My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 18, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.
It was a cold, murky, November day, and nineteen-year-old Duane was knee-deep in the mud of a French beet field. He was bandaging men and dodging bullets as the only medic with a machine-gun platoon of Patton’s Third Army. Machine-gun rounds and intense mortar fire filled the evening air as the young medic worked, rapidly bandaging the lacerated chest of a sergeant.
Suddenly a burst of gunfire split the air, and Duane saw a rifleman about fifty feet ahead slump into the mud, desperately grasping his throat. He saw that the man was thrashing violently, and immediately started crawling through the mortar barrage and machine-gun rounds. When Duane reached the rifleman, he found that his throat was ripped open, and his windpipe slashed. The injured man fought frantically for air, but his face was turning blue from suffocation.
Duane quickly examined the wound, then took out his pocketknife. He had no surgical equipment but realized that a tracheotomy was the man’s only hope. Duane remembered a training lecture from more than a year ago. He had to try the procedure, or in a few minutes, the man would be dead. Even under the floodlights of modern hospitals with anesthetics, sterilized scalpels, and retractors for holding open the wound, the tracheotomy is a delicate surgical procedure. In the mud of the battle and the semi-darkness of dusk, it seemed impossible.
“I don’t like to do this, Mac,” Duane told the rifleman, “But it’s the only way you’re gonna live.” Crazed by pain and not able to breathe, the man fought wildly. A lieutenant quickly came to Duane’s aid and held down the patient, while with a swift motion, Duane cut an up-and-down slit 1-1/2 inches long in the windpipe below the fracture. He knew that a crosswise incision might sever the jugular vein. Now Duane needed a rigid tube to keep the trachea from reclosing. He took the cap of a fountain pen in the wounded man’s pocket, punctured the end, and slipped it into the windpipe. Color trickled back into the rifleman’s face, and he began to breathe again through the hole in the top of the pen.
“Now hold the fountain pen in your windpipe, and you’ll be okay, Mac,” Duane told him. “You can’t breathe through your nose or mouth,” he warned, “but your lungs will work. Twiddle the pen around and keep the hole open. You’ll pull through all right.” The man’s breathing improved, and in a few minutes, he was able to stand. Supported by his two rescuers, he was able to walk to a nearby tank that took him to the battalion aid station. The doctors and aids stood open-mouthed when they saw the fantastic battlefield operation. They sent him on to the clearing station, where a tracheotomy tube replaced the fountain pen. When newspaper correspondents wrote about the incredible story of the successful battlefield tracheotomy, they called Duane the “Foxhole Surgeon.”
Surgeons who later heard the rifleman’s story were amazed that Duane, even though he was just nineteen years old and only knew about the tracheotomy procedure from one training lecture, could successfully save the rifleman’s life. One of them wrote a letter, commending Duane for his presence of mind, resourcefulness, and skill. Surgeon General Norman Kirk, Major General LeRoy Irwin of the Fifth Division, and several other Army authorities wrote of their appreciation and commendation to the young medic.
Duane continued to serve as a medic in the Army and was wounded three times. While helping others at the Battle of the Bulge, a barrage of bullets sliced his pack from his back, and one tore into him. But he survived the injury, and after the war, he attended college. He resolved not to be just a “foxhole surgeon,” with a jackknife and a fountain pen, but a first-class surgeon.
Because of his heroism and the notoriety he received in the press, Duane Kinman, the foxhole surgeon, was given a premedical scholarship from Walla Walla College in his hometown. He also received a full scholarship covering a medical education at Western Reserve University. Duane Kinman is a true American hero.
We hear the word hero a lot in our culture, but do we know what it means? Today’s culture is obsessed with superheroes. Movies and television shows about superheroes are very popular. My granddaughters can tell me all about the latest superhero movies. But superheroes are fictional. Are there any real heroes out there? Many people make heroes out of politicians, movie stars, and musicians. But what have these people done that would make them a hero? Popularity doesn’t make you a hero.
In America, we seem to have a lot of celebrities but very few heroes. Historian Daniel Boorstin compared the two this way: “Celebrities are people who make news, but heroes are people who make history. Time makes heroes but dissolves celebrities.” A hero is someone who does something selfless, something sacrificial. A hero is someone who puts the needs of another above their own. Most true heroes receive no accolades or adoration.
Gentle Reader, who are your heroes? Who do you look up to and want to emulate? In Psalms 16:3 (NLT), David tells us who his heroes are: “The godly people in the land are my true heroes! I take pleasure in them!” Godly people who put others first are true heroes. Look up to those heroes. You, too, can be a hero. You may never get any recognition, but helping someone else in a selfless, sacrificial way is heroic. To be a hero, follow this advice from the Apostle Paul. “Don’t do anything only to get ahead. Don’t do it because you are proud. Instead, be humble. Value others more than yourselves. None of you should look out just for your own good. Each of you should also look out for the good of others.” Philippians 2:3,4 (NIRV) The world needs more true heroes.