Robert L. Smith, a Berkeley resident since 1950, served as a medic in the 28th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945. He aided the wounded in combat, helping to liberate Paris. Smith served approximately two months after the D-Day landings.
Robert L. Smith’s new book, “Medic!” A WWII Combat Medic Remembers, chronicles his entry into the army, his plethora of experiences on the battlefield and some events he went through immediately after returning home – such as even though he was a discharged veteran with a Purple Heart, he was not yet 21 years old and too young to qualify for a California driver’s license.
In the latter part of Smith’s book, he describes returning to Europe with his wife, Fran, in 1997-98. The Smiths travelled through many of the same areas he’d been half a century earlier. Fran’s photographs reference and counterpoint the fact-filled text.
While the book reads, in part, like a really long post card, the story is riveting in parts and is almost always engaging.
A quiet strength and steady bravery inform Smith’s voice.
Smith’s comments about K rations, the combination of terror and tedium soldiers experienced and the forms of segregation he witnessed are sobering.
Smith describes many of the individuals he came into contact with.
Smith eloquently tells of the moral strength and honor shown by some American soldiers. For instance, Smith describes Caleb A. Converse, a litter bearer from Columbus, Ga.: “A slow, steady person who consistently was brave. Every night Converse carried out our critical cases on his back, one at a time, making three or four separate trips down the hill and across the fields and river to safety on the American side. He did something that none of the rest of us would do. Yet he did it voluntarily, never asking for help. He simply went on saving the lives of men who otherwise would not have survived.”
Smith also describes the actions of some of the enemy soldiers and civilians he came into contact with. At one point an enemy soldier told Smith, in perfect English, that he is behind enemy lines and sent Smith in another direction, which probably saved his life.
Smith’s perspective as a medic puts him in the center of both the physical and spiritual action. A medic’s job is to be heroic. As Smith explains: “Anyone else could yell for the medic, but I was the medic.”
Smith portrays the challenges of trying to save lives in the heat of battle. Medics are called upon to provide immediate relief to injured soldiers during combat. The wounded call to them. Sometimes medics have the skills and materials they need to disinfect wounds and immediately affect the balance of life vs. death. At other times a medic’s skills and desire to bring relief are insufficient to remediate devastating damage.
Smith writes: “I had gone to war full of conviction and came out having lost my naivete about some things that had previously been absolutes.”
As we see in All Quiet On the Western Front, the classic WWI novel by Erich Maria Remarque, going to war is unlike any other human experience. And there are some stories only a warrior can tell.
Sari Friedman teaches writing at local colleges and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org