by Andrea Kutsenkow, Archival Consultant, AFS Intercultural Programs

“The true value of the American Field Service experience is how one learns to take care of oneself under any condition.”

Every young AFSer today has a connection, whether they know it or not, to AFS’ very first active global citizens, to the organization’s volunteer ambulance drivers who left behind the comforts of home to travel to the other side of the world as young men during World Wars I and II in order to make a difference. One of those drivers is Dr. Lewis Harned. He proved he is a great storyteller when he sat down with AFS President and CEO Daniel Obst for a virtual conversation. During the conversation, he said he hopes that no one has to go through what his generation did – multiple wars, an economic depression, and a pandemic. Instead he hopes for a more just and peaceful world and is impressed with AFS’ commitment towards that goal.

Like many of AFS’ other World War II volunteer ambulance drivers, Lew grew up in a patriotic family and initially tried to enlist with the United States military but was turned down due to imperfect eyesight. Instead, Lew left his home country for the first time by volunteering with AFS. Although he had already started university, he decided to set sail aboard a British hospital ship called the Atlantis in 1943, just before Easter.

Lew Harned
Harned with his daughters (from left, Cathy Amundson, Harned, Linda Harned and Debra Ondell, who accompanied him to Washington, D.C.) in 2011. Image source:

That spring Lew found himself far away from his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin as the ship carrying British troops made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. It was during those six to eight weeks at sea that Lew had his first cross-cultural experiences, ones which often centered around food. Lew became more accustomed to British cuisine as the Atlantis bypassed the Mediterranean, refueled on the Gold Coast, traveled down around Cape Town, and eventually docked in Durban, South Africa. After only two weeks, Lew left Durban aboard a Norwegian ship and traveled between Madagascar and the African continent, carefully tiptoeing around submarines, before landing at Port Taufiq in the Red Sea. From there, he traveled to El Tahag, Egypt, a British marshalling point for the attack at El Alamein. The Battle of El Alamein, an Allied victory, marked the turning point of the North African Campaign. As Lew witnessed the war ending in Egypt, he learned how to make mechanical repairs. These maintenance skills would serve him well as he continued his journey into Lebanon and Syria.

After leaving Egypt, Lew made his way to Baalbek, Lebanon, and then to Zahlé just south of Beirut. He discovered the British Eighth Army’s big box carts had a habit of breaking down, and so the Americans, who had access to better equipment at the time, often served on the front lines and helped transport sick British troops to the country’s capital. To make it seem like the British anticipated an attack in Turkey, drivers were then sent to Aleppo, Syria. Lew was stationed there for a while when Sicily fell, but a case of hepatitis prevented him from joining the Italy Campaign right away. After being treated for a time in a British hospital, he traveled to Alexandria, Egypt and then boarded a Liberty ship to Sicily. The journey proved treacherous as one of the Allied ships was bombed before they reached Augusta, Sicily in time for Christmas. 

Lew Harned
Lew Harned

Original photographs in the AFS Archives speak volumes to the difficulty AFS ambulance drivers experienced while navigating the mountainous terrain, rivers, and sticky mud of Southern Italy. Lew, once stationed in the deserts of Northern Africa, found himself zig-zagging up the bombed Italian Peninsula from Taranto, to Potenza, to Naples just four days after the city fell. Unlike the North African Campaign, Lew was much closer to the action in Italy, and he felt exhausted and lacked clean clothes by the time he witnessed the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the most important battles of World War II as the Axis forces tried to prevent the Allied Armies from reaching Rome. After the Allies took Monte Cassino, Lew bypassed Rome, headed to Bologna, and was repatriated back to the United States during the summer of 1944.

“Anytime when youth can exchange ideas and thoughts is great. And we need more of it. We need more cooperation, more understanding between people. I call it love.”

By volunteering with AFS during the Second World War, Lew found himself abroad during a time of great global upheaval. While his trip was one of difficulty and sacrifice, a time when Lew had to learn how to adapt to any circumstance, his long journey also afforded him fond memories that he cherishes to this day, including swimming in South Africa, exploring the bazaars of the Middle East, taking in the Baalbek Ruins, and falling in love with Pompeii. He greatly encourages young people thinking of an exchange to go, to live out their own adventures, because the world needs more cooperation and understanding between people.

For other oral histories, articles, and videos about Lew’s experiences, click here.

The AFS Archives provided images for this news segment. Images used in this article come from the following sources: