Interview of James Carlin Webb
Conducted by: Jim Triesler and Anne Marie Trimmer
December 20, 2007
WEBB: I did basic training for the medical core. At that time the medical core could not carry arms or participate in any arms fighting because we were following the war rules of Geneva. Doctors and enlisted men, like myself, were unarmed. I said to one of our training officers, “When are we going to get some basic nursing training?” because we were going into the nursing core. He said, “You’ll get that when you get overseas.” That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. So we got training in ambush and military stuff. I enjoyed working and being corps. man in the army during the war because the doctors didn’t care about army discipline. They weren’t gung ho on discipline. I never had to do KP and I never had a guard or anything.
I was in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and we were in a staging area. We were sent over to the Hudson River and the part we were going to was across from the New York City Harbor. We boarded a converted freighter. It was built to carry freight but they had to make troop carriers out of it. We didn’t have any state rooms we had hammocks that hung down from the ceiling. There would be five of them- one on top of the other. On the rough ocean someone would start vomiting you would get some of it. We sailed out of the Hudson River in New York on the New Jersey side. When we got 80 miles out we were in a convoy. The marine sailors on our troop ship scared the devil out of us. They said, “We’re at Torpedo Junction,” which was true. The convoy left us alone in the ocean because our troop ship couldn’t go any farther because something in the engine room happened. I don’t know what happened. They had to fly parts in and in three days we were underway to catch our convoy. It took 2-3 days to catch our convoy and we finally got up to it. We went down the coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean. That was also known a place where submarines patrolled on an occasion and sunk our ships all down the coast. Fortunately we weren’t sunk at Torpedo Junction which was 80 miles out of New York City in the Atlantic. We weren’t harmed going down the coast.
Then we crossed over the Atlantic to Gibraltar. We were headed for North Africa. We didn’t know until three days before that we were going into North Africa. We thought we were going over to the Japanese War and we would go down through the canal to cross over into the Pacific Ocean. Because we had winter uniforms on, we started sweating as we got further south. So we knew we were going south. They didn’t tell us where we were going until three days before and we were going to North Africa. They gave us small booklets to tell us how to deal with the local people, so that we wouldn’t be hated. We went up the Mediterranean Sea from Gibraltar. It’s 8-9 miles wide at Gibraltar but 700 miles wide 500 miles inland … So the French navy was waiting for us. Fifty percent of the French Navy went on Hitler’s side and they were hiding in the Mediterranean Sea at the harbor of the city of Algiers. At that time it was about a million people. ……We had marines on our ship but we didn’t know it. The transport was divided into four compartments and each compartment was water proof so if a torpedo hit one compartment it would fill with water but the other compartments would never get water and the ship would stay afloat. Anyway, they herded us with fixed bayonets into these compartments- the marines. Some of them resisted because they had doors on the compartments that were like bank doors. When you got in there, there was no light, no air conditioning, and we were below the water level. Our convoy engaged the French Navy, the part of it that was there; about 50% of the French Navy was spread through Africa. There were lots of noises. We had aircraft guns on our troop ship that were going off and the casings off the firing of guns fell on the roof of our place, making loud noises. We weren’t prepared for that. None of us had experienced anything like it. It was scary. No lights. We were sweating because the temperature is very high in North Africa, being so far in. It took three days and we were victorious. We were the first troops in North Africa. We went on and disembarked in another area on another beach in the Mediterranean. We bivouacked on a hill in pup tents. Only one person could fit in a pup tent and we had duffle bags with supplies to shave and so forth. It would rain and water would come into our pup tents. So before hand we dug ditches around the pup tents so the water wouldn’t come in on us. We were there several nights. We were near an airport and German airplanes were flying over this city we were at. We could see our tracer bullets. Tracer bullets are bullets that light up in the dark which lets gunners know what direction their aiming. Germans dropped bombs that lit up the area like daylight. It made you think that they were going to bomb the dickens out of us. We had some American Indian troops that were assigned to us and they had just come over. They would walk around during the daytime saying “Where are these Germans? Where are these Germans?” We said, “Well, you’ll find out.” Anyhow, it was hard to dig a trench because the Germans were after the airport and they were flying down low and dropping bombs. I had to fight our own soldiers to get my place in a slit trench. One night we had guards around the perimeter of our encampment. This one guard was firing his rifle and hollering for help and so on. Myself and several other medical core men rushed out with litters. There we found out it was rabbits in the bushes that were making noises at night in the dark. The fellows thought it was the enemy sneaking up on us. So we didn’t have anything to do.
Now I will skip way off to the Sahara Desert. I will tell you how we got a shower in the Sahara Desert. There is no water around and very little plumbing, if any. You’ve seen these eighteen wheeler gasoline tanks. They would come out to where we were or we would go to where they were depending on if there was a road or not for them to get to us because they couldn’t travel on the sand. They were loaded with water. There were three spigots on each side, that was six spigots, and you were allowed two minutes under the shower. That was one shower every eight weeks. There were so many soldiers that they had to do it that way and we got our two minutes. In the meantime, during the eight weeks the temperature was up to 130-140 degrees everyday. We were sweating for the whole time between showers and stunk. We had no green zone like today or helicopters- they weren’t invented yet. So we got our food from a tent. When a gust of wind would blow up from the desert the sand would blow into our food in the mess kit and we couldn’t eat it. That was the showering and eating in the desert.
The campaign in North Africa ended and we were headed for Italy, the Italian Campaign. What would happen is- There was a doctor, an American doctor from the army, and four enlisted men like myself. We had groups like that along the front. We gave first aid to the wounded. Then, we put them in ambulances to be driven back to a field hospital. A Field hospital was huge tent, instead of a green zone, it was a huge tent. There were doctors in there doing surgeries and taking care of the wounded after the ambulances took them back there. They were in a safe area unless there was a break through. The doctor had no operating room equipment because you couldn’t have operating room equipment or supplies because up at the front sometimes you would be moving forward sometimes withdrawing. So you had to leave your equipment because you couldn’t carry it with you. Sometimes the route of the ambulance would be cut off by the enemy, so we would have to hold the wounded prisoners until the ambulances could get through, but we never knew when that was. The doctor would sometimes say here’s a fellow that if the ambulances don’t get through he may die so I’ll have to operate on him. Well, we had no operating equipment. So he would say to one of us to go out to a truck and get a carpenter’s saw. He would say to another one of us go to the kitchen, which was a tent with the ground as a floor, and get an empty lard can that was maybe 3 or 4 feet high. He would say get some water from the kitchen to another one of us. That was all brought to where we were. The operating table was an army table, flat table about 3 and ½ feet and it had collapsible legs. It was a table if you had to withdraw or retreat you could carry it with one hand. There were some things you had to take with you whether you withdraw or advanced. There was no stability. The doctor made that his operating table. Our training wasn’t that good in medicine. I had never been in a hospital before and never had any training, neither did the other fellows. He told us what to do. When I was in basic training I asked when I was going to have nursing training. They said you’ll get it overseas, this is it.
The lard can was filled with water, he put the saw in, and he had lots of pills. He put 1000-2000 bichloride mercury pills in the water and put the saw in to sterilize it. In the meantime, the soldiers were put on to the table and his legs would hang over because the table wasn’t that long. There was no place for his arms so they would hang over. We had to find a twelve inch wide board that we could saw. We would saw that on this table so that his thighs and legs would have something to rest on during the operation. They were tied down with gauze wrapping. Let’s assume he had a shrapnel wound in his upper arm. A board was nailed on each side for his arms, to hold his arms down because you couldn’t be wobbly while he was cutting bones. Then he would slit up the skin and if it was up above the elbow, the wound, the skin would be rolled up in four areas around the arm. At the end of the operation that skin was rolled back to wherever necessary and it became the butt.
He would start sawing, and we would take turns holding the hand. One of us would hold right above the hand. There are two big bones that go up to your shoulder. One of us would call the radius and the other would call ulnas. One person would hold those bones so they wouldn’t move when he was doing the amputation. Then, we had some army cots if we had to stay over night with the wounded because they couldn’t be moved out. The trucks were there because we had the army cots that became nursing beds and the trucks would bring them. When the ambulances would come, if they got through or our infantry broke through, they would bring the wounded men to the field hospital. A field hospital is a huge tent, but there were young doctors in there doing surgery. The doctor in the unit I was in was drunk about 25% of the time because he was so disappointed that they put him in a place like this. He was an operating surgeon in a hospital in Pittsburg, his name was Dr. Brohem. He was promised by the army that after basic training they would keep his unit together and they would operate together like they were doing in regular hospitals, so this disturbed him. He was told the worst he would be was in a field hospital so that’s why he was drunk 25% of the time. But he was an excellent doctor. He knew what to do and what to tell us to do.
Sometimes we would be in an area where they had water damns and there was a river coming through. And artillery would smash the dams and the water would come through. Sometimes we were on a plain and we had to get out of there. We were in pup tents and with the water coming down we would get drowned. We would flee to something high if we could.
We were approaching Italy and going over into the Italian campaign with the North Africa campaign was over. I was in seven countries in North Africa. Mt. Casino was a Catholic Monastery. It was well constructed- made of stone. The Germans occupied it. It was on a high hill and at the bottom was a river. Our troops had to cross the river, it was a flowing river, and that slowed them up and some got drowned. They had to go up the hill. Our general was Mark Clark. He was in a race, and this is political, with an English general who was coming up southern Italy. Where we were entering Italy was roughly in the middle. We had 10,000 wounded because General Clark wanted to be the first to get to Rome because when allied troops got to Rome the Italian campaign was about over. That’s what he did, and I think it was a mistake. He could have called in the air force to smash that monastery. He waited too long. We had too many wounded and I forget how many thousand killed. Then, he called in the air force and they got credit for that battle because they flattened that monastery in about two or three days. Our troops going up the hill didn’t have any fire, the Germans fled. We could cross the river on the army’s mobile bridges. We had no casualties going up to the monastery, but there was nothing there.
We finally got to Rome. Rome was off limits. Neither the Germans nor American side would bomb or take Rome by arms, both agreed to that. So it was no trouble marching into the city. Mark Clark was at the head of the troops, the thousands of them, and I was among the thousands of them. The Italians were throwing flowers at us and welcomed us very much. I met a woman who was in Rome at the time the American soldiers entered. She told me that the Germans, fled the city the day before and the night before because they knew that it was going to fall to us. Before they fled Rome, they took any Italian soldiers in the city and shot them by firing squad. And they shot a lot of the citizens, before they got out of the city, on purpose.
We went on to Yugoslavia. I ended up in Austria, a country next to Germany. I was given a thirty day leave. I lived in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. I was to report back to Miami Beach, which I did. We had thousands of troops at a hotel there. The army rented hotels in Miami Beach. We were slated to go into the Japanese War, all of soldiers in the hotel. I already had 32 months overseas, and here they were going to send us to send us to the Japanese War, which I call working the hell out of you. Truman dropped some bombs on Japan- One that killed 73,000 Japanese at Nagasaki. And that ended the war. I said, “Boy, I am getting out of here in a hurry.” When mobilization came I got out.
When I got home I asked some civilian men, and they had deferments, industrial deferments, which were necessary because they were building tanks. When we first started in Africa we were using WWI tanks. We were out gunned by the Germans. They had 88 millimeter Tiger Tanks. Now they were in the war 2 years before us.
WEBB: We started getting American food so I got out and was demobilized. Now the Korean War came along six years later, and thank god I was a civilian. By the way when I was a civilian I asked some of the men I knew what were you doing during the war and they say well I was on top of a skyscraper with field binoculars looking for German planes to come over. I said well you’re a damn fool; no German fool could fly over the Atlantic at that time. The Japanese didn’t fly over the pacific to get to us. What do you call those big flying transports, ships, I can’t think of them now. Aircraft carriers. They got close to us; they didn’t fly over from Japan. That’s how they hit us at Pearl Harbor. I said no plane in Europe could fly over the oceans. So I said you’re a damn fool. But that’s just an incident and they thought they were doing good and they needed men in the defense industry. I’ll tell you how we got supplies up to the front when we were back in Africa. At night, the trucks would come in loaded with ammunition and loaded with food supplies and blankets and you can’t name it. They’d come through but the trucks had lights that were just about as good as a flashlight because when you get up near the front these trucks would with their supplies they didn’t want to be seen or they’d be blown up. So and then they had soldiers with real flashlights every spaced a certain distance so they wouldn’t run off the road. And sometimes the road would be muddy and on the sides of the road weren’t very nice either because when it rained trucks would go through would ruin the road. Now they dumped these supplies these trucks one after another on the road or if they were told not to drop it on the road they’d drop it on the field. And these supplies would be as high as this ceiling here or almost and that’s how we got our supplies. If we could find a warehouse or something like that but mostly they were all shot out. And the stuff flying in the air all the time from grenades. That’s just a backtracking. So the war ended when I was in Florida and we thanked Truman that he dropped those bombs. And that ended the war. I mentioned the Korean War. Some fellows I knew (I never went to Korea and I never wanted to get in another war) but some of the fellows stayed in the Army and this war came along six years alter and they had to serve in that after serving in Europe and Africa. And I guess that’s all I can think of at this time.
TRIESLER: Were you with the fifth army or did it vary?
WEBB: I was with the Fifth army. I was with the 250th First Aid Battalion. They had groups like me; I was not the only one. They had a doctor and we were called medical corpsmen. There would be four maybe six with a doctor. When the doctors would go back to the field hospitals and other hospitals they’d see young fellows who were out of college; doctors, doing surgery and they learned surgery but recently. It would burn them up and bother them that they were where I was and many fellows like me. What was your question?
TRIESLER: I was wondering about your training. You mentioned the nursing training came in the field, but did you also get trained with guns and did you carry a weapon?
WEBB: No we were not allowed to carry weapons because we were following the Geneva Convention. This is only the medical corps. Doctors didn’t carry weapons. That’s not well known today, but that’s a fact, you talk to anybody in World War II, if they came in contact with the medical corps, they knew that.
TRIESLER: Were you a target of the enemy since they knew you were in the medical corps?
WEBB: No, because they were doing the same thing I assume. We weren’t always in the direct range of bodies. We were always under artillery fire, but…Anyhow, one time I was someplace in Africa, and there were about 10,000 German prisoners going through our lines, guarded by American troops, and some of them could speak English, and they said “You’re going the wrong way” because they knew they were going to the United States. When I got back I came back on an American ocean liner when the war ended, there were 12,000 troops on this ocean liner, sleeping on the isles and doing a lot of gambling like shooting craps and dice and I think it took us three days to get back. And it took us 18 days to get there when we were in a troop ship. But this was a big ocean liner. We landed in the Tidewater area of Virginia, and around Norfolk or some place. And then we were sent over to barracks, and German prisoners were serving us our food and they loved being there.
TRIESLER: Do you remember the names of the ships you traveled on during the War?
WEBB: After we stopped our convoy and got off our convoy, we weren’t on any ships anymore except we did cross the Mediterranean that was 700 miles long. And a bunch of American soldiers were on a French destroyer, took us to an island in the Mediterranean and there were Germans on that island but there were French troops there fighting the Germans. I was with a group that was not medical and they were preparing in their field that had been bombed and our forces were gonna occupy it. Well when we got into that port on that island we were bombed, our French destroyer was bombed. But we got through that okay because the French soldiers were doing the fighting so we weren’t up at the front. There were lots of incidents. We were on one beach in North Africa and I never counted but it looked like a hundred German soldiers were coming down the beach guarding American prisoners and their uniforms were all torn and some had helmets and some didn’t and I found out that there were some paratroopers some place in another town nearby had been there and we flew paratroopers over from England and these paratroopers weren’t notified and there were no Germans presumably in the area besides this hundred that were captured or dead or I don’t know. But they were purchasing food from Rommel in the desert. And Rommel was about 700 or 1,000 miles away from us so we were in no danger and they weren’t fighting men, they were like our quartermaster. They were supplying stuff. So the paratroopers had no trouble rounding them up, but they were coming down the beach and the army has a photographic department I don’t know what its called they serve in it like I served in the medical and they were there taking pictures as these soldiers I don’t know what the hell they old the people in the United States. So the only battle we lost in North Africa was at Kasserine Pass, and that was a pass through the mountains. And we were going through the mountains and the Germans, roughly 50% of the German forces went over to Hitler’s side and they were hiding in the city of Algiers in the port there for military reasons. And we were coming through and we had to go through that port, it was on the Mediterranean so unless we turned back but we wouldn’t do that. So we got into battle, did I mention that earlier? Well, this is with the Marines so I won’t mention that. When we went ashore, practically all the French ships were sunk, and they must’ve had great casualties because we had no harm but we went ashore 12 miles from the city so it was a more isolated place. This was in Algiers, in Algeria. We had people here in this retirement community, older people in their 90’s, one was a war prisoner, and all kinds of them here because of their age.
TRIESLER: You mentioned Rommel; at that time what kinds of things were you told about Rommel? Did you think he was a good leader, or…
WEBB: We knew he was in charge of the forces and that’s all we knew, and we knew we didn’t want to get facing them directly but we did some of them. We didn’t know too much, we didn’t know we were going to Africa before 3 days we went there. I never saw the general I was under, he had thousands of men, he didn’t see too many people/. There were a handful of them, but I never saw the one I was under. In 32 months I might have saw maybe 6 generals. They’re doing the planning; they’re not off where I was. I liked Eisenhower, I was in the town he was in, and it was well fortified. The Germans would bomb that town and the tracer bullets…do you know what tracer bullets are? Tracer bullets all over the place, I was up on a hill, overlooking these tracer bullets going up above us…Eisenhower’s headquarters was some place in that town. He came over from the Philippines. He was at the Philippines some time before the war. I never saw him though. Never saw Patton or my own general; Mark Clark.
TRIESLER: Were your orders given by a doctor then?
WEBB: Oh yes, we were completely under the doctor. There were only 4 of us, we were under him, and he had complete communication.
TRIMMER: We wanted to know if you treated any enemy soldiers?
WEBB: No I can’t remember treating any, there were others but I can’t remember treating any. Just a few times we were in sight of them, but we were barraged with artillery all the time, zooming. I remember this one fellow living here; he told me a good story. He crossed the English Channel with our forces and there was a road leading to the channel that German tanks came down to get to the channel. And also this road was between a forest. So he says the group he was in would duck into the forest so the tank couldn’t get at them. All kinds of things happened.
TRIMMER: When you had to do amputations and such what did you do for anesthesia?
WEBB: Well we had anesthesia. Those were the shots we were using. When the soldier would move then he’d give him another shot because he was not an anesthesiologist but he saw dumb lots of times and he didn’t know all the details like how long a shot would take, so when the soldier would move he would give him another shot.
TRIESLER: I always ask about letters, about you know, was it easy to get mail. Did you write many letters? Did you worry about censorship and things like that?
WEBB: Yes, our letters were censored, heavily censored. And people back home didn’t really know what was going on. They wouldn’t have been on those skyscrapers, but they did things to get the backing of the people. And they did have it, the people that worked; they believed all the stories they got. If an army withdrew, they don’t usually withdraw in a battle, if they withdrew they would forcefully withdraw, but they would say they withdrew to a more strategic position. You’re not going to say you’re defeated. You lose the confidence of the people. So I don’t know what to believe. But one nice thing they have is a green zone, where soldiers can eat, it’s a fortification, it’s desert-like in Iraq. In the oil fields in those countries, where they’re not drilling, the oil bubbles up above the ground. I guess that’s an old fact but… And when they start drilling it goes down. And the trouble with us is that we supplied oil to all our allies and so our oil fields, now they have to go down three thousand feet to get oil, it takes a lot of chemicals to get it up to the surface. That’s one problem we have and when I was in Africa one time I was taking a doctor down to the city, we were just outside a city, and along the road laid an Arab soldier, and he had papers on him that he was a solider in the French army. He was an Arab, so we picked him up in our ambulance, I was just taking this doctor to a place he wanted to go, and we picked up this soldier, we found out where a French hospital was, they wouldn’t take him because he was an Arab, Islamic probably. And the French controlled whatever country we were in, what do you call those controlling powers… There’s a name for it. Apparently the people didn’t like him so they wouldn’t take care of an Arab soldier. So many things going on.
TRIESLER: What about entertainment? Did you ever see USO?
WEBB: Oh yeah, Bob Hope! And I forget the feller’s name, he was funny… A great singer of that day, can’t think of his name… Bob Hope and this singer entertained us. And they had the best looking girls in the country there and they got good receptions. I saw several entertainments. I don’t remember seeing a movie in Italy but I was put into a repot-depot. Put it with a group to be reassigned, and I was reassigned to be in the air force, this was in Rome, and for the rest of the war I was in the Air Force with the medics. And I was in the paratrooper group and I ran an ambulance on the ground and when they would practice landing they would be out in the field and there were trees around and some would land in a tree and injure themselves, break a leg or something, and sometimes they wouldn’t. I was an ambulance just like at a skiing resort they always have an ambulance on hand, that doesn’t mean there’s gonna be a bunch of casualties, but in case. I was transferred into a paratrooper group, but I never went up in the air, I Was in the ground. I was in Yugoslavia, Northern Italy, it was from then on so we hadn’t gotten to Yugoslavia yet. I was transported one time in a B-24 I think, in a bomber, and it was just a transport form and a couple soldiers. SO we got out to the head of the runway, and the pilot looks around to see if everything was okay on the outside, and he saw the manifold of the airplane on the runway, so we taxied back and when he was at the hangar, in the garage there, he filled out papers look like a mile long, and it was s a complete redo of the airplane. Some mechanic forgot to tighten the bolts on the manifold, and I said to some pilot, well if you’d a continued and hadn’t seen that, would we have made it? And he said no. To go through the mountains there in Italy, we saw, still war time, but I was in the rear where the tail gunner would be and it was up and down, up and down.
TRIESLER: Were you married during the war?
WEBB: No, I met my wife at a Guy Lombardo dance. That wouldn’t mean anything to her, but maybe you know about Guy Lombardo. Matter of fact after the war I guess it was, I was at a military base on Long Island, and so I went up to the 42nd Street, to see the Bubble drop, whatever you call it, and I was among a million people. And that was something different.
TRIESLER: Do you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
WEBB: No I don’t know where I was.
TRIESLER: Or when President Roosevelt Died?
WEBB: Well yes I was in the United States. He died I think in Florida, and he was driving with the mayor of Chicago, and I think he was shot there on one of the boulevards in Miami, I’m not sure.
TRIESLER: I thought he had had cause of death was an aneurism.
WEBB: Well that could be, I had an aneurism.
TRIMMER: How long did it take you to get across the Atlantic?
WEBB: Well to get to Africa from near New York City it took I think 18 days, because the convoy moves slowly, it zigzags, it moves slowly. We had to go down the whole coast of the United States, practically the whole coast, and then cross over to Africa. So we were 18 days. Came back in three days! All 12,000 troops on one ocean liner! The name of the Ocean liner was United States Something. It was a cruise ship.
TRIMMER: What did you do in your spare time?
WEBB: I was never a card player but I shot dice, I always bet against the fellow that was shooting the dice. Found out I made out better that way. There was a lot of dice shooting coming back on that ocean Liner, 12,000 you know.
TRIESLER: Could you get radio broadcasts pretty well from the United States?
WEBB: Yes it was surprising. We didn’t have any with us, we’d be in civilian homes and we’d hear. I didn’t pay much attention to radio, but that’s all we had. And they had a German woman broadcasting from Germany and she knew where we were some of the time; knew exactly where we were and when we were strafed you always thought that the pilot saw you and later on that wasn’t true but that’s what went through your mind, he sees me and he’s going to shoot me. But I never got directly strafed but the planes bullets were