The Medical Units at Omaha
We wanted to share one more story from D-Day that came to light during our research.
The basic principles of the medical units were to find a casualty, treat him, remove him from danger and transport him to a secure rear area. At Omaha this was impossible – there was no rear area that wasn’t guarded by German troops. Private First-Class Charles Shay from F Company, who trained here at West Bay, was only 19 years old. “It was difficult for me to witness so much carnage and not be affected emotionally. I had to close my mind … in order that I was effective at doing what I had been trained for.” Shay survived, unlike many of the valiant selfless medics on that day who died, not with guns in their hands, but with bandages and syringes.
These men were in a state of perpetual crisis, dealing with an overwhelming number of casualties, many of whom were suffering from a multiplicity of terrible wounds. Danger and death were everywhere, lives hung in the balance and life-changing decisions became routine. Staff Sergeant Bernard Friedenberg recalled, “I moved on to the next casualty and the next and the next. It seemed endless.”
Responding to a young soldier with a gaping sucking chest wound, Friedenberg wrote, “It was arterial bleeding … I knew he would die if I didn’t get the bleeding under control.” He placed a large compress over the wound and applied pressure. He understood that the man’s only chance for survival depended on maintaining pressure until someone could operate on him and there were no such facilities on Omaha beach. It would take hours to get him relocated. Around him were the cries and screams of others needing attention. What should he do? If he left the man with the chest wound, he would die, if he stayed others would die. Who would live? Who had the greater value? Which parents would never see their son again?
“Who should live and who should die is not a decision a twenty-one-year-old boy should have to make”, he wrote sadly. He gave the man with the chest wound a shot of morphine and moved on to help the others. “For more than fifty years I have wondered if I made the right decision and I know I shall never stop feeling guilty.” In fact, like so many of his combat medic colleagues, Friedenberg suffered from PTSD for decades.
One thing to remember: Medics carried no weapons. Theoretically, they were protected by the Geneva Convention, but on Omaha beach a German soldier was unlikely to see or register the red cross on the armband and helmet of an enemy soldier from a distance in the confusion of battle. They may have had no weapons, but a medic possessed something far more useful; his ability to offer comfort and a friendly voice to a soldier dying on a French beach.