U.S. Army Airborne, 17th Airborne Division & Medic
World War II, European Theatre of Operation
Bill Tom was an 18-year-old “drop-out” who was drafted and served as a medic in the US Army Airborne in England and Continental Europe (He was assigned to serve in ETO which was the European Theater of Operation, which officially meant he was in London, Paris, Berlin, and after the war to Switzerland). He was in the war for exactly three years.
He was originally trained to be a rifleman during his three months of basic training in San Antonio, Texas. However, when D-Day was scheduled, he was relocated to the 17th Airborne Division to be a paratrooper replacement for the estimated loss of 80% of the paratroopers at Normandy. The actual loss was only 15% so he was kept in the 17th Airborne Division until the other battles were to come. Since there were not enough medics at the D-Day experience, he was reassigned to be a medic.
Bill had a hard time carrying all of the heavy packages because he weighed in at only 120 pounds. He had injured his neck and back, but like any other strong fighter, he pushed through it. One of the longest days in Bill’s experience was when he was serving as a medic and his medical convoy was in a rush to get in place to launch the attack on Berlin. They unintentionally drove through the forward elements of the U.S. 9th Army during the night, to run into a brigade of German Panzer tanks. They were caught and held in position for about six hours. After that, the U.S. 9th Army caught up to them and did battle to demolish the German panzer tanks in a four hour battle. Fortunately, none of the medics were hurt. However, the German SS troops massacred many other American troops at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. Bill mentioned that that was one of the worst moments while serving in the war. His best moments however, were when Germany surrendered to end the war and when we dropped the atom bomb on Japan to end the war.
While interviewing, Bill shared many memories of his but one of his most memorable was when he was 16 and working in a restaurant when a gypsy lady walked in. He went over to take her order and she said she was not hungry but she was tired. She then proceeded to ask for a cup of tea, which he gave her for free. That was heavily frowned upon. She then later poured the tea into two different cups and asked him to drink from one. She told him that he would receive three fortunes that would comfort him in the war. His first fortune was he would not marry until after his 25th birthday, his second fortune was he would be wealthy in mid-life, and lastly that he would live into old age with good health. When the shooting started, he was calm because if he was supposed to live in to old age, how could he be killed? He then married at age 26 and he jokes he is now awaiting his wealth.
Bill briefly referred to his friends in the army. He was close to the paratroopers and glidertroopers. He said most troopers rely on their officers and their medics. He relied on his fellow medics, his officers and the cook. Every trooper would recognize one another as close buddies because everyone relied on each other to survive. He is currently the editor to publish a monthly newsletter to keep all the aging troopers in contact with one another, since they are all aging and getting to old to travel to reunions. In other words, they all know who he is.
When I asked him the question of what he thought our world would be like if the U.S. hadn’t entered the war, I found his response very engrossing. He had thought that all the people in Western United States would become slaves to the Japanese. We would all have to read and speak Japanese, and bow in the direction of the Japanese emperor. The people in the East would be speaking German and every Jewish person in Europe would be destroyed. Eventually, Russia would conquer them both he was unhappy to say.
In Bill’s mind, his greatest accomplishment while serving in the army happened after the war. He had been kept in Europe after the war to serve in occupation troops. Because of the huge losses of people from the war and the fact that most medical facilities had been destroyed by the war, he was retained since he did not have to go to Japan. They discovered a German labor camp where thousands of slaves were housed to do forced-labor for the army. They dusted every one with insecticides to get rid of their body lice and then set them free to return to their home. There was one little girl standing at the gate crying, he said. She had spoken basic English because she had worked with an Englishman in the camp. She told him that her whole family was taken from their home in Poland in 1939. The war had ended in 1945. She was taken at the age of 12 and did not know where Poland was located. She would have starved in Germany because there was no food anywhere. So, he got her a job working at one of the army hospitals washing dishes. In return, this allowed her to have three meals a day and a place to sleep.
When he left for home, she cried and begged him to bring her with him, which he was not able to do. However, before he left he contacted the International Red Cross and had gotten her reunited with her entire family in Germany before he came home. She cried like a baby as she watched him return home. He had promised to write her and keep in touch, which he did. The first thing he did when he got home was packed up some of his sister’s old dresses. She had worked as a seamstress in the German Army and had become a master at repairing tents, uniforms and blankets so she could adjust them to fit her.
Five years later when he was at UCSF learning to be a pharmacist, he got a letter from her saying that she was in Altoona, Pennsylvania begging for him to meet her for lunch. Of course, she did not have a clue how big our country is for she had only just moved here. He sadly declined because he was in college and could not take off time. After several months, she wrote again saying she was in Salt Lake City, Utah asking the same question, which he was not able to satisfy. Many months passed and she wrote him again saying that she was currently living in Corte Madera. That was less than 30 minutes away from him so he couldn’t say no! (Not that he wanted to). They caught up and she had asked for permission to adopt his son as her godson. He was happy to allow it. She had opened up her own drapery shop in San Francisco just a few blocks down from his home, so he would drop by from time to time just to say hello. After their visit, she simply vanished. He wrote letters, which were constantly returned. He than later found her obituary in the paper after a few years of silence. He traveled down to Novato, California where she was buried and located her gravesite at the Valley Memorial Cemetery. He believed that she had brought all of her siblings over to America before she past away. When I heard this, it meant a lot that someone would take the time to help a young girl get back on track and find her family.
After the war, Bill discovered that there was a GI Bill to help him achieve a college education but it was denied because they were poor. His tuition was paid for and he was given $75.00 to spend for food, rent and other personal expenses. His rent alone cost the full $75.00 so he worked at a restaurant 8 hours a day for extra spending money plus his three meals a day. So, in all he went to college from 8 AM to 3 PM. Then worked from 4 PM to midnight every day, plus Saturday and Sunday, seven days a week. In the summer, he went to work on a farm to maintain his physical condition. He then went back to the restaurant to work until the next summer. At UCSF Pharmacy School, he worked 40 hours a week and went to classes’ full time. He helped at local pharmacies and was the school librarian in his Senior Year.
One of the things that Bill generously shared with me was the most important thing he learned from serving in the war. His answer was, “I believe self-reliance, self control and loyalty.” When I asked him what his ideas were for fighting in the war, he replied stating, “That at that age, we don’t have “ideals or ideas.” It was a big enough challenge to be independent without mother and father, and to survive all alone. Indeed, we were rah rah enough to kick in the faces of our enemies and kill them to protect our families, lest they take over our country, our homes to harm our families. At that age, we did not fear death, but we feared pain. Over time, his views of experience that he learned during the war have not changed as he still uses them in everyday life. Finally, he does not regret serving in the war. He believes he did is part to defend our civilization. For his part, he did not kill any of the enemies, but he does feel that many hurt veterans returned home to raise families because of him. He felt he did his part by helping people.
Bill Tom performed many acts of bravery to save many veterans lives when performing as a combat medic. A medic is a trained soldier who is accountable for providing first aid and frontline shock care on the battlefield. Also accountable for supplying continuous medical care in the absence of a readily available physician, including care for disease and non-battle injury. His duties included treating the sick, injured, or wounded. He handled injuries and wounds, such as cuts, blisters, confusions, and lacerations, applying mendicants and bandaging wounds. He would also make and apply arm or leg splints, treat patients for shock, and stop bleeding by applying tourniquet at pressure points. Bill would continually lift patient onto the litters and carry them to Aid Stations, Ambulance Loading Points, or Collecting Stations. He would additionally perform routine duties in the care and treatment of patients, taking temperature and pulse readings, bathing and feeding patients, and preparing patients for operations. Making beds, cleaning and washing equipment and floors, and assisting in sterilizing instruments were also one of the daily routines. Anyone that would perform any of these duties would need to receive basic medical training.
While learning about Bill’s experience in the war, I had the opportunity to think about my personal opinion on his experience. The way he explained it, I think it was a plus for him. He expressed things that you learn while serving in the war that can help you through life and tough times and he still uses them today. Grasping and learning all of what happens in the war was very interesting because I really didn’t know much about it before. I’m very glad that I got this opportunity.
Interview by Maria DeSalvo in June 2009
St. Mark’s School 8th World War II Oral History Project, San Rafael, CA
Faculty Advisor: Mike Fargo