By C. David Gordon
Hard to imagine that 67 years have gone by since Hitler launched his last-ditch campaign against Allied armies in the Ardennes forests of Belgium, that notorious campaign known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Nazi offensive began on Dec. 16, 1944, and ended in failure Jan. 25, 1945.
Much about that battle has become legend. Hitler's troops managed to launch this all-or-nothing attack in complete secrecy just when it would be least expected, the freezing winter. While strung out thinly along a wide front, American forces made valiant efforts to hold their ground against overwhelming odds. What they did do was throw off Hitler's timetable enough to eventually shut down critical German supplies of gasoline and ammunition -- and enough for American reinforcements to arrive to turn the tide of battle.
Back of the front lines other instances of bravery and perseverance also took place, details easily lost sight of beside the more vivid descriptions of battle. Such is the story of the 16th General Hospital, situated outside the Belgium city of Liege. Its task, like many others, was to provide complete care for soldiers sent back from evacuation hospitals and make provision to send those requiring further medical treatment or extended convalescence to recovery places.
Former Army nurse Dorothy Taft Barre, of Charlton, provided the Fort Devens Museum with details of the 16th's experience during her visit to the Museum in October. The 16th
Barre recently sent the Museum written materials detailing the 16th's work in Europe. Included was American Red Cross worker E. Isabel Buckley's first-hand report to her family and friends of the time of the Battle of the Bulge.
Even before the great battle began, serious threat came from Nazi buzzbombs, the notorious V-1 and V-2 rocket-propelled bombs. The enemy aimed these bombs first on the city center as well as bridges, gasoline dumps, and food supply centers. In the midst of this mayhem, the 16th for a time worked in the central Liege quarters of the 15th General Hospital.
To escape this danger, the 16th took almost a month to set up in tents separately away from the city on Nov. 16. Soon enough, though, the Nazis shifted their buzzbombing to the suburbs. Buckley wrote that the 16th's enlisted men's quarters received a direct V-1 hit on Dec. 17, but casualties were minimum since the men were at work.
About facing the buzzbombs, Buckley said: "There is no word to describe one's feelings when that unmistakable lumbering-truck sound was heard after the air raid alarm. Our hospital was right in the path of their direct route and at every alarm patients would pour out of the wards and stand looking upward at those ugly grey sharks of the air, with flame spitting from their tails. Later, the Germans sent over a different type, some that sputtered and went off, then picked up again. This was more terrifying because we had learned that once the noise stopped they were falling ... Of course, these were the V-2s that no one heard since they travelled faster than sound, but they never hit our area, but fell close to us. They were deadly. All this time we were admitting Belgian civilians whose homes near us were demolished. They suffered frightful injuries, mainly from shattered window glass that was driven into them almost in powdered glass form."
Buckley reported that as the Nazi land attack began enemy paratroopers landed in Liege. Fortunately most were captured. The staff was ordered to keep their gear at the ready for possible rapid evacuation to safety while a skeleton crew would remain behind with the seriously wounded.
At one point, she wrote, German troops came as close as 12 miles from the hospital. During an especially "black week" leading to Christmas, "...we had our worst cases, and they came fresh from the battlefront."
Christmas Eve 1944 brought its own terror. She wrote, "A lone German fighter swooped down upon our hospital, directly strafed three wards, then zoomed over to our enlisted men's area and strafed the tents there. Of our patients, one died and more than a dozen were again seriously wounded. The psychiatric patients went into complete panic and it took a long time to quiet them down. Forty of our enlisted men were hit, two killed outright, and of the forty, twenty-eight had a long period of hospitalization with several of them evacuated to England for long-time hospitalization. I went back to the Red Cross tents and the fighter returned ... before our staff could get back to the chateau (where nurses and Red Cross staff had been billeted), and this time dropped many anti-personnel bombs. Immediately the bombs disposal squad from town came out and located as many as they could in the dark and returned at dawn to pick up the remaining six that were scattered around."
She noted, "Christmas Day was marked by buzzbomb after buzzbomb, and they kept up all week."
New Year's Eve offered another encounter with a plane. "Our detachment men left their area and for a week or so slept in foxholes or in the wards or in the tents they worked in or set up in chairs in the Red Cross tents. This was fortunate because New Year's Eve, the same plane (she wonders) that had been terrorizing the hospitals returned and strafed the EM's area again, but there were none of them there.
"Then early New Year's morning the German plane returned and apparently got mixed up in the darkness because he unloaded his whole load of anti-personnel bombs directly on the German prisoner stockade which adjoins the hospital. Sixteen were injured and one killed. If he had come 20 minutes earlier he would have gotten most of our prisoners, but they had just left under guard to come to the hospital to do their regular labor work. One of them said bitterly that it didn't matter to the Fuhrer if they had been wiped out because as prisoners they were of no further use to [him]."
Meanwhile, she said: "All this time [buzz]bombs were falling so close to us that the explosions were deafening and the tents shook and the patients were frantic so we evacuated them as rapidly as possible, keeping them no more than a couple of days, then having to admit fresh battle casualties."
Jan. 11 came a final blow: "A (buzz) bomb went off (the noise stopped) right above us and almost everybody hit the floor or flung themselves in ditches or foxholes. A second later it exploded in a direct hit on a house immediately adjoining our hospital. There was absolutely nothing left of the house above the ground; the houses on either side were blown out completely, with only one or two sides left standing. The next house was almost a shell, and all down the street not a window remained intact. Our chateau had already lost forty windows in earlier explosions and more went, although it was a quarter of a mile away. There was only one death -- the woman who lived in the house hit, but many civilians were admitted.
"Eight of our tents were flattened to the ground and one German prisoner was killed, one nurse injured and several detachment men admitted but none of them hurt badly. Most of them suffered concussions. There were fewer casualties because the boys had dug foxholes around those tents blown down and had piled in them as soon as the noise of the bomb stopped. Some of the tents caught on fire, but this was quickly put out. In the Red Cross tent a bottle of gasoline on the shelf near me exploded, on one side and three feet away on the other side a piece of shrapnel came through the tent roof and landed on a cabinet."
Telling was the view Buckley found among patients brought to the hospital in the most deadly time. All "unanimously said they'd rather be back with their outfits than here because they could fight back there."
Buckley concluded her letter by stating, "So much happened during those two months that I can't possibly remember all that happened, but these are the highlights. It's quieted down now, and I can unpack my musette bag! Even the buzzbombs are coming over only one or two a day, and today there were none. So life is much brighter!"
On Sept. 5, 1945, the Headquarters of the European Theater Service Forces awarded the 16th General Hospital the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque. The citation indicated this was for "superior performance of duty" from Dec. 1, 1944, to March 31, 1945. "While operating a tent hospital under hazardous conditions this organization efficiently treated thousands of casualties. The technical skill, initiative, and esprit de corps exhibited by the personnel of the 16th General Hospital were in keeping with the highest tradition of the armed forces of the United States."
Buckley was one of four members of the Red Cross unit assigned to the 16th. After the war she returned to Detroit and resumed work for General Motors.