Michael Carolan: Feeling D-Day by treating soldiers

06/05/2014 5:47 PM

06/05/2014 7:27 PM

Seventy years ago, far from Normandy, my grandfather did his part. He was a Salem, Mo., dentist deployed in a military hospital an hour west of London, waiting for the wounded to arrive in his small corner of the most massive and quickly built medical system the world had seen.

Victory at the 186th General Hospital meant getting the Normandy soldier into a bed within a half hour after his train arrived at the Fairford, England, station. Versed in the anatomy of the head (he trained at Western Dental College in Kansas City), my grandfather helped the surgeons: he anchored metal posts into jaws shattered by bullets, stitched together shrapnel-torn cheeks and pulled out stumps of once perfect teeth.

Hospital reports in the National Archives show that in the six months after the invasion, Capt. Charles W. Felt and his staff worked on more than 2,400 soldiers — an average of one patient every half-hour. He wired 17 jaws, sutured 34 mouth wounds, filled 1,345 cavities and pulled 803 teeth.

After D-Day, Captain Felt transferred to a nearby hospital, the 96th General, and a month later, to the 55th General. In May 1945, the hospital crossed the English Channel and set up in Mourmelon-le-Grand, France. He remained in Europe after the war and worked in the 12th Field Hospital at the Citadel in Liege, Belgium, taking care of German prisoners and homeless civilians.

He wrote to my grandmother Trudy in Salem about his unhappiness that he couldn’t leave Europe. Finally, attached to the 166th he departed in April 1946, and came home to his wife and daughter — my mother Connie Jean, who was age 6 at the time — with a puppy, “Midge,” short for “Midget,” smuggled in his fatigue jacket.

The medical system was an astonishing part of our victory. Planners knew that treating the wounded among the first 160,000 soldiers onto the beach at Normandy would be hasty and incomplete, if at all. Not to mention the nearly million more expected to be in France by the end of June 1944.

So they devised a network of hospitals in England for more than 50,000 patients. Many hospitals trained together in the U.S. — my grandfather trained at Camp Phillips near Salina, Kan. — but only set up overseas at the 11th hour because of supply delays: the 186th was running less than a month before the invasion.

Curious about his experience, I attended a reunion of a half-dozen veterans back in April 2000. One medical officer in his late 80s came from California. “I always sat at the dentists’ table,” he said. “We called ourselves ‘the intellectuals.’ We used to talk about the funny papers. Then a nurse, Ariel Powers, she was from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did a dance out by the statue on the lawn: unforgettable.”

Another veteran from Michigan said that when my grandfather, Dr. Felt, worked at the dental clinic with Dr. Chott, he pulled a prank. “When a patient came in, the receptionist would ask, “Would you like to be felt or shot?” Everyone got a kick out of that.”

Vincent Tricomi, a physician in charge of the operating room, died in 2011. “It was hard on all of us,” he told me in 2000. “When you get so busy, you don’t have time to step back and say, ‘That is terrible.’” He came up to me later at the reunion and made a correction. “Listen, I mean the poor young fellows were getting killed, and we were back from the front a little bit,” he said to me, holding my forearm. “So we were trying to do our part. That’s all. You know, we basically felt the war through them.”

Michael Carolan, a Kansas City native, teaches writing and literature at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

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