Military Actions: Wren man's unit saved soldiers' lives during WWII
The Lima News
WREN — Marlin Gehres leafs through the pages in the photo album, one of three on his kitchen table. He pauses, placing a 91-year-old index finger on a small square of paper.
Torn from a doctor’s prescription pad in 1945, it bears the handwritten names and stateside addresses of three soldiers. All three survived typhus fevers of 108 degrees while serving with the Army in the South Pacific, thanks to Gehres’ 608th Medical Clearing Company (Separate).
“These three are proof that you can survive a fever that high with no permananent effects,” Gehres said. “They always said you can’t live that way, and I know you can. Here’s proof. Here’s three who did.”
The 608th was similar to the medical unit from the "M.A.S.H." TV series, only without women. Sgt. Gehres, a 1939 graduate of Wren High School, assisted in surgery, handing instruments to the doctor. For much of the war, the unit was stationed near the beach on jungle islands in the South Pacific — Sansipor, at the northwest end of Dutch New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), and Luzon in the Philippines. After the Japanese surrender, the 608th was among the first occupation troops in Tokyo.
The fever outbreak happened in early 1945, shortly after the troops invaded Luzon and built an airstrip.
“There was a grass, about knee-deep. We were supposed to wear leggings but a lot of the guys didn’t,” he said.
Bites from small insects in the grass caused the outbreak of typhus fever. There was no cure. The only treatment was to ride out the fever — a period of eight to 10 days — and try to keep the patient cool.
Keeping cool was no small feat in an equatorial climate without air conditioning.
“We got an old-type wheelbarrow and a truck water pump,” Gehres said. “We mounted the pump on the wheelbarrow, then put a funnel on top of that, then filled the wheelbarrow with water. We put sheets over these guys that had the highest temperature, and just sprayed water over them, let the evaporation cool them.”
Gehre’s unit treated 439 soldiers for the typhus fever; many died, but more survived, he said. Eight members of the 608th came down with the fever; one of them died from it. Gehres said he was fortunate not to catch it.
“We were right on the equator. You’d sweat constantly, and it rained every evening,” he said. “Sometimes, we’d just wade into the ocean to cool off. Our uniforms were permanently stained from the salt in our sweat. You had to take salt with every meal. The officers watched when we ate to make sure we got enough salt in our diets to replenish what we lost from sweating.”
There were countless combat casualties as well.
“I had front-line guys, a lot of them,” Gehres said. “We were close to the action all the time. One time, we were at a location where they had a tank battle, and one of the officers — he was a medical doctor from another front-line outfit — some of our guys got up there, and he said, ‘What the heck are you guys doing up here? We haven’t secured this yet.’ We were getting ahead of the infantry.”
He recalled soldiers with skin so toughened by sun and heat that it would bend hypodermic needles.
He also recalls Sgt. George W. Wills, who had been taken prisoner by the Japanese in May 1942 at Corregidor in the Philippines. After the Japanese surrender, the 608th helped process released prisoners of war.
Wills feared he was too ill to survive the trip home. He gave Gehres some poems he’d composed while imprisoned. A verse from one poem reads: “When the man next to you dies, no laments nor anguished cries, He’s reached his Journey’s End, his tale is told. You cover up his head, Then you reach beneath his bed, And steal his shoes before his body’s cold.”
After the war, Gehres returned to Wren — a tiny farming community near the Indiana state line in Van Wert County — and dairy farming. In the early 1960s, he switched careers, getting involved in insurance sales. He and to his wife, Carolyn, celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary in June. They have three children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.