Although he didn’t know it at the time, John Zahn was saving his sister while he lay in a hospital tent in France with frozen feet from combat in the Battle of the Bulge.
He remembers the tents were huge. “There were about 65 of us in each tent.”
He had the impression that there were hundreds of such tents.
“My bed was at the front, where they put me across from the nurse’s desk at the front door. In the bed next to the nurse was a man who seemed not to be injured.”
Actually, the soldier was battling a type of infection.
“One day the head of the Red Cross and others all came in, and they would sit with him. I could overhear their conversation. What he told her was that he was there for treatment — they were going to treat him with this new miracle drug called penicillin.”
Zahn said, “They treated him and cured him while I was in the hospital.”
He may have mentally filed that observation away for the future, and didn’t think much more about it. Certainly he didn’t foresee penicillin would be needed urgently by his family after the war.
At one point, he had been a candidate for the amputation of his feet, but doctors had made the mistake of placing individual medical folders on the men’s chests when they were transported, and Zahn read his.
“They had put us on trains to send us back to Le Harve, France. There was this recommendation that I probably needed to have my feet removed. But that little note didn’t get there at Le Harve.”
The Army later sent Zahn back to his unit in Germany.
“After the battle of the Bulge, they sent all the Air Force and everything else to Europe to try to rebuild our units over there. My brother-in-law, Mansell Dunn, who was in the Air Force, was sent to Europe.”
He remembers that in Germany, a gymnasium had been opened about a block away from where he was staying, and they were offering showers to the troops.
“They had such a long line that I thought I would just sit down on a curb and rest. A little 6-year-old German girl came up and she was visiting with me. I was facing the west, and a shadow came over me. I just thought it was another GI, and this man said, ‘Hello, J.D.’
“That’s what they called me when I was growing up. Everybody in the Army called me John. I looked up, and it was my brother-in-law. We just started visiting and didn’t have our showers. We were going to visit again the next day, but that morning at 5 o’clock they knocked on my room and told me there was a truck coming to take me back to my unit.”
Early in 1947, after World War II had been over for more than a year, Zahn was home. He found his sister, Pauline Dunn, and her daughter, Elizabeth Jo, had moved back with his parents.
“We had a little hospital up at Amherst, which was a coop, I guess, at that time, and my sister had an infection in the lymph glands.”
He remembers, “They decided she needed to have surgery to remove that infected gland, and while she was there, they decided they would have her daughter’s tonsils removed.”
Elizabeth Jo Sloan, who was 5 at the time, still remembers her own surgery and that of her mother. She remembers also that she required her uncle to go into the operating room with her.
“He was so attentive to me,” she said. “Mother and J.D. were so close.”
Zahn said, “They allowed me to come in and observe the surgeries. They removed my niece’s tonsils, took her back to her room and brought my sister in. They were operating, and all of a sudden the doctors just turned and looked at me. I didn’t know what was going on, but I found out later that the pump they were using to remove the infected material during the surgery had stopped pumping. They had lost a lot of the infected material into her lungs. That set up a serious infection.”
He said, “They continued to keep her treated the best they could, but she was getting closer and closer to death. They had no way, apparently, of helping her recover.”
Zahn, who has a phenomenal memory, remembered the penicillin he had heard of in France, and the Red Cross women who had helped with it.
“So, I went to Littlefield to the Red Cross lady over there, and explained the situation to her.
“I asked her to get penicillin, if she could, to that hospital for my sister. And I asked her if she could possibly contact the military and get my sister’s husband sent home because she was not expected to live.”
The Red Cross did both, he said.
“The penicillin went to work quickly, and she recovered.”
Zahn has become an appreciator of the Red Cross.
“Everywhere we went, those Red Cross people were handy,” he said, returning to talk of World War II. “I remember one time at the front, they sent word that the Red Cross was coming with a bus to the rear echelon, and they were going to have hot coffee and donuts. So, by shifts we went back and had coffee and donuts.”
He said, “After the war, they would set up places where they would serve coffee and donuts for a nickel. Apparently our experience over there with the Red Cross was so outstanding.
“We so remembered them.”