Walter Dickens was a combat medic assigned to headquarters with the 29th Infantry Division from Normandy to the Elbe River, on the German border.
Most, including Dickens, carried no weapons; their only protection was a Red Cross on their helmets and an armband. But like Dickens, many removed the crosses fearing they presented targets for the Germans.
They were exposed to enemy fire, often more exposed than riflemen because they had to move in the open to look after the wounded. Once they’d done all they could, the wounded were moved to doctors at Battalion Aid Stations on the rear lines. David Perlmutt
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I was born and grew up about 5 miles outside Galax, Va. My father was a farmer. I didn’t finish high school, but left and went to work for an ice cream company in Montgomery, W.Va. About the only thing you could do in Galax was work in the furniture factories, for 10 cents an hour 10 hours a day. You could make 15 cents an hour in West Virginia, so I left home for the money.
I came home in early 1940. Things were buzzing in Europe, and there was talk of Hitler and all the countries he was invading.
So I joined the Army and became a medic. I didn’t choose to become a medic, but that was a way to get into the Army, and I wanted to do that. I was 23. I wasn’t inducted until February 1941 and was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division. We were nicknamed the “Blue and Gray” and reported to Fort Meade in Maryland for basic training.
In summer 1941, we were sent to North Carolina for maneuvers. Us medics didn’t fight; we didn’t carry weapons, but we were attached to infantry companies – one doctor and three medics or aidmen to a battalion – and we had to go everywhere the infantry went.
We learned basic first aid: bandaging wounds, making splints and applying tourniquets to stop bleeding. We finished our war games in the fall and spent the winter of 1941 at Fort Meade. Back then, you served in the Army a year, and then you could get a discharge. But on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and that changed everything.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 20, I married Clyde (her real name is Clydie) McGrady from Hillsville (near Galax). We’d gone out since 1939. But instead of getting out of the Army in February 1942 and going home, I was in for the duration. They weren’t discharging anybody.
In July, we were sent back to North Carolina for more war games. They sent us on a march to Camp Blanding in Florida – 600 miles. Our commanding officer wanted everyone to learn to swim there. We went back to Fort Meade, then shipped out to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, where they loaded part of the division – 10,000 men – onto the Queen Mary. We shipped out on the 27th of September (1942), headed for Europe.
We went alone; we didn’t have any escort ships to protect us. So the Queen Mary zigzagged every eight minutes across the ocean. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Germans had sent out U-boats to torpedo the Queen Mary. Her captain requested an escort and the British sent sub-chasers to protect us. The sea was rough (on Oct. 2); I was halfway back from the bow watching the sub-chasers. One of them (the HMS Curacoa) crossed in front of the Queen Mary just as it zigged, and the two collided. The only thing the Queen Mary did was vibrate. We all ran to look at the other boat.
All you could see was a puff of smoke on the water. The (Curacoa) was split in half and sunk in no time. More than 300 (338) sailors died. The Queen Mary had strict orders not to stop for anything.
We landed at Glasgow, Scotland, and that night they put us on trains for the Salisbury Plain in England and Tidwell Barracks, where the infantry began intensive training. We (medics) followed the infantry, but on our own marched twice a week, one for 25 miles and the second for 40 miles.
In early May, they moved us to Plymouth on the English Channel, and that was when we started practicing climbing down these rope ladders into these little boats called Higgins boats. We knew we were headed into combat, but no one told us where. But when we started going up and down those ladders and jumping into those boats, we began to put it together.
We were in England, and we knew the Germans were in France – straight across the channel. We’d been training for two years. We were all young, and we had heard about what Hitler had been doing in Europe. We all were anxious to get into the fight and whip that son of a bitch, and get it over with.