They trained with the infantry, carrying first aid kits instead of weapons. They dodged bullets to tend to wounded soldiers, sometimes with whatever supplies they could find. And even in the midst of thick combat, they remained steadily focused on their mission of saving lives. They were the combat medics of World War II.
No amount of training or planning could have prepared them for the casualties inflicted during the largest amphibious assault in history: D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe.
“Boy Scouts was the closest thing to medical training I had before that,” said Edwin Pepping, who was a 21-year-old Army private first class at the time. “But you didn’t have a chance to be nervous.”
In preparation for ground combat after Pearl Harbor, the Army hurried to create a ready force. Medical units made up of individuals of both military and civilian background were gathered and trained. Their duties included treating minor injuries, applying splints and tourniquets, and bandaging wounds.
Known as “band-aid bandits” to their comrades, Pepping, who turns 95 in July, and Army Staff Sgt. Albert Mampre were attached to Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — the unit later known as the “Band of Brothers.”
Seventy-three years ago June 6, the U.S. took part in the invasion of Normandy, which would ultimately be the turning point of the war in Europe. More than 13,000 aircraft and 5,000 ships were used in the D-Day landing, which was part of Operation Overlord. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Pepping boarded a C-47 Skytrain transport for the big jump. But as often happens in combat, the plan didn’t go as expected.
“We were supposed to be dropped at 700 feet at 95 miles per hour, which was enough to get our parachute to open and get our equipment down safely, but they dropped us at 300 feet at 165 miles per hour, which is almost impossible to survive,” he said.
As Pepping jumped, he was hit by a gust of air that ripped 125 pounds worth of supplies off of him. His parachute opened at the same time, causing him to spin violently before falling to the ground. He hit the ground so hard that his own strapped helmet flew back and knocked him in the neck, leading to a concussion and three cracked vertebrae.
After landing near the town of Angoville-au-Plain behind Utah Beach, Pepping spent the next several hours helping another medic, Willard Moore, bring severely wounded soldiers to a makeshift aid station in a nearby church. Moore drove the jeep while Pepping loaded the wounded and nursed them until they got back to the church, he said.
“There were so many catastrophic wounds that a lot of the time it was beyond us to do anything except to see if we could get a doctor to help,” Pepping said. Two other medics treated patients at the aid station. They used whatever medical supplies they could find after losing most of theirs in the jump, and they treated whomever they found — American, French and German alike. Together, they saved more than 80 lives that day.
“When we flew into Normandy, we met some very, very serious cases, and a lot of the time we didn’t know exactly how to handle them,” Pepping said, adding that it taught him perseverance. Today, the church serves as a memorial. The blood stains where the wounded were laid remain on the pews.
“A sense of humor is really what saved us,” he said, noting that the biggest lesson he learned as a medic was to duck. “You couldn’t make it through the war without it,” he added. Medics were unarmed, and they were identified by the Red Cross symbol on their helmets and arm bands. Even so, they weren’t always spared as a target.
Mampre, who had to miss the jump on D-Day after coming down with a severe infection just a few days before, went on to receive the Purple Heart for action in Holland. After spotting a wounded lieutenant in a field, he was told the soldier was dead and best left alone. Mampre ran out to him through heavy gunfire and found him alive. He was shot through the leg, but he and the lieutenant made it to safety and survived.
“I’d do it all over again,” Mampre said about being a combat medic. “But if they need me again at 95 years old, boy, we’re in trouble.”