During World War II, more than 2,000 American combat medics were killed between the Allies’ invasion of Normandy in June 1944 (D-Day) and Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945 (VE Day).
Every day since, Frank Bressler wakes up grateful that he was fortunate enough to make it home. Bressler, 89, served two years in the Army during World War II, including more than four months on the front lines in Europe. For five of those weeks, he was surrounded on all sides by the enemy during the Battle of the Bulge on German soil. In that span, he relied on his training and instincts to care for troops suffering from grave gunshot wounds to severe cases of frostbite.
Throughout, Bressler feared for his life, but that, he says, was only a secondary concern.
“When a medic gets called, you go,” Bressler said. “No medic ever thought about himself. Your job was to service anyone who needed your help, regardless of who it was.”
He claims, “I’m not a hero. I’m only one guy out of many, many, many. I happened to survive.”
The American government, however, would disagree with Bressler’s sentiment. Since returning to the U.S., Bressler has earned the Bronze Star, a Combat Medic Badge and a European Ribbon with three battle stars. Most recently, in September, he received the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor — France’s highest award.
But, more significant and expressive than any badge or honor are the tales Bressler has carried with him since leaving the European Theater a little more than 67 years ago.
With a memory so crisp it’s impressive, his stories are powerful and detailed; no prose could outdo the accounts Bressler delivers in his own words.
Life as a Medic
After being inducted into the Army, each soldier was given a series of tests to determine qualifications in the field of battle. Selected to be a medical soldier, Bressler learned practical applications and procedures from trained physicians.
We were taught that the medic is a primary person because what you do in the first few minutes decides whether a person lives or dies. The person either goes into shock or he bleeds to death. Before he gets to the aid station, you’ve got to save his life and stabilize him. That’s what you’re trained to do. You are constantly thinking ‘what would I do if.’ … All I had was a small kit, morphine, stuff for diarrhea, compresses, syringes to give morphine. It was a basic, basic thing.
We did not wear, and I would not wear, the band with the red cross or the white hat because they killed the medic first. You always kill the medic first because it demoralizes the troops. They knew who I was, but I would not wear the red arm band because the Germans would seek me out. You didn’t want to become obvious.
In basic training, Bressler learned how to fire every weapon. Medics, however, were not provided with guns.
Now in Iraq and Iran things have changed. Today, the medics are armed. The first thing they do is save themselves. The second thing is they try to kill the enemy, and the third thing is they go and take care of the wounded. If they take care of the wounded [first] they are both going to die.
Today, it has been revised so the medic has a right to defend himself. We didn’t have that option. We weren’t given a weapon. What happened is, each of us, if we got hold of a weapon, we had one. One of the first men that got killed, his name was Sergeant Kleis. He went up to a crossroads and when he got there the Germans shot and killed him. Someone said to me, “Hey medic, you want this rifle?” And I said, “You’re damn right.” I carried it the rest of the war.
Of the 80,000 service men killed, captured or wounded during the Battle of the Bulge, 12,000 suffered from frostbite.
It was the coldest winter in about 50 years. Temperatures went down to about 10 [degrees] below zero. When the American troops captured Paris, Gen. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, Gen. [Bernard] Montgomery and Winston Churchill thought the war would be over by Christmas. That was early in the year. They made the biggest mistake, because by the time Christmas came, we went into Germany with the same summer clothes that we were wearing.
We had no winter clothes. The Germans had outfits with the “insulated stuff” and hats. They were covered, they had long coats; they were so equipped. We lost 12,000 men, and most of my casualties were from frozen feet and frozen hands turned purple.
Where we were, you couldn’t have any fires. You couldn’t have smoke because they’d send artillery in. They’d bomb us if they saw smoke. So it was cold. You just covered [the soldiers] and left the frozen skin open, took their shoes off to evacuate them. I never saw them again. Most of them had their feet amputated and couldn’t walk or live a regular life.
A Life-Changing Moment
As they overcame the enemy, Bressler’s division had orders to advance farther into Germany. To do so, engineers were instructed to clear minefields, which were originally planted to keep the Germans from coming through.
My first call for casualties came when I had two men wounded. In those days, the medic didn’t respond and ask questions; if a soldier got wounded you went. It happened to be a minefield, and one of the men probed, hit the pin, and it blew him to pieces.
The guy next to him was hit by a rock, and he was gushing blood. He died, and I put “KIA” [killed in action] on his toe. The other one, I could never find enough pieces left. That changed my life. Here I am, a young kid, going into combat for the first time, running in not knowing the minefield, not knowing what happened. … From then on, I was a different person.
Today, I cannot tolerate … seeing anyone get harmed. … This is a result of what happened in that incident.
‘I Waited to Die’
Bressler brought up several different occasions where he expected to be killed. In this instance, his unit had orders to cross an explosive-rigged bridge in the German town of Remagen.
These engineers had orders to take the bridge. These guys crawled underneath the bridge and, with their bayonets, started cutting the wires. At the farther end, an explosion rocked the bridge and blew a hole 30-feet wide so you couldn’t get on the bridge. My division had artillery and an infantry combat team. We were the first ones to come into Remagen to cover the historical crossing of this bridge. We fired 3,000 rounds over the [Rhine River].
The engineers came, patched up the thing and the Germans brought in Stuka [dive] bombers. They fired long-range artillery railroad guns at the bridge, but unbeknownst to us, one day we were standing there and I could hear loud [booms] and didn’t know what it was. Hitler had ordered 11 V-2, 40-foot rockets at that bridge.
I went up there and stood with a fellow, and while we were standing up there we looked up and heard another one coming over. I waited to die. I stood there waiting to be blown to pieces. One guy started to run and somebody said, “It’s no use to run, you don’t know which way to go!” I waited to die.
Bressler made it. This Veterans Day (observed Nov. 12), we remember the hundreds of thousands who will never get to tell their stories.