillery spotter, the lieutenant who can’t see beyond a few hundred feet—Franklin’s memoir documents the almost unbearable drama of ground gained and lives lost as well as the terrible human toll of battle on himself, his comrades, and civilians quite literally caught in the crossfire. A rare look at the fight for lives laid on the line, Medic! brings to life as never before the reality of war.
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We invaded Sicily just before daybreak on July 10, 1943. "We"
means most of our 2,300-ship convoy that had crossed a glassy
Atlantic and sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean
was a beautiful blue, so clear I could see deep into it.
Bottlenose dolphins escorted us for hours, zipping in and out of
the water. Flying fish zoomed out of the water and soared twenty
or thirty feet before nosing back in. It was beautiful sailing all the
way until we reached Oran, in North Africa, on June 23, 1943.
After the three-week trip, we spent a week of physical conditioning
before reembarking for Sicily.
Our ship was the Francis P. Biddle, which once carried mail
from San Francisco to Hawaii. It was a sturdy ship, as we found
after crossing a calm Mediterranean only to have a wild storm
toss us around on the night of our landing. Apparently each transport
had been fitted with a prow gun. The damn thing fired away
frighteningly on the steel deck. I was holding on to my bunk as
the storm tossed us, but with the first bang of that deck gun I
thought we were under attack. I didn't wantto get caught below
if we got hit, so I scrambled topside.
I joined a small group of riflemen holding on to a rail around
the steel housing that led down to our bunks. The ship pitched
like a toy boat in a swirling gutter, and I held on to that rail for
dear life. An officer stumbled through the sleet and ordered, "Get
below! Make room for the ship's crew to work!" He wasn't one
of our officers, however, and we didn't budge. Rather than make
a case of it, the officer wisely ignored our insubordination and
lurched on past.
Our deck gun was throwing balls of fire shoreward, where they
arced gracefully and silently exploded on shore with a dazzling
shower that left a dullish red glow in the black night.
Near our housing, Merchant Marine sailors tried to get assault
boats over the side. One boat, poised about ten feet over the deck
rail, broke loose from a steel cable when the ship lurched into a
trough. It slammed into the steel deck with a splintering crash,
swung crazily, then flew through the air and smashed against the
steel guardrail. The winch operator hoisted the hulk over the side
and dropped it into the sea.
A second boat swung out of control off its davit, but the cables
held. The sea rocked us hard, and the boat swung outward
crazily and missed the rail by inches. On one swing it caught
an unwary sailor full in the chest and knocked him overboard.
A second sailor working with him dodged a return swing and
without hesitation leaped overboard to help his buddy. I slid to
the rail but could see nothing but wild, swirling foam.
I didn't yet know the men in my platoon-3rd Platoon, I Company,
3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Division-to which I
was assigned as a "detached medic." I had volunteered to join
the 45th when one thousand men were transferred from the 28th
Infantry Division to bring the 45th up to combat strength before
going overseas. On that storm-tossed deck, I noticed Private Jackson
"Cowboy" Wisecarver for the first time. Somebody started
to call him a "son of a ...," and before he could finish Cowboy
hit the guy so hard he didn't know what happened. During the
following year, "Cowboy" was one of the greatest soldiers of my
combat experience. He was our company's light machine gunner,
and his "kill toll" was uncountable.
A friendly voice asked if he could have his shot of morphine
now in case I wasn't around when he really needed it. It was
a good-natured guy named Bove, and I guess he was kidding.
In time we became good friends. After the Sicily campaign, he
joined a newly organized unit of aggressive fighters called Scouts
and Raiders. He was killed about five months later, I believe, in
the mountains of Italy near Venafro.
The ship's loudspeaker kept blaring boat team numbers to go
ashore, but it was a couple of hours before our number was called.
Finally we left the spray-swept steel housing and went down
the ladder (stairs) to gather our gear from our bunks. The first
boy down vomited all over the steps. Ahead of me, Private Bove
slipped and barely grabbed the rail to keep from falling, but he
sat down in the worst part of the mess. He swore pretty good and
headed for the toilet to clean himself up. I covered my nose and
mouth with my forearm and got to my bunk. I joined the platoon
at Tech Sergeant Dean's bunk. From there we climbed the same
stinking ladder, skittered across the wet, slippery deck, and tried
to keep our balance by grabbing at tarp-covered hatches, ropes,
or whatever we could reach until we finally ducked into an open
hatch that led to the troops' mess hold. From there we crossed
to the far end, where we were supposed to climb a ladder to the
deck to board our landing craft. However, before ascending, our
captain awaited further orders that didn't come.
A half hour passed. We unslung our gear, sat down alongside
a steel girder, and waited. Then we were ordered to hug the walls
of the hold. A large hatch overhead was removed, and I could
see flickering flashes from explosions that lit the night sky. Thick
ropes were lowered, and a winch hauled up the floor planks and
piled them alongside us at the edge of the mess floor. Cables
were then lowered into the hold. Up came a 105-mm field gun.
It seemed crazy to send in the artillery before the infantry, but I
didn't really care. I pulled my helmet over my face and dozed.
Someone shook me awake. Most of the men were already slinging
their gear and moving toward the ladder. On deck, I was
surprised to discover the black night had turned to a misty gray
morning. The ship still pitched in the angry sea. As last man, I followed
our company executive officer, Lieutenant Sturtevant, over
the side. I clenched my teeth on my loose helmet strap, clutched
the top ropes of the cargo net, and bellied over the rail of the
bucking ship. It hit a swell, my feet went out from under me, and
I hung in space by my hands. My helmet fell off, jarring my jaw
when it hit the end of the strap. I got a foothold on the cargo
net and felt my way down. Just as I reached it, the landing craft
swung away from the ship, and if I hadn't jerked my legs up, I'd
have lost them when it banged back into the ship.
Thirty-eight men from my platoon were huddled in the LCPR
(landing craft personnel ramp). I worked my way to the pilot,
since the medic was supposed to be last man off. I squatted beneath
a 20-mm machine gun mounted on a swivel alongside the
pilot. Lieutenant Sturtevant worked his way to the ramp, leaned
against it, and waved an okay to the pilot. The LCPR banged into
the waves. Cold sea spray swept over us, and salt water trickling
from my helmet and combat jacket soaked into my OD wool
Mentioning OD pants reminds me that until the day before the
landing, we hadn't been told what we'd be wearing into combat.
I thought it would be the garrison fatigues we trained in. The
ODS always had to be spick and span and properly pressed and
creased. I was wrong. The ODS turned out to be a wise choice.
They were warm at night and dried quickly from sweat or rain.
Another surprise was that for security reasons we were ordered to
remove our "Thunderbird" shoulder patches, which reflected our
division's southwestern origin. Then the night before the landing
we were ordered to put them back on "to let the enemy know
who was coming after him." We were all so inexperienced that
we didn't know what the hell was going on. Neither did the brass.
Our craft roared, bucked, and banged into a circle of other
landing craft, with a cruiser between us and the distant shore. A
high-pitched whine came from the cruiser, and a voice boomed
over a loudspeaker, "Reduce speed!" The sound scared me. I
thought it would warn the enemy that we were coming. I didn't
realize that the sound was going out to sea, not shoreward.
Our craft's motor changed from a roar to a purr. We no longer
pounded into waves. The cruiser's loudspeaker blared with deliberate
slowness: "It is now five o'clock! Continue to circle for
five more minutes. A destroyer will lead as close to the beach as
it can. It is now 0501! Continue to circle until I give the word
'Go!' Good luck!"
Our craft roared back into the circle of landing craft. Men tightened
pack straps, hoisted loads higher, gathered bangalore torpedoes,
gripped ammo box handles, and snapped clips of ammo
into their M1 rifles. Lieutenant Sturtevant yelled, "Be sure your
safeties are on!" Tech Sergeant Dean yelled, "No bayonets! No
bayonets in the boat! Leave your life jackets on the beach!"
The men had Mae Wests. I had a flat rubber life belt around
my waist, and though I thought about squeezing the air cylinder
that would inflate it, I decided to wait until it became necessary.
Time went fast. The cruiser boomed again, "Reduce speed!
When you break from your circle, keep an even line! Follow the
We became part of a long, irregular skirmish line as our boat
bounded toward the not yet visible shore. All through the night,
first waves of landing craft had gone ahead of us. We were the
first wave heading for a new beach. In the early morning the
dark gray sky turned light. Kneeling men rose to their feet. A
kid in the center of the craft vomited in his helmet without first
removing the liner. The puke was passed to the side to be thrown
overboard, but the stink started a small epidemic of vomiting.
A bucket brigade emptied helmets over the side. Being in my
position up front, I was spared seasickness. But I did wonder as
we bounced toward shore, "What if the whole thing fails? We're
thousands of miles from home. Maybe we ought to go back and
practice some more."
I truly expected to die in my first combat assault. I never expected
what happened. Wild as the Mediterranean was, and despite
other boats' overturning in the furious waves, our helmsman
made a perfect landing! The ramp crashed down only a few
yards from the sandy beach, and we charged ashore. We had hit
a "dead" beach-no artillery explosions. No machine guns. No
barbed wire. No dead bodies. No opposition!
Down the beach to my right, three Italian soldiers with hands
raised high came out from behind some boulders and surrendered
to a medic from another boat. Tech Sergeant Dean yelled to us,
"Get off the beach! Get inland!"
The beach, about thirty yards deep, was bordered by brush-covered
sand dunes. The landing hadn't been so easy for some.
In a dune gully, bordered with baby grapevines, I came across
seven sopping wet, shivering privates from F Company. Their
boat had turned over in the wild surf. Their teeth chattered as
they spoke to me: "We couldn't find the rest of our company ...
maybe they drowned ... you think it's okay to build a fire? We're
I had been promoted to corporal back when I was in the 28th
Division, so I guess they thought I was an authority. The gully
seemed deep enough to be secure from observation. I gave the
boy a book of dry matches, poured some spirits of ammonia into
a canteen cup of water, and passed it around. I thought it might
warm them. Hell, for all I knew about medicine, I might have
been poisoning them-but nobody dropped dead.
Someone from the company called me to check on a paratrooper
about a hundred yards away. He dangled in his parachute
from the branches of an olive tree-the first dead soldier of my
experience-a kid of about eighteen from Pennsylvania (according
to an id in his wallet). He looked like a limp marionette, with
one arm tangled in his parachute lines as though waving a listless
farewell. Five of us cut him down. He wasn't messed up-just a
little hole in the base of his skull. Nearby I found the tinny white
top of a hand grenade lever. Stamped in the metal were the words
Excerpted from Medic!
by Robert Franklin
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted December 6, 2012
No text was provided for this review.