RUTLAND — Dominic “Dick” Paul says World War II is never far from his mind.
“I don’t talk about it every day, but I think about it every day,” the 89-year-old said.
Paul found himself talking a great deal last week, following a reunion with an old Army buddy he had not seen in 68 years.
Paul and Philip McGonagle shipped out together and served in the 44th Field Hospital in Burma. Fast friends, they did not manage to get together again after the war until this month.
“When you don’t see a guy for 68 years, you don’t look like you used to,” quipped McGonagle, a Massachusetts native.
Paul, a Rutlander, was a pre-med student at UVM when his draft notice arrived early in 1943. Opting to become a surgical technician, Paul met McGonagle when they sailed from the East Coast for the Pacific.
Paul described the ship as so crowded that men slept on the deck so they would have room to roll over. Despite the crowding, he said morale was high. They all knew they were a part of something big, he said, and there was a great sense of camaraderie.
“You met these guys, you found you had a lot in common,” he said. “Everybody wants to know about everyone else and you start talking. Sometimes those talks go on for a long time.”
One month and one “nerve-wracking” submarine attack later, they were in Burma. While ostensibly in a non-combat role, Paul still found himself under fire a few times.
“One time we had two bombs dropped on us, but the plane attacking us was like a Piper Cub,” he said. “You didn’t feel threatened because we had Australian anti-aircraft units mounted around us.”
Another time, he and several fellow soldiers were spending the night at a house they had been sent to convert into a hospital building. They were indoors, but their lamps made them a target for a pair of Japanese pilots who decided to make a strafing run.
Paul said the whole group fled the house for a trench outside, escaping unharmed.
On another occasion, though, he was shot.
“I don’t know how it happened, but I can tell you what happened,” he said. “It was a very calm day. There was no evidence of any threat.”
It was early in the morning and Paul said he was walking along a footpath through the bamboo forest that held his tent, on his way to breakfast. As he neared a supply tent, he said he felt a painful jolt. A pharmacist beckoned him into the supply tent, looked him over and told him he was shot. He said the bullet hit him by the base of his spine.
Paul said he did not hear any shots fired — not even the one that hit him.
“I wasn’t panicked or anything,” he said. “I was still alive. I could talk coherently ... They operated on me — it was kind of painful because the anesthesia hadn’t taken over yet. I finally passed out. I guess I was hollering too much.”
When he came to, a friend greeted him with a joke about “getting the lead out.”
“They made me lay low for two weeks,” he said. “I didn’t suffer any particular pains — I wouldn’t sit down too fast. ... I had nothing to do except lay on a couch and read a book or something.”
Paul kept the bullet, and still has it in a box atop his dresser.
“I wanted it to remind me,” he said.
Paul said one of his main jobs as a surgical technician was to pass equipment to the surgeons, watching the operation closely enough to know what would be needed without being asked. The surgical tent was in a waist-deep pit surrounded by sandbags.
“Maybe people won’t like to hear this part of it,” he said. “The first casualties, several times, were Japanese who were captured or surrendered.”
Paul recalled the first one in a line of prisoners bowing to him.
“I didn’t know what to do so I bowed back to him,” he said. “I said, the war’s over for this guy — time to start making friends with him.”
Not everyone shared that attitude. Paul said he once heard a “ruckus” outside the surgical tent, accompanied by a lot of foul language. He said other American soldiers were demanding to kill the Japanese prisoners.
“The guys had been battling toe-to-toe in the jungle,” he said. “When they saw someone who had been trying to kill them treated nicely...”
In his spare time, Paul said he played sports, helped deliver babies for local women and even learned some Chinese, though only a few phrases. He saw Anne Sheridan at a USO show.
Returning home, Paul said he turned away from medicine. He said he had always liked working with children, and the war had convinced him that he wanted to “make a difference.” He thought he could do that better as a teacher than as a doctor.
A career in the Rutland City Schools saw Paul become a principal and eventually an assistant superintendent.
While Paul attended reunions of soldiers who served in Burma, he only ever managed to correspond with McGonagle.
“It was emotional, but not weepingly emotional,” Paul said of the reunion.
McGonagle, who now lives in Maine, said he used to correspond with a number of other Burma veterans, but the others had all died.
“He’s the only one left, “ McGonagle said of Paul.
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