Walter Clarke of Lantana hadn’t planned to be a career military man. He hadn’t planned to receive medical training, and he never dreamed he’d become an Army surgeon’s assistant, performing amputations and “playing God” in a Mobile Army Surgical Unit during some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. But that’s the life he fell into. And he accepted it all, good and bad.
Now 94, Clarke’s memories of his service during World War II are dimming a bit, but the details he supplies are still as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.
The ambulance runs to retrieve soused soldiers sliced by razors in North Carolina bar fights.
The close-range blasts from enemy tanks that crept up on his MASH unit in Koblenz, Germany, leaving him “stone deaf” for an entire week. And the ransacked, five-bed hospital he and his medical team stumbled upon in Libramont, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
“The Germans had taken all the doctors and medical supplies,” Clarke recalls. “There were four nuns there with the mother superior. The nuns said to Doc and I, ‘How would you like to have dinner with us?’ We thought great, a home-cooked meal! Well, they took an apple, sliced it very thin, cooked it in some fat, and served it up. They only had one apple to feed the five of them and us.”
Clarke’s unit restocked the tiny hospital with medical supplies and gave the nuns Army-issue B rations (dehydrated bouillon cubes). They used the hospital to shelter and treat wounded soldiers, with the nuns working as nurses.
Today Clarke shares these stories with fellow veterans at his current residence, the Carlisle Palm Beach retirement living community in coastal Lantana.
Does he ever wish his life had turned out differently?
“I’m 100 percent glad the way things turned out,” he says. “But we all feel the country isn’t patriotic enough these days. The veteran is just put aside and forgotten.” — Paula Detwiller Q.
Where did you grow up and go to school? A.
I was born in a little hamlet in northern New York called Standish. There was a smelting plant there, and my father worked in the production of pig iron for World War I. When I was about 6 or 7, we moved to Crown Point, N.Y.Q.
How old were you when you went into the service? A.
It was 1937 and I was 20 years old. After high school I couldn’t find work — it was still the Depression — so my buddies and I decided to enlist in the National Guard.
I became an ambulance driver in the medical unit of the Guard. It was supposed to be a three-year enlistment.
Then, in 1939 when World War II started, the Army federalized us and we were called up for a year’s training to qualify as full-time soldiers.
Well, we all got through that, and you know what happened on Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor. That was my 24th birthday.Q.
What happened next?A
. I was sent to Paris, Texas, to train draftees to become medical personnel. I went to officers school and learned medical administration. They were short of doctors during the war, so they took the top IQs, myself included, and gave them special medical training to become a battalion surgeon’s assistant. I was sent to Fort Dix, N.J., to assist with surgeries.
By then we were getting casualties from Africa and also from Europe. We worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off, 7 days a week, doing everything from brain surgery right on down.
In 1944, I was shipped out on a convoy to England and served in the European theater as a surgeon’s assistant for the rest of the war.Q.
What is your strongest memory of the war? A
. The number of patients I took care of.
I probably saved 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers and also saw to it that another 7,000 or 8,000 were buried in Europe. On the positive side, I delivered five babies while overseas.
I also have horrible memories of arriving at a concentration camp just after the Germans had shot almost all the prisoners and left.
It was a sub-camp of Dachau. The ovens were still going, and only a few emaciated people were still alive.
We took care of them, gave them food. Most of them were so weak they could hardly move.
It was a shock to me, even after everything I’d seen in the war. That’s something you don’t forget.Q.
After the war, what did you do? A.
When the war in Europe ended, we were supposed to come home briefly, and then go off to Japan. But the atomic bomb stopped the war in Japan.
I was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for infantry officer training, then became commander of an infantry company in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
My final position with the Army was in military support for civil defense in New York. I was stationed in an underground shelter in Albany designed for the governor and his staff in case of attack.
I retired as a full colonel at age 60. After that, my wife and I took several cruises and just enjoyed life. Mildred was my high school sweetheart and we had five kids together. She passed away just before our 50th wedding anniversary. Since then I’ve had two other wives and both have died.Q.
Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?A.
Yes. Capt. Specter, who was the C.O. [commanding officer] of my original medical detachment. He taught me how to train our enlisted men in medical procedures. Specter was always the one who knew about unusual cases.Q.
How did you choose the Carlisle?A.
My wife and I lived in two or three other facilities but weren’t crazy about them, so I thought we’d try the Carlisle. I’m very happy here. Q.
What is your favorite part about living at the Carlisle? A
. I live among friends and acquaintances. I’m the commander of the veteran’s club here.
We pick up other veterans from the VA who are in wheelchairs and take them to the Golden Corral for lunch. We also give them $10 chits to buy underwear and socks at their PX.
Our club has get-togethers on the military holidays and we enjoy a lot of camaraderie.Q.
What music do you listen to? A.
I like the old love songs and the old wartime songs like Mademoiselle from Armentières.”
We have happy hour at the Carlisle at 3:30 in the afternoon, and the girls [residents] get to singing the old songs and playing the piano. Q
. Who or what makes you laugh?A.
Oh my gosh — most of these girls here at the Carlisle! We have wine at dinner every night, and each of us takes a turn bringing the wine.