Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Surgeons of Bastogne

The Ardennes Counter Offensive is officially dated from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945. It was not exactly that precise, especially for the participants. Historical periods are chronological aids; actual history knows no such precise periodization. However imprecise, carefully dating periods gives history structure. A historical period is like a grid on a map: the dates are the coordinates that show you where you are.

The Ardennes Counter Offensive is popularly known as “The Battle of the Bulge”, which unfortunately is misleading. A “bulge” is journalistic slang left over from World War I. If generals are supposed to fight “the last war”, then journalists tend to wright about “the last war”. I adhere to the formal name, Ardennes Counter Offensive, because it best defines the sequence of events that we are studying.

One of the most obvious but little noticed characteristic of history is how ordinary it is. Living during the 1940s with a world war raging was not, as some like to write, romantic. It was not a time for Victory Doughnuts and brave young warriors. It was not a “Good War” and it was definitely not the time of “The Greatest Generation”. It was a time of immense suffering for countless men and women, boys and girls. It was a time of unimaginable sacrifice and of breath-taking joy. It was a time when people attempted to relieve misery and save lives, even when those lives were doomed. It was a time when people enthusiastically raised torture to high art forms, and exterminated people in the name of truth. Killing was as natural as love making. The war years were so normal, they were so ordinary. Ordinary people just doing the ordinary things people do. It was a time when many were guilty and none were innocent. It was a time memorable not for its heroes or its villains, but for its rapacious banality.

Though with difficulty and often not the “same” as it had been before the war, life in America went on. People worked, went to school, graduated, had romances, got married, had babies, followed sports, went to shows, talked about the latest movie, and complained about rationing and the weather. It was a time when taxi cab drivers parked in front of homes and apartments and delivered telegrams that announced the unthinkable to someone who was about to have the worst day of his or her life.

The winter of 1944-1945 was the coldest and wettest European winter in nearly a hundred years. It was not that cold in North America but it was a colder than average. When I was brought home from the hospital in December in Washington, D. C., there was snow on the ground and it was below freezing; unusual before Christmas.
It was also a cold season for the Washington Redskins. They finished 3rd in the National Football League-East division with a 6-3-1 record. Then the game was played with traditional values: no tie-breakers. But the traditional value of winning eluded the ‘Skins that season. The last two games were both played against the New York Giants. The first was played at the Polo Grounds, the Giants’ home stadium. The Redskins lost 16-13. The next weekend they played at home at Griffith Stadium and lost 31-0. The film highlights of that game are available at: The following week the New York Giants lost the NFL Championship Game to the Green Bay Packers, 14-7. Mercifully that dismal season was over before I was born.

Indiana University, to which in the 1940s our family had no connection but do now, also had a season not to remember. In the 1944-1945 season IU went 10-11 overall, 3-9 in the Big Ten, which was worth a ninth place finish when the conference actually had ten teams (Chicago University was a Big Ten member but Michigan State was not). In 1944 the Ohio State University basketball team won the Big Ten Conference with a 14-7 overall record and a 10-2 conference record. OSU then lost to Dartmouth, 60-53, in the NCAA Regional Final.

The NCAA Championship game for the 1944-1945 season was won by Oklahoma A&M (becoming Oklahoma State University in 1957) defeating New York University 49-45. The Oklahoma A&M coach was Hank Iba who in 1972 became the first American Olympic basketball head coach to lose the Gold Medal game breaking a string of 63 successive US Men’s Basketball Gold Medal victories.

During World War II most of the professional sports teams lost their best athletes to the Armed Forces. Most of the “stars” were draft age. One professional baseball player to serve in World War II was John (Buddy) Kelly Lewis who played his entire career as the Washington Senator’s two-time All-Star 3rd baseman. He was an Army Air Force Pilot who flew 500 transport missions over “The Hump”, which was the dangerous “air train” over the Himalayas that supplied the British and American armies fighting in Burma and in Thailand and the Chinese Army fighting the Japanese in China. For this Lewis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war he returned to the Washington Senators ending his career in 1949.

Starting in 1940 the American economy boomed. Unemployment was as low as it was in the 1920s and salaries sky-rocketed. Many consumer items were rationed, but a growing number of Americans now had enough money to beat the rationing system by buying on the Black Market. My grandfather and Ginny’s grandfathers were employed throughout the war. Few consumer products, especially durable goods and houses, were available. Production shifted from new cars and refrigerators to tanks, jeeps, and airplanes. The economic result was consumer savings had never been so high. War time savings became the fuel that resulted in the rapid American economic growth after the war.

The modern ball point pen was invented in the late 1930s, but was not a success until 1944 when the British Royal Air Force discovered that unlike most fountain pens a ball point pen functioned at high altitudes. By the following year ball point pens entered the American consumer market, but they were expensive costing $10. Calculating for inflation that comes out to $134 in current dollars. I do not believe they were sold in packages of ten.

For the popular U.S. culture, the 1940s was the decade of the superhero. Superman got the trend going in 1938, making his first appearance in “Action Comics.” By the 1940s, the man of steel was at the top of his game, single-handedly fighting Hitler and Hirohito in one memorable cover from 1942. Batman appeared in late 1939, but he, too, was really a child of the 1940s. When Green Lantern arrived in July 1940, the archetype of the superhero was firmly entrenched in the nation’s mythology.

In the 1940s, renowned Broadway composer Richard Rodgers teamed up with a new lyricist named Oscar Hammerstein to create “Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” and “South Pacific.” Irving Berlin contributed “Annie Get Your Gun,” with Ethel Merman in the title role. Tennessee Williams’ dramas of the decade included “The Glass Menagerie” in 1945 and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, for which Williams won a Pulitzer. Directed by Elia Kazan, “Streetcar” is best remembered for the performance of a 24-year-old actor named Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski.
All over America young men left for war. Railroad trains were packed with soldiers traveling from one post to another and then to a port-of-call. There were so many traveling across the country that special canteens sprung up at rail terminals or rural stations like North Platte, Nebraska where trains stopped for coal and water. Staffed by local women and supported with local donations, they served up homemade cookies, sandwiches, hot coffee and shared conversations with young men who were often on their own for the first time and all who did not where they were going or what to expect when they arrived.

One such young man was Henry M. Hills. He was born in Lamoni, Iowa, on 14 March 1913. His father was a physician and Henry wanted to be a doctor too. In 1938 he graduated from the University of Iowa Medical School with a specialty in trauma surgery. In August 1942 he had completed a trauma and orthopedic surgery residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. He was 29 years old.

At the beginning of the summer of 1942 the United States Navy defeated a Japanese Fleet in the Pacific Ocean at the Battle of Midway. The United States Eighth Air Force began bombing missions over Germany. The German Army captured Sebastopol. The United States Marines landed on the Solomon Islands. The Army decided it was time to call Dr. Hills. The newly minted Captain Henry Hills, MD, MC, did not know he would play an important role in the Ardennes Counteroffensive.

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