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A Tribute To My Grandfather, One Hero Amongst Many

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  • A Tribute To My Grandfather, One Hero Amongst Many

    I wanted to write to you all today to report that my grandfather, Lawrence G. Schaeferle, MD, - popularly known as “Doc” to friends, family, and his patients - who had spent the last 70 years living in Gladbrook, Iowa, passed away three weeks ago at the age of 100. I was planning on writing this sooner, but travel and computer problems kept me from being able to do so before now.

    The reason I saw fit to post about my late grandfather was that, like many of his generation, Doc was a true hero who never sought the limelight. And like many of our late veterans of past conflicts he has passed on from this world to be sustained by the memories of those who knew and loved him. I thought it was only fitting to offer my own impressions and memories of a man who did so much for his fellow man.

    Lawrence G. Schaeferle, MD

    Lawrence “Doc” Schaeferle was not my grandfather by blood, but he was as beloved as any man could be. Born in 1912 in Havelock, Iowa, Doc was a big man when he reached adulthood: over six feet tall and 200 pounds. But he had a deep desire to help those in need. He managed to obtain enrollment at Cornell College in Mt Vernon Iowa for his undergraduate degree, followed by the University of Iowa seeking to become a doctor, a path his younger brother Martin would follow as well. He graduated in 1936.

    But the threat of war loomed, and Doc joined the 32nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in May of 1941, where he would serve for the next four years of his life. There the men would jokingly call the 29 year old doctor “old man” when he was just a decade their senior. Initially a 1st Lieutenant and Medical Officer, General Surgery, he was eventually promoted and from 1943 to 1945 he was a Captain and Battalion Surgeon. Doc saw served with the 1st Infantry Division throughout all of its campaigns and the small town doctor found himself walking in the footsteps of history as he travelled over Africa and Europe.

    And for four years Doc saw the worst of that war. He was not an infantryman fighting from a foxhole. He was not a medic dashing through enemy fire to tend to the wounded. He was a surgeon whose world became one of pain and blood and death. During those four long years his war was one of an unending tide of shattered and maimed young men depending upon him to save their lives. Doc only saw the worst that war had to offer – it was his face reflected in the eyes of the dying as he tried to mend the broken. Victory or defeat, he was left to deal with the bloody detritus of war: amputations and gunshots, seeping wounds and gangrenous infections, life and death.

    It is no wonder then that he rarely spoke of what he saw during those four years. Around a decade ago I was a young lad and, at a family fathering with my father nearby, I asked Doc about his service in the war. He sat me down and told me two stories that I thought I might share with you.

    He first told me about an event that occurred during the Normandy invasion. He and his assistant were seated in his jeep waiting to land ashore when the battalion commander came up to him and commandeered his vehicle. Thus Doc was forced to stand aside carrying medical gear until the landing craft hit land and came to a stop. When the ramp came down the jeep sped down the ramp – and promptly disappeared with a splash. A few seconds later the major and his aide came bobbing to the surface sputtering indignantly and scrambled back onto the landing craft. Where the landing craft had hit there was a large depression fourteen feet deep just off the ramp that the jeep had driven off into!

    The second story he related to me was one later during the fighting in the bocage. He was in a French field surrounded by tall hedgerows when artillery shells started landing around him, the bursts of flame and shrapnel coming closer and closer. Running from the approaching artillery Doc leapt up and over a hedge to the other side where he managed to dive into a foxhole. When he went back to the field later he was stunned to find that the hedge he remembered clearing so quickly was twice his height – around ten to twelve feet in height. My grandfather had told me that he had been running on adrenaline that he had managed a feat that seemed impossible in retrospect.

    To someone such as I, even just serving as he did very much seemed an impossible feat in retrospect.

    After he had told me these two stories I had wandered away to get some food when my father approached me and said that in decades he had known his stepfather that that was the most Doc had ever talked about the war. Those two stories – one comedic, one full of awe – were the only glimpse into that terribly conflict he had ever given to his step-son during forty years.

    Doc was a humble man; for years the only reminder that he had served was a small and nondescript case hanging on the wall with his medals within, a small layer of dust atop the frame. “Doc” Schaeferle was a hero even though he would never claim nor think of himself in such terms. Unlike many soldiers who were as equally brave he was given some small recognition for his actions and earned a Bronze Star on the Beaches of Normandy. I have the official citation for the medal here:

    For those who might not be able to see the picture, here is the citation's text:

    Detachment, 32nd Field Artillery Battalion. For heroic
    achievement in connection with military operations against
    the enemy in the vicinity of St. Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy,
    France, 6 June, 1944. Although subjected to heavy enemy
    fire, Capt. Schaeferle remained on exposed beach, administering
    first aid and assisting in evacuation of the seriously
    wounded. His heroic devotion to duty saved many lives.

    That small paragraph was one of the few details about his experiences available for many years after the war. He had told me a story about the landing at Normandy and made it into a humorous tale about the battalion commander driving his jeep into a deep runnel. But that was only his first few minutes upon Omaha Beach, and it was all he mentioned about one of the most momentous and harrowing events in United States military history.

    At first I had assumed he had told the story comically because he didn't want to tell his grandchild a horrible story about the realities of war, which was certainly part of his intent. But it wasn't just me he was sparing; he was also protecting himself. He didn’t want to mention anything about the rest of the invasion because he didn’t want to dwell upon it. Those first minute was a moment of peace before the storm – a joke during a moment of nervous tension before everything else was crushed by fear, terror and desperation. At that moment there were no severed limbs to reattach or organs to push back inside torn bellies. He didn’t have soldiers calling out for mothers, loved ones, God, or simple release from the pain. He remembered the story because then he as long as he remembered it then he didn’t have to remember moving along the rows of bloody wounded passing judgment upon those who could be saved and those who had no hope. And I believe that it was that burden of command that truly haunted him – when he had needed to give orders that consigned men to die so that others could live.

    That burden is something that is impossible to truly grasp for someone like me, and I hope that I never have to experience needing to make such a decision in my lifetime.

    He agreed to a few interviews with local media sources every now and again, and I have here an excerpt from one such source where he gives a greater account of his experiences on Omaha Beach. I’ve quoted it here, bu fixed one small problem where the article mentions 16th / 18th Infantry Divisions rather than Regiments.

    Originally posted by Charlotte Sun Newspaper
    Doc Schaeferle landed at Easy Red on Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the second hour of the invasion. Before the beach at Normandy was secured 175,000 Allied troops would attack Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.” The doctor served with the 32nd Field Artillery Battalion attached to the 1st Infantry Division – “The Big Red 1.”

    “I was scared as our ship approached the beach. I knew it was gonna be tough and I had a wife and children back home. I imagine I was saying some prayers,” the 98-year-old retired family physician from Garwin, Iowa, who winters at La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Fla. said.

    Their landing craft grounded on a bar just off the beach.

    “Our battalion commander was first to drive off the ship’s ramp in his staff vehicle into 14 feet of water,” Schaeferle said. It went to the bottom and the colonel popped to the surface and scrambled back onto the ramp. The second time he tried it in another vehicle he was successful.

    “We came down the ramp with our Jeep and trailer. By then the landing craft was closer to shore. We made it without incident. A German tank was sitting on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach, its gun pointed right at us,” Schaeferle said. “An American destroyer, (running parallel to the beach just off shore), spotted the tank on the hill and fired at it. Wake from the destroyer rolled up on the beach, swamped us and tipped over our Jeep and trailer. Most of my medical supplies were lost.”

    The doctor found a three-foot deep trench on the beach dug by the Germans before the Americans arrived. It provided him protective cover from enemy fire while treating wounded soldiers. His job: Operate a front line aid station.

    “While working on wounded soldiers in the trench about all I could do was stop the bleeding, give them a shot of morphine, bandage ‘em up and send them on by stretcher bearer to waiting LCTs (landing craft) that would take them to a hospital ship off shore,” he explained. “The use of a doctor to run an aid station up front was a waste. As a captain, I was over-qualified for the work I was doing. A medic could have done what I did.

    “While the war went on all around me on Omaha Beach I worked on the wounded. I wasn’t worried about what was happening on the beach. I concentrated on trying to save soldiers’ lives in the slit trench with me. I did everything I could to stop the bleeding and keep them alive. The hell with the enemy fire,” he said.

    The 16th Infantry Regiment was the first American unit to land on Omaha Beach. It was followed an hour later by the 18th Regiment, according to the doctor.

    “The 16th wasn’t on there long before Col. Taylor, the division commander, told his men, ’You have to get off this beach or you’ll all die.’ He pointed toward the 100-foot hill towering over the beach. The colonel led them to the top single file.,” Schaeferle said. “Because the beach was mined the soldier behind their leader tried to step in his foot prints going up the hill. They cleared a path through the enemy barbed wire and mines with Bangalore Torpedoes (an explosive device that opened the way for them).

    “A German machine-gun nest at the top of the hill was sweeping the beach with gun fire. Naval guns were called in to take out the enemy machine-gun emplacement.

    “Many of those soldiers sacrificed themselves so the 16th Regiment could reach the top of that hill. There were a lot of soldiers who should have received Medals of Honor on the beach that day but didn’t,” the doctor said with tears in his eyes recalling their bravery 65 years later.

    When Schaeferle got to the top of the hill overlooking Omaha Beach he found a burned out farm house he converted to an aid station. For the next few days the physician worked out of the battered home as Allied forces pushed the Germans off the beach and further inland.

    This link here goes to the complete article which also covers the rest of the events beyond Normandy.

    The only other story I ever heard in person about my grandfather’s experiences in the war was one about when he met his brother Martin that December in the forests of the Ardennes. Martin was a Major or Lt. Colonel in the 9th Armored Division and, like Doc, was a medical officer. On that day in early December they drove to meet, not having seen each other for almost four years. They met in a quiet sector where there was little activity. Embracing one another they spent some time talking and catching up before they had to once again depart, driving back off in their jeeps.

    But what they hadn’t known is that Martin had managed to drive straight through the German lines in the area and hadn’t known it. Both men had been much closer to the German front lines – possibly even behind then to some degree – without being aware until later.

    Years after the war when Doc was taking part in a meeting between German and American veterans of the Battle of the Bulge he met up with one of the German soldiers. When talking about how he had met his brother near the lines where the offensive was launched the German confessed he had seen such a meeting taking place – two medical officers who met and talked for a while in a field a distance away. The German had been a sniper and had watched the two men clearly, but at that time the German soldiers had been under orders not to engage the Americans because they wanted to catch the Americans completely off guard.

    Only days after their meeting the Germans launched their offensive.

    Doc served with distinction throughout the war and by the time his military service was over (both in the Army and in the Reserves) he had obtained the rank of major. At the end of the conflict Doc had been present every major battle that the 1st Infantry Division took part in. He was involved in campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. He had served on the beaches of Omaha, in the forests of the Hürtgen, and in the snow of the Ardennes. Doc is responsible for saving many hundreds of lives personally, yet he would be the first to tell you he was no hero and that he was doing just what thousands of other young American men were doing all over the world at that time.

    He had seen the world and witnesses things few could understand, only to return to the small farming community of Gladbrook. To this day Gladbrook has less than a thousand people living in it and just about defines small town. There Doc would set up a practice that would last for half a century until he retired. Doc was the sort of man who would set a farmers broken arm or reattached lost fingers and often get repaid in chicken dinners. Even the small road he lived on was renamed 'Doc’s Drive' decades ago by the people there. After his passing my father and his siblings were touched by the outpouring of support for Doc’s family as men and women retold stories about their memories and experiences with a man who had delivered the vast majority of many high school graduating classes.

    Doc lived a full life; in retirement he and my grandmother would shuffle between Florida in the winter and Iowa in the summer, and even when he passed a hundred he still retained his mental faculties. He finally passed in his sleep on August 7th, 2012. He had been bedridden for the previous few days fighting an infection and an injury sustained in a fall. At the time there had been a nurse watching over him at his home. Late in the evening she heard a commotion in his room and rushed to his room.

    There she saw Doc – a hundred years of age, sedated and suffering from a broken rib – sit upright in bed and start give orders to the phantoms only he could see, telling them to set up equipment here and shift gear over there before he lapsed back into silence, finally passing a little while later. Doc’s mind had returned to those days in the service when he had given four years of himself to serve his country and do what he could for the men who had served beside him. Even as he finally gave up his life Doc’s thoughts were focused not upon himself, but on getting his medical detachment ready that he might do what he could for those that needed him the most.

    Major Lawrence “Doc” Schaeferle, MD, was a hero to the end.

  • #2
    And before I finish, just one of the letters published by locals in memory of Doc.

    Originally posted by Letter to the Editor-Christmas With Doc Schaeferle
    Christmas With Doc Schaeferle I was a freshman in high school, all of 14. Maybe the kid in me made it unable to sleep. I went downstairs way early and stretched out on the living room sofa, the smell of the Christmas tree filled the air. An hour later I woke up and jumped up to wake everyone. I got dizzy and bashed my head on a doorway. The folks were not happy to see me trailing blood and water from an improvised ice pack. Mother looked at the wound and directed father to take me to see Dr. Lawrence G. Schaeferle, on Christmas morning, before 8 a.m. I was sullen and silent on the ride, wondering how I could be so stupid. But when we got to Doc’s he had a good natured joke and a little ribbing to lift my spirits. Doc Schaeferle had been my doctor for the entire 14 years of my life. I remember the tootsie rolls in the waiting room. Anyway, eleven stitches and few more jokes and I was good as new. We opened presents at the usual time. I don’t think my kid sister even knew it happened. We were certainly blessed to have a doctor like Doc Schaeferle. Back in 1970 small towns were losing such community gems at an alarming rate. Gladbrook was pretty lucky. Doc was a throwback to an age when every community had a wizened old general practitioner like Jimmy Stewart in “The Shootist” or Burt Lancaster in “Field of Dreams”. One of the most succinct dialogue of the latter movie was when Lancaster tells Kevin Costner, “it wasn’t a tragedy that I didn’t play baseball, the tragedy would have been if I couldn’t have been a doctor in my community.” Here’s how I’ll remember Doc Schaeferle. On of the smartest, most decent men I’ve had the privilege to know. A pillar of the community. A credit to his profession and a good friend to most everyone in Gladbrook, particularly if you liked to drown worms at Union Grove or catch high school football games. I’m pretty sure anyone over the age of 40 probably has a fond remembrance of Doc. Back to the times when every community had a doctor, dentist, pharmacist (remember the Rexall Drug Store). I hope everyone takes a little time to think back when their lives and home were a little better, a little safer, to those growing up in Happy Creek.
    Kirk R. Dahms Gladbrook, Iowa
    Northern Sun Print - Article Link


    • #3
      I salute "Doc" Schaeferle's service.

      May he Rest In Peace.


      • #4
        Rest in peace, doc.
        "I have never known a combat soldier who did not show a residue of war." --Sergeant Ed Stewart, 84th Division, US Army, WWII


        • #5
          I recently lost my Grandfather at the age of 96.

          Dave Stuart spent WW2 in the Military Police and claimed that the only casualty he caused was when he knocked down a Padre (who escaped with minor bruising) on his motorbike.

          He never spoke about being one of the last to leave Dunkirk, his return on D-Day +1 or the Military Medal he kept at the back of a drawer, just devoting his time to his grandchildren and his garden - after retirement he took to, 'Helpin' the Auld Fowk,' (most of whom were younger than him) with their gardens too.

          A generation of heroes is now dwindling, but their memory will never fade, so to your grandfather, mine and countless others...

          Indyref2 - still, "Yes."


          • #6


            • #7
              To both Gentlemen. May God Bless them and their families and friends. May they never be forgotten.
              Eagles may fly; but weasels aren't sucked into jet engines!

              "I'm not expendable; I'm not stupid and I'm not going." - Kerr Avon, Blake's 7

              What didn't kill us; didn't make us smarter.


              • #8
                RIP Doc.
                ALL LIVES SPLATTER!

                BLACK JEEPS MATTER!



                • #9
                  Asgard and the halls of Valhalla truly exist for gentlemen such as these

                  ‘Tis said his form is tiny, yet
                  All human ills he can subdue,
                  Or with a bauble or medal
                  Can win mans heart for you;
                  And many a blessing know to stew
                  To make a megloamaniac bright;
                  Give honour to the dainty Corse,
                  The Pixie is a little shite.


                  • #10


                    When we speak of "The Greatest Generation", we are speaking of Heros like Doc.

                    @DoD, belated condolences. Your grandfather was a true hero and a Great American.
                    Flag: USA / Location: West Coast






                    • #11
                      Just from what I have read here, I think that you were blessed by an angel in the form of your grandfather - like figure. I am very sorry to hear that he is gone. I like to sit and watch the wind move the tree branches and think that my father, other family and fellow vets who have passed, are the motions moving those branches and leaves.

                      May you have peace and never forget how much this man cared for you.

                      "War is hell, but actual combat is a motherf#cker"
                      - Col. David Hackworth


                      • #12
                        Where do they find these men............


                        • #13

                          DOD. Your grandfather was a heck of a man. We won't probably see his like again.
                          My grandfather just turned 102 and he was in WWII. If I lost him, I do not know what I'd do. He has been my hero my entire life.
                          Our family's condolences and love to you. Doc was a remarkable man.
                          Kirk and Callie and Family
                          This bass guitar kills TERRORISTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


                          • #14
                            My family's condolences as well.

                            RIP "Doc" -
                            Any metaphor will tear if stretched over too much reality.

                            Questions about our site? See the FAQ.


                            • #15

                              My sincerest thanks for his sacrifice and service.


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