This week’s used bookstore find is the slim World War II memoir Medic! by army medic Robert “Doc Joe” Franklin. Subtitled “How I fought World War II with morphine, sulfa and iodine swabs,” it offers an unflinching “worm’s-eye” perspective from the European front, specifically the invasion through Italy. In its pages, Franklin traces the path of the 45th Infantry Division, whom General Patton described as “one of the best, if not the best division that the American army has ever produced.” Though he was thrown into combat with no medical training, he quickly learned to improvise and saved numerous lives, winning two Silver Stars for bravery under fire. With clean, unadorned, and compelling prose, Franklin leads the reader through a lifetime in 146 pages.
After finishing the book, I’m still haunted by Franklin’s account of the wounded sergeant who came to him carrying another wounded buddy, waving away help for himself, only to be found dead on the spot moments later. I can’t shake the memory of the private stumbling down a hill with a shattered hand to get a fresh rifle and “be right back” for his comrades, never to return. And I can still see the terribly wounded young French couple Franklin observed in an aid station, lying side-by-side on their litters, reaching out to take hold of each other’s hands. The doctor tending them said they might survive. He couldn’t say the same for their baby.
It also emerges quietly in the course of the memoir that Franklin is of Jewish descent. (Of course, one might have guessed this by taking one look at that schnozz.) Although it also comes out that his religious worldview is unfortunately grounded in secular humanism, he retains a strong sense of Jewish identity. In one of the most riveting episodes, he risks his life to tend a wounded German soldier, and they are forced to stay put and make conversation while the German’s friends shoot at him. When Franklin confirms that the man identifies as “Deutsche” rather Polish, Czech, or Austrian, he savors the irony as he identifies himself in reply: “Juden!” The German recoils in a panic at first, then calms down and reaches out to pat his new friend on the shoulder: “Gut! Gut!”
I mentioned before that Franklin is unflinching when he describes the horrors of combat casualty. This is definitely not a book you can hand to your 10-year-old. Maybe not even your 13-year-old. If it were made into a movie and every casualty reproduced without the camera looking away, it would rival Saving Private Ryan. And honestly, these parts should be disturbing for any adult who isn’t just completely desensitized to violence. However, this is a piece of history, and Franklin is simply giving an accurate report. It would be impossible to do justice to his work while glossing over the conditions he had to work in. Fortunately, not all the stories end sadly, and in fact there is some interesting medical information in stories of men he saved. In one case, a man needed plasma, and the other doctor couldn’t find a vein to administer it. Franklin suggested cutting for the vein, and he went on to save many men’s lives with this technique, which would only become official medical practice in the 60s.
Franklin was already exceptionally well-read when he entered the service and went on to teach highschool literature after the war. This means that while one certainly doesn’t need a literary background to appreciate this memoir, those who do will also appreciate how strongly it is informed by the American literary tradition. He echoes the beginning of Moby Dick in the very first line (“Call me ‘Doc Joe'”) and follows up with a quote from Emily Dickinson. Ernest Hemingway is another author who is never directly quoted, but whose influence is definitely felt in Franklin’s style. The German war novelist Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet On the Western Front), is another clear influence.