A WWII Vet Shares War Stories and Describes the Need for Blood Donations

William Gilliam and Capt. Paul Ambrose, Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center officer-in-charge, enjoy a laugh at the donor center’s open house reception Oct. 9.
William Gilliam and Capt. Paul Ambrose, Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center officer-in-charge, enjoy a laugh at the donor center’s open house reception Oct. 9.

December 16, 1944, Adolph Hitler’s army ambushed the Allied armies and attempted to split them and gain an advantage during the WWII. The ambush occurred in a heavily forested area of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. This ambush lasted until January 25, 1945.

All three groups, The Germans, French, and Allies, called the battle by a different name. Modern day reporters simply dubbed the battle “Battle of the Bulge”. This term is used to describe the way the the allied forces bulged inward on the wartime maps.

Based on historical accounts, the ambush caught the Allies completely by surprise and because of such, it was one of the deadliest battles for the United States. Nearly 19,000 American soldiers died in that battle. William Gilliam, who was 19 at the time, was one of the 89,000 American soldiers who was injured. Gilliam was a gunner on the head American tank headed toward making history.

“Our mission was to cut off the German’s lead convoy coming across Belguim,” Gilliam said in an interview held after the Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center’s Open House Oct. 9. “We were headed to meet Gen. Patton coming from the south.”

Gilliam told a story about an event that took place on January 2, 1945. He recalls that he and his five-man tank crew was assigned to the 2nd Armor Division, bedded down in a trench that another tank with a blade dug for them. The lieutenant had his men put out mines to keep the German soldiers away during the night.

When Gilliam and his crew vacated the area, they saw movement in the brush. It was the Germans. They attacked Gilliam’s troop. A bazooka round collided with his tank and tore off the turret, seriously injured him.

“That was the first time I ever fired a 75 mm gun,” Gilliam tells the Guidon, “The driver pulled me out of danger; he died a couple of days later from his injuries.”

Gilliam sadly recalls that he was the only survivor of that attack.

When the ambush was over and all the dust had cleared, the Americans were the victors!

“If we hadn’t successfully cut off that convoy, the German army would have cut the Allied armies in two and the result of the war could have come out very differently,” Gilliam said. “They were only three miles from their final destination when we engaged them.”

The ambush left Gilliam with shrapnel in his body–his knee, shoulder, and back. He had a severe laceration on his arm and he had difficulty moving it. He had to wear a cast on that arm for two years. Even today, he has shrapnel still in his body.

“I was injured pretty bad and required a lot of blood at the hospital,” said Gilliam, who today is nearing his ninth decade of life. “We didn’t have medics back in those days, so they had to carry me off the battlefield on the back of a tank. When I reached the field hospital, they took me to further care on the back of a jeep.

“When I finally made it to the regional hospital, I had so many holes in my left shoulder that the doctors kept a pad soaked with penicillin on it rather than wrapping it up.”

It was only 60 years ago that the Armed Services Blood Program was created. Before the program, the military didn’t have a blood transfusion to help Gilliam or others like him who lost blood because of battle wounds. During times of peace and even when the need for blood was so great during wartimes, the military often purchased blood from civilian blood banks.

Since then, the ASBP was formed and is able to make blood available for the millions of military who need blood transfusions.

“Although we’re no longer transporting injured service members to hospitals on the back of a tank or jeep, one thing remains the same,” said Capt. Paul Ambrose, Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center officer-in-charge. “Wounded soldiers who lose blood must have it replaced or bad things happen.

“Mr. Gilliam was fortunate that he survived his injuries and today is a true hero in all our hearts. But if volunteer donors hadn’t donated for him then he might not be here to enjoy his life with his children and grandchildren,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose says that the need for blood is as important today as it was during Gilliam’s day. 1 in 4 servicemen are injured while fighting and they need a blood transfusion. The military health care system demands 400 units of blood every day just to meet routine operations for their soldiers and their families all over the world.

“Every hour of every day someone, somewhere needs blood,” Ambrose said. “It’s the ASBP’s job to get them that blood, but we cannot do that without generous people willing to donate.

“I ask everyone to think of the brave service members like Mr. Gilliam, and all who have served since, and the freedoms we enjoy because of them. To keep our freedoms means  we must have people willing to fight for them when the need arises. When they do that, it’s inevitable that some will get injured or become ill and need blood. That is where the ASBP needs everyone’s help.”

“I think the ASBP is a great program that will save a lot of lives,” Gilliam, a Purple Heart recipient, said. “I wish they would have had it when I was injured. It’s better than when I was in the military. People everywhere ought to donate blood to help save lives.”

For more information about the Fort Leonard Wood Blood Donor Center or to make an appointment, please call 596.5385 or  email Carl.A.Norman2.civ@mail.mil.

To learn more information regarding the Armed Services Blood Program or to schedule an appointment, visit online: www.militaryblood.dod.mil.

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE