The first three pages of Howard Ingling’s letter about the battle for Dornot, France, are missing in action.
The effect is to eliminate any buildup to the battle and for readers to enter while the fight for the village beside the Moselle River is at full pitch.
There we find Capt. Ingling, an army surgeon, in a cellar full of wounded men trying to survive in the crosshairs of German artillery.
Another letter in the collection Pat and Bruce Everhart have from her late father indicates Ingling wrote two letters about the battle Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, 1945, a full year after the event.
Both were written to the wife he always greeted with the words “My Dearest Mickey Pal.”
Here are excerpts.
“I was on my knees holding up a plasma bottle (when) one small piece of shell (very tiny) hit me on the left cheek and knocked the plasma bottle out of my hand,” Ingling writes.
“Right away,” he continues, “we realized what a dangerous place the patients were in.”
To protect them, “we carried them then immediately up to the top of the hill in jeeps and decided we must use another cellar up the street just a little farther (to gather the wounded).”
Beside a half-track
Just how dangerous it was to move anything through the streets becomes clear.
“A man standing and talking just four feet from Lt. Beyer was killed instantly without ever getting a wound. He died from the explosive force (the shock wave) of the shell,” Ingling writes. (Beyer was not hurt.)
“Shells then came fast and thick. A man just across the little street from us (the street was only as wide as a room) also fell and died immediately beside a half-track.
“Capt. Pyle in an alley just near there was hit in the leg. I ran over and put a dressing on it and brought him to the shelter of the cellar and later sent him up the hill.”
A wooden foot
Then comes a lesson in the odd expectations of combat.
“A piece of shrapnel sometime within the hour practically cut off Snacke’s right foot (he later lost it and now has an artificial one). I sent Beyer on up the hill with Snacke to give him plasma up there for I didn’t want him to get killed, too.
“Snacke said goodbye to me, and although we felt bad for him, he seemed glad and so did we in awhile, for he said: ‘I know that I’m going home now and I’ll get there alive. I can get along well with a wooden foot if I need to.’ From then on neither the patients nor we felt sorry for the wounded as long as they had a chance to live.”
Staggered and stunned
After a brief interlude of quiet, “the shells started coming in again. One man again was killed right there on the street.’’
And when “another man was hurt badly and couldn’t tell where he was going ... I just couldn’t (watch) him stagger,” Ingling writes.
What followed was one of the actions that likely led to Ingling being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
“I just stepped out and carried him into the cellar.”
But there wasn’t true safety there, either.
“A shell hit right in our cellar door (near where the stumbling man had been). Fragments flew this way and that. I was the one next to the shell yet all I felt of it was the blast that stunned me just a moment and I felt a sting in my right shoulder.”
He came out of his stupor to a stunning scene.
“The shell had actually blown our aid men and the walking wounded into a pile, and those we drug-in had to lay on top of one another. It looked like the picture of people drowning in the great flood at Noah’s ark. At least it seemed that way to me.”
With a captain from the 5th Infantry — the only other able-bodied soldier — Ingling began working the pile from the top.
“(We) got men from the next cellar to carry them away and we just kept at it till we finished.”
“Toward evening, C. (company) under Capt. Cole set out on foot on the opposite side of the river to go up and take the high ground on the opposite side of the river in order to make it safer for the engineers to build a pontoon bridge. They apparently got along well until almost at the top. Then the Germans counterattacked with all they had.
“It was said that Capt. Cole was leading his men when suddenly he was hit in the chest with German machine gun fire and he died immediately.”
That was not the only loss.
“Donnelly, our good (very good) aid man was caring for a wounded sergeant when the Germans demanded that he give up. He was seen to go over to the Germans unwounded and with his arms in the air and was all right. But this spring his grave was found near Capt. Cole’s there on the east bank of the Moselle south of Metz.”
Trafficking in courage
As night fell, misery followed terror.
“It rained again. We had ... patients lying on the wet ground under what canvas we could find and under what blankets we could scrape up. Our artillery was a mile or two back of us firing as best they could to support our troops .... We could hear the German tanks screeching along the other bank. . . .
“We loaded up our patients as fast as the ambulances could come in the real dark night.
“One ambulance was stopped by a German with a bazooka gun who motioned for the driver to stop. The driver, when he saw who and what it was motioned his hand, shut his eyes and drove on. What else was there for him to do? But he was not shot at at all. He came and went back again with another load.”
One of five
“That day out of our about 800 fighting men, 117 were wounded (how many were killed I don’t know, but perhaps 40 were). That meant that about one out of every five that was there that morning was now either dead or wounded so badly that he had to go to the rear. And (that’s) not counting engineers and the 5th infantry.”
“Now, honey, you can imagine what was going through our minds when we would think. Fortunately we didn’t have time to think much. Back on the hill was Maj. Williams, the combat command surgeon. We laughed about our little nicks in the skin but Maj. Williams didn’t. He immediately wrote out a certificate for the Purple Heart.”
“Tomorrow, I must write to the mother of Donnelly who was killed and to the mother of the other medics who were wounded. That little bit will help at least.”
Back in heaven
Ingling continued the story in his letter of Sept. 10, 1945.
“We felt mighty sad. We had lost so many. Maybe we hadn’t done our part in saving our men.
“But now, honey, (behind the lines) we were back in heaven, it seemed. The country seemed so quiet and so peaceful — as if there was no more war..”
Just plain him
“Toward evening, I went half a mile across the road to B (company) where the medical battalion were. I wrote you a letter, honey, with electric lights in a completely blacked-out tent. ... They treated me like a hero but I explained to them that they had me all wrong — that I was scared to death and that I was surely just plain me and that was all.”
A year after the worst action he’d seen, Ingling reflected on the experience.
“I never feared death itself so much, honey, as I feared just not being able to come back to you. You meant and mean everything to me. I know that while the war was going on ... you felt the same as I did — your job at home was just as hard to bear and just as fearful as mine was.
“I love you so, honey,