Larry Joel of Bridgeport, Connecticut
“I’d always wondered what combat was like when I heard my buddies tell World War II stories, and I always figured I’d be a survivor – until it happened. They were calling for me and I looked out and I couldn’t see anything but jungle though I knew the enemy was all around. I was afraid, and I just froze. I couldn’t move…”
When he pauses you can hear the steady drip from the shower across the hall from the kitchen. He gets up stiffly to put on more hot water and knocks the tape recorder to the ground. “Is it all right?” he asks. “I’m opening up, but I can’t do it myself.” He gets his coffee, and taking no chances on disturbing the tape recorder, changes his seat.
“I could hear a kid named Swoboda moaning. I called over to see if he could make it to where we were, but he acted as if he didn’t hear me. He’d just turned 18 and it was his first patrol. I could see him lying on the side of the hill and I thought, ‘If they ever ask, hey, Doc, where were you? I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.’ I tried to run to him but they opened up on me and I got hit in the leg. I ran back to the rock and bandaged it up and gave myself morphine. I tried crawling back to the kid. That’s when we called in the artillery. It fell short and hit some of our own people. One of our guys went wild from the pain and we had to run and catch him and hold him down while I patched him up. I got mad then. I just forgot my fear. I said a little prayer, ‘If I get hit, please don’t let it be a vital area, because I’ll be knocked out of action. Let it be just a little bit, so I can still do something for my people.’
“All morning long we moved the wounded, but the helicopters couldn’t get in to evacuate them. Another company came to help us and got pinned down. I ran out of supplies and grabbed some more and began treating their men too. The other medics were a lot younger than me and weren’t moving fast enough — I just took over and told them to straighten bandages. Three different times I had a cigarette in my hands and never got to light it. A few hours later I got hit in the leg again. It swelled real bad but I didn’t want more morphine. I got a stick and used it as a crutch. I’d throw it to the ground, treat the soldier, then move on to the next one.
“Once it got real quiet. I said, ‘Please let them be going home. They’ve hurt us enough. Let us pick up our sick and dead and let us go home.’ Then they blew their bugles on us — they were charging — the saddest sound I ever heard. The battle lasted all day and into the night. That night I went back to where I thought would be a clearing for evacuation but there wasn’t a clearing, only the wounded and dead lying on ponchos. I found the soldier who’d been hit beside me that morning. He’d become delirious, knocked his IV out, and he’d died. It’s always bothered me knowing that if I’d stayed with him he’d have lived. But there was too much going on.
“It rained that night and we sat up under ponchos trying to keep everyone dry. In the morning the choppers came to get us out. That’s when I gave myself another shot of morphine. Our battalion had 69 killed, 110 wounded. Nearly half the men of my company were either killed or seriously wounded. My platoon sergeant told me, ‘Doc, you did a good job. I’m going to put you in for something if it ain’t nothing but the Silver Star.’ At the camp when they got ready to pull my bandage off I broke down and cried. I couldn’t find tears on the battlefield. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.”
Larry’s 17-year-old nephew, with whom he shares the apartment, comes up the stairs. He’s quiet with strangers around and quickly goes into his room. Larry stands up, stretches, puts water on to boil. He goes into the living room, where a framed jigsaw puzzle of a covered bridge hangs on a wall. He shows off his tropical fish and his old army footlocker painted green, which he uses as a small table. During the last months of World War II he dropped out of school. Too young for the navy he joined the merchant marine. When he turned 18 he joined the army, and was shipped to Italy.
“It was a segregated army then and they had so many black troops they didn’t know what to do with us. The only contact we had with white troops was our white company commander.” He stayed in the army until 1949. In 1952, while working in a Baltimore munitions factory, he got “armysick. I missed my buddies. I wanted to go to Korea as a paratrooper. I went back for the jump boots and the glider patch that said I was one of the elite.” He was too late for action, but he decided this would be his career, he’d stay in 20 years.
There’s a shout from downstairs. A friend is borrowing his car to take Larry’s sister to work. Larry checks the time. It’s 11:15. He wipes his eyes and gets his coffee, spooning Sweet ‘N Low into a mug printed “Larry.” He sits back down at the kitchen table.
“They operated on me that morning. That evening my company commander came over. He said, ‘Doc, they’re writing you up right now for the Medal of Honor.’ I didn’t believe it. All I did was my job — I didn’t take no hill. General Westmoreland came to my bed and congratulated me. About a week later I read my citation and shook all over. It took a long time before I could read it and not shake. Gangrene set in in my wounds. For two weeks they squirted vinegar and water in them. I’d put gauze in my mouth, stick my head under the pillow, and holler as loud as I could. I wasn’t gray when I went to Vietnam. I was in the hospital, two weeks before I saw my face and I looked at my beard and it was white.