Pete’s road to recovery a long one
I spent almost two months in the Livorno hospital. By then I was able to sit up in a wheelchair for short periods of time. I could manage to feed myself occasionally with my bandaged right hand, but I was unable to do much else.
I was put then on a hospital ship bound for the navy base at Hampton Roads, Va. A window was cut in the plaster cast on my right leg so the dressings could be changed on my wound, which was still open and draining after all that time.
We spent 14 days on the ship, a nightmare voyage of men groaning with pain and screaming in their sleep. Many men were seasick, and many of us weren’t able to bathe aboard the ship. The stench of our wounds was overwhelming at times. Plus we couldn’t move out of our bunks to go up on deck, and there was no fresh air in the compartments.
We arrived at Hampton Roads on a warm, sunny morning in May. We were carried off the ship on litters and laid down in ranks on a dock. Each of us wore a tag marked with our name and destination – not unlike luggage waiting to be picked up at an airport. I remember nothing more of that day except that I ended up in Martinsburg, W. Va., in an army hospital that specialized in orthopedic medicine.
I was limited to moving about in a wheelchair. I couldn’t use crutches because of the large cast on my left arm. The first day, as I was rolled into the mess hall, I saw Howie Schless, the medic who was wounded while caring for me in Italy. He was walking but had a huge shoulder cast that went down to his waist. I wondered how he could sleep at night. A problem for all the recovering wounded was how to get comfortable enough to sleep.
The function of the doctors and nurses at this hospital was mainly to make us ambulatory and to treat our other wounds as required. Besides Howie, I found another friend from the 86th, Danny Orlosky from New Jersey. He had a bad leg wound that wouldn’t heal. The doctors kept it open in hopes that it would stop draining. It didn’t. After two months, Danny was sent to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, where they amputated his leg below the knee. I never saw him again.
I spent six months in Martinsburg and eventually was able to walk, though I had a pronounced limp. We had a social life of sorts there. On weekend passes to town, we used to stop at the home of a farmer/bootlegger. He would ask us politely what brand of hooch we preferred, and we would reply Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey or Seagrams 7.
He would say, “Coming right up.”
Then he would go into his cellar, find empty bottles with the right labels, fill them all from the same barrel of rotgut and charge us $10 for a fifth. We didn’t care, though. We carried the bottle in a brown paper bag and nipped on it while we drank beer in the local bars, which were not allowed to sell hard liquor.