University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Captain William P. Snavely, Assistant Registrar

John L. Guerrant | Hubert B. Holsinger | Alice M. Huffman | Frank L. Lowther | Randal Luscombe | Dorothy Sandridge | Melvin C. Shaffer | William P. Snavely | Beverley D. Tucker | Frances E. Wells | 8th EVAC home

William P. Snavely

William P. Snavely

William Pennington Snavely was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and attended Hampden-Sydney before transferring to the University of Virginia where he received his B.A. and then his Masters in 1941. Snavely served as a Captain and was the assistant registrar in the 8th Evacuation Hospital Unit. He went back to school after the war with the help of the G. I. bill. He earned his Ph.D. in economics and taught for 26 years at the University of Connecticut and then for 13 years at George Mason University. He was chairman of the department at both universities. He was an enthusiastic pilot. He retired in 1986 and returned to Charlottesville. He moved to Florida where he died in February 2010.

 In response to your request, I am glad to pass on some recollection tidbits of my service with the Eighth Evacuation Hospital.

Flash back to the spring of 1942. I was finishing up the courses required for my second graduate degree while waiting for my draft number to be called, when Dr. Blackford stopped by to ask if I would be interested in filling the position of assistant registrar in the evacuation hospital unit which he was forming. This spot carried the rank of second lieutenant in the Medical Administrative Corps of the Army of the United States. I was delighted at the opportunity and accepted on the spot. After a physical exam and the processing of necessary paperwork, I received my commission.

In due course, orders arrived to report to active duty on maneuvers in Pageland, South Carolina, on July 1, 1942. Lt. Col. Blackford, several of the medical officers, and I took the same train and spent the time chatting about what lay ahead. I remember clearly Col. Blackford’s saying, “It will be five years before we see Charlottesville again.” This was a sobering thought for all of us, and certainly for me since I had just gotten married on June 4th. We arrived in Pageland that afternoon and joined a cadre of enlisted men led by a Regular Army Medical Administrative Corps captain. The officers were housed on the large floor of a local school gym where rows of army cots were placed.

I was assigned that first night to bivouac with the enlisted men who were sleeping in pup tents in a nearby woods. I was issued a pup tent with blankets and went off with the Regular Army 1st Sergeant who kindly took me under his wing. We selected a spot under a pine tree, and he helped me set up the tent. I stretched out my blanket and bedded down for what I assumed would be an uneventful night. I quickly became acutely aware that pine needles are a poor substitute for box springs and a mattress. I had stupidly not thought to buy an air mattress and sleeping bag, and resolved to do so at the first opportunity.

About 2:00 a.m., I was startled by someone shaking my foot and saying, “Lieutenant, lieutenant, wake up.” I recognized the voice and said, “What is it, sergeant?” He replied, “Just now when replacing the guard, I found one of the guards on duty asleep. That’s a capital offense.” This startling news grabbed my full attention, and I replied, “What shall we do?” He suggested putting the guard under detention and reporting the incident to the adjutant in the morning. I gladly concurred, but got little more sleep the rest of the night, wondering what the poor guard’s fate might be. Would it be firing squad at dawn? The incident was handled without execution or anything of major consequence, but it certainly brought home to me that I was really in the Army now! I should mention that I did eventually get to visit the PX (Post Exchange) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and bought both an air mattress and a sleeping bag. They were the best investments I ever made, and I used them both for the rest of the war.

After maneuvers, the 8th Evac was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, to hold for a time. When we left, it was by troop train under tight security for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, near the port of New York. We had numerous stops along the way, one of which happened to be in Charlottesville’s Union Station around 11:00 p.m., or so. A number of us stepped onto the station platform to stretch our legs. A fellow whom I had known in high school happened to be on the platform. He spoke and asked me if this were the 8th Evacuation Hospital Unit. How to reply to this while under conditions of tight security? I simply mumbled, “I don’t know,” and quickly got back on the train. It was frustrating to be stopped in my home town and yet not able to call my wife.

At Camp Kilmer, the pace of getting ready to ship out picked up sharply. I was assigned the task of talking to all of the enlisted men who had not yet taken out a G.I. life insurance policy. Policies of up to $10,000 were available under quite favorable premium terms. I was able to talk almost all of them into taking out a policy, even though Army pay was low and any deduction was painful. This experience convinced me that I was not cut out to be an insurance agent. Free time at Kilmer was spent speculating on how soon we would sail and what our destination would be. As it turned out, no guess was correct.

Flash forward to the Santa Paula. We were on board and on our way–to where? All went as smoothly as one could hope on a terribly crowded troopship. We were part of a very large convoy which included freighters and a number of naval vessels–even a battleship. About ten days out, we hit a very bad storm. Waves were huge, and that night was completely black. I went out on deck and could see nothing–not one other ship. I worried that we might easily bump into another vessel. The next morning things had quieted down, and I could see that every ship in the convoy was precisely in its accustomed place. It was a beautiful sight, and one that gave me great respect for members of the Navy and of the Merchant Marine.

Fast forward to Casablanca, Morocco, which proved to be our landing port. The 8th Evac was up and running in what had been the large Italian Consulate building. I was now also an evacuation officer responsible, with a truly great group of enlisted men, for getting patients being sent home on board whatever hospital ship was in port at the time.

One morning, the patients to be transferred that day were lying on cots placed on the floor of a wide, fairly dark, hall waiting to be loaded into ambulances for the trip to the ship. The large, wooden, outside door suddenly opened, and in strode General Patton with his aide. To say that this was a great shock is putting it mildly. He was known for being a very strict disciplinarian, and to be caught by him for any infraction of Army regulations or procedures was to incur his instant, and not inconsiderable, wrath. I immediately snapped to attention and saluted, but what to do with regard to the patients on the litters on the floor? If I gave the call of, “Attention,” normally given when a high ranking officer enters a room where there are those of lesser rank, I was afraid that some of the litter patients who should not move would try to get up to stand at attention. It helped the situation when General Patton quickly inquired where our commanding officer was. I asked one of our enlisted men to take him to Col. Putnam’s office, and the incident passed.

Fast forward again, this time to the landing of our unit on an Italian beach near Paestum where there were some interesting ancient Greek ruins. We landed on D-12, which means twelve days after the initial assault force. The litter of battle was still scattered all around, including some cases which had held German 88mm gun shells. Captain Suhling, our senior Medical Administration officer, picked up one of the cases and examined it briefly inside and out. He then turned to those of us who were nearby and said, “The Germans have lost the war.” He had shipped tobacco to German companies before the war and knew the German mentality well. He told us to look at how well the case was made. It had beautifully-fitting mortised joints, was zinc lined inside, and had a very sturdy metal handle. He explained that if the Germans were over-designing something so simple as a shell case, they could be assumed to be over-designing most everything else as well. To him, this meant that the demands on their skilled and unskilled workers would exceed the supply, and would limit their production of war materiel. It was an interesting thought. In any event, I picked up one of the cases and used it for storing stuff the rest of the time we were in Italy.

Fast forward again, this time to March, 1944, when the 8th Evac had been operating remarkably efficiently under very adverse physical conditions. We had gone through the winter set up in tents in a large open area. Rain had been very frequent, and all of the pathways were deep with mud. It was at or near freezing for much of the time. The inflow of casualties had been very heavy because of the high ground the Germans occupied. Repeated Allied attacks had been unable to dislodge them. The Evacuation Section had a daily convoy of ambulances carrying patients being transferred to the station hospital in Naples. In going on many of these runs, I had seen Mount Vesuvius from the road we traveled. The thought had gradually sunk in that I would like to climb to the top and take a look into the crater.

Mt. Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius

Finally, on a day when things were quieter than usual and the morning ambulance run was finished, four of us took a jeep ride to the base of the mountain and started climbing. The path we took was well worn, and it was interesting to see various vent holes emitting vapor as we got nearer to the top. At the rim, we were able to look at an angle down into the mouth of the volcano. Smoke and steam were rising, and the heat was intense. As we were watching, the molten lava began to belch, making ka-chunk sounds. The ka-chunks got louder and louder and began to throw up globs of molten lava. The globs began to go higher and higher, and by the time they were going a hundred feet above the rim where we were standing, we all realized that this was not the place to be. Though they had been falling back into the mouth of the volcano, we saw nothing to keep them from beginning to land outside this perimeter. We beat a hasty retreat and were glad to get home, particularly since it was no more than three days later that Vesuvius blew its top in one of its historic major eruptions.

After the eruption, I went back at night to take the picture which you see here. It was taken with the camera on a tripod and the shutter set for a timed exposure. What does not show up in the picture is the huge mass of smoke that was billowing up thousands of feet into the air. The smoke was filled with ash particles which were rubbing against each other to produce tremendous amounts of static electricity. It was the discharge of this static electricity as lightning that produced the jagged streaks at the top of the picture. The white blotches scattered over the side of the mountain were white-hot, molten lava pouring down the side. It was quite a show by Mother Nature!

These are a few of the more vivid recollections which I have from my time with the 8th Evacuation Hospital Unit. It was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to serve in it!

William P. Snavely

John L. Guerrant | Hubert B. Holsinger | Alice M. Huffman | Frank L. Lowther | Randal Luscombe | Dorothy Sandridge | Melvin C. Shaffer | William P. Snavely | Beverley D. Tucker | Frances E. Wells | 8th EVAC home