Remembering a Special Veteran
Thu, 11/11/2021 - 2:12pm admin
With Veterans Day approaching, I am remembering another World War II service member, George C. Anstey, M.D.—my father-in-law. He served as Battalion Surgeon in the 3rd Armored Division at the Battle of the Bulge.
George Anstey, born in 1917, grew up in Messina, Iowa, with his father, a veterinarian/farmer, his mother, and three older sisters. Life during the Great Depression came with the usual hardships and a few more for him. One night George witnessed a flaming cross erected on their front yard by the Ku Klux Klan. His family was Catholic.
At the age of five, a farm accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. George’s father had set him astraddle a horse that was pulling a wagon loaded with corn sileage. The horse reared and fell backwards pinning George underneath. For several months George had to be lifted in and out of bed and could only get around by pulling himself about in a child’s wagon. With exercises and a brace his father devised, George regained the ability to walk. In later life, the injury caused pain, but did not prevent him from becoming an ardent and accomplished golfer.
After undergraduate school at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, he received his M.D. degree from Creighton Medical School. During medical school, he met his future wife Catherine and took her to a football game on their first date. After graduation in 1942, they married on February 27, 1943. Uncle Sam, with a draft notice in hand, waited in the vestibule.
After training at the Medical Field Service School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from July 5—August 12, 1943, he became part of General Omar Bradley’s First Army in the European Theater, as battalion surgeon in the 3rd Armored Division commanded by Major General Maurice Rose.
For readers unfamiliar with military unit organization, a field army, which may have 50,000 soldiers, is commanded by a 4-star general and is subdivided into corps, divisions, regiments, battalions, companies, platoons, and squads. A major general (2-star) commands a division, which can have 3 or more battalions. A battalion can have 300-1,000 men, with several companies.
A medical battalion, much smaller, is an organic part of the division, and is commanded by the battalion surgeon. The personnel consisted of the battalion surgeon (a captain), assistant surgeon, medical technicians, frontline medics, litter bearers, and drivers.
A battalion aid station, unlike a MASH unit as depicted in the TV series, provided the forwardmost medical treatment for frontline troops and could be as close as a quarter mile away in a tent or abandoned house. It isn’t surprising the Army awarded George the Combat Medical Badge for performing medical duties while being engaged by the enemy.
A battalion surgeon was not a rear-echelon position, particularly with a commanding general like Maurice Rose, who was known for his aggressive leadership style, giving personal orders to his commanders at the forward edge of the battle area.
By spring 1945, the 3rd Armored Division had spearheaded the First Army’s charge through Belgium and was the first unit to reach Germany. On March 30, 1945, General Rose rode in a jeep behind a tank at the front of a small convoy south of Paderborn, Germany, where they encountered gunfire and the lead tank was hit and destroyed.
Although newspaper accounts vary, evasive action failed and they were surrounded by German tanks. A German soldier emerged from a tank hatch barking commands that General Rose didn’t understand. As he unholstered his pistol to surrender, the German opened fire with a machine gun killing him.
George rode in an armored car directly behind General Rose’s jeep. Under the Geneva Convention rules, medical personnel as non-combatants were not issued firearms, and accordingly, were not legitimate targets. But when they were surrounded by German soldiers, an officer handed George a pistol and said, “They’re going to kill us all.”
Based on statements by General Rose’s aid, Major Robert Bellinger, the Carroll, Iowa, Times Herald reported “Bellinger and other officers and men in the armored car made a dash for freedom and escaped, making their way to headquarters hours later.”
In addition to the Combat Medical Badge, George received a Bronze Star and the European Theater Campaign Medal, with a battle star. Of the Bronze Star, an Iowa newspaper reported in 1945, “Captain Anstey . . . braved heavy enemy artillery, mortar, small arms and automatic weapon fire to care for and evacuate the wounded.”
George returned home to Catherine and a baby son and began an OB-GYN residency in St. Louis. Over the course of fifty years, he and Catherine raised four sons and one daughter, and Dr. Anstey maintained a successful medical practice delivering babies numbering in thousands. In 1970, he was elected president and chief of the Missouri Baptist Hospital medical staff. In 1975, he was certified as a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
But late in his retirement, Alzheimer’s disease dealt him a hard blow. Alzheimer’s disease, like a soul-sucking dementor in the Harry Potter books, robbed him of a brilliant mind, leaving him without the personal dignity of dressing or bathing himself.
Alzheimer’s is a thief, but not a back-alley stick-up artist operating in the shadows. It’s an embezzler—taking only a little at first—but cold and patient as it accumulates rogue proteins to form Beta-amyloid plaque in the brain.
When he couldn’t remember the combination to his locker at the golf club, it became difficult to discount other symptoms as mere age-related memory loss. He had used the same simple combination—0-0-0—for twenty years.
He began repeating an incident from his childhood, over and over. “You know, a horse fell on me and left me paralyzed for the summer . . ..”
As the disease progressed, relatives became unrecognizable to him. At a birthday party for his great grandson, he nudged me and nodded toward his oldest son. “See that bird over there—I think we’re related to him.” Perverse humor became a defense mechanism as family members repeated the story and laughed.
Humor also helped when embarrassing occurrences tried the patience of family caregivers. One day when Catherine was upstairs, George answered a phone call from a life-long friend. George told her there were rough-looking strangers in the house playing cards. Believing the fantasy to be true, the friend called the police, who showed up at the house, to the surprise and embarrassment of Catherine. It was as if he had become Elwood P. Dowd from the movie Harvey.
Occasionally technology produced lucid intervals that we clung to as signs of improvement. Using Google Earth on a laptop, I zoomed to the main street of his hometown. The images jump-started him to reality. He spoke with clarity of the businesses that had occupied the buildings, and the location of his home and neighbors. And on short road trips, with the car radio tuned to a 1940s station, he would smile and sing along with Bing Crosby or the Dorsey brothers. But these were short-lived miracles.
Eventually, most of his conversations replayed scenes from days past, with imaginary relatives. He often mistook his wife for his sister, who had died years before.
Still, from the legacy of his well-lived life, blessings occurred. Of the thousands of babies Dr. Anstey delivered, one became a priest, who, fittingly, presided at his funeral. To an overflow audience, Father Brown proclaimed, “Dr. Anstey delivered me into to this world, and now I get to deliver him into the next.”
In the end we triumph, understanding that the memory stolen by the disease can’t erase the memories he left behind. I never met a more honorable man.