David Edwards Simonds
US Army Medical Corps – Surgical Technician 4th Grade
Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia
World War II (1944-1946)
David E. Simonds, a Greenbrae, California resident, is a classic car enthusiast with a keen eye for detail. Simonds honed his technical skills during World War II in the Army Medical Corps as a surgical technician. Even as a young man in 1944, Simonds had an aptitude for detail and was a quick learner; skills appreciated in the surgical wards during World War II. Although he had a keen eye for detail, his vision was poor which kept Simonds from serving overseas. His poor vision did not hinder his work as a surgical technician and he quickly gained the respect of the surgeons and doctors for whom he worked. Despite the respect he garnered in the Medical Corps, Simonds chose not to pursue a career in the medical profession and instead became a career underwriter in San Francisco with Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. Overall, Simonds was “pleased to have served his country and actually enjoyed his work with the Army Medical Corps as a surgical technician”. He is proud to have been a Bedpan Commando during World War II.
David Edwards Simonds was born on September 29, 1923 in Berkeley, California. He grew up in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School where he graduated in June of 1941. His father was a truck driver for the Shell Oil Company and his mother worked in a local grocery store. Simonds noted that his father had served during World War I in the Canadian Army. His father was not Canadian, but lived in Canada during World War I and was able to serve on behalf of Canada. Simond’s brother, however, enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in Patton’s 85th Division during World War II. Simonds recalls the United States entering World War II due to the activity by Hitler in Europe and the treatment of Jews.
Upon graduation from high school in 1941, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Simonds went to work for Montgomery Ward in Oakland, California. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the draft board advised Simonds that he needed to work within the essential industries, or he would be drafted. Simon then went to work at Yard 4 in Richmond, California at the Richmond Shipyard building liberty ships. Ironically, despite working in an essential industry at the suggestion of the draft board, Simonds still got drafted.
In 1944, Simonds was drafted by the Army. At the time, he did not feel that he had a choice of military branch to join. He was sent to the Presidio in Monterey for induction and was given various aptitude tests. Simonds felt that he must not have done well on the tests involving Morse code and automotive and mechanics, so he was assigned to the Army Medical Corps. Throughout his two years in the Army Medical Corps, Simonds served in several regional hospitals in the United States. At that time, those in the Medical Corps were only attached to a Division if in fact they were sent overseas. If the soldier served stateside, however, they were not attached to a Division. At the time Simonds was drafted, he was single and living at home in Berkeley. Upon being drafted, his family wished him good luck and hoped he came back.
Simonds attended basic training at Camp Barkley in Texas for 17 weeks. At the time, he did not know what his assignment would be with the Medical Corps. The first 15 weeks of basic training involved understanding the contents and use of equipment in their medical bags while in the field. Simonds was taught how to treat the wounded in the field and how to use morphine which was the only the medicine used to cure everything during the war. During this time, Simonds lived in wooden barracks with canvas curtains. The men slept on cots lining the room with only a pot bellied stove for heat. In the last 2 weeks of training, which Simonds complains was the worst part of his service, the men were sent out in the field and taught how to live in a 2 man tent made from two equal tent parts. “The conditions were very uncomfortable,” claimed Simonds. The men were expected to put together the two shelter halves and survive out in the hot desert for 2 weeks. Food was served out in the field and Simonds and the other men were taught how to see better at night over certain conditions, how to get around and not be seen by the enemy, as well as some limited rifle training. Overall, Simonds felt his training was taken seriously by his superiors in basic training. He felt the training was “very interesting and it was to his advantage to be chosen for the medical corps”. Simonds seemed to have no trouble coping with basic training. Overall, he had a “personal feeling to help others”. According to Simonds, “he very much enjoyed his work with the patients during his training at Camp Barkley”.
Simonds was next assigned to surgical training at Camp Polk in Louisiana where he served in a surgical ward for six months. Simonds claimed he was a “bed pan commando” charged with helping the soldiers use their bedpans. He was also allowed to pass medicine and provide drinks to the patients in the ward. Overall, Simonds claimed that the training was 50 % in the classroom and 50% practical training. He was supervised while working in the ward and a few Army nurses helped out quite a bit, too. The role of the surgical technician at this time was to make sure the operating room was ready for surgery. Surgical technicians played a vital role during the World War II because they enabled doctors and nurses to serve on the front lines taking care of the wounded in the field. Surgical technicians made sure all equipment was sterile in the operating room, took care of patients and prepared them for surgery, assisted the surgeon in scrubbing for surgery, and handed the surgeon instruments as needed during any procedures. The surgical technicians were also charged with restocking and resetting the operating room with sterile equipment for the next surgical procedure.
While at Camp Polk, Simonds lived in regular army barracks adjacent to the regional hospital. In his opinion, “they had very good food and very good living conditions”. At this time, Simonds had no real assignment or expectation of what he was to do during the war. He worked a regular schedule of 8 hours a day, 6 days a week treating patients with the contents of his medical bag. Overall, the goal of this training was to learn to take of wounded soldiers in the field using only the limited supplies in the medical bag. According to Simonds, this type of training was typical of the medical corps. Since Simonds was never sent overseas, he claimed he never had to use this training. All training at Camp Polk was from medically trained military personnel. Simonds claims he never worked with civilians and the only women at Camp Polk were Army nurses.
After Camp Polk, Simonds was sent for additional surgical training at Camp Blanding in Florida for three months. At this time, Simonds rank was a Private First Class. In Florida, Simonds was trained to work in a hospital operating room, learned the routines for scrubbing in for surgical procedures, and how to hand surgeons instruments during procedures. At this time in his training, Simonds claimed that all training was simulated assistance; was no hands on experience was provided. All training was conducted in the classroom and provided by an Army doctor. Overall, Simonds felt the training as a surgical technician at Camp Blanding was effective and thorough. Simonds “thought it was all great and it made him very comfortable when he subsequently went to Lawson General Hospital for his actual assignment. In general, Simonds felt all the surgical technicians were in the same boat and everyone got along very well together. The living conditions at Camp Blanding were very good. He slept in regular army barracks, the food was good, and Simonds even received a 10 leave to return home to Berkeley before his next assignment. Simonds thought that the morale at Camp Blanding was very good and everybody had a job to do. According to Simonds, “this was the job he had and he was very pleased to do it”.
Upon completion of his training, Simonds was assigned to Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia as a surgical technician. This hospital took care of patients who were D – Day casualties of World War II. These wounded soldiers from the European front were transported by air to Georgia. The wounded were picked up by ambulance and brought to Lawson General Hospital for treatment. At this time, Simonds was a Surgical Technician 4th Grade. Simonds claimed that his primary duty was to assist the surgeon and “hand him the surgical instruments necessary for the procedure involved”. Simonds also assisted with the surgeons scrubbing for surgery. On average, he worked 8 to 10 hrs a day, 6 days a week and reported to and worked for specific surgeons. Simonds recalled that Lawson General had been there in Georgia for a long time and that the primary specialty of this hospital was to deal with burn and prosthesis cases. The hospital was run by military medical personnel and he had no knowledge of civilian employees or staff.
Living conditions and the food were very good. Simonds lived at the hospital and shared a large room with several men. There was no fraternization with the nurses and he had no memory of African American military personnel at Lawson General or segregation issues. Overall, Simonds felt that the surgeons were pleased with how he was able to handle the passing of the instruments. He claimed, “everything was ok” and he felt prepared and well trained for his role as surgical technician. Simonds thought things went well for him at Lawson General, thought his fellow surgical technicians seemed to have good training, and he had no trouble working with any other technicians at the hospital. In general, Simonds enjoyed his assignment at Lawson General Hospital and felt he had the respect of his fellow soldiers and superiors. He remembered one doctor for which he worked, Lieutenant Colonel Brannon Baughman, a 29 year old young man fresh out of medical school. Simonds claimed, “Baughman was just wonderful” and he enjoyed working with him. “The most difficult thing about working in surgery was dealing with the sight of blood”, stated Simonds. Simonds, unlike most technicians, had no problem with the sight of blood. He was calm, cool and effective under pressure and in difficult situations. In fact, one of his strongest memories at Lawson General involved assisting in a rush double hernia operation that was particularly bloody. “Most technicians couldn’t stand the sight of that much blood without difficulty”, claimed Simonds. He, however, had no problem with it. According to Simonds, it was a tough situation, but not a problem. In general, Simonds enjoyed his work at Lawson General. Although he would prefer to be home in Berkeley, California, he was happy to be assigned to serve stateside.
For Simonds, he coped well with the stress of assisting in surgery despite limited medical training. One of the most memorable moments for Simonds at Lawson General was when the entire hospital staff was invited for dinner at the home of the owners of Coca Cola in Atlanta. Vehicles were sent to the hospital to transport the whole staff and everyone got a little taste of luxury during the war. Another unique highlight for Simonds was his assignment to drive a dental surgeon’s wife and family from Georgia to California in a new Chrysler Town and Country station wagon. Simonds claimed, “he had quite a time driving that car across the country”.
In the last 6 months of his service at Lawson General, Simonds received additional training in physical therapy. He learned how to treat wounds and deal with wounded soldiers with prosthetics from a physical therapy standpoint. In general, Simonds duties never really changed or expanded while at Lawson General. Despite the training in physical therapy, he primarily assisted in surgery. Simonds highest rank was as a Surgical Technician 4th Grade. He felt the morale was very good at Lawson General. He does not recall any shortages of medical equipment, supplies, or food at Lawson General. In general, he liked what he did. Simonds felt he was motivated by the notion “of helping other people out”. “I was very pleased for this assignment”, claimed Simonds. Simonds was stationed at Lawson General when he heard that the wars in Europe and Japan had ended. He was just pleased it was all over.
On June 16, 1946, Simonds was discharged from the military and transported to Sacramento, California. He was given $7.25 in bus fare for the ride back to Berkeley, California. He was very pleased to get out and go back home. Upon his discharge, Simonds received a Good Conduct Medal. At the time of his discharge, Simonds was asked if he would like to join the Army Reserves. Simonds replied, “no way and out the door he went”. Upon his arrival home, he felt well received and everything was fine. His mother was still alive and he went to live with his family. Simonds did not join any military organizations after his service, is unaware of any Reunions, and did not keep contact with any of the men he worked with while in the military.
In 1948, Simonds went to work for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company in San Francisco as an underwriter. He received some additional training through the UC Berkeley extension, but did not receive a degree. He was employed with Fireman’s Fund for 35 years and lived in Berkeley. Although most of his career involved underwriting, the latter part of his career focused on the application of computers in the insurance industry. Simonds did not feel that his military training had an impact on his career since he chose not to pursue a career in medicine.
Overall, Simonds did not feel that there were any particularly memorable moments during his service. He felt the sacrifices he made during the war were justified; he enjoyed what he did, and was pleased to have served. The toughest part of his service was the 2 weeks spent out in the desert near Camp Barkley in Texas where it was very uncomfortable. Simonds also did not feel that there were any scary or tense moments during his service. While most people had difficulty dealing with the sight of blood, it was not a problem for Simonds. The only humorous thing he remembered of his service was a sign posted on the bulletin board at Camp Barkley stating, “send your boy to camp this summer”. Simonds did not think that Camp Barkley was the kind of camp most boys would enjoy.
Upon reflection on his service, Simonds noted that the training he received was adequate for what he was supposed to do. He suggested that anybody going into the military should receive as much training as possible and use it to the fullest capacity. Simonds agreed that if a person is qualified and has no physical restrictions, they should serve. He further noted, “a person should take care of their physical conditions because life is most precious.” Simonds advice to all future generations is “to take care of your health and medical problems as they occur. Don’t put off anything to help you at any time. In other words, people should treat life as a precious thing.”
After years assisting in surgery, Simonds learned an important life lesson: life is fleeting and we must take care of ourselves. Our life and the lives of others around us are precious. While war and life may be difficult and bloody, we should all take a lesson from David E. Simonds and live a calm, collected and purpose driven life. Life, after all, is precious.
Interview by Nicholas W. Elsbree on June 23, 2012.