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Saving Sergeant Buske

An account of Remarkable Valor and Amazing Survival from the Records of the 65th General Hospital, a Duke University Army Reserve Unit of World War II
by Ivan W. Brown, Jr. MD
[Originally published in Vol. 60, No. 1 of North Carolina Medical Journal, January/February 1999]
Dr. Brown is a former James B. Duke Professor or Surgery at Duke University, Durham. A retired cardiovascular surgeon, he lives in Lakeland, FL, and writes medical history. During World War II, he was captain on the surgical service of the 65th General Hospital, a Duke Army Reserve Unit. The Unit was called to active duty in July 1942, and in the fall of 1943 was sent to England where Dr. Brown and his colleagues served as the principal medical personnel for casualties of the 8th Air Force as well as thousands of Army casualties from the war.

George Buske and Dr. Ivan Brown In the hours before dawn on December 20, 1943, it was bitter cold at the US 8th Air Force base at Molesworth, England. The crew of a B-17 bomber named Jersey Bounce hardly needed the 4 a.m. wake-up call of the Charge of Quarters. Like most bomber crews anticipating the next day's mission over enemy territory, their sleep was easily interrupted. The sound of the CO's Jeep pulling up to their tar-papered hut had already awakened them.

Twenty-two year old Sgt. George W. Buske, a tailgunner from Rochester, NY, had perhaps more reason to be apprehensive than the others. Just five months earlier, a 20mm exploding shell fired by an attacking German fighter plane had caused deep wounds to his left hip. For that mission he had been awarded his first Purple Heart, another Oak Leaf Cluster for his Air Medal, and the Silver Star for conspicuous bravery. After 45 days in the hospital, he had finally returned to full duty.

Now, after a breakfast of fresh eggs at the mess hut - a treat compared to the powdered variety served on non-mission days - he and his crewmates, including radio operator T/Sgt. Forrest L. Vosler from Livonia, NY, went to the pre-mission briefing. Their day's mission was to be a return bombing raid on Bremen, Germany. They had flown to Bremen twice earlier that week. On those raids, their 303rd Bomb Group had encountered only moderate anti-aircraft fire, a few German fighter planes, and lost no bombers. Little did they realize how different the forthcoming mission would be.

Just after dawn, the Jersey Bounce , with Capt. Merle R. Hungerford, Jr., from El Paso, TX, at the controls, took off with its heavy bomb load. Their group's slow circling climb to altitude and rendezvous with other bomb groups took nearly two hours. It was after 10 a.m. when the stream of more than 500 bombers left British air space for Germany. Approaching the Dutch coast, they encountered the first of their unexpected problems: a strong head wind, which caused some planes to reach the target off course and a half-hour late. At 26,000 feet, the assigned bombing altitude, the air temperature was below -50 F. Heavy condensation trails left by the bomber engines spread like white clouds in which large numbers of German fighter planes could hide to launch their attacks unseen. And unlike their last Bremen visit, there was intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire as they approached the target.

Suddenly, an anti-aircraft shell burst knocked out the Jersey Bounce's No. 1 engine. Moments later, just after the bombardier called out "bombs away," another shell knocked out the No. 4 engine, leaving its propeller, which could not be feathered, windmilling out of control. On only two engines and losing altitude and speed, the crippled Jersey Bounce fell out of formation. It was a sitting duck and German fighters lined up to shoot it down.

Capt. Hungerford and his copilot struggled to maintain altitude and keep the plane on course for home. The waist, turret, and tailgunners kept up defensive fire to ward off the fighter attacks. Their 50-caliber guns knocked down four German fighters, but others followed them out over the North Sea with relentless attacks, firing machine gun bullets and exploding 20mm shells into the stricken plane. One shell sent fragments into the legs and feet of T/Sgt. Vosler. Then a machine gun bullet passed completely through the upper abdomen of Sgt. Buske. Almost simultaneously, a 20mm shell exploding inches in front of his waist, blew his chest and abdomen open and propelled him backward from his tailgunner's seat into the fuselage.

The fighters continued to attack. The wounded Vosler, attempting to take over the now unmanned tailgun, was struck in the chest, face, and both eyes by fragments from another 20mm shell. With blood streaming from his eyes and able to see only blurred shapes, Vosler and the other gunners kept firing until the German fighters, convinced their prey was about to crash into the sea, broke off and turned back toward Germany.

By this time, the Jersey Bounce was just above the waves and fast running out of fuel. Vosler, though unable to see, repaired the damaged radio by touch and began sending out distress messages. Other crew members, attempting to keep the plane airborne, threw out everything they could to lighten the load. The wounded Vosler, barely conscious and feeling he was of no further use, begged to be thrown out himself to further reduce weight.

Out of gas but within sight of the East Anglian coast the Jersey Bounce finally crashed into the frigid North Sea. Vosler managed to crawl out unassisted onto a wing. Other crew members dragged out the severely wounded and unconscious Buske. Then Vosler, holding onto the plane's antenna with one hand and Buske with the other, kept the two of them from slipping underwater until they could be pulled into inflated dinghies.

Fortunately, their crash had been spotted by a Norwegian coaster, which picked them up and transferred them to a fast E-boat of the British Sea Rescue Command. Within an hour, they were inside Great Yarmouth harbor. From there, Vosler was sent to a Northhampton hospital and later to the States for a long hospitalization. One of his eyes had to be removed, and the other required extensive surgery but partial sight was restored. Sgt. Buske, barely alive and in profound shock from blood loss and exposure, was rushed to the local Great Yarmouth Hospital. After several blood transfusions and treatment for shock and hypothermia, he underwent emergency surgery.

There was a large, sucking wound of his right anterior chest, which exposed his right lung and continued through a disrupted diaphragm as a single gaping wound into the right upper abdomen. There were bleeding tears in his partially fractured liver, a laceration of the duodenum, and contused intestine. A second diagonal wound across the left anterior chest exposed a number of ribs. X-rays showed a number of shell fragments in his right thigh, abdominal wall, and both lungs. There were one or two fragments close to the heart. The machine gun bullet that had passed through his upper abdomen was lodged deep in the muscles of his back. Because of his extremely critical condition, the British surgeons could only control the bleeding from his torn liver, reattach the disrupted diaphragm, and close the sucking wound of the right chest. The left chest wound was dusted with sulfanilamide and packed open. The large abdominal wound was packed with gauze and also left open.

With further transfusions and intensive nursing care during the next few days, his condition, though still critical, stabilized enough to permit transfer to the nearest US Army hospital; the 231st Station hospital at Botesdale, Suffolk. In the operating room there, the abdominal wound was found to be grossly infected and to contain considerable dead tissue. It was draining a foul, bile-stained fluid containing digestive juices and bubbles of intestinal gas. The wound was debrided and an area of pus over the dome of the liver was drained. An empyema of his right chest cavity was drained of a large amount of infected, bloody fluid. A few days later, an empyema of his left chest was drained as well.

He was unable to take fluids or food by mouth because of the total drainage of upper intestinal contents, which were slowly digesting and enlarging the abdominal wound. He was sustained entirely on intravenous fluids containing glucose. In those World War II years, there were no amino acids or complete nutrient fluids available for intravenous feeding. The only antibiotics were two early sulfa drugs and the newly discovered penicillin. These were wonder drugs against many wartime infections, but not against the types of bacteria causing Buske's infections.

Buske (lower), Dr. Brown (right) The Long Road Home
When the US Army's 65th General Hospital -affiliated with Duke University- replaced the 231st station hospital at Botesdale in February 1944, Buske was on a downhill course because of malnutrition and the repeated complications of his formidable injuries. He developed a large abscess in his back, posterior to the abdominal cavity, and abscesses of his right thigh, abdominal wall, and left chest, all from the multiple shell fragments. All required surgical drainage. By mid-February 1944, he was largely unresponsive and his condition appeared terminal. There were long periods of Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Yet, his resilience and stamina in those critical days were remarkable. Often, as a nurse changed his position, he would arouse from his semicomatose state and exclaim "Damn it, can't anybody get any sleep around here?" then lapse back into coma.

His weight fell to 88 pounds. In an attempt to improve his nutrition, and to provide a source of protein, daily units of reconstituted dried human plasma were added to his intravenous fluids. This proved successful in stemming his increasing emaciation, and improved the healing of his wounds. We later found that many of these wartime dried plasma units contained the hepatitis B virus, which caused a delayed, serious, and sometimes fatal hepatitis. Fortunately, in spite of receiving over 100 units, Buske escaped this complication.

Finally in March, three months after he was wounded, the gradually decreasing drainage from his large abdominal fistula allowed him to retain some fluids and nutrients taken by mouth. His nutrition was further improved by eggnog made with fresh eggs -a rare commodity in wartime Britain- brought to him by the vicar of the local Anglican church. His abdominal and lower chest wounds gradually healed. In May, he underwent further operations to close his wounds, including skin grafts to cover the still unhealed wounds of his right thigh.

By mid-June 1944, he was strong enough to be evacuated by plane back to the states for further treatment. The 65th General Hospital surgeons who treated him marveled at his recovery up to that point, but we feared that his multiple severe injuries would lead to future medical problems, even limit his lifespan. He arrived in the US on June 24, 1944, and was immediately admitted to the Army's Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island. He stayed there for four months of further convalescence and rehabilitation. Then, after a three-week furlough home in November 1944, he requested, and amazingly enough, was returned to active duty at Langley Field, Virginia. He was not discharged from the Air Force until September 3, 1945.

History Retold
For his gallantry and valor above and beyond the call of duty on their fateful mission to Bremen, T/Sgt. Forrest L. Vosler was given America's highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the medal to him at the White House. He was one of only three enlisted men of the 8th Air Force during World War II to receive this honor. Vosler died of a heart attack in 1992, at age 69, in Titusville, FL.

For 30 years after his discharge from the Air Force, Buske was employed as a yard foreman at a lumber company. He retired in 1978. Since the war, he has had two physical reminders of his near-fatal 1943 wounds. In 1952, he developed abdominal pain and fever that led to the surgical removal of shell fragments and the machine gun bullet. In 1988, he underwent successful coronary artery bypass surgery. Afterward, his cardiac surgeon presented him with a souvenir of the operation: an encrusted shell fragment the surgeon had found near his heart.

George W. Buske, and Eleanor, his wife of 45 years, still live happily in Rochester, NY. They take great pleasure in their family, including their four grandchildren. In spite of all the past odds against his recovery and survival, this remarkable, twice wounded, and highly decorated Air Force veteran, now 78, continues to enjoy good health.