Ballad of Bull
Leslie Allen was born in 1916. He endured a tough upbringing in Ballarat, in Victoria, Australia. His father was a strict and unforgiving man, and domestic violence was prevalent throughout Allen’s childhood. The Great Depression hit the family hard, and when his father abandoned them, Allen and his sister were sent to an orphanage.
The work he conducted on the farm of the orphanage, however, gave Allen not only an eventual trade, but also steeled his body. The hard physical work paid off, for his main hobby was Australian football, and he earned his nickname “Bull” from his technique of simply rushing over the other players. By April 1940, Bull Allen was 23 years old, out of a job and in need of money, so he joined the freshly formed Second Australian Imperial Force. When compared to the days of the Great War, the Australian military forces were in fairly bad shape, but conscription had been reintroduced in January 1940, after Australia had followed Great Britain into the new war against Germany. Assured by the British Government that the ambitions of Imperial Japan presented no immediate danger to Australia’s defences, the Second Australian Imperial Force prepared to send forces to the European and African theatres of war.
A stretcher bearer
By September, Allen had undergone his basic training and was to serve as a stretcher bearer. He was too late to fight for France, so the Australians were instead eventually sent to take part in the Western Desert and the Syrian-Lebanon campaigns, to secure the Allied assets in North Africa and the Middle East. Bull Allen was well liked by his friends, but he was far from being a model soldier, and was described as impatient and troublesome. Every now and then he got into trouble with his superiors by not following military conventions or by simply disregarding regulations.
Allen had first-hand experience under fire. He carried wounded soldiers from the battlefield, often remaining with them for hours until proper medical help could be provided. But although Bull Allen was a big guy with a strong constitution, the stress of battle took its toll on his psyche. After another incident with his superiors, Allen was sent to a hospital in Palestine to be treated for “anxiety neurosis”, which was better known back then as shellshock, or nowadays, post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the threat to the Allies in Northern Africa and the Middle East receded, the Australians were desperately needed back home. The Allies had underestimated the reach of Japanese ambitions. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese southern offensives of December 1941 and early 1942 pushed across the archipelagos of Southeast Asia. Even the Australian city of Darwin came under a Japanese carrier attack in February 1942, and an invasion of the Australian mainland seemed to be in the cards if the Japanese advance could not be checked.
Papua New Guinea
In late 1942, the already war-weary Bull Allen left the Middle East when his battalion was sent from the desert plains to fight in the humid jungles of Papua New Guinea alongside contingents from the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Britain. The Japanese had won some early victories over the outnumbered and outgunned Australians, who repeatedly had to withdraw and cede territory, but by late 1942, the Australians began pushing back.
The war along the Kokoda Trail was fought over treacherous terrain in a murderous climate. Waist-high kunai grass and dense undergrowth hampered movement, while the thick tree canopies blocked out the sunlight. Steep razorback ridges criss-crossed the jungle and muddy swamps engulfed large areas. This was no place for grand manoeuvres or big flanking operations, but a place for small groups of heavily armed men fighting for each position and dugout.
Climate was an enemy in itself. The oppressive heat and the general dampness from the moisture in the air sapped the strength of even the toughest troops in only a few days, and poorly planned operations were defeated just by the hostile terrain. Plagued by insects and diseases like malaria, both the Australians and the Japanese suffered more casualties from disease than from enemy fire. Often, it was almost impossible to evacuate the wounded, as the driving rains turned the few trails into knee deep mud. Sometimes it could take up to 12 stretcher bearers to transport one wounded man.
Initially, Japanese commander Hitoshi Imamura planned to advance his forces all the way to Port Moresby, though he was eventually stopped by stiff resistance. After 6 months of bloody fighting and raiding, the Allies had achieved a stalemate, but with the arrival of US General MacArthur on the scene, plans were made to reverse the positions and drive the Japanese out of New Guinea.
MacArthur did not refrain from criticising the performance of the Australian troops and what he perceived as a lack of aggressiveness in advancing against the Japanese, but realistically, MacArthur had little experience of what it meant to fight in the dense, murderous jungles of Papua New Guinea. Soon, the Australian units were reinforced by American troops. With the US air force dominating the skies over New Guinea, the combined power of the Allies moved against the Japanese strongholds. The goal was to capture Lae and Salamaua, while preventing the enemy from any further advances.
Fighting for Mount Tambo
By July 1943 the Japanese hold on New Guinea became increasingly desperate, but they were far from being beaten. Bull Allen had already been awarded the Military Medal for rescuing several wounded comrades from the battlefield while under fire, but now, he found himself at the foothills of Mount Tambu, a strategic point near Salamaua. The Japanese commander had mistakenly thought that the Allies would push directly towards Salamaua and had concentrated his forces on the mountain top, so now his forces were caught out of position. But despite the Allied success in outmanoeuvring the enemy, the Japanese were still deeply entrenched and were ready to fight for Mount Tambo with fanatic determination.
Bull’s battalion slowly ground away at the Japanese positions in the foothills, which soon resembled a moonscape. Trees were knocked down by the constant machine-gun fire, and the ground was dug up and flung everywhere from all the mortar shells. The Allies managed to secure the lower slopes and ridges, but the Japanese staged several counterattacks to throw them out. The Australians prevailed, though, and once the Japanese had lost hundreds of men in futile attacks, they seemed vulnerable. The Australians prepared to storm the summit.
On July 24, they advanced. But they were repulsed by the Japanese and took heavy casualties. High Command still wanted that mountaintop taken, and another assault was planned for July 30. This time, they would send in an American Battalion. As the Americans headed up the slopes, Bull Allen and the other stretcher bearers, as well as Australian mortar crews, were to stand by and offer assistance if called upon.
A display of courage
The Americans attacked, but like the Australians, ran into entrenched Japanese defenders with machine guns and mortars. Casualties were heavy and the wounded soon littered the field. Allen watched as the injured cried for help. Two American medics were shot right in front of his crew by Japanese snipers, so without receiving any orders to do so, Bull Allen stepped forward and ran up the muddy hill and into the chaos of the battlefield. Soon after, he came back down the mountain with a wounded soldier on his back. Already, this was a feat of major courage, but Allen did not stop and ran back once more. And once more after that. Time and time again he came down the mountain, struggling down the narrow gully of the trail with yet another wounded man on his back. Then he set off again towards the sounds of battle. Supposedly, the men made bets as to whether Allen would return another time – his luck had to run out at some point. And yet, return he did.
The American soldiers described him as a godsend. It was like Allen had some sort of aura of invincibility around him. Calm and seemingly unconcerned for what was going on around him, he just focused on getting the wounded from the battlefield. 12 times Bull Allen went into the fray and 12 times Bull Allen returned with a wounded soldier on his shoulders. He finally stopped because his body couldn’t go on any longer. His sleeves, his trousers and his hat were all in tatters, riddled by bullets and shrapnel, but miraculously Bull Allen came out unscathed.
Taking a toll on mental health
Allen would physically survive all the fighting in New Guinea, but the battle for Mount Tambu damaged his mental health. After a fight with his superiors in 1944, Bull Allen was discharged from the army for “constitutional temperamental instability and emotional retardation with anxiety symptoms”. His continuing problem with shellshock was worsening, so he was sent back home to recuperate.
It is said that his behaviour was erratic, often volatile, and at one point, he even stopped speaking. For six months he locked himself away, working on an uncle’s farm, until he finally found the strength to speak again. Slowly, Allen recovered and eventually got married and raised a family. But the trauma of the war never left him. All his life, Allen would suffer from flashbacks and the effects of PTSD, which sadly could not be adequately treated or even properly diagnosed back in those days.
Nonetheless, the 12 men whom Bull Allen saved on Mount Tambu remembered and revered him for his deeds long after the war. He received many letters from them and their families, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s first lady during the war, wrote him several times. Although Australia has never officially recognised his actions to this day, the US awarded Leslie “Bull” Allen the Silver Star, one of their highest awards for gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy, and had he been an American soldier, he would have likely won the Congressional Medal of Honor at least once for his bravery that day.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, The Ballad Of Bull – Leslie “Bull” Allen:
The brave medics of World War II
Sometimes war means killing and sometimes war means saving lives. Leslie Bull Allen became a renowned war-hero, not for taking the lives of his enemies, but for saving those of his allies. He exhibited courage, selflessness and moral integrity – all traits that are attributed to a hero. For field-medics, though, this is just part of the job description. Here, we examine three more stories of notable medics from the Second World War.
Born in 1919 in Lynchburg, Virginia, Desmond Doss was part of a working-class family that was very religious. He was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist and Seventh Day Adventists are very strict when it comes to moral principles, particularly regarding the infallibility of the scripture and the 10 commandments.
In December 1941, the Japanese rolled the dice for maximum sneak attack damage at Pearl Harbor, and Doss wanted to enlist in the forces that would fight back. Although bound to the commandment that forbade him to kill, he felt obligated to fulfil his duty as a patriot. So, he would become a soldier in war, but one without the ability to shoot someone or even touch a weapon. Desmond Doss joined the US Army and was assigned to the 77th ID as a medic. But basic training was tough. Naturally, a man who refused to kill or even work on the Sabbath would have a hard time in the army, and his commanders tried to expel him several times. Many of his fellow soldiers scorned him, labelling him a coward and ridiculing his daily prayers, but he did not quit.
In March 1944, he and his unit were sent to fight in the Pacific theatre, and during the fighting for Guam and Leyte, Doss was quick to prove himself. Without regard for his own safety, he was repeatedly spotted running into enemy fire, pulling the wounded from the field, or helping his comrades with bandages and plasma. He won two Bronze Stars for valour.
In April 1945, as the war entered its final stages, American forces invaded the Japanese Island of Okinawa. The fighting was ferocious, and the Japanese defenders offered bitter resistance, usually to the last man. Doss’ regiment was to take a position at Urasoe Mura beyond a 100m jagged slope. But the climb was steep, and the men immediately came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. As the attack was broken off, only ⅓ of the regiment made it back down. The rest remained either dead, wounded or pinned down at the top. Doss did not hesitate. Time and time again he went over the top, into the sights of the Japanese gunners, only to come back a few moments later with a wounded soldier. The story goes that every time we went back up again, he muttered to himself that the Lord might allow him to save just one more. In the end, Doss saved more than 50 men from certain death at the top. Even after he himself was wounded in both legs, he still stayed with the wounded.
As stretcher bearers came to retrieve him, Doss directed them instead to more serious cases. After 5 hours of caring for the wounded, he was spotted by a Japanese sniper. Shot in the arm and with broken bones, he crawled back to the aid station on his own.
He survived and was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest American medal for courage beyond the call of duty. This was not only the highest honour the US could bestow on a soldier, but it was also awarded to a man who never killed an enemy. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive this honour.
Franz Schmitz celebrated his 22nd birthday on the battlefields of Poland among the cries of the wounded. He had joined the German Wehrmacht back in 1937 as a field-medic. Although the campaigns against Poland and France were concluded quickly, the German army still paid for victory with thousands of casualties. Usually, medics like Schmitz marched at the back of the company, but once the first bullets were fired and the wounded called for help, the medics rushed to the front. His determination to save his comrades even under the most dangerous circumstances won Schmitz the Iron Cross Second Class.
The war against the Soviet Union, however, would surpass anything he had seen before. Serving with the 95th Infantry Division, Schmitz was with the German advance towards the cities of Lvov and Rovno, which the Soviets of course tried to prevent. From Day 1 of the invasion, the fighting was vicious. The Soviet defenders were entrenched here and using the terrain to their advantage. Schmitz and his medics constantly charged forward, ducking from cover to cover towards the wounded. Schmitz dragged men from the frontlines into the safety of woods and cornfields. He hastily applied pressure bandages, while calling orders to stretcher bearers. Often, he saw other young medics cut down right in front of him.
But being this close to the fighting meant that Schmitz was not a stranger to close combat. With pistol and submachine gun in hand, he regularly fought off Soviet counterattacks. To survive, he had to kill. But Schmitz was not only seen in the thick of fighting he was seen dressing the wounds of the Soviet soldiers as well. It was his medic’s way.
Schmitz would go on to fight at the Dnieper and at the cauldron of Kiev. There, after saving the lives of 200 men during the siege, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and even met the requirements for the Infantry Assault Badge – this was unusual for a medic, but not for a man who once captured a T-34 tank alone while saving men caught in a crossfire. Schmitz would continue to fight on the Eastern Front, surviving the merciless winters, and the fighting at Kursk and Jelnja in 1943, where his battalion barely escaped destruction. He himself was badly wounded and near death after another daring rescue mission, but miraculously survived. Still in hospital he was awarded the Knight’s Cross, the Wehrmacht’s highest award for gallantry on the battlefield. He would return to the front and save the lives of hundreds of more men until he was wounded again in March 1945. Schmitz survived the war in American captivity.
Zinaida Mareseva was born in 1923 on a collective farm in Saratov Oblast, in the Soviet Union. She was just beginning her adult life when the Great Patriotic War – World War II – arrived, and Mareseva was made to work in a cement plant. Her father had been conscripted to fight against the German invasion and she did not wish to remain at the homefront. Instead, she repeatedly tried to enlist for frontline duty, but was repeatedly rejected. She could join the army, but she had to be a nurse. Mareseva agreed.
After basic medical training, she became an official Red Army field nurse, and by the end of 1942, medics like her were needed everywhere. Assigned to the 38th Rifle Division, Mareseva was sent to Stalingrad where the fighting for the possession of the right bank of the Volga was bitter. The riverbank was full of wounded soldiers and Mareseva had her hands full in keeping even a fraction of them alive. On the battlefield, any sign of a chauvinistic attitude vanished nearly instantly. Female medics became the treasured guardian angels of the regiments and no man lay a hand on them or spoke disrespectfully.
In February 1943, Mareseva was awarded the medal “For Merit in Battle” for her actions. In the coming summer, she was in the thick of the Battle of Kursk, rescuing 38 wounded soldiers by dragging them under fire to the safety of the trenches. For her bravery she was awarded the “Order of the Red Star”.
By the beginning of August 1943, Mareseva advanced with her regiment, which was now elevated to Guards status, to cross the Donets River in southern Belgorod. However, the right bank of the river was heavily mined and the Axis forces opposing them had a clear line of fire. Still, the Guards were ordered to advance. Losses were heavy, but the Red Army forced a crossing and took the fight to their enemies. Mareseva was constantly in action, treating her wounded comrades all day long, personally carrying them to safety. But then the Axis launched a fierce counterattack, and as the Soviets were outflanked, chaos unfolded on the beachhead.
Mareseva remained in her trench. She did not panic, she merely raised her pistol, left the safety of the trench and charged towards the enemy, screaming at her comrades to join the attack. And the men began to turn and fight. The battle was fierce, but the Soviets ultimately prevailed and kept their beachhead. Mareseva worked all night to save the lives of the wounded. With little to no sleep, she was seen the next day, heaving the wounded into the boats to transport them back over the river, when suddenly, they came under fire once more.
In the barrage of shells, she threw herself protectively over the wounded, and was mortally wounded by shrapnel. She had saved the lives of more than 106 men during her service and a year later was posthumously declared a Hero of the Soviet Union.
A duality in mankind
Those are just three short stories from the lives of three brave medics of the Second World War. There is a duality in mankind. One that revolves equally about fighting against and caring for one’s fellow man. Nothing highlights this more than war. Sometimes saving your own means killing the man on the other side. Sometimes it means saving the lives of others by putting yourself in mortal danger. No one understands this more clearly than the field-medic, sworn to save lives, one way or the other.
Check out our Sabaton History episode, The Ballad of Bull Pt.2 – Combat Medics, here: