Memoirs of a World War II medic
By RYAN THORBURN | The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. | Published: June 6, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — As Ed Sullivan sits on the end of his sofa, searching his memory behind wire-rimmed glasses and under his classic flat cap, something becomes crystal clear about the Eugene man's life well lived.
Some of the most important moments and vivid memories of his 96 years occurred on the front steps of churches.
On Dec. 7, 1941 – a Sunday – Sullivan was leaving a service at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The intensifying winds of World War II would soon sweep him into the fray.
Less than four months after D-Day – the bloody beginning of the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944 – a baby-faced Sullivan, then only 20 years old, arrived on the shores of Normandy, France, with the U.S. Army's 170th General Hospital.
"We saw a lot of destruction," recalled Sullivan, who served as a medic and was transported to Omaha Beach aboard one of the three Landing Craft Infantry assault ships carrying the 350-person hospital staff. "It was a real strange feeling walking down those ladders getting onto the beach. So many guys had died there earlier."
More than 2,000 Americans died on Omaha Beach and more than 4,000 Allied troops were killed on the first day of the Battle of Normandy, with thousands more wounded or missing.
"I remember some guys were bitching, and one guy says, 'Quit your bitching, look over there,' " Sullivan recalled. "And they were burying some guys. They weren't permanent burial grounds, but they were still burying them."
'The best medic I could be'
Six months after hearing the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on those church steps, Sullivan graduated from Concordia Lutheran High, a boys-only school in Portland, where his coursework included four years of German, which would come in handy during the war.
Sullivan hitchhiked with his older brother, Jack, from the family home in Eugene to visit relatives in Chicago. Upon completing the Jack Kerouac-style 2,320-mile journey, the boys spent an idyllic summer watching baseball, attending concerts and doing some sight-seeing in the Windy City.
They saw former 1942 American League most valuable player and Oregon Ducks legend Joe Gordon and the New York Yankees play the White Sox at Comiskey Park and sat in 55-cent bleacher seats eating 10-cent hot dogs at Wrigley Field. They saw Glenn Miller's Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Band with Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford.
And then the Sullivan brothers registered with the Selective Service in downtown Chicago before returning home by train.
Jack ended up with the Army's 38th Infantry Division fighting in the Philippines. Ed, who is blind in one eye and was diagnosed with scoliosis, began his service at Barnes Hospital in Vancouver, Washington.
"I'm sure thankful I didn't have to kill anybody," Sullivan said of being physically disqualified from combat duty. "I decided when I wasn't going to be fit to be an infantry man that I was going to be the best medic I could be."
Sullivan asked for and was granted permission to become a surgical technician. Soon he was treating soldiers from the Aleutian Islands campaign who were fighting off the only two invasions of the United States during the war.
On May 11, 1943, the battle for Attu Islands began. Over 2,300 Japanese soldiers and 549 Americans died. Sullivan's surgical staff had to deal with a siege of incoming wounded, many requiring amputations, during the three-week campaign.
The Japanese abandoned Kiska Island unbeknownst to the Allied American and Canadian forces, which suffered more than 300 casualties due to land mines and friendly fire under the cover of an untimely thick fog.
"They would fly them into the Portland air base and ambulance them over to Barnes General Hospital in Vancouver," Sullivan said. "The big thing that happened to them is they got empyema, a terrible thing, an infection around the lungs. We took care of those guys. We had to do rib resections to get that stuff drained out of their chest. That was bad."
'Their sacrifices were immense'
Sullivan was at Fort Lewis in Tacoma on D-Day. His unit traveled to Camp Grant in Illinois and Camp Kilmer in New Jersey before arriving at the New York Port of Embarkation, where he took one last glance at the Statue of Liberty as the U.S. Army Hospital Ship Charles A. Stafford left the harbor.
After porting in England following eight days at sea, the 170th made its way across the English Channel to Omaha Beach on Oct. 3, 1944.
"It was a solemn feeling that I experienced as I walked on the beach with the others," Sullivan writes in his personal memoir, "Memoirs of a World War II Medic." "So much blood had been spilled there with death and destruction weeks earlier.
"Their sacrifices were immense and not fully recognized or appreciated until much later in time."
The 170th arrived before the Army Corps of Engineers had completed the hospital near Le Mans, France. Once the 1,000-bed facility was fully operational, Sullivan and his peers began treating soldiers from Nov. 21, 1944, through April 5, 1945.
"I'll say one thing about the 170th General Hospital, we learned right away that you could take care of a wounded guy, operate on him and change his dressings and all that, but what really we noticed helped them more than that is we would write letters to their parents and their girlfriends," Sullivan said. "We'd visit them and talk to them. That made a tremendous difference."
Sullivan's ability to speak and understand some German came into play as the 170th began treating prisoners of war and casualties intentionally left behind as the Third Reich retreated near the end of the Battle of the Bulge.
"We were taking care of our own the best we could. Then when Hitler tried to slow down the advance of the Allies, he put out an order that all German wounded were to be treated by the Americans," Sullivan said. "And so pretty soon we started getting German guys, and they were so thankful to be cared for by us. I could speak some and we could understand each other.
"They were so thankful. A lot of them surrendered. That just floored us when Hitler made that pronouncement."
On April 29, 1945, the U.S. Seventh Army's 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions liberated Dachau, the first concentration camp established by the Nazis.
"When we found out about those camps ... oh, God," Sullivan said.
'Boy, she was good looking'
When Sgt. Edwin Sullivan returned home after the war, his life would forever be changed again while smoking a cigarette outside Grace Lutheran Church in Eugene.
Dorothy Krumdieck made the first move.
"I got out of my dad's car and saw you there smoking your cigarette," Dorothy, affectionately known as Dottie, reminds her husband. "And I walked up to you and I said, 'You don't remember me. My name is Dorothy Krumdieck and I want to welcome you home.' Remember that?"
Sullivan: "Yeah, I do. Boy, she was good looking."
Ed and Dottie have been married for 72 years. Before they started dating, Sullivan had been letting off some post-war steam with three of her brothers who also had served in the military.
"We'd go out and see how much beer we could drink and what war stories we could tell," Sullivan said. "Dottie always thought I was coming to her home to see her."
Following his retirement as an electrical technician in 1981, Ed took Dottie fishing nearly every day at lakes throughout Oregon. In 2000, he delivered on a promise to take his bride to Paris. The trip included getting one last look at Omaha Beach and visiting the Normandy American Cemetery.
"The people would find out that I had been there in '44. God, they just treated us royally," Sullivan said. "We visited the cemetery. That was very emotional for me."
When asked what he wants younger people to remember about the D-Day invasion and World War II, Sullivan's mind immediately goes to those who never came home.
"The big thing would be the sacrifices made by not just the Americans but the Allies," he said. "It was a tremendous effort."
'Just be kind'
After Germany's surrender on May 7, 1945, there was a victory parade in Le Mans, France. Following Japan's announced surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Sullivan was issued a citation "in recognition of conspicuously meritorious and outstanding performance of military duty."
Sullivan was transferred to a hospital in Marburg, Germany. He was able to do some traveling and even skied in the Bavarian Alps before finally arriving back in New York on April 17, 1946, and celebrating his 22nd birthday two nights later in the city.
When Sullivan walked back into his house in Eugene, his brother Jack was there and recovering from malaria.
The lessons from the boys' childhood served Sullivan well during World War II and can be applied to the social unrest unfolding throughout American today.
Sullivan remembers as a kid watching Mack Robinson run around Hayward Field a year before the Oregon track and field legend won the silver medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Robinson, whose brother Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, finished 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens as Adolf Hitler looked on.
Sullivan befriended and comforted a black serviceman who later died at Barnes Hospital. With the 170th, he stood up for wounded black soldiers being taunted by some of their white peers for having "retreating wounds," even though their tank had been severely damaged by a German armor piercing shell in battle. He donated blood for black patients when some American soldiers from the South refused.
During his early days working for EWEB, a career path he took after the local hospital said it would not hire a male nurse despite his decorated service in the war, Sullivan volunteered to work alongside a black employee when others would not.
"Way back years ago my mother always stressed for me and my brother Jack the word kindness," Sullivan said. "It doesn't matter who they are or the circumstances. It's not going to be easy, but in the end kindness will always pay off. So my brother Jack and I lived with that. She said 'You be nice to your school friends and don't get into fights. Just be kind.'
"And I think that made a big difference and I carried it over into our hospital. I think we had the greatest hospital."
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Ed Sullivan's military ID, dog tags and rank patch are among the items he has from his time as a member of the 170th General Hospital.
ANDY NELSON/THE REGISTER-GUARD/TNS