Doctor's wartime journals featured in History Center exhibit

Dr. John Linner with fellow medical officers
Dr. John Linner, second from left, with fellow medical corp officers in the Pacific during World War II.
Photo courtesy of John Linner

Dr. Linner was a newly-minted medical doctor from the University of Minnesota when he enlisted in the Navy in l944.

He came face to face with World War II on June 6, that same year on D-Day in the English Channel off the coast of France near Normandy -- the scene of the Allied invasion.

Linner remembers looking out from the deck of a huge, flat-bottomed landing craft carrying tanks and troops. He saw ships all the way to the horizon with wave after wave of Allied aircraft filling the sky above him.

Dr. John Linner
Dr. John Linner, 91 of Edina, was a World War II medical doctor, treating the wounded on D-Day in the English Channel and then in the south Pacific as the war ended.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Shortly after the invasion began, Linner said the wounded arrived.

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"It was really a big job just getting them together, changing dressings. Kids were stuck to the stretchers with urine and blood and lot of pain, a lot of screaming," he said.

Emergency surgery on some patients was performed on the dining room table of the ship's ward room, the only raised flat surface available. Linner said the wounded were stabilized and transferred to hospitals in England.

War, Linner said, is not like the movies. The wounds made by projectiles do not make a clean entry and exit from bodies.

"They were such indiscriminate wounds. Shrapnel wounds," he said. "They'd blow off part of somebody's face. One boy had both eyes knocked out. There was a fellow whose arm was hanging, and abdominal wounds and leg wounds, it was just awful."

At one point in the chaos, a group of French civilians needing medical care showed up on board. Then, 18 wounded German soldiers taken prisoner of war appeared.

Vehicles carrying wounded soldiers
Army vehicles carrying wounded from D-Day to the landing craft in the English channel where Dr. John Linner was one of two medical doctors.
Photo courtesy of John Linner

"We had to post a guard on them, because our soldiers and our sailors and the wounded would have tried to kill them if they could. There was so much animosity, but we treated them the same as we did the other boys," Linner said.

In spare moments, Dr. Linner wrote in his diary, describing what he was witnessing and the wounds he was treating. He remembers a condition he could not treat, the mental torment of one young American soldier.

"A soldier [had] absolutely gone psycho, and it was because he had killed a young German," Linner said. "He said it was either he shot him or ran him through with his bayonet, and he said the boy was so young he kept shouting, 'Nien, nien,' no, no, and he said, 'I killed him anyway,' and he just broke up."

Dr. Linner was reassigned after D-Day. After a stint in upstate New York doing physical exams on military inductees, he became a medical officer on a brand new ship, a cargo vessel carrying 6,500 tons of ammunition bound for Okinawa.

The ship was a floating bomb. Linner said Japanese military Kamikaze pilots tried to crash into the ship to explode it.

After the war, Linner returned to Minnesota and a private medical practice with his father in north Minneapolis.

Eventually, Linner became a University of Minnesota medical school professor, and a world-famous surgeon who pioneered one of the operations that helps morbidly obese people limit their intake of food.

His wartime diaries sat on a shelf, untouched.

Linner married, and he and his wife raised five daughters. He said he didn't talk with his family about his wartime experiences. Finally, one of his daughters asked her mother what father did in the war, and Linner said his wife told him he had to tell his story.

The result is his book, "From Normandy to Okinawa."

Creating it, Linner said, was hard and emotional work, which in the end, was therapeutic.

"If you have something bundled up in your mind, that part of it is tough. And sooner or later it drags you down if you don't come out into the open with whatever it is," he said. "I think mental health depends on not carrying a lot of baggage in your therapy. Thinking with the right people. Talking."

Dr. Linner's World War II account is part of the Minnesota Historical Society's Greatest Generation exhibit at the History Center in St. Paul.