GULF COAST WAR MEMORIES
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“114th Evacuation Hospital: Casualties at the Crossing of the Rhine River”
John Appleyard is regarded in Pensacola as one of the city’s leading historians and storytellers, helping to preserve important memories through his passion for writing and his published books on the many important moments in history of the City of Five Flags. Appleyard has also been instrumental in the creation and installation of the WWII Memorial at the Pensacola Veteran’s Memorial Park
During WWII, Appleyard served as the registrar at the 400 bed 114th Evacuation Hospital, a field hospital set up in tents in Belgium, Holland and Germany during the last five months of the war in Europe. Appleyard remembers, “We were a 400 bed hospital, operating mostly in tents, not far from front line action. Being an evacuation hospital in WW II was the same as being a MASH unit in Korea – a place to treat the wounded in the field. Often casualties came to us in large groups, and we provided intensive care. When the Allies crossed the Rhine in Northern Germany in March of 1945, we were set up just west of the river.” Appleyard recounts the flash of the lights on the night sky that went on for hours, “We witnessed the great bombardment – bomb after bomb after bomb – that preceded the river crossing.”
The next day, there was a blanket of planes in the sky – hundreds and hundreds of aircraft carrying paratroopers and pulling gliders. “We did not receive any patients until the third day, when what I like to describe as an endless brown snake completely covered the road for miles,” Appleyard recalls. “It was a long line of ambulances and trucks, all carrying patients who had been injured in the crossing of the Rhine and the subsequent air action. It was a deluge!” The 114th Evacuation Hospitial, set up for approximately 400 patients, received over 5,300 casualties in 48 hours.
Everyone who was part of the unit became a caregiver, including Appleyard, who normally served as the registrar behind a typewriter. The casualties were both minor and severe. No one slept. Many glider pilots were severely injured and brutally mangled by the stakes that the Germans had placed in every available open field. Even though the 114th Hospital was equipped with only 400 beds, every soldier brought in received care, and Appleyard remembers that the mortality rate was considerably small considered the nature and the scope of the injuries they treated.
The experience left an impression on Appleyard. “We were seeing the carnage of war right in front of you… and you were seeing death coming right in front of you.” He does not see any of his actions in WWII as heroic. People who banded together….. and fought and died and bled…. side by side….. That would be stretching the truth a long way.”
Appleyard had a passion for recording history even back during the war. Before leaving for his duties in Europe, Appleyard packed a camera as well as some sheets of x-ray paper. “I had a little bit of foresight,” he states. “Photographic paper was scarce. I decided to try x-ray paper to see if it would work instead. I took the paper with me so I could develop pictures that I might take. I created a darkroom in the hospital unit in the same area we used to develop x-rays. I tinkered with the x-ray chemicals and was able to develop my film. The pictures were grainy, but it did work.”
Before leaving to serve at the 114th Evacuation Hospital, Appleyard had anticipated talking pictures of scenery and buildings in Europe, as well as of the men and women that he served with in his unit. He took and developed many of those kinds of pictures, but he also had a gripping experience while developing some prints of pictures taken by soldiers from his unit. “Late in the month of April we had what turned out to be the most dramatic set of pictures,” said Appleyard. Some of the men in his unit had discovered a concentration camp – long before there was any general public knowledge of the atrocities being committed against the Jews by the Germans. Appleyard developed the film brought back by these soldiers, astonished to see the images of starved, skeletal men and women and stacks of dead human bodies, including those of babies and young children. “We saw for ourselves the unspeakable things that had been done in concentration camps, long before the world knew what was happening.” It left quite an impression on Appleyard – a painful memory of the war but also a powerful reminder of one of the reasons that the war was necessary.