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Badgering Lew Harned ’47

Like a lot of his generation, Harned is a World War II veteran. But few Badgers can claim to have been a veteran of the British army. Meet this native Madisonian, who served as an ambulance driver in Italy, earned his degree at UW and became a doctor, and served as one of the oldest commanders in Desert Storm.

John Allen
July 09, 2012

When Harned returned to Madison from his Honor Flight in October 2011, his daughters (from left, Cathy Amundson, Harned, Linda Harned and Debra Ondell, who accompanied him to Washington, D.C.) were on hand to greet him.

10 questions with an alumnus on the move

(expanded from the Summer 2012 edition of Badger Insider Magazine)

Like a lot of those in his generation, Lew Harned ’47 is a World War II veteran. But few Badgers can claim to have been a veteran of the British army, as this native Madisonian technically was. He served as an ambulance driver in Italy, then returned to the UW in 1944, earned his degree, and became a doctor.

How did you end up in the British army?

I was 4F [barred from the military due to medical reasons] because of my myopia, nearsightedness. At that time, all my friends were being commissioned or going into service. So this was a blow to me that I couldn’t go. I was devastated. And there was this opportunity to try out as a driver for the British army, and my folks let me go.

How did your parents feel about you serving overseas for Britain?

Well, I think they felt just as bad as I did that all my friends were going and I had to stay home. I don’t know if I would let my son do that today, but they were very understanding. And it was quite an experience, I’ll tell you.

You must have seen a lot of the world.

I set sail in 1943 on a British hospital ship. We couldn’t go through the Mediterranean because of the German menace at that time, so we went down around Cape Town, went up around Madagascar to the Red Sea to Port Tufiq, which is near Cairo, and spent some time in that area. And then went up [and] stayed with the troops in Beirut, then to Hama and Homs, where they’re having all of this fighting right now between the resistance and [the Syrian] government, and finally sailed for Augusta, Sicily, after it had fallen, spent Christmas there, and then landed at Taranto, arrived in Naples right after it had fallen, and then went up to Casserta and were stopped at Cassino.

Did you see a lot of action?

[I was in] a group called the American Field Service. The British ambulances were always breaking down. They were boxcars. [But we American drivers had] American ambulances, which made us unique. They put us right up in the front lines, because we had better equipment. I was there for the whole battle of Cassino, which was a mess.The things that you think about afterward — one instance I remember, we had a load of patients coming back from the front.

You never think anything’s going to happen [to you, but] we came along a whole battery of long-johns, 155 millimeter [guns]. And they all went off, and I think I was driving the car, and it just shook me up. I hit the top of the roof. Got a big dent in my helmet. It was just scary — just scared the hell out of me. The guys in the back who were tending the patients wondered what he hell was happening.

Was it ambulance-driving that inspired you to become a doctor?

No, my dad was a doctor — I always knew it was one of the things I wanted to do.

What kind of medicine did you practice?

I was an orthopedist, and I was very involved in sports medicine as the team physician for the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. I’m not sure if I ever want to see another back in my life. But my kids are all brainwashed — none of them ever became a Hawkeye.

How did you end up back in Wisconsin?

I came home one day in ’84, and Sally said, well, we’re moving to Madison, I’m leaving tomorrow. We got the house. And I said gosh, okay coach. So she moved back here in ’84, and I came six months later, in January of ’85.

You’re actually a veteran three times over, right?

After I graduated in ’47 and went to medical school, then I was drafted for the Korean War. They didn’t care about my eyes then. I spent two years in the air force. Then, after I retired in ’84, I came back to Madison. My brother, who was deputy [adutant general] or air in the national guard here, said that they needed an orthopedic surgeon. so I did that, and then we were activated for Desert Storm.

I think I was the oldest commander in Desert Strom. I was 65. There was an older doctor, he was an ophthalmologist. He was 67. but I was the oldest commander in the field.

Last fall, you took part in a Badger Honor Flight, joining other World War II veterans to travel to Washington to visit the war’s memorial. What was the experience like?

It was unbelievable. There were about a hundred of us on the plane, and when we got off a the gate, here were just thousands of people cheering and waving flags. It breaks you up a little bit.

Did you ever go back to Italy and see the battlefields there?

Yeah, actually I’ve been back twice. I think it was ten years ago, and we drove down to Cassino. It was hard to recognize. I mean the town has changed so much. You can look out, and you could see where we were, and where the Germans had their 88 [millimeter guns] zeroed in on crossroads. It wasn’t a fun place.

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