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'Miracles' kept medic step ahead of danger
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'Miracles' kept medic step ahead of danger

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All of the miracles allotted to William "Ben" Lewis, he says, happened in the service, from the time he was drafted into the Army in September 1951 until he left Korea two months before a truce ended hostilities in June 1953.

The first "miracle" looked like anything but a godsend initially, coming after artillery basic training at Fort Chaffee, Ark., for some 300 to 400 GIs. Thirty to 40 soldiers, including Lewis, a Gary native, were told the Army needed medics and they were either going to accept the assignment or be shipped to Korea as riflemen.

"Medics die," Lewis recalled thinking. But the officer informing them of their fate quickly pointed out that the medical training took three months and by then who knew? Maybe the war might be over.

In Japan, the final days of medic training were in rice paddies where the water was putrid and Lewis' ingrown toenail was worsening.

Told to go to a MASH unit to have it looked at, Lewis entered a ward where some patients were missing limbs and others had tubes extending from their sides. Lewis told the ward nurse in charge why he was there, but was too embarrassed to tell the surgeon.

"The ward guy says, 'He's got an ingrown toenail,'" said Lewis. "They took a look at it and agreed it looked pretty bad."

He was admitted, never imagining it would be nearly two months before he would leave.

There was a lull in the fighting, and hospital officials feared if they didn't maintain a certain level of bed occupancy they would be closed, Lewis explained. When he finally caught up with his unit in Korea, it appeared he would be sent to an artillery battery because he hadn't completed medic training.

That was when Capt. Anthony Angoli, also a medical doctor, strode into the headquarters personnel office asking if the clerk there had found a medic for him.

The only one the clerk could point to was Lewis, who he cautioned was a day shy of having completed medic training.

"He's a medic today," Angoli said.

Just days later, Lewis was in a bunker with other medics about six or seven miles from the front lines and just three or four from artillery firing batteries, including the one he would have been assigned to.

A new arrival on his way to the batteries stopped in to receive his shots late that evening as mortar shelling was picking up. Lewis learned he was from East Chicago and urged him to stay the night, but his fellow regionite wouldn't hear of it. Lewis called for an ammo truck to pick the soldier up around 7 p.m.

By 2 a.m., the East Chicago GI was back in a truck with six others, all killed by a mortar round that struck an ammo dump for the artillery pieces.

"If he had listened to me and stayed the night, he wouldn't have gotten killed," Lewis said, adding that seeing so many soldiers killed at one  time was his worst memory of the war. The Lowell resident's second "miracle," however, meant he wasn't the one who died that night.

Because he could type and was familiar with the paperwork for ordering medications and supplies, the Horace-Mann grad became the clerk, making staff sergeant in a group that also supported a nearby Republic of Korea outfit.

While most medics were stationed in a forward area tent, Lewis stayed behind. His third "miracle" occurred when that tent took a direct hit from a mortar round, but fortunately it was abandoned at the time.

His team was medically responsible for 100 to 150 people. Much of the time, in addition to ensuring vaccinations were up to date, Lewis spent taping up truck drivers who navigated Korea's poor excuses for roads. Other times he would sedate soldiers who got "too much booze in them," posing a threat to themselves and others.

His skill with a syringe played a role in one of his more lighthearted escapades of the war. Incredibly, a fellow soldier who was responsible for Lewis pulling a full four-hour guard duty shift at Fort Chaffee showed up months later in Korea. The goldbrick had been "too sick" to do his two-hour stint.

Lewis knew his relief had been up playing cards instead. When he came to Lewis for medical clearance, the longtime U.S. Steel worker asked for his health card.

The poor fellow was woefully deficient in his vaccinations, Lewis noted, and he took care of them in one fell swoop.

"I bet he didn't use that arm for a while," Lewis said.

Miraculous? No. Serendipitous? Yes.


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