The long road to recovery
Suddenly, my good friend and platoon medic, Howie Schless, appeared at my side.
He was shooting me with morphine, and he, too, was saying, “You’ll make it, Pete.”
Before I could reply, there was another tremendous blast. I felt helpless, lost, hopeless, and alone. An instant later I realized that Howie’s right shoulder had been blown apart by this second mortar shell. He had been working less than a foot from my head.
The force of the blast spun Howie around, but he managed to return to my side. His first reaction was to put his hand over his mouth and suck in his breath to find out if his lungs had been punctured.
“My lungs are OK, Pete,” he gasped.
He then began to check my wounds but had been hit too hard. He, too, collapsed on the ground, bleeding terribly. Two other medics carried him away on a field stretcher.
I have no idea how long I lay there. The heavy dose of morphine had kicked in. I was floating. I didn’t even know that the second mortar blast had smashed my right leg in the calf. I remember trying to crawl under some downed trees when another medic came to lie beside me to provide cover.
Later I was carried by two medics on a bouncing litter. The trip was over rough terrain, and the pain was growing despite the morphine. At one point, the medics put me down in a protected place as shells exploded within yards of us.
Finally, we made it to the battalion aid station set up in a farmhouse. As we went in, I saw two jeeps parked in the courtyard. The medics lifted me onto the kitchen table to dress my wounds. A couple of times shells actually hit the farmhouse, and the medics were forced to lower me to a safer place under the table. They huddled there, too, waiting for the shell fire to ease up.
Finally they finished my emergency dressings, put me back on the litter, and dashed into the courtyard. One of the two jeeps was overturned and burning. The driver and his mechanic lay dead on the ground. I was loaded on the remaining jeep and held down on the litter by two ashen-faced medics as we bounced over rutted country roads to get out of bombardment range.
My next stop was the regiment aid station, much like the MASH hospitals seen on TV. I was operated on, stitched up, and pumped full of morphine and penicillin. In bandaging my mutilated face, the doctors had covered both eyes. I could see nothing, but the moans and coughs and shouts of my fellow patients came through loud and clear. So did the soothing voices of the nurses, who fed me through a tube and gave me penicillin shots eight times a day in my right shoulder – one of the few parts of my body that hadn’t been damaged by mortar fire.
My wounds were profound but not quite catastrophic. The first shell, which had exploded in the tree over my head, blew fragments of shrapnel through the front of my helmet, splitting my nose open and knocking out my front teeth. Other fragments from the same shell had almost severed my left arm at the elbow and had smashed into my right knee, destroying the kneecap and breaking the head of the femur. A second shell had hit me in the chest and the calf of my right leg, at the same time that it tore off Howie Schless’s shoulder joint.
I don’t remember anything about my move from the aid station to the army hospital in Livorno. I just woke up there one day in a bed with clean sheets. My face was rebandaged so I could see out of one eye. These were great improvements, but my left arm had become seriously infected and the poisons were coursing through my system. It took a month of powerful doses of penicillin for the infection to subside and for me to begin feeling better. I remember waking up and watching a soldier struggling to hobble down the corridor between beds.
“Look at that poor bastard,” I remarked to the fellow in the bed next to me.
He looked at me, then said quietly, “You’re the poor bastard, Pete. At least he is up and moving around. You can’t even move.”
I refused, however, to see myself as more pitiful than anyone else or consider that I might die or become a permanent cripple. For a long time, I looked like I was near death. I couldn’t walk or even sit up. But my will to live was strong.