Papadopoulos on Kennedy, 'Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II'

Author: 
Paul A. Kennedy
Reviewer: 
Daniel Papadopoulos

Paul A. Kennedy. Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II. Edited by Christopher B. Kennedy. American Warrior Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Illustrations. 288 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-6723-7.

Reviewed by Daniel Papadopoulos (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57426

“A good diary,” writes historian Rick Atkinson in the foreword to Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II, “can bring back the dead with a power denied even the most gifted physician” (p. ix). This is especially true of the diaries of US Army captain Paul A. Kennedy, compiled and edited by his son, Christopher B. Kennedy. Paul Kennedy, a surgical officer in the Second Auxiliary Surgical Group of the US Army in World War II, served from North Africa into Germany.

Kennedy’s thorough language in his diaries on his views of the war, his loneliness, and his stories of his patients allows both the novice and professional historian to see a fascinating experience of life and history. Through his words the reader can understand some of the most gruesome aspects of war. These visceral remembrances transcend into the editor’s purpose for piecing together Kennedy’s story. Christopher Kennedy explicitly states in his editor’s note, “My aim in producing this book was threefold: to convey the daunting challenges that personnel of the Second Auxiliary Surgical Group faced and overcame, to augment the scant historical record of frontline surgery in World War II, and to ensure that the memory of my father’s goodness, dedication, and fundamental decency would never be lost” (p. xviii). The experiences that Captain Kennedy writes about transforms the doctor’s life on paper into an anti-war narrative. This is furthered by his prior life of being a “civilian at heart” who can be quite “caustic about military life,” going as far as to write many entries specifically on the subject of food, such as a statement that encapsulates his entire opinion on the matter: “Meals are absolutely lousy now. The mess officer has no imagination whatsoever” (pp. x, 23).

Kennedy’s writing offers more than just medical case descriptions as there is a strong dichotomy depicted between his constant homesickness and the forging of bonds with his fellow medical staff. Kennedy’s feelings of longing for home are emphasized by the mundane nature of the hurry-up-and-wait epidemic behind the lines of a noncombatant: “I actually have a real desire to get near the front” and “A lazy day—didn’t get a case” (pp. 127, 122). Furthermore, Kennedy mixed the mundane experience of slow days with the strong comradery he forged with his staff. These shared moments are illustrated both in photos and writings, such as the drinks they had together, baseball games with enlisted men, the road trips through Europe while on leave, and of course the meals they shared, both good and bad. “Had a beer ration here tonight in kegs and it was ice cold—tasted pretty good.... Went over to 33rd Field after and had Yocky-Dockies" (p. 112). These detailed moments help break up the monotony of behind-the-lines life that the reader is given in surplus.

As noted by Kennedy’s son, the original idea was to transcribe all the diary entries one by one and then edit them for grammar. “My initial intention was simply to transcribe the diaries and journals for my family’s sake, and I pursued this in desultory fashion for a number of years” (p. xvii). If done so in this way the reader would have to interpret the thoughts of Kennedy and would then miss the wider context of his story. He decided to not edit most of his father's diary entries. Thus, by keeping the story unadulterated the audience can better grasp his story. However, it is unclear what the unedited version would have looked like in its fullest form. Alternatively, the editor’s choice to not better edit many entries can be viewed as negative because of the many misspellings and grammatical errors, especially the names of people and places. Though, this minimal editing keeps the authenticity of Kennedy’s writing. The editor did realize that his father's reflections “deserved a wider audience” (p. xvii). To assist readers in understanding the larger context of the diaries, he clarifies some information using brackets to differentiate his additions from his father’s writing. He also includes information—again in brackets—to larger historical events, such as the Monte Cassino massif and the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.

One of the finer aspects of the book is the piecing together of Kennedy’s diaries from each year of the war, the medical records, and the almost two thousand photographs. The added visual aids—personal photographs, medical record entries, medical case sketches, and letters written to Kennedy from his patients—supplement Kennedy’s story as it is being told. The photographs and scans of journal entries and letters are provided alongside the text and not simply in the middle of the book where the reader might have difficulty grasping the importance of such aids. Not all available photos are included in the book because of the sheer quantity. The editor chose only materials that would enhance the telling of the story. Furthermore, because the average reader might not know some military terminology the editor has included both in-text definitions for select terms and a well-stocked five-page glossary of medical terms.

Even though the editor does an excellent job piecing together Kennedy’s story, he is still his son, which calls into question the bias of the piece. The editor mentions that he did not include roughly a quarter of the entries because he deemed them uninteresting. Instead, he chose to keep the entries “that portray his sense of the larger war, explicitly refer to surgical cases, and vividly convey what daily life was like for the members of the Second Axillary Surgical Group” (p. xviii). It is unclear what type of material he redacted. Interestingly, though, the editor chose to not redact the double-standard racial attitudes of the time when viewing the Japanese and German soldiers. Specifically, when mentioning the acts of Japanese soldiers, Kennedy becomes enraged: “Got news today of the execution by the Japs of the flyers who bombed Tokyo last year—makes my blood boil to think of it. If they’re not made to pay for it, it will be a crime” (p. 36). Yet when referring to the Germans, Kennedy shows sympathy for them: “14,000 prisoners. They are herded together like cows but look awfully healthy. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them” (p. 43). Even when Kennedy visits the Dachau concentration camp two days after it was liberated, he says nothing negative about the Germans nor the SS guards of the camp and instead only mentions that they were shot and killed. This could be a change of character for Kennedy, as the longer he served the more he noted how tired the enemy was of fighting or it could be an underlying racial bias that was common at the time.

Nevertheless, the value this book offers is insurmountable to a wide variety of audiences. The book is predominantly a primary source that includes material from the other surgeons, staff, and service men and women within Kennedy’s unit. Accompanying the work is an array of the finest secondary source material available.

The most value that the piece offers is the direct window into the horrid conditions of World War II instead of glamorizing aspects of the conflict. This is most poignant when Kennedy arrives at Dachau: “I walked in one barracks room and a French almost-starved Jew whined, 'American' and put his fingers to his mouth as if to beg for food. I felt guilty ‘cause I didn’t have any to give him. I never saw a human look so bad and yet be alive” (p. 218). No matter if you are an avid reader of history, a professional researcher, or a novice historian, Battlefield Surgeon is a piece that anyone who wants a better understanding of one aspect of life during World War II should read.

Citation: Daniel Papadopoulos. Review of Kennedy, Paul A., Battlefield Surgeon: Life and Death on the Front Lines of World War II. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57426

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.