The American Field Service Ambulance Corps began as 15 young US students in France who decided to drive ambulances connected with the American Hospital just outside of Paris. Their numbers grew to over 200 by the end of WW I. After WW I, they founded the AFS Fellowships for French Universities, Inc., so that more US citizens might have the opportunity of learning at first hand about France. Then when France was threatened again, an independent AFS Ambulance Corps emerged and was active throughout various arenas in WW II.
One veteran of the AFS Ambulance Corps during WW II is Norman C. Kunkel, born September 17, 1918 in Wessington, South Dakota and moving to Yakima where he grew up and finished high school. Norman attended the University of Washington and was recruited for the AFS Ambulance Corps in the summer of 1943, left Washington State for AFS Headquarters in New York in July and was on his way to the India/Burma front to serve the British in the campaign against the Japanese.
Norman spent the first year (of his two year service with AFS) in getting his training to drive ambulance and serving in the harshest conditions in the India/Burma jungles and mountainous areas carrying casualties from the battlefield to dressing stations and then to hospitals. Once he and his comrades were completely surrounded by Japanese. While in his foxhole, he wrote in his diary what he thought was his last letter to his loved one back home. Luckily the British broke through the Japanese lines.
Norman Kunkel (left) and White (right)
Norman was hospitalized with numerous tropical illnesses but recovered from each one so that he could serve again in Italy and Germany. In May, he drove his ambulance into Paris amongst Parisians crowding the streets, celebrating VE Day. His first thought was that his duty would soon be over. But it was not to be. Just a week later he was sent to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp to help evacuate the women who were still living and lying amongst the dead and surrounded by heaps of bodies yet unburied.
After the camp was literally torched to rid the area of the filth and pestilence, Norman had a chance to rest at Wildeshausen, Germany for a time before planning his trip back home. Before leaving Europe, he was able to see plays, operas and sightsee in London and Paris. But even that was not enough to erase the horror he had seen.
It was not until 1993 that an act of Congress granted AFS Ambulance Corps Drivers, who had served at least two months with the US forces in Europe, the status of veteran. Soon after, he began speaking out about the war and the Holocaust. Norman states, "I learned about the horrors of war and decided that I didn't want another generation to have to mop up after wars ever again. I was pleased when AFS became AFS Intercultural Programs, Inc. to facilitate student and teacher exchanges. This program has become a wonderful sharing of cultures which has expanded to include many countries around the world."
Although AFS has changed, let it never forget its history including the dedication of the AFS Ambulance Corps Drivers of the past who served alongside service people overseas but who came home without benefit of GI bill or counseling services. These veterans are a testament to the need for building the peaceful connections that AFS now stands for.