My family does not have a long list of veterans in its present or past, so Veterans Day has always been a bit abstract for me, or just the tail end of another long weekend. I’m as patriotic as the next person, so I always try to think about war, service, and loss on the actual day, but my thoughts are not particularly personal, and consequently, not very heartfelt. I must admit that several Veterans Days have been “observed” by watching marathons of war films on Turner Classic Movies, or, even worse, going shopping! This year, however, I am more thoughtful, because I am focused, finally, on my grandfather’s service during World War II.
My paternal grandfather, who died in 1996, was a physician who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps from 1943-45. He was the medical officer on board the USS Taluga, which was hit by a kamikaze suicide plane attack in April of 1945, and also worked in a field hospital on the island of Okinawa. I don’t remember him talking about these experiences at great length; his identity was always more physician (and patriarch) than it was veteran. And sadly, I don’t think I really every questioned him about it, in any detail. We recently celebrated the 100th birthday of his wife, my grandmother, and while putting together a photographic presentation of her life, I came across several pictures of Pops in uniform, and finally started to focus on his service. Too little, too late; Nana can answer some questions, and there are letters, but I really wish I had had conversations with my veteran while he was still alive.
Since I don’t have the particulars, I’ll be more general; it occurred to me that medical advances are one of the very few positive outcomes of war, both in the past and the present. Not only did physicians, nurses, and medics provide essential aid and comfort in the midst of war, what they learned about the treatment of battlefield injuries contributed cumulatively to the advance of medicine after the war. War and medicine have been inextricably linked, through the centuries, and most intensively in last century of total war weaponry and tactics. So my focus for this Veterans Day is on those who healed those who fought.
We don’t have any pictures of my grandfather doing his work during the war, and he wasn’t a surgeon, but I think the picture of a wartime surgery in the Pacific theater is particularly poignant, as is the following one of nurses on their way home, for quite different reasons.
Two pictures from the National Archives: “In an underground surgery room, behind the front lines on Bougainville, an American Army doctor operates on a U.S. soldier wounded by a Japanese sniper.” December 13, 1943; and “Nurses of a field hospital who arrived in France via England and Egypt after three years service.” Parker, August 12, 1944. The 9th Field Hospital at Okinawa, 1944, National Library of Medicine.
I can’t imagine how the medical corps of World War I dealt with military innovations of this “great war”, the gas, machine guns and trench warfare for which they had no reference. And then the aftermath: the legions of amputees, disfigured, and disabled veterans who would require treatment, rehabilitation, and aid long after the war was over. The interwar era saw unprecedented advances in medicine due to the military medical professionals who rose to these challenges. Military medicine came to benefit not only those who served, but also society as a whole.
Scenes from World War I and after, from the National Library of Medicine: an American ambulance corps at work in France, typhoid vaccinations, and “above knee amputation with peg legs reconstruction class”, 1917-1919.
I could show you picture after picture of injured and mutilated veterans of World War I; their sacrifices were documented by the medical corps for the greater good. Clearly the nature of the injuries sustained in the Great War was unprecedented but the inclination to learn from such suffering was not: Civil War injuries were documented as well, by battlefield physicians who were no doubt overwhelmed by the circumstances they found themselves in, and after, by their colleagues who were attempting to learn from the recent past–and probably prepare for the future.
U.S. Sanitary Commission Hospital at Gettysburg, 1863, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; page from The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861–65, United States Surgeon General’s Office, 1870-88: from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Digital Exhibition “Picturing Words: the Power of Book Illustration”.
The history of military medicine certainly doesn’t begin with the Civil War; I could trace battlefield physicians back to the Renaissance and certainly there were countless, anonymous nurses on the sidelines over the ages. But the futility of their efforts in the face of war is important to note: more soldiers died of disease and battlefield surgeries than combat injuries until World War I. So I’m going to end with a physician who offered even more than his professional skills and expertise in service to his country: Boston’s own Dr. Joseph Warren, who died fighting in the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, galvanizing the will of his fellow patriots.
An illustration from Heisters Surgery (1768), National Library of Medicine; John Trumbull, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 1786, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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