Saturday, May 27, 2006

Dr. Prior helps us remember

For Memorial Day 2006 I would like to pay tribute to those who have died in the service of our country by recalling the experience of Jack Prior, MD, who was for many years CGH’s Chairman of Pathology. Dr. Prior retired from CGH a number of years ago. He may have slowed down a bit since his CGH years, but his mind is keen, and he retains a dry sense of humor and the ability to tell a good story.

During World War II, Dr. Prior was an officer with the Medical Battalion of the US Army’s 10th Armored Division. On December 14, 1944 he was the physician responsible for an aid station that was located in a pub in Noville, Belgium – about four miles from Bastogne, site of the famous battle in what has become known as “the Battle of the Bulge.”

Twenty-eight years after those events, Dr. Prior wrote about them for the Onondaga County Medical Society: [1]

Within two hours of our arrival the little town [of Noville] had turned into a shooting gallery featuring small arms, machine gun, and tank fire on the main thoroughfare. The large front window of the pub was an early casualty and it was necessary to crawl on the floor to avoid being hit as we treated our increasing number of casualties.
Dr. Prior described the evacuation of casualties from Noville. When the half -track in which injured soldiers were riding burst into flames from tank fire, the wounded returned to the pub. Later soldiers removed the pub’s doors, strapped the wounded on the doors, and tied the doors to the US tanks heading for Bastogne. In the late afternoon, the American column was pinned down by enemy fire.
We treated the serious injuries in the ditches as we waited three hours for the column to move again. Lying in the ditch and having sniper fire chip away at a fence post beside me was a terrifying experience….Many of our enlisted men demonstrated great bravery on the road, pulling tankers from their blazing tanks, driving jeeps with the injured on the hood to our Aid Station.
Once in Bastogne Dr. Prior used a garage as the aid station, but that proved difficult to heat and too small for the growing casualties. So he relocated the aid station to a three-story home. Bastogne had no electricity, no water, no food, and no medical supplies. There were also no doctors so “the civilian population descended on our Aid Station as soon as the Red Cross flag was hoisted – I even did a delivery!” remembered Dr. Prior.

...[T]he weather was very cold and there was about a foot of snow on the ground. My diary indicates we worked twenty four hours a day in the Aid Station, that the plasma froze and would not run, that we had no medical supplies and that the town was continually shelled....

I was holding over one hundred patients, of whom about thirty were very seriously injured litter patients. The patients who had head, chest, and abdominal wounds could only face certain slow death since there was no chance of surgical procedures – we had no surgical talent among us and there was not so much as a can of ether or a scalpel to be had in the city.

On December 24, 1944 – Christmas eve – Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe sent a now-famous Christmas message to the US troops who were surrounded by tanks, under constant fire, and without winter clothing or supplies:

“What’s merry about [this Christmas], you ask? We're fighting - it's cold - we aren't home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished….? Just this: we have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us….The Germans actually did surround us. Their radios blared our doom. Their Commander demanded our surrender….We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied Armies….We are giving our country and our loved ones at home a worthy Christmas present…[2]

At 8:30 p.m. on Christmas eve, Dr. Prior was in the building next to his make-shift hospital, preparing to write a letter to the wife of a young lieutenant who was dying of a chest wound. A bomb hit the three-story aid station leaving it “a flaming pile of debris about six feet high.”

My men and I raced to the top of the debris and began flinging burning timber aside looking for the wounded, some of whom were shrieking for help. At this juncture, the German bomber, seeing the action, dropped down to strafe us with his machine guns. We slid under some vehicles and he repeated this maneuver several times before leaving the area….A large number of men soon joined us….[A]nd two or three inured were pulled out before the entire building fell into the cellar. I estimated that about twenty injured (solders) were killed in this bombing…

It has been 61 years since the events Dr. Prior described in his reminiscence. His account of the experience of Bastogne gives a vivid picture of sacrifices made by those have died for our country. Monday, May 29, 2006 is Memorial Day, the day we remember – and honor – all of them .

[1] John T. Prior, MD, “The Night Before Christmas – Bastogne, 1944,” The Bulletin of the Onondaga County Medical Society, December, 1972. This article is the source of all Dr. Prior’s quotes, used above. If you would like a copy of the article, please send a request via e-mail.

[2] This Christmas message wasn’t the only famous quote from General McAuliffe during the Battle of Bastogne. His more famous quote came in response to the German commander’s demand that Allied troops surrender. “If this [surrender] proposal should be rejected,” the German commander wrote, “one German Artillery Corps and six heavy…Battalions are ready to annihilate the U. S. A. Troops in and near Bastogne.” General MCAuliffe
responded with the one-word reply: "Nuts!"