Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Medics in World War II

Selection from Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose
“Bravest man I ever saw . . . he came running right through the machine gun fire and put a tourniquet on my arm,” recounted an infantry man hit by a bullet that ripped right through his right upper arm. The medic got hit by the concussion from an 88. His shoulder was right out of his socket. He should have gone back to the station, but as he later explained “there were just too many wounded guys to work on, so I took some codeine and morphine. I couldn’t raise my arm beyond my waist, so here I was trying to work on these wounded guys with one hand.”Sometimes the medics had to deliver first aid while under enemy fire. “On Christmas day he was fired on while attending a wounded soldier. He stayed on the snow-covered ground and went to work on another casualty. This time a sniper got him in the forehead . . .”

They were called Doc, the medics who attended wounded soldiers in battlefield in World War II. They were usually volunteer conscientious objectors; and were the linear descendants of the litter-bearers first introduced during the American Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, prior to which wounded soldiers often being left to die where they had fallen. Huge casualties during the Civil War led to the establishment of an ambulance corps, greatly expanded in World War I. But it was through the efforts of the medics in World War II that the odds of a wounded soldiers surviving surgery or treatment in the mobile field hospital greatly improved.

The medics underwent the same training as infantrymen except for not using weapons. First ridiculed by other soldiers as “pill pushers,” they became greatly loved and admired in combat. They served in foxholes, advanced with the troops during offensives, and went between lines to attend to the wounded, often at great danger to themselves. After a brief examination they would apply a tourniquet if needed, inject morphine, clean up the wound and sprinkle sulfa powder on it, put on a bandage and drag the wounded soldier off the field. Protected by the Geneva Convention, they would display a Red Cross on the helmet, a practice abandoned during the Vietnam War because this became a target for the enemy; and that time they were also given weapons to defend themselves. But in World War II they were unarmed, and many were severely injured or killed while attending to the wounded. The chapter on medics in Stephen Ambrose’s book recounts numerous tales of their heroism on the front.



  1. Ambrose, Stephen E. 1997. Citizen Soldiers. New York: Simon & Schuster.



Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3
Sections  |  War & Veterans

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