John L. Couper World War II Letters
Medical Corps, Europe.
View Online Exhibit: Photograph Album
John Lee Couper, M.D. graduated from VMI in 1937 and received his medical degree from the University of Virginia. A veteran of World War II, he served in the U. S. Army Medical Corps from 1941-1946, spending four years overseas with the St. Luke's Unit (Second Evacuation Hospital). He served in Great Britain and five campaigns in northern Europe with Fifth Corps, First Army, and separated from the service holding the rank of captain. He spent his post-war career in the practice of anesthesiology. Couper died in Lexington, VA in 2001.
The papers consist of extensive correspondence (to parents and other family) and two photograph albums documenting service during World War II; the bulk is dated 1942-1946. The letters cover a wide range of topics, including training in Great Britain, field hospital operations in Europe, and comments about daily aspects of war. In addition, the papers include a photograph album (1936-1937) dating from his VMI cadetship, and extensive material documenting various VMI Class of 1937 reunions.
Selected examples (excerpted from original letters):
France, 1944 August 7 "... It is now one A.M. and we have cleaned up the last of our business, the first break that we have had for some time. How long it will last I cannot imagine as they can snow us under so very rapidly, but we are now used to that. The war has moved so far from us that it is only a rumor but the wounded still come back to us and stand the trip remarkably well, suppose we will have to catch up as soon as the front settles down. The lads are really going to town and the map I have is now out of date. Recently there have been quite a few French civilians in who have been caught in the fighting and in the mines that the Germans sew without consideration. I don't mind wounded soldiers but kids and old women get me- they are only innocent bystanders, but we treat them as well as anyone and they are most gracious in their thanks.... We have been listening to a broadcast from the States via short wave direct on a radio we have here in the operating room. It is good to hear the stuff uncanned for a change. There is an allied station that has opened since D-Day that gives out excellent stuff- mostly American that gives good listening. Grew quite tired of the B.B.C. though they still have the best news."
France, 1944 August 10 "....Things are quiet- we are getting our official rest after six straight weeks of Twenty- Four hour drive.... Yesterday I was fortunate enough to go with Jerry Dorman, our executive officer up to the front to see just exactly how things forward of us are in the medical line. We have never seen exactly the chain of evacuation to us, and we climbed in a jeep and took off for the zone. It was a real experience and thank God it was quiet. The front has moved so far from us that it was nice to get up to see that there was actually a war on. The country we traveled through had been fought over and thoroughly torn up in spots. Though some areas were blasted to pieces, others were as they always have been. The natural defense spots had all been contested and the whole place torn up. The square heads seem to hole up in houses and as a result almost all were wrecked. Towns especially were chewed up. In one place a large woods had been practically done away with, every tree had been blasted off about six feet up. One thing that impressed me was that there were no shell holes, all shells explode on the surface and don't dig holes. Air bombs, however, dig things up. At one place a bridge had been bombed and the stream bed so dug up that the stream had been diverted. The engineers do wonders with such places. They just build a bridge (prefabricated) beside the old one with a nice fill up to it- all done with bulldozers.... One of the most impressive things about the front area is the smell of dead things in general. Animals are everywhere and smell up things in general....One of the things that impressed me was the continual stream of civilian refugees coming home. They were walking and carrying bundles, riding bikes and in their high two wheeled carts. They all looked dead beat but they were at least going home. The Civil Affairs people have done a good job taking care of them. These people are all much different from those we first saw- they are quite friendly and wave to you. The others we have been used to were sullen and stolid- made us wonder. The hinterland country is also much prettier than this hereabouts."
Germany, 1945 April 19 "....the outfit has been slowly collecting the personnel who have been scattered over Germany from one end of the front to the other. Many were in charge of German hospitals or slave labor camps and have real stories to tell. Some of the stories are real horror ones....The payoff is when the civilians of a town are told about what goes on they say they did not know, it was the Nazis who did it....I am all for setting a date for capitulation, then all resisters will be executed."
Germany, 1945 April 24 "....We have been treating recovered Allied & American POWs and I have never seen such pitiful wrecks of men. They are all starved beyond belief and any disease they may have - no matter how mild - becomes a major problem. The Krauts have certainly shown their true natures in their treatment, and to think how we coddle them in the camps in the States. These boys should be sent home to guard them....The civilians are all sullen and aloof, here they made us fight and have not felt the war. Not far away is a camp where they exterminated political prisoners that is absolutely horrible, and yet they deny any part in it...."
German, 1945 May 2 "....Have been awful busy and we have a tremendous load of patients. I have a ward now with a hundred on it that keeps me hopping all of the time. They are all medical patients and nearly all ex-prisoners. It is a real League of Nations. At present I have the following nationalities - Americans (much in the minority), British (of all varieties), French, Belgians, Dutch, Czech, Australians, Canadians, Indians, plus one man from Cyprus....All are very sick when they come but on rest and food nearly all brighten up. They all have a typical lethargic, whipped dog attitude - even the Americans when they come - but they soon snap out of it on a little honest treatment....The English say that the Americans were treated worse than any but the Russians and they look it. With people as malnourished as these are on has to take even the most minor illness seriously - thank God for sulfonamides and penicillin, plus good food...."