WW II HEROES: Photographs by Zach Coco

Jack Gutman

12/19/1925  San Francisco, CA  Navy

Mankato Style Spur Strap Buckles on Custom Straps by Baru Forrel
Jack Gutman knew at an early age that he was a healer—not a fighter—as a medical corpsman treating the wounded during the Normandy invasion. He joined the Navy at 17 with his father’s permission and became a corpsman because he tested high on the aptitude tests. The sight of blood made him feel faint, and he thought he’d never make it through training. But he did, a course that had been compressed from 1 year to 6 months. “I got over my squeamishness about blood when they took us down to the morgue and showed us a dead body,” he said. Jack learned to catheterize, finish stitching surgery wounds: “All kinds of things you couldn’t do today as a medic.”

Growing up in a poor family, his mother made a lot of buckwheat kasha. They ate it sweetened and with vegetables. Meat was unheard of. One Christmas a wealthy woman showed up with a basket of food and presents, including a turkey with all the fixings. “It was like an angel had come,” Jack recalled. “The best Christmas I ever had.”

When he heard Pearl Harbor was attacked, Jack knew the U.S. would go to war. He followed the war’s course on the news while he waited to turn 17 and his dad would give him permission to enlist. Gutman chose the Navy because he wanted to have a nice bed to sleep in and clean sheets. On ship or on base, he always had a bed and 3 meals a day. “The poor Army guys and Marines hit the beach, always in the dirt. Little did I know what I was going to get into,” Jack said.

He shipped out to England on the RMS Aquitania, stacked into bunks along with thousands of other men. “You know you’re going to war. I was inhibited in a way and I felt insecure, but I had a good memory for jokes. I’d tell a joke to a couple of guys, they’d call more guys over. Next thing you know I’d be doing a show for 15 guys. It built my self-esteem and took my mind off of what was coming up.”

Gutman was assigned to a medical unit at a very large hospital. For five months, he and his workmates prepared it for something they could tell was going to be significant. “We were preparing for Normandy. We knew it was going to be something big but honest to God I had no idea it would be that devastating.”

While preparing the hospital they were “buzz bombed” by unmanned bombs. Under international rules, the hospital was not supposed to be hit, but they were nervous because they knew an unmanned bomb could not tell they were an off-limits target. “Luckily, only one came close to us,” Jack recalled.

“I remember one time we were being bombed by regular German bombers. I think I was in the mess hall. I didn’t know God at the time. I was under a table and the bombs are dropping, everything was shaking. I remember a guy named Sully was on the floor and saying ‘God, if it’s my time to go, I’m ready’ and I thought ‘This guy’s insane’. But later I talked with him about his religion. He was a Catholic. He never asked me about my religion, but he gave me a Bible. I put it in the pocket of my shirt and figured it would stop a bullet. That was my mind at the time.”

While in England, he went on leave from time to time. “I met a very nice English girl and fell in love. I used to bring her family oranges and eggs. I would see her whenever we got leave. We would go to the pubs and drink warm beer! And fish and chips for 20 cents,” Jack smiled.

“We thought Normandy was going to be a cakewalk because we’d seen all the mortar fire, the bombardment of the coast before the invasion. Then I saw all the American bodies and thought ‘Why are all these men dying?’ Afterward I wanted to find out why they had died. 9,000 men died in Normandy, 14,000 in Okinawa,” he reflected, overcome with emotion at the memory.

“Later I read that we had 11,000 bombers that were supposed to render the bunkers along Utah and Normandy helpless. But what happened as they were coming over is there was cloud cover and they said ‘We cannot see the bunkers, so when you think you’re near the beach count 3 and drop the bombs.’

“Well, the bombs dropped a mile away from the bunkers, and the only thing that hit them was the shells from the ships. So, therefore, all these guys—our guys—caught it all, the waves of troops just caught hell. We had practiced that the boats took you right up to the beach, and you jumped out and ran up onto the sand. But what happened was there were these barriers, and the men had to jump out into the water and wade through up to their waist or neck. Some of them panicked and jumped over the side. With their heavy packs, the water was so deep, they went right down. If they couldn’t get the pack off, they drowned. So, a lot of guys died that way and when you see bodies floating around it’s just…” he paused. “And always remember I was just 18 years of age.”

“It was a lot. It was more than I anticipated. It was sheer hell. You always feel: did I do enough for them?” “A lot of guys you save, but then a lot of guys die,” he said, again overcome with emotion. “And you kinda wonder, did you do enough?” Gutman said as he wiped away tears. “That brought up post-traumatic stress and so forth.”

Gutman chose not to talk about his experiences for many years. He would walk away from a conversation among veterans rather than participate. “I remember taking care of a patient who’d been wounded. He’d lost spinal fluid. And when you lose spinal fluid, you die. I would change the bandage, and the fluid would just shoot up. I asked the doctor ‘How is he going to make it?’ The doctor said ‘He won’t make it, he’s going to die.’ The guy would talk to me. He would tell me about his wife and his kid,” Jack said. “He tells me all about it and says ‘I’m going to go home soon and see my family, won’t I, Doc?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ You hadda lie to him, give him hope.” He paused. “And you take it personal,” he said tearfully. “If he dies on your watch, whoever’s on duty has to pack every cavity in his body with cotton. I had to do this, between here and Okinawa, four times. And it takes a toll on you ‘cause you get to know the person. It becomes personal.”

“I think,” he paused and cleared his throat, “I think that’s what I went through a lot, figuring why did this man die and I lived …and then with the flashbacks and everything it was driving me crazy. My flashbacks—I keep seeing the invasion, and it’s amplified. The guy screaming ‘Mama! Mama!’ and all that. It gets really horrible. Some of those guys never got back to their mother. I don’t want people to forget those guys who died or were badly wounded because they thought it was the right thing to do.”

During the invasion, he recalled being shocked to look over and see someone dead, someone he’d been joking with a little while before. At times, to shield himself from being shot, he dragged a body over for cover. “It was survival,” he stated. “We didn’t find out until we were out—I think maybe on the 4th of June. The invasion was originally scheduled for June 5th, but the water was so rough it flipped tanks off the transports and they sank with their crew.

“Rommel thought because of the weather the invasion wouldn’t happen for several more weeks, so he went back to Germany for his wife’s birthday party,” Gutman recounted. “Rommel and Hitler were the only two with authority to move a Panzer unit, which the Germans desperately needed at Normandy, but because Rommel was away and Hitler was asleep and ‘not to be woken’ according to his aides, the unit wasn’t dispatched to Normandy. God must have been looking after us,” Gutman said, “Because otherwise we would have lost more men.”

As they approached the beach, some of the men were so seasick they were vomiting on each other and felt so miserable they didn’t care if they lived or died. Gutman remembers people yelling, “Keep your damn head down!” as their boat crept through the mist and rough water.

They passed ships that had been hit. Gutman heard men yelling for help, but his strict instructions were “You’re not a rescue ship. Go do your job.” He was torn up to leave them, but he carried on to shore. “Then you wonder,” he said, “Did they make it or what? A lot of them hit the mines and got blown up.”

There was no time to triage the wounded in the heat of battle. “You just moved from one guy to the other. Sometimes the guy who screams the loudest is the one you go to. You do what you can, move from one to the next, give a morphine shot, staunch the bleeding, tag ‘em. Then a stretcher bearer would take them. If you see a guy there’s no hope for him, you give him a shot, give him some care, and move on…and you wonder, did you make the right decision? You wonder if you’re responsible for someone dying. That stays with a young mind. Some of them wanted me to stay with them, but I had to tell them I had to move on and another corpsman would be along to help.”

“There was a lot of bodies. All I knew, I was hitting the beach. My job was to tend to the wounded, evacuate ‘em, and get off whenever they call you.”

“It was 6 or 7 hours of hell I was there,” he recalled, “until I was told to get back to the ship.” But even after leaving the beach, Jack helped out with surgeries and setting broken bones. Always he wondered, “Could I have done anything more?”

Jack was haunted by his memories. While on leave after Normandy, he began to have flashbacks, although he didn’t know what they were. “We didn’t know about post-traumatic stress. Back then it was called battle fatigue. And we figured we’d get over it. But I had to have 3 1/2 years of therapy to get over it,” he said.

“I did crazy things. I gave money away to people. I wound up broke, almost cost me my marriage. I was drinking heavy. I got to drinking so badly. I think my downfall was at Thanksgiving dinner with my family, playing with the kids, drinking. When they served dinner, my face fell into the plate. I passed out in front of my family,” he said. “It was so embarrassing when I found out later. They were going to have an intervention, and I would have been so angry.

“The drinking was a gradual thing as the flashbacks happened. I kept drinking a little more over the years.” Through the help of his daughter, a therapist, he was able to get sober. “She’s been a great help to me.”

After the invasion, Jack figured he would be sent stateside for an assignment. Instead, after 30 days of leave, he was shipped to Okinawa after he trained with the Marines in California and was assigned to what was called the Beach Battalion.

His time in training turned out to be traumatic. Two men had dug their foxhole too close to the road. They were run over by a tank while they slept. Jack was sent over to the scene, and the carnage he saw tormented him for years.

When he found out he was going to be in the invasion of Okinawa, Jack felt discouraged. After the horrors of Normandy, he had badly wanted an assignment in the U.S. “But when we hit there, it wasn’t like Normandy. There was some firing and wounded, but there wasn’t much going on on the beach. Most of the fighting was inland.

“We took on a lot of wounded. I was up on deck, taking a break, smoking a cigarette, when all of a sudden, I heard the alarm go off for battle stations. The big gun near me went off—BOOM!—and my ears were ringing. I was running along the deck and looked up and there were swarms of Japanese planes overhead. I looked over to the battleship New Mexico, looked up and saw a plane so close I could see the pilot, with that stern expression Japanese pilots have. He veered off and crashed into the New Mexico. We found out later he killed 80 people and the captain. The explosion was horrendous. I saw that. I just froze there, thinking that I’d just seen that man alive, and he purposefully killed himself. At that time, it was unheard of. I thought, are these people crazy? Are they lunatics?”

Gutman was 18. He lost half the hearing in one ear from the blast of the big gun. He described his experiences in Okinawa as traumatic, but not as bad as Normandy. The wounded men and their cries wrenched his heart, but he knew he was there to heal and to help.

Shortly before his birthday, in December 1945, Jack was discharged and returned home for Christmas to surprise his family, who threw him a big party. It was the second-best Christmas he’d ever had after the one where the rich woman brought dinner and presents for his family when he was a kid.

“I often wondered: why did God save me and my buddies died? Then I look around at my children and all they’ve accomplished. I’m very proud of what they’ve done. God has a plan that’s just amazing.” Even during times of hardship, decades later, Mr. Gutman asked God for guidance. “Touch lives,” was the message he received. He dedicated his life to helping others.

“I talked to one young man who asked me if World War II was a big war. That’s why I speak at schools. I don’t want them to forget. As long as I’m going to be alive, I’m going to speak about them and honor their names,” Jack declared.

“I saw you at the beaches, I saw you cry and die, and some of you got well, which I’m grateful for. But I’m grateful that you fought for your country. I admire you, I will always praise you, and defend you. I love you with all my heart. To my dying day, I will always be fighting for you however many days and years God has for me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”