Comments On The American Field Service
And The Middle East


Stuart Benson

[March 1942]

I was not in the American Field Service in the last war. But I heard a lot of things about it --- grand things. And I heard a lot more after I got over to France in the AEF in 1917. For I was attached to the French Armies most of the time. And they had great tales of what the Field Service had done.

More than 2500 went over. They drove 31 sections of ambulances ---20 cars to a section --- ambulances bought and maintained by generous friends of France here in America. They carried back from under fire over 600,000 Allied wounded. 127 were killed in action. 236 were decorated --- some several times.

That was all before the AEF took over --- absorbed the Service---but let it maintain its identity as a unit serving with the French.

The story remained in the back of my mind until twenty years later. I had been living and working in France for some years. War was a sure bet the summer of 1939. I tried to get into the French Army. But there was an age limit even in this last, ill-fated French Army --- believe it or not.

So I came back home --- on a hunch that the American Field Service would be revived. It was. They let me in. I was one of the lucky ones --- or unlucky as you look at it --- one of the 37 in Section I who set out from Paris for Beauvais on May 18, 1940.

Most of the men were very young ---just kids. Even with me along the average was below par. We were a green lot. We had never driven in complete convoy before. Thirty-six hours later we were driving through blazing Amiens --- under full air and tank attack.

I don't believe any of those youngsters had ever been up against anything more dangerous than a run around left end ---with interference.

Yet they behaved with all the calm judgement and decision of veterans.

They picked up their wounded to the accompaniment of the scream and explosion of bombs --- the crash of falling buildings. Walls of the hospital collapsed while they were evacuating it. Their ambulances were machine gunned. And they never turned a hair.

We didn't have much repose during the next few weeks --- with Beauvais under almost continuous bombardment. Most of our lying down was in the daytime ---on our bellies --- each ambulance driven hurriedly off the road under the nearest tree ---each driver flat beside it, peeking up at the sky from under his tin hat --- hoping the next bomb didn't have his name on it.

We worked even harder at night --- nearly every night---and all night --- till daybreak. There isn't much of a letup when you carry 12,000 casualties in less than a month --- with 20 ambulances.

The closing days of that Section are an old story now --- a very sad story --- a small part of the great sad story of France. As all France was forced back we were forced back --- to Corbeil-Cerf --- and then to Montmorency --- and then across the Seine--- and to the Spanish border. Then home.

There are a lot, of things I'm not going to forget.

I'm not going to forget a little 8-year-old girl in a small village, between Amiens and Beauvais. She and her playmates crouched under a tree for shelter when the Boche planes came over. Her companions were killed. Her parents and all but a few of the villagers fled, leaving her for dead also. She lay for 48 hours unconscious, with a head wound without treatment. I picked her up. When we were lifting her out of the ambulance she showed the first signs of life, Her arm fell across mine and her fingers pressed my hand --- feebly. The surgeon said she might live.

I shan't forget that long pitiful line of refugees. Endless. Afoot and in every fantastic kind of conveyance. Bicycles, hayricks, ancient automobiles, perambulators, donkey carts. Dodging for cover when enemy planes appeared. Their lines thinned for a moment by the explosion of a bomb --- sprays of machine-gun fire. Then closing up again.

I shan't forget a little hamlet where there was no living creature left --- except the cats, a dog or two, some pigs and chickens. All humans had deserted --- to swell the stream of refugees---frightened away by long-planted fifth columnists ---to clog the roads---and make it next to impossible for reinforcements to advance.

I shan't forget skies black with enemy planes and not a single friendly fighter in sight to dispute with them.

They are not pleasant memories. But I treasure them .... I don't want to forget them --- until this monstrous force that is devouring the earth bit by bit is crushed for good and all.

Well, there was no more France. The American Field Service was up a tree. We had money and men --- and nowhere to go. We offered our services to England. She didn't want drivers. We sent her ambulances and mobile hospital units --- some to Greece also --- about 200 in all.

Then things began to change.

A group of American Field Service men went to Syria, to drive for the Hadfield Spears Hospital Unit. It was tough going, that Syrian Campaign --- but they took it in their stride.

They slept on the ground besides their trucks and rolled under them as soon as they heard the planes overhead. They were far from civilization on a desert plateau, without any contact with the outside world. There only news came in the form of rumours, which circulated around camp like wild fire. According to these reports Damascus was forever falling and the Australians had taken Beyrouth many times over.

One particular evening the rain of bombs was specially heavy. They fell on the railroad station. They hit the hospital train as it was leaving. They set the munition dump on fire. It looked like the prelude to a major attack. Two of the men erected a pup tent, with a piece of canvas which had been badly machine-gunned. They settled down for the night fully expecting to be dead or captured in the morning; they enjoyed what they believed to be their last cigarette. But they fell asleep, and were awakened by the arrival of reinforcements from Iraq, and the RAF from the Trans Jordan. At dawn large numbers of wounded started pouring in, those who had been in the bitter fighting on the road to Damascus. In the course of the day they buried the dead... There where the heat and sun are such a factor, a wounded man cannot "keep" long in the open. Even if it doesn't kill him on the spot, the after effects of exposure are often irreparable . . . ambulances were absolutely essential. The Free French needed all what the help they could get, They do now. If what they receive is not perfect they will still make good use of it. They have grown used to being stepchildren.

There wasn't only the menace of the enemy armies to contend with. There was always the danger of being sniped at by hostile natives. There was then and there is now. In Palestine as well as Syria. The mixture is too thick. Jews are at the throat of Arabs. Moslems ready to stab Christians in the back. And vice versa. And many of them unfriendly to the Allies ---egged on by a very well developed Fifth Column.

This holds true also in Egypt. The Italian and German influence is strong there. It is adept at undercover work. Demonstrations are not infrequent in the open And in isolated areas it is not safe to be caught alone.

All of which does not simplify the Middle East problem.

General Wavell heard of the splendid work the American Field Service was doing in Syria. He was then Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in the Middle East. He wrote to Stephen Galatti, Director General of the American Field Service, and asked that three companies of men and ambulances be sent over. The War Office in London confirmed the demand. Our State and War Departments approved.

Ambulances were shipped at once. They arrived in the Middle East just before the first contingent of men sailed, last November.

There were just a hundred of us --- from 24 states of the Union---40 American universities were represented --- 4 European universities --- 36 professions or vocations.

We got news of Japan's attack by ship's radio. Two days later Colonel Richmond and I got off at a certain port and were flown to Cairo to have things ready for the men. They were to continue on the boat and arrive in a few weeks. They didn't get there till two months later.

Why? One does not ask questions in war zones.

The British did everything to help us. All along the line from headquarters to the front. Perfect cooperation. Among other things they cheerfully shattered one of their pet traditions.

The British Army is pretty cut and dried. The dividing line between ranks is well-defined. Officers, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers do not mix, socially. And British ambulance drivers are privates --- even corporals are not allowed to drive except in an emergency.

Everything was set when the men arrived,

We met them at the boat. They disembarked, stood at attention in formation. We had been worried about the demoralizing effect of those extra weeks of waiting. We needn't have been. They were a clean-cut, healthy, cheerful lot --- and their morale was splendid. A fine tribute to the calibre of the men and to Captain Jimmy King's leadership --- ably aided by Lieutenant Andy Geer, our two-fisted novelist, once a sparring partner of Jack Dempsey.

The men were whisked off in trucks to a mobilization centre. The British had a hot meal ready for them --- at 1:30 AM. The next morning they were supplied with battle dress, tin hats, gas masks and other equipment For the next week they were given extensive training and set on the road to being desert-worthy.

Then I took them up to Syria. Or rather Captain Jimmy King took them. It was his company. I went along as excess baggage as I'd been there before to break ground.

A few days ago we received a letter from Jimmy King. He tells the story of that trek across the Sinai desert and up to our destination better than I could. Here is a paragraph from his letter:

"At the mobilization centre, a young officer was attached to us as instructor and he put us through a rush training which included army routine, driving and maintenance of all sorts of vehicles, map-reading, prismatic and sun compass navigation, convoy discipline and road regulations. The result of this was that our first convoy was worthy of .a crack mechanized regiment. We left punctually on the dot, arrived at all staging points ahead of time, fixed up all sorts of break-downs with efficiency, complied with all regulations and looked pretty damned snappy into the bargain. This showed up for the first time the quality of our men because I believe that to have trained the ordinary type of soldier up to such proficiency would have taken several months. The motor cyclists, especially Hoffman, Latham, Field and Thomas, acting as M.P.'s and advance parties, were perfect. The mechanics (most of them trained on the boat and at the Mob centre) had everything under control and the whole journey was a sort of parade .with passers-by staring at us and practically breaking out into a chorus of 'The Star Spangled Banner'."

There were 13 motor cycles in the convoy, besides trucks, ambulances, and staff cars. Only four of them had ever ridden motorcycles before . If they were saddle-weary at the end of the first day's run no one knew of it. They were grinning. And 210 miles is something on a motorbike .

I have seen a lot of convoys, but never anything like this one.

Every escort sent out to meet us at crucial points said the same thing --- that this was the only convoy in Middle east history arrive on scheduled time

500 miles on the dot! And no one else had done it. Not at all bad for a lot of fellows who had never tackled such a job before!

As Jimmy writes, "Through Palestine the natives were agape as we passed. Americans!"

In Syria the excitement was more intense. They cheered as we went by and crowded around us at every stop. One of our chaps had a haircut at. the end of the jaunt --- and the barber wouldn't let him pay for it. Now when a Syrian won't take money!

We were under tents in a transit camp for a few days ---then the men were sent out to their posts ---scattered all over Syria. Six of them were sent off to a city in the Middle of Syria. An hour later, the jubilant rumour was wide spread that four hundred American troops had entered that city. The consul-general in Beirut told us about it gleefully that evening. "Fine stuff," he said. "Just what we need. That will seep all through the country and up into Turkey, I hope. Will you have any men on the Turkish border?" "They're there now," Jimmy replied.

I wouldn't be surprised if that mythical 400 had by this time become an armoured division.

Americans! Aside from their own proper work, those two sections of the first company of the American Field Service have already earned their salt ---in good will and propaganda. Americans mean something very big and very real in Syria and in all the Middle East.

And how they are needed there!

The Middle east Command extends from Libya in the West to the borders of Iran and India in the East ---a distance of more than 2,000 miles; also from the Turco-Syrian frontier in the North to the Southern Sudan, again more than 2,000 miles.

The Command also includes Cyprus and Aden.

The war in Libya is a war of exhaustion --- there may never be a decisive victory.

Lieutenant Alan Stuyvesant is up there leading a Section of the American Field Service --- attached to the Free French. Doing a magnificent job. When I found him, near Tobruk, he was having a thin time.

Courses have to be plotted there with map and compass ---trails found which make the best going for the patients --- and then "blazed so they can be refound. The going is rough --- it is pretty tough on the poor wounded --- and the cars.

You run up against dust storms which get so thick that you cannot see your own radiators and have no idea where the sun should be coming from. Not only are they bad at the time, but they cover up any trail you might have had. Then a bunch of trucks makes a new trail near enough to the general direction, that it looks like the old one. And off you go at a wrong angle. So its pretty easy to get lost.

The first time Alan went out to "blaze" a trail by compass in this district he hit his objective alright. But, coming back, fairly late, he missed his point by half a mile --- went too far, and returning ran head on into his own Infantry Outpost; as he was coming from the enemy direction he had to do a lot of explaining --- plus his identity card and passport. Now such an error would be impossible as he would probably hit a newly laid mine in the process.

There had been severe air activity --- and many casualties. But Alan's crowd had been lucky so far.

But that's the sort of thing one expects --- no kick coming there. His real trouble was drivers. That situation was critical. Some of his drivers had been transferred --- two had been wounded and invalided home, his brother, Lewis, and young Knowlton, who by the way were decorated with the Croix de Guerre before they left. He had to borrow from the French. They could spare but a fraction of what he needed and that fraction! He drew a bunch from the Foreign Legion ---a pretty sketchy lot --- 2 red Spaniards, 2 red Mexicans, 2 Arabs, 1 Persian, 1 American, 1 Belgian, a Frenchman and an Abyssian

All of them could drive a car after a fashion --- none knew how to grease one --- only one out of two could be relied on.

He was moving camp. We had to call on the cooks, an army clerk, and some French officers to help.

Half of his ambulances were kept on duty and the other half a few miles back scattered about --- lack of drivers.

One of the Mexicans was sent out. with two very bad cases. He got lost --- had motor trouble - took 12 hours to go where he should have gone in 2 --- and one of the patients died.

He has been promised the drivers--- his full quota.

Back at headquarters, I was just getting ready to pilot them out to him when a cable came from New York, ordering me to fly back here.

And that seems the story of my life to date. Someone else took the men to Tobruk and I'm over here to talk about the Field Service.

Here is our story. We need more men and we need more money. Nearly 200 men had already arrived in the Middle East before I left. 100 more were on the way and may have got there by this time. 150 others have been accepted and are waiting here for transportation. We need 400 on top of that --- men from 18 to 40 --- even up to 50 if they are in good physical shape.

The men are a picked lot --- vetted by ourselves, by the State Department and the FBI, before acceptance. The Selective Service Board cooperates with us. In the majority of cases they grant deferment to men who are under the lA class, and even some of the lA men. And we are permitted to accept men who have been turned down by other branches of service --- for minor physical defects. The American Field Service gives such fellows a chance to serve in action ---instead of having to fight the war behind a desk.

The American Field Service is the only recognized organization supplying complete ambulance service. When America entered the war, the War Department cabled our men in the Middle East to stick on---that they were doing their country the finest service they could at the moment ---that when they were needed for other service they would be called upon and would be able to enlist on the spot. The experiences they are getting there will be of inestimable value. You don't see real warfare in a training camp. The ambulance driver has a front row seat behind his steering wheel.

As to money, we need $300,000. 260 ambulances are now in the Middle East. We must have 40 more. We want 2 flying ambulances. Hours saved ---even minutes--- are important with stomach and chest wounds. We want to create a fund that will permit us to give each driver 50 cents a day allowance.

A number of boys, in their enthusiasm, scraped together enough cash to buy their outfits. But they had nothing left for tooth paste and cigarettes and so forth.

We've lost between 200 and 300 good men in the past few months.

They had to withdraw their applications because of lack of funds.

It's too bad.

Because they don't have to have very much. Transportation is paid for, over and back by the British --- who also furnish food and lodging.

But a driver is supposed to pay for his own equipment ---$150.

And he should have a minimum of $20 a month for spending money or $240 a year.

Some of the boys have found sponsors. Anyone who wants to can sponsor a man for a year for $390. It's a fine thing to do.

In New York, one woman, who had previously given an ambulance, said she wanted to do a complete job and send a man to drive her car. Many others have followed suit. I met a man on the train. He didn't know anything about the Field Service. 1 told him. He said, "I haven't got a son to send. I'll send another boy instead." And he gave me a check for $390.

And while we're talking figures, $2,000 will purchase an ambulance, fully equipped, which will bear the name of the donor. Needless to say, such donations are deductible from income taxes.

The American Field Service operates on a shoe string. Its overhead operating expenses are just about the low record for charitable organizations --- less than 6%. 94% of money received goes into the Field. The Commonwealth Fund and the Cincinnati War Chest look into finances pretty carefully. They knew what they were about when the one gave us $25,000 and the other $5,000.

Well, that's that!

We must have 400 volunteers and $300,000!

The first thing a man is asked when he comes back from a War Zone is what is going to happen. A fat lot he knows about it. Probably less than you do here.

Anything can happen in the Middle East. It's anybody's guess. And everybody is guessing.

One self-constituted authority told me the British could take Rommel whenever they wanted. That statement was slightly discounted when the news came a few days later that Rommel was in the Balkans. Another stated that the Germans could march into Cairo at any time. A third that the Libyan show would end in a stalemate.

Take your choice.

The Beirut papers were full of prophesies that the Nazi attack through Turkey and Syria might be expected any day.

Will Hitler try this?

Will he make it a pincer movement on Suez by a simultaneous thrust from Libya?

Or will he make his push through the Caucasus?

When I got back to America I was shocked at the criticism of the British that is being whispered about ---selfishness---inefficiency--- lying down on the job ---the ghastly fiasco of Singapore.

I've worked with the British. I have encountered nothing but gratitude for our help. I have never seen higher efficiency considering the tools they have to work with. As to lying down on the job, no one can question their steadfastness ---which for a year saved our necks.

It must be admitted that Singapore was a pretty bad show but I haven't heard we're pinning any roses on ourselves about Pearl Harbor.

Anyway for good or for bad, we're with Britain and Britain is with us--- to the finish. Between us we've got a lot of faults --- and a lot of virtues. Let's forget the faults and pool the virtues.

The main difference between an ambulance driver and a soldier is that one is saving lives and the other is destroying them. And saving is almost as important ---for men can be patched up and sent back again to fight.

As the Service grew, the need of a larger HQ establishment was more and more acutely felt. Colonel Richmond and Major Benson had set up the AFS Headquarters within the perimeter of GHQ MEF in Cairo in December 1941, Major Benson doing the typing for Colonel Richmond as well as attending to his own field of Public Relations. When Unit 1 arrived in early February 1942, a typist was finally hired---the memorable Mrs. Essie Berkovsky, who remained with the Field Service as long as it had an office in the Middle East. In early March, Major Benson was recalled to the United States to make a fund-raising lecture tour (organized and underwritten by J. H. McFadden, Jr.), (George Rock, History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955).