(Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series relating war-time memories as shared by Bob Coburn, a blind man who served as a medic during WWII).
When Bob Coburn was 19-years-old, the Imperial Japanese Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the U.S. into World War II (WWII). When Bob came of age (20) in 1942, he found himself unexpectedly drafted into the U.S. Army and on a train headed to Ft. Dix, which served as an Army training and staging ground during WWII.
Coburn was more than surprised when he was drafted into the Army. After all, he had repeatedly been denied entry into the military as a volunteer because he was half-blind. He had also recently become a full-time government employee at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which should have exempted him from the draft.
“Something happened somewhere,” says Coburn, who is now 95 years-old, “They (the Army) ended up taking me after all!”
After “learning how to march,” Pvt. Coburn began his medical training at Lovell General Hospital in Ft. Devens, then travelled to O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, MO to further train before joining the ranks of invaluable combat medics who provided the first line of medical treatment to soldiers injured in battle. Medics also assisted doctors and nurses in medical facilities near the battlefronts.
“They taught us how to check blood, check the heart, take (x-rays), sew things up, and (do) other stuff,” reminisces Coburn. We learned to give (immunization) shots by giving them to each other...so you were real gentle because whatever you did to the other guy, he would do back to you!”
Coburn was still quite naïve when he started his medic training. One his most notable memories happened while training how to do EKGs during his stint working in a ward filled with the wives of Army officers.
“(I was in that ward) when the doctor asked me if I was going to go check a lady’s heart,” explains Coburn, “I walked in there and the lady looked at me and said, ‘Sonny-boy, if you’ve never seen a lady before, you will see one right now!’ Then she pulled (her clothes) off and said, ‘Now, can you see to do your job?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am!’ Then I put all of these tabs with wires on her....when I was all done, she looked at me and said, ‘Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?’”
Coburn says he left the room in a hurry as soon as the examination was complete. “I didn’t last long in that ward!” laughs Coburn, shaking his head, “I got out of there as fast as I could!”
During his medic training in Ft. Devens, Coburn was one of the first people to witness an exciting innovation in medicine when he helped treat a G.I. whose hand and arm were severely injured from running them through a glass door.
“The doctor took a look at the G.I...there was so much blood, it looked like the guy might bleed to death! It (the injury) was really bad,” says Coburn quietly, “The doctor told the guy, ‘I’m afraid I’m gonna have to cut your arm off; but first I’ll see how you do.’ The next day part of (the arm) was dark (infected), and the doctor had me mark it. The next day, the (infection) had spread and I marked that too” remembers Coburn.
If the (infection) spread any further, the soldier’s arm would have to come off.
Coburn says the doctor soon received a package of penicillin, a little-known “miracle drug” that had only recently started being mass-produced at the time. Use of the drug was in its infancy; even the doctor Coburn was training under was unfamiliar with the antibiotic and exactly how it worked. After Coburn and the doctor read the drug’s directions for use, the doctor ordered Coburn to give their patient the requisite penicillin shot into the buttocks with the giant 4-inch needle. What happened next shocked both Coburn and the doctor.
“The next morning we went in to check on (the patient)...I never before heard the doctor curse, but he looked at that arm and said, ‘Well, I’ll be (darned)!’ The infection had not moved. Doc had me give the guy another shot...I asked the G.I. if getting the shots had hurt and he said he didn’t feel a thing!” remembers Coburn, “...After two days we knew we had it cooked! (The infection) stopped spreading and eventually went away...I told Doc that it was the first time I’d ever heard of a medicine doing that, and that it (penicillin) was a powerful good medicine! We saved that guy’s arm! I think it was the first time anyone had ever used penicillin, because even Doc had never seen it before.”
Penicillin would go on to save thousands of soldiers’ lives and limbs.
After completing his medical training in the states, Coburn served with the 305th General Hospital Unit-- first in France near Marseilles, then in the Philippines.
Many times Coburn was under enemy fire, and he lost his hearing in one ear when an artillery shell exploded near him while he was trying to treat casualties. He says he saw a lot of leg injuries because soldiers’ legs were the most unprotected part of their body. Coburn also remembers how stomach wounds were nearly always fatal; very few G.I.s could survive such injuries. In the Pacific theater, the Medical Corps continually battled insect-borne diseases. “We were always fighting something,” comments Coburn.
At some point, a doctor finally realized that Bob was legitimately blind in one eye. But Coburn was so invaluable as a medic, the Army kept him in service instead of sending him home.
After the war, Coburn married his sweetheart and pen-pal, Betty. They raised two sons, Steven and Jeff, and settled in New Carlisle. Coburn went from working as a medic, to spending 40 years repairing and refinishing furniture for Sears Inc.
Although he is able to add some humor to his war stories now, there remains a measure of sadness in Bob Coburn’s eyes when he speaks of his experiences in WWII.
“You can never forget the things you saw,” says Coburn quietly, “You can just never forget.”