Pvt HERBERT W. HUMMELSHIEM USMC
I FIRST saw Herbie a week after I started work in the operating room at the old Collège de Juilly, during the last of the Belleau Woods fighting. I was new enough to it then so that I saw him as a human being rather than a case: a big, well-built lad of nineteen,(21) but pale and thin, with very clear blue eyes and closely cropped blond hair.
15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Died of wounds 18 June 1918. The following account of Pvt Hummelshiem's last days in the evacuation hospital at Juilly is taken from Frederick Pottle's Stretchers: The Story of a Hospital Unit on the Western Front (New Have, Yale University Press, 1929):
HERBIE---AN INCIDENT OF THE WAR
He was wounded in the knee, a serious wound, but not so pressing as some of the other cases. He lay nearly all day on a shaky old French litter on the tiled floor outside the operating room, waiting his turn. Once I found him shivering and tucked the blankets in around him. It was about four in the afternoon when he was finally brought in.
I took down the record for the operation. The boy's last name was German; his first name, Herbert. He was, as I have said, only nineteen. A marine. He had been wounded sixteen hours previously. His voice was high pitched and rather unsteady; he was clearly frightened by the operating room. That was hardly to be wondered at. Operations were under way on the tables at either side, and the room ran with blood and reeked with ether. My white gown (at Juilly even surgical assistants had luxuries) was covered with blood stains. In that gown, with a piece of bandage tied around my forehead to keep the sweat out of my eyes, I must have been a terrifying spectacle. Yet he would have died rather than admit that he was afraid. I saw the dumb appeal in his eyes as I helped lift him on the table, and slid my hand into his. He looked up at me gratefully. The nurse started to put the ether mask down over his face. His voice shook a little.
"You'll hold my hand and see me through, won't you?" he asked. That was how my friendship with Herbie began.
The operation proved to be long and difficult. The missile was a jagged piece of shell nearly a centimeter each way, which had penetrated the joint cavity. Once the major threw it out, but it slipped back again. But he found it again, and dressed the wound. I took the dictation. I do not know why I should remember that dictation, but I do, as well as though I had written it yesterday.
"June 16, 1918. Herbert H-----, 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, U.S.M.C. Duration of injury, 16 hrs. G.S.W. right knee joint. Missile entered from popliteal space, traversing between outer hamstring tendon and the notch of the condyles, lodging in the joint cavity. External arthrotomy. Piece of shrapnel 1 x 1/2 x 3/4 cm. removed from the joint cavity. Débridement. Joint irrigated with Dakin solution and left open for drainage. 9 Carrel-Dakin tubes in posterior wound. Hold. Major Shipley."
I helped to carry the boy, limp and hardly breathing, to the ward, and put him in bed. Ward B was the best in the hospital. It was a long bare room with whitewashed plaster walls, and a floor of red tiles, with long windows, overlooking the old stone-flagged central courtyard of the Collège. I had to pass through it on my way to the operating room, and I always used to stop to speak to Herbie when I could.
He could not sit up, but had always to lie flat on his back with his leg in a long aluminum splint. When our work slackened toward the end of June, I used to sit by his bed and talk with him. Sometimes I wrote letters to his dictation: letters to his mother, his aunt, his sweetheart---"The little lady," he called her. In those letters he repeated over and over that he was getting along well, was feeling better, and would soon be out of bed.
It was not true, for his case went badly from the first. The joint was badly infected, and kept getting worse: a slow, obstinate infection which sapped his strength. He had apparently been on the verge of a physical breakdown at the time he was wounded, and could seem to rally no strength to throw off the infection.
In our talks I learned a great deal about his history. His father was a successful business man in a mid-western city. There was only one other child, a brother. His people were of German descent; his grandmother spoke no English. His parents had not tried to dissuade him from joining the marines. He had been personal orderly to an officer, a major, and at the front had served as a runner, carrying messages for him. He had gone through two weeks of the horror of Belleau Woods, seldom getting anything to eat, and keyed up to a dreadful nervous pitch, for he must have been by nature timid. He had had none of his clothes off for the sixteen days before he was hit. On that morning, he, his major, and three other men were crouching in a shell hole. A shell landed on top. of them. The major and two of the men were killed outright, and the other man died very shortly afterward. Herbie said that he had not been killed because he had been praying just before the shell struck.
The days went by, and Herbie got no better. Twice he had to undergo reoperation because of the infection. I was off duty both times, but because it seemed to steady him, I came back to help. He feared an amputation both times; dreaded it literally worse than death.
After the third operation his cot was moved to the windowside so that he could see the men hurrying around in the courtyard below carrying the wounded on litters, or loading the convalescent into ambulances for evacuation. On one of the old towers opposite was an ancient clock. He used to watch the slow progress of its hands all day long. I remember that one day an elm branch swung in between, and I found him almost in tears because nobody would heed his request to move his cot a few inches. A boy of nineteen, thousands of miles away from home, terribly alone, and facing the probability of death, what did he think, as he lay there for weary hours and days, watching the lacy boughs of the elms spatter the flags of the courtyard with arabesques of light, which shifted and faded as the hands of the clock crawled around?
In Juilly was one little fruiterie, where, for exorbitant prices, one could occasionally buy fresh fruit. One day I got a pound of big cherries for him. When I poured the beautiful red things out on his blanket, he looked up startled, struggled manfully for a moment to keep down his emotion, and then his eyes ran over with tears. He said nothing to me, but I felt sick with shame as I realized how casual the gift had really been.
On the fifteenth of July the Germans attacked furiously, and three days later we launched the counterattack which kept them retreating to the end of the War. Several surgical teams were detached from our hospital, and I was sent along. I was gone three days. I came back half dead, and found our hospital crowded with wounded. It was three days more before I could go to Herbie.
I stumbled down the ward, and brought up with a start of surprise. Herbie's bed was empty. At first I was disappointed, and then glad, for it came to me that he must have improved sufficiently to be sent back to the base. On the way out I stopped to speak with the ward nurse, Miss O'Toole, a tall, thin, gray-haired Bostonian, who had gone from a holiday at Nice to four years' voluntary service with the American Red Cross. I knew that she was fond of Herbie.
"So they evacuated Herbie?" I asked.
She looked up, startled. Then her eyes filled---and it takes a great deal to make a woman cry after she has been seeing men die almost every day of her life for four years
"Herbie died yesterday morning," she said.
From the ward orderly I learned afterward the story of his death. On the night of the twenty-first the infection started a hemorrhage. It was almost immediately detected and controlled, but in his weakened condition the loss of blood proved fatal. Every attempt was made to raise his blood pressure sufficiently to make an operation possible, but he never rallied from the condition of shock. He died just before dawn that morning. At that hour I was sound asleep in my billet. At the last, when he had so many things to think of, did he remember me, his friend?
So far as I know, he left just two things. One was a letter he wrote to his mother the night before he was wounded, when he expected to be killed at any moment.
He had kept it with him, and it was in the pocket of his pajamas when he died. It was the most truly pathetic thing I ever saw. You must remember that it was written by a quite normal boy under the expectation of sudden death at any moment. It had the awkwardness which any American boy of nineteen would show in trying to tell his mother of his love, but it told it so even more effectively. At the end he made a little will, giving all his few belongings to different members of his family. The chaplain took that and sent it to his mother. The other thing was one of the small buttons of his uniform which he gave me as a souvenir in the first days of our acquaintance.
A few days after Herbie's death, I walked out to the American cemetery. It was just outside the grim, gray wall of the old French burying ground, beside the cobbled highway, in a wheat field. The wheat had grown up to the very foot of the wall; it was now golden and -almost ready for the harvest, starred here and there with flaming red poppies. From the foot of the wall a lane had been cut in the wheat, and two rows of raw mounds with brown crosses faced each other across a narrow path; all exactly alike except for the name plates. I had to stoop and read several before I found his---number 100. I laid a bunch of already wilting poppies on the mound, and stood a moment trying to grasp the situation, to feel to its depths what Herbie's death meant.
The sun was just dropping below the horizon, sending out dazzling streamers on a level with the eye. A skylark was soaring and singing overhead. A cart trundled by on the cobbled road, and sweet and clear from the church spire came the peaceful notes of the Angelus. The air smelled of the harvest. I could not feel sad. My tired brain would not fix itself on the grave; it wandered off into a blissful apathy. I forgot for a moment the sight of mangled bodies and the smell of blood and ether and gas gangrene. The healing beauty streamed in upon me: the glory of the sunset, the smell of the wheat, the sound of the bell, the song of the lark. I could not grieve for Herbie at all. He was gone, forever; but for me no more gone than the other wounded men who had passed through our hospital for another.
I must have stood there a long time, for presently the dew came down and made me shiver. As I turned away, I saw far on the horizon to the northward a flash like heat lightning, and then, dull and muffled, I heard the thudding tremor of the guns.