In The Company of Heroes
by Linda B.
Author's note: According to the website www.med-dept.com, only NCOs and officers were authorized to carry and administer morphine in World War II.
“You going to hand that over or tuck it under your pillow and hope the tooth fairy visits?”
Doc blinked owlishly at the hand thrust across the table.
“Give it to me, Bud.”
Doc lowered his gaze and saw his own hand beside his thigh – fingers white as they clutched the crumpled paper.
The Medical Supply Staff Sergeant snapped his fingers. “Don’t have all day,” he barked as he slipped a pencil from behind an ear and pointed it over Doc’s shoulder, “and you’re holding up my customers.”
Doc turned slowly, surprised to discover a straggling line behind him. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been waiting in the line, let alone at the front. Each man was identified by a muddy helmet and armbands with white circles and red crosses signifying the owner’s role in this war - medical personnel just like him.
The medic immediately behind him tapped his fingers impatiently on the helmet he held tucked under one arm. The beat echoed in the frosty morning air.
Further down, more aid men stamped their feet or pulled their blankets around the shoulders to keep warm. Small clouds of exhaled breath, emerging from a nose here and a mouth there, were briefly visible before disappearing - to be replaced by the next breath.
Doc positioned the papers on the desk, oblivious to the sergeant’s indignant glare and carefully smoothed the deepest creases out as best as he could. Finally he was satisfied with the result and handed them to the sergeant.
“You’ve been busy,’ the NCO commented as he ran a finger down the list. He looked up, anticipating an answer, and instead found the medic intently scratching at spots of dried blood on his sleeve with his fingernails.
He shrugged and swung open the medical chests, each hinge protesting with a loud squeak. “Gotta find me some oil,” he muttered to himself as he peered into a chest. He quickly located one item, licked the pencil’s tip, scrawled a ragged cross, meticulously positioned the medical supply on his desk and repeated the process. The rows of medical supplies grew.
Doc slid the medical pouch strap off his shoulder. His fingers felt heavy and clumsy as they fumbled with the buckles. He closed his eyes in frustration.
“I’ll do it,” offered a gruff voice close to Doc’s ear and a callused hand brushed against his.
Startled, Doc dropped the pouch and recoiled away from the unexpected touch. His hip collided with the table, knocking it over; bandages and boxes scattering in all directions.
He flung his arms out, trying to maintain his balance. In a desperate attempt to avoid damaging the limited supplies - and himself - he twisted in mid-air. He succeeded in landing on his back in a tangle of long arms and legs and the wind knocked out of him.
“What did you do that for?” yelled the sergeant as he stood over Doc. Not waiting for an answer, he pulled his desk upright and began to gather up the supplies, ignoring the fallen man.
Doc slowly shook his head and rubbed a hand across his eyes, appalled at the mess. “Sorry... I’m sorry,” he gasped and gingerly rolled onto his hands and knees. Barely an inch from his fingertips was a pair of mud-encrusted boots. He looked up - into the concerned face of the aid man who had touched his arm.
“You okay?” the medic asked and grinned ruefully.
Doc assessed his condition for a second. A twinge on his side deserved a gentle trace – another bruise to add to his collection. The small frown of concentration disappeared when he nodded.
“Offer’s still good,” continued the medic as he stretched out a hand. The other held Doc’s pouch.
Doc grasped the forearm and allowed him to be hauled to his feet. He swayed slightly and would have fallen had the medic not retained his grip.
“You sure you’re okay?” asked the medic intently as he looked Doc over. He didn’t appear wounded, but medics had a habit of putting their comrades’ injuries before their own.
Doc nodded and shook the hand off.
Momentarily satisfied, the aid man brushed some mud globs off the medical pouch and smiled as he held it towards Doc.
Doc, his face expressionless, looked away. Conscious that he was working his fists, he crossed his arms and shoved the offending hands under his armpits, as if to shield himself. He shook his head vigorously.
Bewildered, the medic stared at Doc, stunned. Normally, a medic is very territorial and protective of his pouch, yet here was a one who didn’t appear to care one way or another. He turned to the staff sergeant, pleading with his eyes.
The sergeant took a deep breath. “Open it for him,” he said as a look of understanding began to spread across his face.
Silently Doc watched as the buckles were swiftly released. He didn’t want them to touch it, to reveal what was inside. The pouch may have been army issue, but it belonged to him and no one else, but he couldn’t open it himself. He wanted to, but his fingers wouldn’t co-operate.
The medic and sergeant gaped at the utterly empty pouch, for not even a safety pin nor scissors was to be found, and then at Doc.
He was oblivious. Eyes glazed, he stared right through them, his mind elsewhere.
The medic offered the pouch to Doc again and when it wasn’t accepted again, he placed it on the desk and stepped away, uncertain of what to say.
The sergeant fussed and repositioned a bandage on his desk, looked over the requisition once more, and signed it.
“We’ll check them off and you can get outta here,” instructed the sergeant as gently as he could. “You got a pencil?”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause before Doc finally shook his head.
The sergeant pulled open a drawer in the desk and rummaged around until he found a second pencil. He gathered the paper and pencil and pressed them into Doc’s hands.
“One pair of scissors,” he called as he slid the scissors to the right - where Doc’s pouch lay.
There was a long pause.
The sergeant leaned over and used his pencil to run a dark line through the word.
“Lost... somewhere... on the battleground,” Doc answered in a monotone voice. He stared at his list, unable to force his hands to move.
The aid man standing behind Doc placed his helmet onto the table. He took the pencil and list from Doc’s hands and marked the paper and then he slid the scissors into the pouch.
The grateful sergeant glanced up, before continuing with his unenviable task. “One pencil.”
“Lost during barrage.”
“Eye dressing set.”
“Kirby – 1st Squad.”
“Bandages - 4, Triangular, Compressed White.”
“Brockmeyer – 1st Squad, Caje – 1st Squad, Sergeant Saunders – 1st Squad - Squad Leader, Vilette – 1st Squad.”
“Morphine Tartrate - 5 Tubes.”
“Avery – Platoon Sergeant, Baum – 1st Squad, Caje – 1st Squad, Lieutenant Hanley – Platoon Leader, Hummel – 1st Squad.”
“Iodine swab - box of 5.”
“Avery – Platoon Sergeant, Beecham – 1st Squad, Caje – 1st Squad, Davis – 1st Squad, Lieutenant Hanley – Platoon Leader.”
“Captain Jampel – Company Leader.”
“Burn Injury Set.”
“Kirby – 1st Squad.”
“Bandage, Gauze, Compressed, White, 3-Inch by 6 Yards – 16 bandages.”
Doc’s fingers flittered across the blood on his sleeve.
“Baker – 1st Squad, Baum – 1st Squad, Beecham – 1st Squad, Brockmeyer– 1st Squad, Davis – 1st Squad, Lieutenant Hanley – Platoon Leader, Hummel – 1st Squad, Captain Jampel – Company Leader, Kirby – 1st Squad, Lawson – 1st Squad.”
Doc paused and blinked. For some compelling reason, he knew it was important to assign the exact information. His headache intensifying with every second he concentrated on summoning incidences which he didn’t want to remember.
“Hey, Bud, I get the idea. You don’t need to keep repeating the squad...”
The monotone voice continued, “Littlejohn – 1st Squad, Lovelace – 1st Squad, March – 1st Squad, Nelson – 1st Squad, Neumann – 1st squad, Sergeant Saunders – Squad Leader - 1st Squad.”
“But you’re not really listening to me, are you?” The sergeant knew the medic wouldn’t respond. He chewed on his bottom lip. The thought of waving his strict procedure of verifying all requisitions crossed his mind briefly.
“Gauze – 4, 36 inches by 1 yard.”
“Baker – 1st Squad, Littlejohn – 1st Squad, March – 1st Squad, Sergeant Saunders – Squad Leader - 1st Squad.”
“Sulfanilamide, 5 by 5 envelopes.”
Doc could not reply. He swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Sulfanilamide, 5 by 5 envelopes,” repeated the sergeant.
“Don’t remember. I should,” Doc rubbed his forehead before continuing, “when I used mine or theirs. There was so much...”
The sergeant cut in, “Book of 20 Emergency Medical Tags.”
“Didn’t have enough. Had to rip pages out of Sergeant Saunders’ note book.”
“Cotton, Absorbent, Compressed, 1 oz by 4.”
“Caje – 1st Squad, Littlejohn – 1st Squad, March – 1st Squad, Sergeant Saunders – 1st Squad - Squad Leader.”
“Boric Acid Ointment.”
“Kirby – 1st Squad.”
“Acid, Acetylsalicylic, 1000 Tablets.”
“Most of them... not Avery –Platoon Sergeant, Baum – 1st Squad, Caje – 1st Squad, Lieutenant Hanley – Platoon Leader, Hummel – 1st Squad. Gave them morphine. I dropped some aspirin tablets... in the mud...”
“Didn’t want to use them?”
“No,” declared Doc. “Should I have?”
“Don’t matter now, do it?”
Doc slowly shook his head, his expression bleak.
“Woulda done the same myself,’ agreed the sergeant as he continued. “One inch by 5 yards surgical plaster.”
“Most of them.”
“Bandage, Gauze, Adhesive, White, 1-Inch by 3-Inch.”
“Kirby – 1st Squad, and someone else...I should remember,” Doc’s voice trailed off.
“You,” the sergeant offered, “by the look of it.” He pointed to Doc’s head.
Doc ran his fingers across a gritty cheek. Down the left side and around his ear he felt the small dressings and as he looked at his hand he found more wrapped around his thumb and index finger. He couldn’t remember applying the dressings.
“Bottle of Halazone tablets.”
Doc shook his head.
“Sulfadiazine – 3 sets of 8 tablets.”
Doc remained silent.
“Same as the halazone?” suggested the sergeant.
Doc nodded slowly.
“2 Strips of 20 safety pins.”
Doc stayed silent.
“Most likely every name you mentioned,” stated the sergeant, “until you ran out.”
The sergeant and Doc watched in silence as the other aid man fitted the safety pins into the pouch and buckled it shut.
“What outfit are you from, soldier?” the sergeant asked as he intensely observed Doc.
“361st - King Company, 2nd Platoon,” muttered Doc, a detached look spread across his face as he shouldered his supplies.
Smiling at Doc in an unguarded moment, “You got somewhere to go?” he asked.
Doc swallowed hard as the sudden dryness in his mouth prevented him from verbally replying. He nodded and glanced down the road, conscious of his throbbing head and side.
The sergeant’s questions bothered him. Doc turned, but his legs refused to function and he overbalanced. He reached out to grasp the table, but a firm hold on each arm prevented him from falling to his knees.
His head felt heavy as he raised it and found two concerned faces staring into his; a sergeant’s and medic’s.
They could see his resentment of their touch, even if it was to help him, and felt his arms tense. They hauled him upright, and once he was balanced, released their grip.
One faltering step after another led Doc further away and along the line of waiting aid men.
When he was confident Doc wouldn’t hear him the sergeant said quietly, “That explains everything.”
“It does?” asked the medic.
“King Company’s 2nd Platoon took the brunt of the German advance. You’re looking at a man, a soldier, who’s more than likely the only survivor.”
Both medical personnel knew Doc needed assistance, but neither was experienced enough to know exactly how to offer it. The help came in the form of an obviously wounded soldier. Hunched over in pain, he exited the aid tent and shuffled up to Doc. One man had visible wounds, the bandages in evidence; the other equally wounded, but in places not seen quiet as easily.
Doc bent slightly to allow the soldier to slide his uninjured arm across Doc’s shoulders and grasped his hand. To steady them both, Doc gathered his own arm around the soldier’s waist and mindful of the various wounds, curled his fingers around his belt.
The sergeant wasn’t sure who was offering the most support. He had a suspicion of where they were headed as the two continued their laborious journey to the partially demolished building.
In the shadow of the church, and on the glistening wet grass, lay row after row of soldiers. Shrouded in blankets and cold mist, they lingered in the silence.
Doc pulled his helmet off and dropped it on the ground. Momentum rolled it forward, until it too came to rest – against a mud-spattered G.I. boot.
Together, the two soldiers bowed their heads for they stood in the company of heroes.
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