After Landing in Normandy
The Don McKee Story
By Christopher Gosier
This photo of Don McKee was taken at a veterans' cemetery in the mid 1990s, while delivering a speech during the dedication of a memorial plaza in Frederick County, MD.
The men died in various brutal ways. Some were instantly killed by mortar blasts. Others were shot. Some lingered for a last few moments of life before slipping away. One killed himself with morphine that was left untended a mistake that might have brought a serious reprimand in a place less filled with random, ubiquitous death.
Don McKee left the University of Michigan for this French farmland where the dead were carried off by day and the living slept at night in shallow pits that they dug like graves. He bandaged the wounded and sometimes retrieved them from the wide-open fields where they lay punctured by enemy bullets. He would walk carefully into the fields, an unarmed medic, hoping the enemy soldiers on the other side would decide to heed the rules of war and hold their fire. Sometimes they didn’t.
McKee lasted a long time in this world of warfare. It was 12 weeks before a mortar round blasted him off the ground and riddled his body with shrapnel, casting him out of the world of combat.
That mortar round spared his life and sent him away from the fighting. And it killed the two men who had been standing next to him.
Don McKee grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., and enrolled at the University of Michigan to become an engineer. He hoped to be an engineer in the Army when he gave up his college deferment in 1943 so he could be drafted. But the Army had other ideas. He would be a medic.
“When I heard that, I was crestfallen,” McKee said. “All I knew about the medics was … orderly duty in a hospital. I sure didn’t want that. I was an engineering student. I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to build things, not take care of sick people. I had no control over it. I mean, the Army assigned you where they had a need.”
But his training would change his mind. He warmed to the idea of being a medic. He would soon treat many wounded and dead, accumulating an experience of war he still recalls vividly, unflinchingly, 60 years later. He is frank and direct, even chatty, sometimes digressing, his voice often surging to stay ahead of the memories that seem to descend on him from all sides.
He remembers landing on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 7, 1944, the day after the Allies’ massive D-Day assault – “the whole beach was cluttered with equipment and wounded and dead.”
He was attached to the 2nd Battalion, 175th regiment, part of the Army’s 29th Infantry Division. He was five months shy of his twenty-first birthday.
He was still one of the older men in his unit, serving as an informal advisor to the company commander, who needed to know which soldiers were sturdy enough for combat.
“Very few of them were over twenty-seven, and some of them, they got scared awful easy, and they start shaking and, you know, a lot of things. I saw not only just wounded, some of these cases where these guys would come in as replacements and in two, three days’ time they’d be out of there. I mean they’d be hit, killed, wounded. You never really got to know them. So it was my job … to advise the company commander, who was a captain, whether a certain guy could hold up or not, because some of them – not a lot, but a few of them – were battle fatigued, is what we’d call them. They just couldn’t stand the pressures of constant noise and racket and not sleeping and deprivation, and so forth. So it was my job to determine whether they were fit, and if they weren’t, to get ’em the hell out of there.”
He dispensed morphine using syrettes, or disposable packages containing about an ounce of morphine in a small tube with a needle on the end. He would clip the empty syrette to the soldier’s shirt to indicate how much morphine had been given.
“That morphine was the best tool that we had, because it knocked people out,” he said. “I mean, if the guy was conscious, and he was moaning and it looked to me like I couldn’t do anything about it, I’d give him the morphine, but I’d still call back and say, ‘Hey, I got a man here that’s not dead. Get up here.’ And maybe it’d take them an hour to get up there. …I don’t know whether the guy lived or whether he died. We had to move out, so it was first aid, really in the very strictest sense.”
They were grisly wounds: “Body wounds, or facial wounds, where a guy would lose a good portion of his face and jaw, or have his guts exposed. That was basically what it was. It was that type of wound, which is horrendous to think about it, but you see it so often that it gets to where you can handle it.”
After landing in Normandy, their first objective was the town of St. Lo, a rail and road center for the region. It was about 25 miles inland, across farm country demarcated by tall, earthen bulwarks with vegetation on top. These hedgerows gave the Germans a protected perch from which to fire upon the advancing soldiers. The straight roads running between the fields were guarded by enemy guns, so sometimes the Americans could only advance by climbing over the hedgerows, exposing themselves to German machine guns.
“We went through the hedgerow country all the way from the beach to St. Lo,” McKee said. “It was dangerous, because soon as you put your head over, the Germans are one or so back here, and they’re firing at you. We would just have a couple of rifleman start firing a mounted machine gun up there … and when you didn’t get any return fire, somebody said, ‘Okay, lets go,’ and you start piling over the top.
“As you put your head over, the Germans are one or so back here, and they’re firing at you,” he said. “The Army, they acted like they didn’t even know these things were there. Why, you could see them from the air. They should’ve realized the so-called hedgerow country favored the defenders.”
Photo of Mr. McKee taken in January of February of 1945, in the area of Fountainbleu, France, about 40 or 50 miles south of Paris.
At night, he said, “we would dig in right against the hedgerow, and the Germans, maybe sometimes they’d be right on the other side of it. You could hear them over there, and if they figured out that you were a big force, why, they would back off and be one field away.”
“We were always against the enemy. They feared us, too, and they didn’t like staying around too long when they knew we were there, because we had more forces. I’m not going to short-change them, they were good fighters. They had many Eastern Europeans in their ranks that they had drafted who didn’t give a damn much at all about fighting Americans, so there were pockets of German units which weren’t anything good at all, but then you had a lot of them that were.”
One night brought a terrible mistake that he regrets to this day.
“We had been advancing, and we were tired and dirty and hungry and thirsty, and all the usual stuff that you get, so the order came – ‘Okay, we’ll stop here. Let’s dig in.’
“Digging in, you had a small entrenching tool. … Some of the ground was pretty rocky, so it was hard digging, and some guys, if we were in an area early enough, some of these guys would make elaborate holes because they had time to do them while the ground was soft, and there’d be two men in them. …They’d go to a farmhouse somewhere and take an old door off the house and lay it across the top …and put dirt on top of that, so you had a little opening on one end and covered the rest of it, because what you’re trying to protect yourself against is mortar blasts, the shrapnel coming down, and artillery. You don’t worry about rifle fire because you’re behind these hedgerows. So it behooved you to take cover. You’d dig the whole thing like a grave, and most of the time you didn’t have any cover over it, but you were below ground level by eighteen, twenty inches. But if you were going to be in a spot for a couple of days you would improve upon on the hole. And you’d put a cover on it. You’ve got a little opening on one end so you’d feel better.”
“We were all tired, and I was particularly tired that night, and I started digging, and I didn’t get very far, but I got enough to get my body down. …And I had these medical pouches which I carried under my arm on a sling, and they had all my compresses and morphine and various other stuff I was supposed to carry with me. So I would take them off at nighttime and use two of them, put on the ground, as a pillow. So this one night it was so late, we were all so tired, and I didn’t dig very deep because I couldn’t, and I only put one pouch under my head … and left the other one out on top of the ground. The next morning, or whenever light came – four o’clock, five o’clock in the morning – I rouse myself and get out of the hole, and I said, ‘Hey, my medical pouch is missing. It was here. Where did it go? So that was sort of serious. I needed those things. And I got up, didn’t walk more than 15 feet until I saw the pouch. It had been ripped open and all the contents strewn on the ground. And some GI had gotten the morphine and OD’d on it and he was dead. I don’t know how many it took to OD. …You can go out pretty quickly on that stuff if you took eight or ten of them, probably, but that guy must have had 30 or 40. So these little syrettes were all over the ground and this poor kid had just had his bellyful of combat. He wasn’t being sent back like he wanted to, apparently.”
“So anyway, the company commander found this (out), raised hell with me for not being more careful. I had no defense and I should’ve taken care of things more, but we lost the guy.”
“He said, ‘Soldier, that wasn’t very smart, was it?’”
“I said, ‘No, sir, it was not. I’m very sorry.’”
“‘Well, we can’t do anything about it now, we’ve got to move out.’ So we just had to leave the guy there, call back to the aid station.”
“I don’t think it’s something that made me morbid, or something like that. Hell, you see the killing going on all the time. I’m sorry that it happened, and the guy got into my medical bag and did it, and therefore I was responsible, but I didn’t dwell on it particularly. …It happened, and I’m testimony to it, and it made me feel terrible. He (the company commander) couldn’t do anything about it. The guy was dead. He couldn’t court-martial me because it was a mistake I made because I was so tired the night before, and everybody was worn out. You didn’t have enough food, you didn’t have enough sleeping time, and sometimes you’d get rain, and it was just a miserable existence.”
“It never happened again, I’ll tell you that,” he said. From then on, he carried the syrettes in his pockets rather than leave them in the medical pouches slung over his shoulders, which he would sometimes have to set on the ground while treating someone.
The soldier who committed suicide was “another face in the crowd. People came and go so fast. …I knew some of the sergeants, but most of the privates, I mean their life in an infantry company was a matter of a few days. …Medics didn’t last very long either. I mean, I took two. I got two purple hearts, and I only lasted 12 weeks, which was pretty good.”
The first one came in the hedgerow country.
“You know these mortars burst in the air, send fragments, shrapnel all over. …They come with such force, they bore into your body. I had one time where I was too close to one and it got me in the arm. (I was) bleeding pretty bad. I was the only medic. It was very hard for me to bandage my own self, so I had some infantry guy help me and finally the captain came along and said, ‘You’d better go back and get some attention.’”
This photograph was also taken in Fountainbleu, January or February 1945. Don McKee is the one in the center.
The wound was stitched up, he said, and “within 24 hours I was back in the company again. It was no big deal.”
He would also face danger from machine gun fire. Occasionally. He describes it:
“We’d be behind these hedgerows during the day, and somebody would say, ‘Okay, I want a patrol to go out and scout around to see what the activity is.’ So they send three or four guys out on a patrol and they’d come back and say, ‘Well, so-and-so didn’t make it back, he’s laying out there in the field, you‘d better go out and get him.’ So that was my job, to go over the hedgerow, or through the hole, to find the guy, treat him, and either drag him back or carry him back to where it was safe, or decide that he was gone and I couldn’t do anything about it. So that was what the medic did. So my life was right with the infantry guys, except I didn’t have a weapon.”
His sixteen weeks of basic training had included no weapons training. Medics carried no guns, and armies were supposed to avoid targeting them, at least according to the Geneva Convention.
“I had my armband” when venturing into the field, he said. “You had a medical armband on. You sort of walk out, standing a little bit with your arms up, like this, so they can see that you are a medic. And most of the time that worked.”
But not all the time.
“You’d hear rifle fire…and, boy, when that happened you hit the ground and you stayed there, and just saw what happened. Fortunately, (the wounded soldiers) wouldn’t be in the middle. Most of the time they were along the hedgerows, which provided a little protection.”
The Allies had to rely on artillery in the hedgerow country because the Germans had better automatic weapons.
“I don’t know why, but they did,” McKee said. “The German machine guns and the German artillery were basically better than ours, and the fact that we won was (because) we had more of everything. We had more manpower, we had control of the air, and almost unlimited ammunition supply.”
“They had a machine gun we all called a ‘burp’ gun because it fired so fast, it went ‘burp!’ – like that,” he said. “Whereas our machine guns…they go ‘bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,’ like that, nowhere near as fast as the Germans’. …Plus, they had the protection of the hedgerows, and two or three guys back there could hold off a whole 40 Americans until we silenced them.”
But the Americans’ solution sometimes backfired.
“So we’d call for artillery …some of which would run short and land on our guys,” he said. “It always happened. I often said that if the American public had the access to the daily battle reports that we had in the last ten, fifteen years, they’d’ve had a conniption, because there’s so much foul-ups and mistakes and needless casualties that occur in combat that you can’t help. And when they occurred in Vietnam, or in the Persian Gulf, you had newspaper people right there with them, with cameras, and something happened – a guy misfired, an American round misfired and killed half a dozen Americans – man, that would be on the headlines here that evening, whereas in World War Two, nobody knew that there was a lot of that stuff. There was a lot of that stuff going on.”
Guiding artillery to its target was an imperfect process. An artillery observer “would give them the coordinates of where he wanted to shoot. Well, if this artillery piece is a mile back there, it could be off by a couple hundred yards, and when they are, they fall in where your guys are, so you’ve got to be careful, when you call them up, that they go long rather than short, and work their way back with corrective fire when you see that you’re too far back.”
The journey through hedgerow country became easier when the Army devised a new way for tanks to break through the hedgerows, he said. The old way was perilous – a tank would ride up one side of the embankment, exposing its lightly-armored underbelly to enemy fire as it rose over the top of the mound.
The new method made use of steel structures erected by the Germans on the beach at Normandy with mines affixed to the top, a trap for Allied landing craft. The steel beams, crossed over each other like giant jacks from a children’s game, were surplus scrap after the beach was secured. So the Army took them apart and welded them to the underside of tanks, where they acted as prongs that allowed the tank to pierce the hedgerows and break directly through.
“They could take a tank and go like hell and drive right through,” McKee said. “The tank would go right through, and we had an opening. There’s nothing that helps an infantryman better than having a tank alongside of him, because it’s got firepower.”
His second injury came in the city of Brest, after his division had completed the seven-week journey to St. Lo. The 29th and two other divisions were sent to wrest the port city away from German control so the Allied supply ships could dock in the port rather than unload their supplies on the beach via small boats. The Germans covered the Atlantic Ocean from Brest, where they had built huge, concrete pens to house their U-boats.
“We’d just only been there three days,” McKee said. “We were positioning ourselves. …I was standing in a group of three, in a farmyard, which was the company headquarters for this infantry company I was attached to, and I think three of us were just standing there talking, and a mortar came in and landed so close that it killed two of the guys and hit me.”
“All I can remember is being propelled through the air several feet, and then I was out of it,” he said. “We were standing there, I don’t know what we were talking about, but obviously, we shouldn’t have been, because somebody was up on some high ground and saw us. That’s one of the unwritten laws of combat – don’t stand around in groups. Keep separated.”
This photograph was taken during basic training in Rockport, Illinois, in November or December 1943; it was during a 25-mile training hike.
“It was high ground. I can remember it visually. We were right beside a rather high hill, and the Germans were up on the hill. We had just pulled into the area, so we didn’t know the terrain at all. It was only the first day.”
“Somebody called back to the aid station and said, ‘Send the jeep up.’ …When the jeep driver came up and saw me, he knew right away from my armband that I was the company medic, and I was barely conscious. I remember him, with some help, putting me up on the hood of the jeep and saying, ‘Now don’t worry, doc, we’ll take care of you …so when I went back to the aid station, I was a little more conscious there. People that I knew looked at me and were sort of shocked.”
He had no gaping wounds or serious bleeding, but had shrapnel lodged in his back and legs. His wounds were too serious for the aid station to treat.
“All the ones they couldn’t treat, they sent back to a beach where they had a 747 that could land on the strip. (They) put all the litter cases on the 747, maybe twenty, or something like that.”
He ended up in an American hospital in Cardiff, Wales, where he spent 3 ½ months recuperating. Then, in mid-December 1944, he was released to a replacement depot in central England, where a doctor asked him what he could still do.
“He didn’t see many field medics come through,” McKee said. “We got through the interview and he says, ‘Soldier, are you ready to go back to the infantry and walk, walk,’ and I says, ‘Colonel, I’ll try, but I don’t do very well.’ He reached for his evaluation pad, he says ‘limited service,’ and that got me out of the combat.”
“Which didn’t make me mad,” he added. “A lot of these guys say, ‘Oh, gee, I want to get back to my buddies. If I don’t, why, they’ll think lowly of me,’ and so forth and so on. I had had enough, after twelve weeks from D-Day to the end of August, that I had my bellyful, so I didn’t fight it.”
He was sent back to the continent, to another replacement depot near Paris, and assigned to a post office unit – “a really rear-echelon unit” – that handled mail distribution for a large segment of the American army. He arrived as the Battle of the Bulge was raging, about one hundred miles east of Paris.
In April 1945, when the European war was winding down, his unit was shipped by train to Marseilles, on the Mediterranean Sea, and re-deployed to the Pacific Theater. The ships stopped in Panama, where some soldiers jumped ship.
“They never saw them again, because they knew they were heading for the Pacific, after being in Europe,” he said.
The ships arrived in the Philippines just as America was dropping its atomic bombs on Japan. After a few months in Korea, where McKee’s unit was among the first occupation troops, his injuries and time in service gave him a high enough score in the Army’s point system that he was allowed to return to the United States. He returned in December 1945, arriving in Fort Lewis, Washington, and hopping a train to Chicago, where he was discharged. He then took another train back to Kalamazoo.
Within two weeks, he was back in school at the University of Michigan. He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering and worked for 38 years as an environmental engineer. Today he lives with his wife in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he is active in the 29th Division Association.
He cast a rueful eye on current international affairs as he remembered his time in the military.
“What’s going on in this world now is not an easy deal,” he said. “Everybody hates our guts no matter what we do. But I don’t have any qualms about (my) military service in World War Two. I think it was the best thing in my life that ever happened to me. It made me a different person.”
[iPublished January 2005 by U.S. Legacies [/i]