U.S. Army Capt. Leo F. Gowen of Nanticoke, Pa., was a surgeon in an aid station behind the front lines in the 9th Medical Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment of Gen. Courtney H. Hodges 1st Army that fought through Europe during World War II.
His job was to patch up wounded soldiers so they would survive a trip to hospitals farther behind the lines for additional care. He and his medics saw the best and the worst of war on a daily basis.
The doctor kept a war diary of his front-line struggle to survive the North African, Sicilian and European campaigns from 1943 until war’s end. It wasn’t until almost six decades later that his nephew, John W. Neal Jr. took the long-dead physician’s notes and turned them into a book: “On Alert (A Mile Closer to Nanticoke)” about Gowen’s exploits during the war.
Neal, who winters in Punta Gorda, Fla. said of his Uncle Leo, “He was a very happy person. He laughed a lot. That’s what made people very comfortable with him. As a teenager, I remember he would reach out to me. I had such respect for him.”
Gowen died unexpectedly from a cerebral aneurysm in 1963 at age 52. After his funeral, family members were reminiscing about Leo when his war diary came up. Neal expressed an interest in the journal.
His aunt Louise, Gowen’s wife, presented Neal with the diary two years ago.
For five months he worked on turning the physician’s abbreviated, hand-scribbled notes into sentences that gave a day-by-day account of Gowen’s life as a triage doctor near the front lines in the European Front during the Second World War.
“The most astonishing aspect of the diary is that he made continuous daily entries regardless of his situation,” Neal said.
Until March 22, 1943 when he shipped out as the battalion surgeon for the 3rd Battalion, he was an instructor in pediatrics at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Philadelphia. That’s where he met Louise, a nurse at the hospital, the year before and married her. When he left for the front, their daughter, Patsy, was 15 months old.
By the time his unit reached Sicily in the summer of 1943, Gowen and his division were seasoned soldiers. They had already fought their way through the North African Campaign.
His diary picks up in Sicily:
“Aug. 11, 1943, Wednesday: We started at midnight to march through Cecaro toward Randazzo. At 5:30 a.m. we arrived at our bivouac area. Suddenly on our left 60 yards away was a flash and smoke from an explosion followed by the cry of Lt. Mooney ‘medics’ — litters. Nearby at rest were a few medics. From the Jeep Leonard jumped and Capt. Cohlmous gave him and T/Sgt. Simpson a litter.
“I got to the scene and started to work on Pfc. Osman of D-Company with a pellet in his belly. Suddenly a second charge went off and I saw Martin standing with blood running down the right side of his face. Capt. Cupras ran by me with his hand to the bloody left side of his forehead screaming, ‘My God, I’ve been hit, get the doc.’
“Meanwhile I could hear ‘Slick’ Thomasson calling for help. In the distance another voice was saying, ‘Help me, I’m bleeding to death.’ So I went to Slick who had eight holes especially in his back, hip, arms and powder blast of the face and was talking out of his head, but occasionally saying, ‘I’m dying’ which was a possibility.
“(Medic) Bruce Cease, a newcomer, stayed right with me. He was a great help.
“All the while the voice continued from a deep gully, “Help me. My leg is off, I’m bleeding to death.’ I tried to get one of the boys to go down to him with a morphine shot but he spotted more mines and wouldn’t go.
“I was feeling guilty about the man in the ditch whose leg was near me, some 8 feet from a mine. So Bruce Cease and I scouted around the field and came up the other side of the ravine and got to him. He was Sgt. Strauge from D-Company.
“He was mangled — his left arm and hand, right leg below the knee. I gave him a morphine shot. He was fortunately in shock and Cease and I started to drag him out when I noticed his pupils widely dilated. He died, so we left him.
“All of this in 45 minutes. Mine sweepers came in and cleared away most of the land mines.
“Thanks be to the kindness of God I was untouched. I have much to be thankful for and I did thank God for protecting me. I gave St. Christopher and Our Lady thanks also.”
Months later Gowen would receive the Bronze Star for heroism for his efforts to save his comrades that day in Sicily and another one saving lives in France. The Certificate of Commendation reads: “During the campaign in SICILY, Capt. Gowen made his way through a heavily mined area to bring medical aid to several wounded men and officers, personally removing three of the wounded from the scene of action. His devotion to duty and his personal courage are highly commendable.”
On June 10, 1944, Doc Gowen and his battalion landed in Normandy, France, four days after the D-Day Invasion that was the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
“July 25, 1944, Tuesday: “We were alerted and moved about 8 a.m. to a field area. Thousands of (Allied) bombers came over and 30 bombs fell in and behind us. Panic was widespread; the earth trembled. The pall of smoke was everywhere.
“Subsequent waves of bombers put all on alert lest more bombs fall. Two bombers were hit and parachutes were seen. L-Company kitchen personnel were hit by bombs, four were KIA (killed in action) and partially buried with earth and three were WIA (wounded in action); severe leg, arm and skull injuries. It was rough for a while.”
An accompanying newspaper article written by Marshall Yarrow, a pool reporter, noted: “July 30, 1944 — A high-ranking military spokesman at Gen. Eisenhower’s headquarters said yesterday that the recent bombing of U.S. troops by their own aircraft had not affected their morale or damaged their faith in the value of close air support.”
Aug. 7, 1944, Monday: “I lay awake until Sam Macelli returned with four dead bodies about 2 a.m. Small arms fire and (German) 88 mm shells now sound a lot closer. I got a phone call that a ‘Jerry’ breakthrough was in effect and street fighting was going on in the town below us (at Cherece-le Roussel, France). I started to sweat, for we were surrounded and without communication. The Jerry machine gun pistol, machine guns and tanks were heard all around us. The Jerrys broke through with about 12 tanks and 200 men so as to command an avenue of escape.
“About 5 a.m. K-Company started down … from the front line to aid us and met lots of resistance. Sweating, we waited for the morning. We had tanks shooting all around us and shooting at our building.
“Later in the morning we were ordered to withdraw North and West from this area. All medics withdrew except Gowen, Klein, Courtney, Stinemen and Rosastro. They safely arrived about 1:30 p.m.
“We moved to a new site about 9 p.m. We are all set up. I finished about 4 a.m. I was really scared today.”
During a break in the action a few days later he wrote one of many letters home to Louise, his wife in Pennsylvania, and their daughter, Patsy.
“Aug. 14, 1944, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
“My Darling Louise,
“Each day, although longer away from you, actually is one day closer till our reunion. Each mile we go toward Berlin is a mile closer to Nanticoke, Pa. Heard of a new (Allied) landing today in Southern France.
“I miss you terribly and love you entirely. I enjoyed the picture of Patsy and you which you sent recently. Also I received a package of ‘goodies’ mailed I think July 25. It was fine Honey.
“I love you in all ways for always.
“All my love.
John Neal of Punta Gorda, Fla., who produced, “On Alert (A Mile Closer to Nanticoke)” about the exploits of his uncle, Dr. Leo F. Gowen, with the 9th Medical Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment of Gen. Courtney Hodges’ 1st Army in Europe during World War II.
U.S. Army Capt. Leo F. Gowen was a survivor. For more than a year during WWII, he had been a triage surgeon manning an aid station near the front lines, where injured soldiers received initial medical care before being shipped back to a hospital farther in the rear.
Attached to the 9th Medical Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment of Gen. Cournety H. Hodges’ 1st Army, he saw action in North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium and Germany from April 30, 1943, until July 20, 1945.
Several days ago John W. Neal, Jr., who winters in Punta Gorda, Fla. showed up at the newspaper office with a 200-page book he recently completed about his Uncle Leo’s war diary. He calls it: “On Alert (A Mile Closer to Nanticoke).”
The first story about Dr. Gowen’s exploits during the Second World War ran in Saturday’s Sun. This is the second part of his war story:
“Aug. 27, 1944, Sunday: By now Paris is said to be well in French and Allied hands. Reports are it was terribly bombed early this a.m. by the ‘Jerry’ (Germans). We got up at 5 a.m. and are on the road. Today we crossed the Seine River below Paris.
“The townsfolk are most friendly and give us what they have in food and drinks. Our destination was in the vicinity of Fontenay-Tresigny. There, a 60-year old woman proffered her house to us for quarters and an aid station. She said her house was our house.
“Sept. 3, 1944, Sunday: Up at 7 a.m. with new orders to proceed to the Meuse River. We heard quite a bit of small arms fire. We were delayed entering Belgium.
“While waiting I visited a very ornate and colorful church in Renlies, France, that contains a baptismal font from 1250 A.D. All this time there is a tank fire on our left and there is much machine-gun firing.
“We travel 20 miles into Belgium. There are many tears and really happily liberated folks. Flags were put on our Jeeps. A very fine reception.
“Sept. 14, 1944, Thursday: It rained early this morning and everyone and everything got soaked. We entered Germany at 2:15 p.m. above Monschau at Konzen. It is still overcast, cold, raw with a slight rain.
“The most discussed topic is what kind of reception will the natives give us? Will they wave flags or be sullen and cause sabotage?
“Sept. 19, 1944, Tuesday: The day is 100 percent cloudless, but there is no plane support seen. All of the windows were broken in our hotel aid station by a barrage of Jerry artillery shells which hit a building on our side of the street and one behind us. At the time we had 12 patients, nearly all litter cases.
“The time is 6 a.m. and thus far there are about 20 battle casualties, none of which seem to be critically wounded. In the evening we ran a few more battle casualties.
“I went to Mass last evening and plan to attend there again this evening.
“Sept. 20, 1944, Wednesday: Father Francis Sullivan blessed our two Jeeps today and we have a picture of the Sacred Heart in each a well as in the aid station.
“Tonight from 8 p.m. until now at 10:30 p.m. Lt. Carroll Clark has been playing all the old songs and we’ve been joining in singing them despite the artillery barrages and sniper fire. It’s a wonderful break in the war routine. We are facing the 9th Panzers here and the 12th Whermach just moved into Duren, a city on the Roer River. There are also remnants constituting a third division against us East of Aachen near Lammersdorf.
In a letter home to his wife in Pennsylvania, Gowen writes about the Bronze Star medal he received for his efforts to rescue wounded soldiers in a minefield in Sicily months earlier:
Sept 29, 1944, Friday:
My Darling Louise,
The enclosed newspaper clipping is for your general information. About the Bronze Star. The only reason I am glad I got it was because I was one of the first to receive it. But it degenerated in value. I know for sure a Red Cross worker in England received one who never got near the combat line. So don’t boast to anyone that I did receive one, for damn near everyone has gotten them, except for the poor bastards that deserve them.
“I am enjoying the peanuts you sent to me via Planters. They are very delicious and I thank you very much for sending them!
Oct. 8, 1944, Sunday: Jerry artillery shells came humming with a crash about 3 a.m. and some later at 5 a.m. Much more to the point – it scared the hell out of Lt. Carroll Clark and me and we both got up. The shells landed east and south of us and some above us. Shrapnel came over Cpl. Bush and Sgt. Courtney. I went back to sleep again at 7 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. when the patients started coming in.
“The total battle casualties today in our battalion is 16 WIA and we evacuated 35 patients that included some non-battle casualties and some diseased. At 3:15 p.m. a new gun, closer, opened up and shot into our general area. It scared the hell out of me so we moved our operation about 1/3 of a mile farther back.
“I pray to Almighty God that no shells come near our area tonight, for at the present I’m about nuts on account of the continual exposure and harassing artillery firing as well as the severity of the casualties coming in. Personnel from K-Company obtained the body of Pvt. Forest Dickes of our medical section who died from a head wound on 6 Oct. from an artillery shell. Capt. McAuley of L-Company was WIA today as well as Lt. Bingham of K-Company. Pvt. George Moore of our medical section sustained a slight penetration of a wrist and was evacuated.
“The time is 8 p.m. and Dear God, please let it be quiet tonight. Father Sullivan was still upset, for Lumpo of L-Company was KIA and also his back was hurting him. He gave us Communion this evening. We had two casualties about 10 p.m. They went OK. I read the funnies and hit the sack about 1 a.m.
“Nov.11, 1944, Saturday:
My Darling Louise,
“Still cold and wet. I think I got frostbite on my toes. I’m serious, for I never could stand much wet cold.
“Honey, forgive me for not writing much. No one does much of anything except bitching.
“Honey, I love you with all my heart and soul. All my love.
“Dec. 16, 1944, Saturday: For the past three days we’ve been getting orders for K-Company to move northeast across the Roer River in conjunction with the 83rd Division… However, a Jerry counter-attack occurred against the 83rd Division with tanks, assault teams which was proceeded by artillery firing….”
Although Dr. Gowen didn’t know it at the time, what he and 1 million other soldiers were involved in what was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest German offensive on the Western Front during World War II.
“Dec 18, 1944, Monday: Today there were many, many Jerry planes overhead flying high. Countless ack-ack was thrown at them and not one plane was downed.
“Dec. 19, 1944, Tuesday: There are many changes of plans. Jerry has made contact in Monschau and is fighting for Hoven.
“The situation must develop more before we can know what part we will play and where. It will be for the Allies a real battle and in my opinion will hasten the end of the war. Jerry’s 6th Panzer Army is made up of 10 divisions and many good men and supplies. When we finally defeat them he will be sorely hurt.”
“Dec. 24, 1944, Sunday
“My Darling Louise,
‘It’s Christmas Eve. What an unusual environment for such an occasion! Although diametrically opposed to what it commemorates, it keeps in mind probably more so than in peace time. Christ’s greeting to the world through the emissary of angles– Peace on Earth to Men of Good Will.
“There will be peace sometime. God’s will be done even though Heaven and Earth may pass away.
“Last year (this time) ’twas in England, the year before in Virginia. This year in Belgium in the vicinity of Germany.
“I pray to God next year it will be in the presence of my two girls at home.
“Sincerest wishes for a Peaceful Christmas and all my love to you and Patsy.
“Jan. 11, 1945, Thursday: I was in my room sorting over odds and ends of mine when Sgt. Mucci came in with a bedding roll. I said, ‘Have we got company?’ He said, ‘No, you are leaving.'”
(Because Gowen had served 18 months as a battalion aid doctor in combat, he was being sent back to the rear echelon to serve out the remainder of his time in service. He was relocated to Eupen Belgium and housed in a hotel).
“April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday: This was my estimated VE-Day back in the fall and like others, I too am wrong. I ran some nasty casualties from the 1st Division, 26th Regiment as well as from the 39th. We are encircling the remnants of some 20 Jerry divisions.
“April 14, 1945, Saturday: Quite a few of our officers visited the concentration camp in the vicinity of Nondhausen and the V1 and V2 slave labor plants and were to a man shocked at the awfulness of the sights. The countless starved dead, the crematories and awful conditions. Our priest said it defies the judgement of God.
“April 16, 1945, Monday: Some of our patients are the emaciated., starved peasants who are so grateful that they kiss the hands, legs and feet of anyone in the station kind to them. Some of these starved men say death rates were hundreds per day. Once a man is no longer productive, was sick or injured, he was set aside and no longer fed. When they marched along the weak ones were weeded out, gassed and cremated.”
The Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945. The Allies were victorious. World War II was over in Europe.
“May 8, 1945, Tuesday: It’s a lovely clear, warm spring day. I heard (Winston) Churchill’s talk and King George VII’s VE-Day address. Had a swell chicken dinner, then ice cream. At 7:30 p.m. I got a phone call from the battalion wanting me to come up and celebrate with them. I got great pleasure from their thinking of me. The time is 9 p.m I’m working on Scotch now.
“July 18, 1945, Wednesday
“My Darling Louise,
“Just had breakfast which was two fried fresh eggs and coffee. Am in the vicinity of Thionville, France. Look on your map in the area of Metz.
“NOW HERE’S WHAT TO DO: Pack my bathrobe, slippers, PJs and two bottles of bourbon, your black negligee and what else you wish.
“When I get to a phone, I’ll call you. Then I’ll meet you at the Sterling Hotel in Wilkes Barre, (Pa.). You make arrangements for a room with a bath and radio.
“I don’t want to see anybody but you for a while. So I would suggest you tell Patsy nothing and tell your family you are going to meet me in Pnilly or somewhere where they won’t both us. Then after the phone call slip over to the hotel and wait for me.
“All my love, dearest.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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