Halftone illustration of a soldier holding his arm on a battlefield.

Courage Under Fire: Combat First Aid in WWII

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Jen Woronow. Her research explores historic and contemporary conflicts with an emphasis on examining the human side of war. Today she joins us to discuss a booklet produced by the US military in May 1944.

A short printed narrative of a battle situation needing first aid.“You’re the soldier in the back with the tommy gun. You’ve just knocked off the German that got your pal in the belly a minute ago. You’re on a mopping up mission and everything is quiet now. The Nazi you’ve taken care of is not going to do any more fighting.” What about your wounded buddy? He can still be saved but with no medics around, you’ve got to do it yourself. What do you do? If you’ve read “Combat First Aid: How To Save a Life in Battle” you’re prepared. — page 76

Cover of a two color pamphlet with a library stamp and illustrated with a soldier holding his arm on a battlefield.
Combat First Aid: How To Save Life in Battle, 1944
National Library of Medicine #29721000R

Combat First Aid is a booklet originally published in Infantry Journal in May 1944. The Infantry Journal began as ARMOR Magazine in 1888. In 1904, the US Army launched the first volume of Infantry titled Journal of the US Infantry Association. The journal continues to be published out of the US Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia with a mission to “provide current information on training, organization, weapons, equipment, tactics, and techniques and to provide a forum for progressive ideas.” Combat First Aid uses several practices to effectively communicate key material. These are: speaking to the reader, repeating key points, enhancing text with photographs, illustrations, and diagrams, and narrating real life scenarios. The result is a resource that a soldier can easily remember and rely upon under pressure during life-or-death circumstances. This booklet is a testament of courage in the way it depicts the reality of combat. Although Combat First Aid teaches how to save a life, not every situation is survivable.

An illustration of a solder assisting a fallen soldier holding his chest on a smoking battlefield.Combat First Aid immediately demands your attention by speaking directly to you using a colloquial tone. You are a soldier about to embark on a mission into a combat environment. Despite advances in medical care, you are responsible for your own life and the lives of those around you. Medical officers can’t be everywhere all the time, so you’re the first line of defense. The booklet uses direct, simple statements to convey importance. It’s intended to feel like someone talking to you rather than training material. The booklet addresses you in the second person to create a connection and establish a sense of urgency. You, the soldier, are the audience of this booklet to assert that the situations you’re reading about are real.

The guidance in Combat First Aid is designed to be easily remembered and recalled in an emergency. Repetition helps you easily recognize a situation and the actions necessary to resolve it. This is essential because it’s often simple techniques which ensure the greatest likelihood of survival. But under pressure, it’s much harder to do the right thing. Vital instructions are frequently reduced to three steps or items which are repeated throughout the material. Page 12 provides an example of this by introducing you to three crucial supplies: wound powder (sulfa powder), bandages, and wound tablets (sulfa tablets). Page 14 and 18 explains the proper way to use the wound powder and tablets, respectively. Always sprinkle the wound powder onto the affected area and take wound pills with lots of water. You’ll be reminded of this many times throughout your reading. The goal of the booklet is to help you develop the ability to make decisions quickly while a lot is happening around you. By drilling the same simple messages, the booklet prepares you to act as if it’s second nature.

If that seems overwhelming, don’t worry. Combat First Aid supports the text with numerous photographs, illustrations, and labeled diagrams for better clarity and recall. For every page of text, the booklet follows up with a visual example. The pictures are another way to connect you with the information. More importantly, that picture of a wounded soldier could easily be you or a comrade. Refer to page 20 for a three-step technique for wound treatment accompanied by three corresponding images. For instructions to make a leg tourniquet, view page 29 featuring a sequential series of photographs summarizing the text. For some content, the booklet offers a single illustration. Look at page 39 to identify shock. Having numerous visual cues is another way to train you to correctly assess and treat an injury.

Towards the end of the booklet, Combat First Aid brings all the skills and knowledge together with a series of realistic scenarios where you’re right in the middle of the action. The format is typically a description and picture of the situation followed by step by step first aid instructions with additional pictures. If the scenario is in the book, it’s either already happened to someone else or you’re likely to encounter it. Jump to page 88 where you’re treating a chest wound. The situation may look grim but you know what to do based on previous chapters: rip off clothing, sprinkle the wound powder, bandage the wound, administer wound tablets with plenty of water, and keep your soldier warm and comfortable to prevent shock. By narrating these scenarios, the booklet combines first aid techniques with situational awareness, testing you as you go. The booklet also humanizes emergencies by including an element of emotion or stress. Although no book can cover every possible situation, these narratives feature the most common ones, preparing you to execute good judgement when time is of the essence.

Although Combat First Aid was written for soldiers fighting in World War II, the booklet remains relevant today. Most of the first aid techniques are still applicable. One of the underlying themes of Combat First Aid is that a soldier can only do so much as a first responder. There is a tacit message that no matter how effectively first aid is administered, not everyone survives. With training and guidance like this booklet, a soldier has the skills and knowledge to save themselves or a comrade. If they could not save the life of another, it is because not every situation is survivable in war. On this Memorial Day, we remember all who lost their lives in wartime, and the medical officers and first responders who saved a life or died trying to do so.

For current trusted health information on first aid visit NLM’s MedlinePlus website.

An informal portrait of a young white woman.Jen Woronow is a trained artist, International Security Studies scholar, and creator of The Jaunty Crow, an open access, digital humanities and social science blog promoting trans-disciplinary discussion.  Jen has worked as a Program Analyst in NHLBI’s Division of Extramural Research Activities since 2016.

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