I rounded recently on a 100-year-old veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. It was a terrible and costly battle fought in Belgium during the winter of 1945, the coldest and snowiest in memory at that time. The German army made a desperate last stand against an increasingly overwhelming US force. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. He was there. He lived it. It is not a forgotten memory frozen in time in a black and white picture. He saw it in color. He caused me to think back on the other stories I heard from other patients.
He started crying. I immediately apologize, saying he did not have to answer. He regained his composure and said it was okay. He was a veteran of D-day, June 6, 1944, an infantry private with the 9th Infantry Division. He was in the sixth wave that landed on Omaha Beach that fateful and bloodiest of days, a day that changed the course of history. I cannot imagine the carnage he must have seen when he stepped off the landing craft into what could only have been described as hell. I asked him what he remembered most about that day as a 19-year-old just barely out of high school. He said:
“I remember my best friend from high school was only a few yards from me as we landed. Within seconds he took a direct hit by an artillery shell and was blown to pieces.”
He began to cry again. I asked no further questions.
He was a door gunner on a B-17 with the 8th Air Force, which did the bombing raids over Germany. Two-thirds of the planes, with their crew of 20+ men, were shot down during the war. Tens of thousands of American lives were lost. Before you could return home, you had to survive 25 missions. Most did not. His plane was shot down on his next to last mission. Most of the crew parachuted to safety, only to be immediately captured and taken to a farmhouse and lined up against a wall. He was standing next to the pilot, the “old man” of the crew at age 23. A German officer walked up to the pilot, drew his Luger, and without saying a word, shot the pilot in the head. He then turned and walked away. My patient spent the remaining months of the war at hard labor in southern Germany, working in a mine.
He was one of the original Navy “Frogmen,” the predecessors of today’s Navy Seals. He was part of a team whose job it was to swim to the Normandy beachhead under cover of night, hours before the D-Day invasion was to start. Their mission was to secure closely guarded bridges critical to German resupply and troop transport. It had to be done silently. They used their knives to accomplish this mission.
I write to remind you, as the patient above did me, that this “Greatest Generation” will soon no longer be with us. It will be a sad day when the last one dies. I had the privilege of caring for many. I wanted to hear their stories. I needed to hear their stories before they could no longer be heard. I wonder how many I missed hearing and are now lost forever?
For me, the joy of medicine came from building relationships with my patients, so they trusted me enough to share their stories and give me a glimpse into their lives when they were once young, strong, and able. One day, there will only remain the black and white pictures taken long ago. For them, though, they saw it in color. Take the time now, while you can, to hear your patients’ stories.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com