This week’s used bookstore find is the slim World War II memoir Medic! by army medic Robert “Doc Joe” Franklin. Subtitled “How I fought World War II with morphine, sulfa and iodine swabs,” it offers an unflinching “worm’s-eye” perspective from the European front, specifically the invasion through Italy. In its pages, Franklin traces the path of the 45th Infantry Division, whom General Patton described as “one of the best, if not the best division that the American army has ever produced.” Though he was thrown into combat with no medical training, he quickly learned to improvise and saved numerous lives, winning two Silver Stars for bravery under fire. With clean, unadorned, and compelling prose, Franklin leads the reader through a lifetime in 146 pages.
This is no ghost-written puff piece. Most of the book is heavily based on Franklin’s own diary, and his distinctive voice comes through loud and clear to give a cohesive, day-to-day narrative. The final third of the book is more anecdotal, but even this section does not feel awkward or choppy. Franklin is a skilled writer, with a special gift for presenting the most powerful human moments in the simplest way. This makes them all the more effective by their lack of sentiment.
After finishing the book, I’m still haunted by Franklin’s account of the wounded sergeant who came to him carrying another wounded buddy, waving away help for himself, only to be found dead on the spot moments later. I can’t shake the memory of the private stumbling down a hill with a shattered hand to get a fresh rifle and “be right back” for his comrades, never to return. And I can still see the terribly wounded young French couple Franklin observed in an aid station, lying side-by-side on their litters, reaching out to take hold of each other’s hands. The doctor tending them said they might survive. He couldn’t say the same for their baby.
This is not war, Hollywood-style. This is war, in all its horror, all its humanity, all its stretches of tedium and even moments of humor. It is one man reporting what he saw, exactly as he saw it. Sixteen pages of photographs summon up face after face for names which will only be names to the reader. There’s Captain Irving Teitelbaum, master of five languages, full of life and laughter, killed in a shower of shells. There’s Lieutenant Charles Kroetsching, whose death haunted Franklin because he had been reassigned and wasn’t there to help when his close friend was mortally wounded. “I named my son after him so his memory wouldn’t be forgotten—and my son has been a credit to his name.” And then there’s Franklin himself—strong, steady and grinning in one picture, drastically thinned in another, with pants hanging loose and shoes many sizes too large, to contain his swollen trench feet.
Franklin is consistently self-effacing throughout the memoir. He describes his own moments of courage with a sober, clinical voice while magnifying the bravery of his companions. Reflecting on how he never failed to reply to a call of “Medic!” that he could hear, he says plainly, “I expected to be killed at any second, but I didn’t dwell on it, and the prospect never bothered me. I just didn’t want to get killed hiding in a hole. I wanted to get killed doing some good for somebody.” Yet he reveals a sharp side when recounting his experiences with the top brass, many of whom do not come off in a flattering light. These flashes of dry wit can be mercilessly on-point.
It also emerges quietly in the course of the memoir that Franklin is of Jewish descent. (Of course, one might have guessed this by taking one look at that schnozz.) Although it also comes out that his religious worldview is unfortunately grounded in secular humanism, he retains a strong sense of Jewish identity. In one of the most riveting episodes, he risks his life to tend a wounded German soldier, and they are forced to stay put and make conversation while the German’s friends shoot at him. When Franklin confirms that the man identifies as “Deutsche” rather Polish, Czech, or Austrian, he savors the irony as he identifies himself in reply: “Juden!” The German recoils in a panic at first, then calms down and reaches out to pat his new friend on the shoulder: “Gut! Gut!”
Though Franklin denies belief in a God, his character is still admirable in more respects than just his valor on the field. He consistently demonstrates respect for women and faithfulness to his own fiancee back at home (they were married until her death). He views soldiers who boast about their sexual conquests with disdain. He deflects praise and submits to authority even when the authorities aren’t worthy of his respect. At the same time, war took its toll on him, and it led to a dark period of mood swings and mental instability. Franklin treats this in typically understated fashion.
I mentioned before that Franklin is unflinching when he describes the horrors of combat casualty. This is definitely not a book you can hand to your 10-year-old. Maybe not even your 13-year-old. If it were made into a movie and every casualty reproduced without the camera looking away, it would rival Saving Private Ryan. And honestly, these parts should be disturbing for any adult who isn’t just completely desensitized to violence. However, this is a piece of history, and Franklin is simply giving an accurate report. It would be impossible to do justice to his work while glossing over the conditions he had to work in. Fortunately, not all the stories end sadly, and in fact there is some interesting medical information in stories of men he saved. In one case, a man needed plasma, and the other doctor couldn’t find a vein to administer it. Franklin suggested cutting for the vein, and he went on to save many men’s lives with this technique, which would only become official medical practice in the 60s.
There is also a fair amount of salty language, though the only sexual profanity is a single f-word, and that quoted from someone else speaking to Franklin. Language actually plays a humorous role in one anecdote, where Franklin got lost in the dark and was halted by a GI sentry when he finally stumbled back to his own aid station. Asked for a password, he fired back, “I’m a medic with I Company! We don’t have passwords on the front lines!” then “cut loose with all the swearwords I had learned and a few new ones.” The sentry let him pass, and Franklin decided that “Swearing did have some uses, after all.” (To be clear, I don’t mean to endorse swearing, I’m merely pointing out that this is a human story, and there is potential for humor even in our flawed human moments.)
Franklin was already exceptionally well-read when he entered the service and went on to teach highschool literature after the war. This means that while one certainly doesn’t need a literary background to appreciate this memoir, those who do will also appreciate how strongly it is informed by the American literary tradition. He echoes the beginning of Moby Dick in the very first line (“Call me ‘Doc Joe'”) and follows up with a quote from Emily Dickinson. Ernest Hemingway is another author who is never directly quoted, but whose influence is definitely felt in Franklin’s style. The German war novelist Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet On the Western Front), is another clear influence.
I could say more things about this book, but I think the author’s words will speak for themselves if you have occasion to read it. If you’re an older teen or an adult who appreciates gripping tales of courage and humanity, I highly recommend that you do. Doc Franklin’s story is worth telling, and worth hearing. Available new on Amazon here.