by Archie S. Mossman
Editor’s Note: Archie Mossman was born in Madison, Wisconsin on February 5th, 1926. He joined the United States Navy in 1944, the day after his last final exam as a freshman in the pre-med department of the University of Wisconsin. His “motivation for study was not very great,” he said, “under the circumstances.” After faking his way through his physical (he has a moderate level of red-green colorblindness), he chose to serve in the Navy—better to “die clean than dirty” he said. He was trained at Farragut Naval Base in Idaho and served for two years as a corpsman in the Hospital Corps. After being discharged in 1946, Archie earned his bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin, a Master’s degree from the University of California-Berkley, and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. He worked as a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fisheries and taught botany at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, zoology at the University of Wyoming, and wildlife management at Humboldt State University. He also taught a graduate wildlife management diploma course at the University College of Zimbabwe. Moreover, during a two-year Senior Fulbright Research Scholarship in Zimbabwe, Archie helped establish the scientific, social, and financial feasibility of game ranching as a management tool to promote the conservation of habitats, species diversity, and traditional cultures. This collaboration resulted in game ranching becoming an important form of agriculture and conservation in Southern Africa. When he retired from teaching in 1996, Archie said that many wonderful students had helped make his life very rewarding. Archie also fathered four children and now has four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He currently lives in California with his wife, Sue.
A hot, sooty train ride to Farragut, Idaho came immediately after my induction. Our bunks were at least three high. They were in a converted boxcar, and it was very hot, so we rode with the mid-car doors open. I think there was a rope or pole across to reduce the chances of falling out. The engine was coal-fired, so we gathered lots of soot in our lungs and our hair and clothes. We were quite black by the time we got to Farragut Naval Base.
At Farragut we showered and may have slept. Then we were all given haircuts and issued our Navy clothing and hammocks and bedding. We mailed home (for free) the clothing that we had traveled in. We were taught how to wear the uniforms, how to fold, roll, and tie them with short sturdy cotton cords called clothes stops. We were responsible for our clothing and were issued a small allowance to get replacement clothes when necessary. For me the allowance was more than adequate.
Our dress pants had the traditional thirteen buttons for the thirteen original states. We soon learned to unbutton and button them with both hands at the same time. One’s natural urges ensured the quick learning of that skill. We also learned to tie our neckerchiefs and were issued “dog tags”—metal identification tags with our serial number and blood type on them. We had to memorize our serial numbers, and if captured, we were told to give only our name, rank, and serial number. We were issued a 13x17x30 inch wooden box (I still have mine) with a hinged lid called a “foot locker” that we kept our clothing in. It was kept at the foot of our double-deck bunk. We were also issued a heavy canvas hammock and a mattress stuffed with straw or cotton. Mine was cotton. I donated it to a homeless person in 2006. We got the last of the excellent white wool blankets. Subsequently, new conscripts were issued olive drab ones, which were far safer for life ashore in a combat zone. We slept in our issued cotton underwear. The mattress cover was cotton sheeting and was called a “fart sack”—quite appropriate if I do say so. We slept under one or two blankets. We had no sheets, but we had a small pillow and a couple of pillowcases. I think we had two fart sacks, a couple of wash rags and a couple of towels. We were issued a very well-made pair of black leather shoes, some socks, a couple sets of blue dungarees, two sets of whites, and the single set of woolen dress blues along with a set of everyday woolen blues. We also received a dark blue cotton belt and a white cotton belt. I think we got two white hats. The woolen pea coat was of really excellent quality. All of the clothing was top quality.
After we were issued our gear, we were assigned to companies of about 100+ men. Mine was company 618. This was the beginning of our training prior to our assignment to duty stations. Farragut Naval Base was located on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, which was famous for its big Kamloops rainbow trout. Almost daily, we had a “sweep and swab down fore and aft” in the barracks, which was followed by inspection by the chief petty officer. All 100+ of us lived in that one building and slept in that big room, about 25 or more bunks on each side. Our heads were toward the wall when we slept. There was also a big bathroom with showers and a much smaller utility room with sink, brooms, mops, etc. The whole barracks was first swept and then swabbed with mops and hot soapy water. The swabs were long-handled, and the cotton cord-like material was fastened directly to one end of the round handle so that they were usually swished from side to side rather than pushed and pulled like most civilian mops are. There was a time I developed a bad cold, and the steam from the hot water in a deep sink seemed good for it, so I became a swab washer for my fellow “swab jockeys.”
Our company’s chief petty officer was not loved by we apprentice seamen. Rumor had it that he had been a high school athletic coach. I remember his name but won’t use it here. One guy couldn’t get his right and left feet sorted out when marching. The chief petty officer grabbed the guy’s fake wooden rifle and cracked him across the shin with it yelling, “Now remember that’s your left fucking leg.” It must have hurt like hell. I was marching next to a big, raw-boned logger. He growled, “If he ever does that to me, he’s dead,” and I believe he would have been. Perhaps that is why he never tried such a thing on any of the really tough guys.
One big, rather fat guy in my company was constantly baiting a somewhat smaller Jewish guy. He finally went too far, and the Jewish guy went for him. I didn’t see much of the actual fight, but I did see the Jewish guy come back from the bathroom where they had ended up, and I did see the fat guy washing his own shit out of his underpants in the bathroom. He had literally had the shit scared out of him. Fortunately, nobody got killed or seriously hurt, and the Jew-baiting was over with. One has to realize that there were American Nazis who were in full support of the German Nazis and their atrocities in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere.
As far as I could figure it out, the main purpose of boot camp was to break your spirit via overwork, shortage of sleep, and constant meanness. Not surprisingly, my fellow apprentice seamen became very bloody minded during those eight weeks. No real outside contact, no sex, and no privacy also added to the bloody mindedness. It was not difficult to understand what boot camp was going to be like. All one had to do was look at the fence around the base. The barbed wire supports at the top of the chain-link fence faced inward. The fence was designed to keep us in, to prevent our escape. The people who ordered its construction viewed us as prisoners, and they were right. In retrospect, I suspect they may have been lying to us when they claimed the reason why we were training with dummy rifles was that there was a shortage of real rifles at the front. Whether it was a lie or not, lots of people were probably safer than if we had access to real firearms. It probably did reduce lethal attacks on chiefs and fellow draftees. It always seemed the essence of stupidity that we stood guard all night with wooden rifles around our company compound, while the fence around the camp was clearly meant to keep us in and not to keep enemies out.
Later, while I was at Hospital Corps School at Farragut Naval Base, one could look through the perimeter fence and see Italian prisoners of war working on the gardens at the main entrance, outside the fence and with no guards present. They had more freedom than we did, though, of course, the European campaign was over or nearly so by then. Nonetheless, they were more worried about keeping us in than they were about keeping POWs under their thumbs. They seemed to want us to jump when told to do so, out of fear or broken spirits. I went in patriotic, but within a week or two they had gotten rid of all that stupidity in me. I don’t know if that was more generally true of draftees or not—probably not.
One night I was standing guard with my little wooden gun, and I fell sound asleep, awakening only a fraction of a second before my face hit the ground. That woke me up! Perhaps that’s why one stands rather than sits guard. I started shooting a rifle when I was big enough for my father to rest it on his shoulder. I’ve used firearms ever since. That surely colored my attitude to the wooden rifles we trained and stood guard with.
We did get some training with real firearms. Twenty-two caliber bolt action rifles were used. Needless to say, that was old stuff for me, but not for a lot of the sailors. We also shot .22 caliber pistols a few times, but not .45s or .38s. After this we went out on the range and fired a .30-06 Springfield at 100-yard targets. Shooters took turns in the butts to haul down, score, and patch the targets before raising them again into view of the firing line. Springfield stocks are made more for battering down doors or opponents’ chins than for shooting, I think. If you disagree, compare how the .30 carbine and the Springfield handle.
We also had classes in high-speed identification of friendly and enemy aircraft. We were shown photos of the aircraft headed mostly toward us and overhead. The photos were flashed on the screen for shorter and shorter periods until there was just a flash of the photo and we were to decide friend or foe. I can certainly see why errors were made in the heat of battle. There were our torpedo bombers, fighters, etc. as well as Japanese bombers, torpedo bombers, and zeros. This would help to prepare us to man antiaircraft guns aboard ship. Kamikaze pilots were flying their explosive laden aircraft into our ships by that time in the war, so quick accurate fire was essential to survival.
They had a really neat training aid that consisted of a huge screen on which they projected actual movies of incoming torpedo bombers, kamikazes, and so on. We had a .50 caliber antiaircraft machine gun mock up with the plow handles one used to control where it was pointing and a trigger to fire it. I’m fairly sure there were also sound effects, a tic tic tic sound when the tracers were hitting the incoming aircraft. There was no aiming. One watched the simulated tracers arching out toward the incoming plane and adjusted so they would hit it. All fine and dandy except the “machine gun” stuck and could often only be moved by whamming it with a hip or shoulder. I hope the real ones were not like that. If so, only muscle builders would have a chance of hitting the enemy consistently. I never found out because I was never sent to sea. It was fun, and at least we learned to keep our heads up and use the tracers to direct our fire.
We didn’t spend much time on bayonet drill or on anything for that matter that had anything to do with actually fighting the war. We were told how to jump on an opponent’s chest when he is down in order to kill him, and we were told and shown especially effective places to bayonet and stab a person.
There was also an attempt to reduce venereal disease rates by making us watch a movie. The part that sticks in my mind was a segment on crab lice. It showed a highly magnified close-up of crab lice crawling around through pubic hair. Almost everyone was scratching his pubic area before that movie was over. Ugh!
The weather at Farragut was a new experience for me. Once we were in the laundry shed area where we scrubbed our cloths by hand. A small twister or very big dust devil came toward us between two barracks. It soon got to the wire cloths lines where everything was tied on with cloths stops. Almost everything was ripped off the lines and joined the whirling dust and debris rising higher and higher. Slowly the funnel moved toward our left and pealed back the corner of the roof of the barracks. After that it slowly moved onward to our left and eventually dissipated. We then started the retrieval process for our fart sacks, pillow cases, dungarees, shirts, etc. Little was lost. The use of stout cords to tie on clothing makes good sense shipboard in wartime. Floating clothing can be used by the enemy to track and attack ship convoys. Other debris could also be used for the same purpose, so things are kept on board.
Then there was the food. In the chow hall, wrapped loaves of soft white bread were broken in two and stacked with the broken ends up (there were no plastic bags then). We would grab a couple of slices as we walked by in line. I tried to grab immediately after someone else and before the exceedingly numerous cockroaches had a chance to do the shuffle on my slices. We were supplied with white sugar in cylindrical glass containers with screw-on pouring tops shaped like inverted funnels. Overnight, every sugar container succeeded in trapping at least one cockroach. Our method to mitigate this problem was to unscrew the cap and dump out the cockroach and the top one to two inches of sugar before using the remaining sugar in our coffee. We were also fed breaded veal cutlets. Mine had about three small mouthfuls of meat on it under the breading. The rest was bone, and we were hungry! Going out the other direction to the officers were T-bone steaks. One didn’t obey because of patriotism or respect for officers, that’s for sure. There were three or four days during boot camp, however, that they gave us enlisted men very green and completely inedible apricots for desert. Another apprentice seaman and I kept ours and those being thrown away and carefully wrapped them in paper and hid them in our foot lockers. We both got away with it and had delicious ripe apricots in our ditty bags for the trip home on boot leave before returning to Farragut.
Scuttlebutt had it that Farragut was located in a valley known as fever valley by the local Native Americans. The rumor was proven true while we were there. Crowded, sleep-deprived people fed poor and dirty food are sure to get sick. I suspect the cockroaches running, skipping, and jumping on and in our food helped keep us running, skipping, and jumping to the head. One fellow apprentice seaman had an anatomically improbable term he used just before he dashed to the toilet. He’d say, “I just felt a hot rush of shit past my heart!” and off he’d go. Sometimes on that stupid nocturnal guard duty the relievers, also a bit loose, didn’t make it back in time to relieve a guy standing guard, so he involuntarily relieved himself doing cleanup duty later.
All the really good sanitation where it wasn’t all that important—the sweep and swab downs—was completely negated by the poor sanitation in the food department and the run down condition they kept us in. Looking back, though, I realize that the squalid conditions may have helped save my life. During Corps School at Farragut, I contracted scarlet fever. In those days that was a serious disease. There was no really good treatment, at least not at Farragut. Many sailors got a rheumatoid heart condition from the disease, but I didn’t. I was on a ward full with perhaps fifty sailors all with scarlet fever. My bed was at the far end of the ward, farthest from the head. I would have to hang onto a bed at least once going to and once returning from the head in order to regain my strength for the rest of the trip. Eventually, as I was getting over the disease, the skin on the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet peeled off leaving a very, very tender pink colored skin covering. It hurt to pick up anything, and it really hurt to walk. They of course put me to work doing clean up with those extremely painful hands and feet. In my case at least, it didn’t cause a relapse. It did help me to see what I could do in spite of pain, which has been useful. And, while all of this was going on, so was the war and so was the work of the physicists at Berkeley, Chicago, and Los Alamos. My delay in the hospital may have kept me state side just long enough. Who knows?
At one stage I was so pissed at the Navy and boot camp that I considered going AWOL. I’d have done it on my own and headed into the mountains of the Idaho panhandle. It was never acted on for several reasons, one of which was that there was no destination that was really secure, and also, the repercussions were potentially pretty serious. Getting required supplies would have been an almost impossible task without doing things that I wasn’t prepared to do. At least it provided me a mental out of things in the present, so I wasn’t completely a prisoner, at least not mentally. I was sure I could get out.
Before going home on boot leave, one of the guys in our company was showing off a pack of condoms he had just purchased and bragging about the good time he was going to have when he got home to his wife. While this was going on, another sailor took one of the condoms and blew it up into a really big balloon, stretching it to uselessness. That really upset the bragger because he thought his wife would think he had used it with another woman.
Corps School was fun, at least by comparison to the rest of what was going on. The instructors there had an especially boring, yet very effective, teaching method. A petty officer second class or similar stood at the front of the class and read slowly from the teaching material provided to him. We were required to write down verbatim what he said. As long as we could stay awake, the hearing, writing, and seeing of the written material made it stick well in our memories.
One of our instructors was as kind as our boot camp company commander was mean. During one of the read and write sessions, I noticed the sailor ahead of me starting to slump. He started listing to port and soon fell right out of his chair onto the floor in the aisle. We were sure he was in for a vicious tongue lashing and worse. Instead, the instructor sent him out to get a drink of water, and while he was gone, the instructor told us that the sailor was embarrassed enough and that we should be kind to him. Wow! We were amazed. That petty officer probably gained, rather than lost, our willingness to obey.
I used to tutor other students, which is one of the best ways to really learn stuff. One day in anatomy class our instructor, not the same one as above, said, “Mossman, name all the bones in the human body and tell their locations and type of bone.” It took me about half an hour, but I did it. After I finished, the instructor turned to the rest of the class and said, “You all should be able to do that.” Strangely, I caught no flak from my fellow students. Perhaps medical types during wartime have a different mindset. Our job was to save lives, not take lives. In retrospect, I wonder if the logic behind what we were learning was what made the difference. We were not competing for grades, and we knew that we were soon going to have to put to use what we were learning. We either passed or we didn’t, and we knew that we all were really needed to pass. It makes me wonder if we might be able to similarly tailor our present educational systems and get better results with better social consequences. Dealing with doctors who were officers was, of course, different than dealing with other kinds of officers.
Even though we were not in boot camp anymore, we had to do guard duty for four hours per night, which meant we got a bit less than four hours of sleep each night. In the daytime, petty officers conscripted anyone they could find into work details, picking up cigarette butts and so on. Sleeping in the barracks was not an option. Some tried sleeping in the dirt under the barracks, but that suited the mentality of the petty officers, so they were soon found out. I and another sailor had another idea. The last place such types would ever set foot was in a library. We had a small one not that far from the barracks. We went in and told the civilian volunteer librarians our problem, and they never ratted on us. We would find a really big book and prop it open on a table to serve as a screen toward the door where someone might look in. Then we would put our heads down behind our books and sleep for a couple of hours. We were never caught! See, a love of books, especially big ones, is very practical.
During Corps School, when we went off base on liberty, we usually went to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Sand Point was closer, but about all you could do was walk around the streets and say howdy to the friendly people, most of them well over draft age. By then the draft age had risen so that men well in their thirties were being drafted, as well as those just reaching eighteen. Some enlisted at seventeen, and others younger claimed they were seventeen and enlisted even earlier. If we had had to invade the Japanese home islands, I wonder if they would have started drafting women way back then. We obviously needed more cannon fodder than a simple complete draft of males becoming eighteen years old could provide.
I had a first double cousin once removed (brothers married sisters in my father and mother’s generation) who was an army photographer in the Pacific Theater. When he visited us once, I remember how yellow he was. That was a side effect of Atabrine, the anti-malarial that was used at that time. He then and later said two things that stuck in my memory: “The armed forces are designed by geniuses so that they will function when run by idiots.” And the second was, “The Marines will take an atoll in two days with the loss of two thousand men while the Army would take the same atoll in two weeks with the loss of two-hundred men.” The actual figures may not be correct, but the idea is spot on. The high demand for corpsmen can be understood when one realizes that the Marines are a branch of the Navy. If a Marine can be hit, so can the corpsman trying to go to his aid. We understood that corpsmen had the highest mortality rate of any job in the Navy.
Getting back to liberty: Mostly what we did was lots of drinking, USO dances that were very carefully chaperoned, and in one case a family dinner in Spokane, Washington. I had a girlfriend back home and stayed true to her, a fairly unusual situation I suspect. It aggravated us that we were old enough to be trained to kill and perhaps get killed ourselves, but we weren’t old enough to be allowed to drink alcohol. Needless to say, older sailors supplied younger ones at cost. Sometimes we went as far as Spokane, which was usually referred to as “Spokaloosa.” There was also another even smaller town near Farragut Naval Base called Athol, Idaho. The scuttlebutt was that it had been named by a “lisping Indian.” The town had a couple of gambling machines—“one armed bandits.” I’ve never had any interest in using those machines, so it was no entertainment for me.
After my time in Corps School was over, I was assigned to be corpsman at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, where I spent the rest of the war. How did I luck out? Chance? Or were there people higher up looking out for me? I don’t know. My first assignment was on the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat (EENT) ward. If my memory is correct, at one time we had 13 patients on the ward who were completely blind. Most of them were Marines who had been wounded in the Pacific. Shells and grenades that explode in coral cause lots of damage. The explosions send little shards of coral far enough to blind and cause suppurating wounds in any exposed skin. To put things bluntly—the Navy way—those who were wounded in that way would constantly have to mop up puss running down their faces.
We held patients long enough that they would get sufficiently well to travel by train to other naval hospitals to the east for further treatment, such as Great Lakes Naval Hospital. Many traveled in caskets for burial in their home towns. I escorted a couple of servicemen in caskets and also went along with other corpsmen with large groups of ambulatory patients to Great Lakes Naval Hospital and once to a hospital at Astoria, Oregon near the mouth of the Columbia River.
My next assignment was on a plastic surgery ward. There were no nose jobs or breast enhancements. The ward I served on mostly repaired severe burn and blast wounds. The approach was to take skin and some underlying tissue in some cases from one part of the patient’s body and replace the missing tissue with it so that the wound sizes were small enough that they could heal with just scar tissue around the edges.
Suppose a large piece of skin and muscle had been blown off the top of a Marine’s thigh. The first surgery would perhaps consist of two parallel cuts across the Marine’s abdomen, about four inches apart. The tissue between the cuts would be lifted up, and the two edges would be sutured together, while the opposite sides of the resulting four-inch wide wound were pulled together and sutured. After it was clear that these wounds had healed, another surgery was performed. One end of the roll of skin and flesh was cut free from the abdomen and sutured to one end of the blast wound on the Marine’s thigh in such a way that it was likely that his body could establish circulation. Of course, the new abdominal wound was also sutured shut. The Marine’s thigh was now attached to his abdomen by the roll of tissue. This was usually the crucial period, because it was essential that circulation be established between his thigh and the roll of tissue. Sometimes other surgeries were necessary to get the circulation established.
When good circulation had been established, another surgery took place. The proud flesh was removed from his thigh down to normal tissue. Proud flesh forms in large open wounds. It consists of large blood-filled cells that remind one of the “cells” of a pink grapefruit. They bleed at the slightest touch, but there is no pain because there are no nerves in the proud flesh. After the proud flesh had been removed down to normal tissue, the roll was opened out flat again, the end was cut free from the abdomen, and the open roll was sutured to the Marine’s thigh. Of course the abdominal wound was also sutured shut.
After these surgeries were complete, the wounded Marine would be able to stretch out for the first time in two or three weeks or more. If all went well, and it almost always did, the Marine would have closed wounds and could live a more or less normal life. He could now be moved farther east after his sutures had been removed. Often that was one of my jobs. I pulled lots of stitches.
Another one of my jobs was to change bandages. One of those jobs was unforgettable. The Marine had arrived by ship and had refused to let anyone change his bandages. Fortunately, I had a pretty strong stomach. Everyone at all mobile cleared out of the ward, and all of the windows were opened wide as I removed the bandages. The odor was overpowering. He had been in a foxhole when a Japanese soldier dropped in a hand grenade. The explosion blew off the backs of his legs and some of his buttocks, but very fortunately it did not blow off the bottom of his spine or his anus.
With the Marine lying on his back and his leg bent, I started removing the bandages as gently as possible. As the last came off, lots and lots of puss ran down, and in it were two squirming fly maggots. The odor was amazing. I later learned that he probably would have been in better shape if he had had many more maggots of the right kind to help clean his wounds.
Another Marine wasn’t so lucky. Similar to the first, he had been wounded by an explosion. The difference was that this Marine had the lower end of his spine and digestive tract blown off. Lying on his back, he more or less constantly oozed fecal matter. Special watch corpsmen tried to keep him reasonably clean. His pain must have been severe. I don’t know what happened to him.
As you can imagine, there was lots of mental trauma also, but it wasn’t acknowledged very often. We had a good nurse of Asian extraction on the EENT ward. One patient said just seeing her really bothered him. I suspect others also were upset just by her looks, considering what they had just been through. Hopefully they eventually learned to see the world differently, but probably many have not.
I was also assigned a special watch on a survivor of the Bataan Death March who was full of tuberculosis, which had made him deaf. He had material oozing from his ears, as well as the usual lung involvement. One day, I heard him franticly ringing the bell that he used to summon me when he needed something. It was one of those metal dome-shaped things with a plunger up through the middle. After I burst through the door, I found him holding the bell up to his ear. With a big smile on his face, he continued ringing vigorously. “I think I can hear it!” he said. What a wonderful relief for both of us.
I had another special watch with an extremely sick sailor. I don’t know what was wrong with him. A higher ranked corpsman who should have briefed me refused to give me any information, even though I specifically asked for it. I was told that it was my responsibility to do routine care and that was it. While I was there that evening, the mother of the sick sailor arrived. She came in, saw him, went back into the corridor and cried, composed herself, reentered and let that officious corpsman know that she was now going to be in charge of his care. That corpsman tried to give her the same doctor-knows-best-we-will-answer-no-questions-treatment he had given me, but she wouldn’t have it! He was probably just spouting the party line that was then current in medical circles. The same tendency exists today and is not good medicine. If they won’t level with you, get another doctor quickly. Sins of omission by doctors are apparently not punishable in our medical system. They are probably more frequent than sins of commission by doctors, and just as lethal.
One of my favorite fellow corpsmen was an older black guy. We took a patient draft back east. He had such a wonderful, intelligent sense of humor that it was a really fun trip for everyone. And it wasn’t just humor. He was a really thoughtful, intelligent person. I also used to spend quite a lot of time talking to a black patient on the EENT ward. It was really interesting to get his perspective on things, including interracial attitudes.
I once had a leave long enough to hitch hike home to Madison. The trip started from the Oakland Naval Air Station on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. I was able to hitch a ride on a DC3 Navy cargo and troop plane. It had wooden benches along the sides, and the benches were scooped out a bit like some wooden chairs so as to be a little more comfortable to sit in. We sat with our backs to the side of the plane and had seat belts. It cost us nothing because we were riding a plane that was going our way anyway. So there I was in my dress blues with my ditty bag and that’s all. This was my very first airplane ride!
An airfield near Reno, Nevada was our destination. From there I started hitch hiking along what has now become I-80. At the time, gas and tires were rationed, many males were overseas, many people were attached to the military or were working long hours in factories, people traveled less, and there were far fewer people living in the United States, so the traffic in the wide open spaces of the Great Basin and the Rockies was very light by today’s standards. I finally got a ride with a drunk. He had some sort of overdrive he was proud of and would wait behind another car until someone approached from the opposite direction on the two lane road. When they were quite close, he would gun it and pass the guy in front of us. Thanks to the alertness of the other drivers, we survived. He wouldn’t let me out.
The he saw some lights from a bar just off the highway. I was able to get out of the car after he parked, but he wouldn’t let me have my ditty bag out of the back. Fortunately, when I asked for help from the others in the bar, they forced him with threats to let me collect my gear. Most civilians really supported us, and that was one excellent example. I really appreciated their help.
It was really dark when I started walking back up to the highway. There was no moon, but the sky was crystal clear, and the stars were really bright. When I was up close to the highway or soon after I got to it, that drunken twit roared really close past me in his Ford.
I continued walking eastward and stepped a bit heavily to warn rattlers of my coming. The road was very flat and very straight. When a car or truck would come from behind me, perhaps for thirty seconds to a minute their headlights would illuminate the road so I could see what was on it. It was alive with small mammals, and as the light brightened, they flowed off both sides of the road well before the vehicle got to me. As far as the drivers knew, there probably wasn’t a rodent within a hundred miles of the road they traveled. That was a really neat experience for me. I got a couple of rides, one from a nice military couple who were headed east to a new duty station. I was also picked up by a guy driving a big long sedan, probably a Buick or a Cadillac. It had a broad shelf back from the rear seat to the window. He had a young, very small puppy that stayed on that shelf. It had an old piece of blanket that it scratched up into a lump and was continually humping. Quite a rear window ornament! Another guy that picked me up was a semi-truck driver in Wyoming. He had two gear levers that allowed him to shift through 12 forward gears. He tried to get me to stay in Wyoming and go poaching pronghorns with him. At that time they were still recovering from very low numbers. Needless to say I didn’t do that.
After getting to the airport in Cheyenne, I hung around waiting for a flight eastward to somewhere near Madison. In the process I had the opportunity to watch one of the huge new B-36’s take off from that high altitude air field. It was a good thing that the runway was really long. Another DC-3 (C-47) was my next aircraft, and it was going to Des Moines, Iowa. This was summer and we were required to wear our tightly woven, wool dress blues. As we started descending in our approach to the airfield at Des Moines, I started feeling hot and thought I might be getting sick. We landed, and when the door was opened and we started to get out, it felt like we were walking into a blast furnace.
Again I started hitch hiking. A traveling salesman picked me up and delivered me to Madison. He was an excellent and careful driver. What a contrast with that other looney! I walked quite a way and finally arrived in the wee hours at my girlfriend’s house, and after an hour or so of much missed togetherness, I went to my folks house and got them up early. More affection, food, and then sleep.
Most of the doctors at the hospital where I worked were young and rather inexperienced, as were we of course. On the EENT ward they decided that one of the patients needed to have a spinal tap. To do this, the patient was to lie on his side in the fetal position, and my job was to hold him around the neck with one arm and around his knees with the other arm. Supposedly this was to prevent him from straightening out if they hit the wrong nerve with the needle. If he did that, he might capture the long needle between his vertebrae and perhaps cause damage to himself. The doctor, one of two present, got the needle in and gave the anesthetic for the spinal block to allow some sort of surgery. I don’t remember what it was to be. Just before the patient lost the ability to breath, the doctors suddenly realized that they had not elevated his chest and head, so the anesthetic was moving toward his head. It was supposed to anesthetize only from the injection site toward his feet. I didn’t know any better, but they did. I don’t suppose any of us made that mistake again, and in this case no harm was done, but it was close.
Table tennis was part of the therapy for patients on the EENT ward. Patients with only one good eye were encouraged to play. We would occasionally play with them if another patient was not available and we had time. They got pretty good at judging distances with that little celluloid ball. I’m sure that helped a lot after they each received their glass eye and returned to civilian life.
You can easily imagine how depressed a person who was recently completely blinded must be. The suppurating coral wounds made it almost impossible to shave, but after they had healed up enough, it was time to clean up. As a corpsman, I shaved some of them for a while. Some claimed that shaving themselves was impossible. I therefore went through the entire process of shaving myself with my eyes tightly closed, and I found that I was able to do a good job of it on my very first attempt. I then told those guys so, and they finally shaved themselves, which would be essential later. I suspect they were so depressed that they had just given up and needed a prod to get moving.
On the plastic surgery ward I saw a show put on by a visiting group. These were attempts to motivate the sailors and Marines to not be stopped by their recently acquired disabilities. The star of that show was a guy with no legs at all. They were off right up to his hips. He walked in on his crutches. Finally, in time to dance music, he danced with a female partner and then performed some one-crutch handstands, still in time to the music. He was amazing.
Another patient sticks in my mind. He was a chief who had been below deck on a ship that was on fire and sinking. His only escape route was up a metal ladder that was red hot. He took that climb and survived, but he did so without the palms of his hands, which had been burned off. Our job was to give him new palms for his hands so he could use them again. The doctors did and we helped. I’m sure the results were far from perfect, but they were a lot better than what he had before the surgeries.
One time I was called to go out and help lift a pregnant sailor’s wife out of a car to get her on a gurney and into the hospital. The Navy provided hospital care for immediate relations of sailors. She made it into the hospital, but her baby didn’t, at least not in the womb. It was aborted across my left hand and arm, which I was using to support her bottom. The fetus was clearly too small to be viable, at least not in those days. I don’t know what happened to her either. I suspect she was OK, but very unhappy.
In those days, following hemorrhoid surgery, it was thought that healing was improved, and perhaps it was, if the wounded rear end was exposed to the sun. I guess we’d call it mooning the sun now. That was quite a sight, and being the Navy, you can imagine the irreverent joking by patients and others alike.
By the way, corpsmen were referred to as “cock docs” and for pretty good reason considering the venereal diseases acquired by sailors and Marines. I gave lots of penicillin shots into the buttocks of patients. The needle was big and long, and the amount of fluid was considerable. By slapping them with the back of my hand near the alcohol-swabbed injection site, and by being sure to have a really sharp needle with no burr, I could sometimes get them injected and the needle out while they were still wondering when they were going to get the shot. The sting of the slap got their attention away from the pain of the stab and injection.
There was a memorable pair of Marines (gyreens) that came through the plastic surgery ward. One was named Jack H. and the other Jack A. They both had lost the backs of their hands, but I don’t recall how that had happened. The problem was that about the time the grafts were on and had started to heal nicely, the powers in charge would let them go into town, to Oakland, San Francisco, wherever, on liberty. Each time those two nuts would pick a fight in some bar and would return to base with their nice new grafts peeled back as a result of the fist fight. By the way, they showed me how to take the belt they all wore, wrap it around my hand several times, leaving the heavy brass buckle loose to serve as a weapon in a brawl. They told me doing so would protect my hands if I ever needed to hit someone.
The real tour-de-force of that pair happened one night when the local police were transporting them back to Oak Knoll. (The police were pretty lenient with returned servicemen.) Both, of course, had quite a lot to drink. I don’t think they had got into a serious fight that night. As they were driving up onto the Oakland hills nearing the base, a jackrabbit froze in the headlights. One of them wanted to get out and catch it, and I guess the police must have thought that ought to make for some fun, so they let him out. He sneaked in the dark toward the jackrabbit and kicked it in the head, which killed it. The police were astonished by the Marine’s skill. The rabbit, I assume, was not. When the two Marines were delivered to the entrance gate, they pranced through shouting Jack H., Jack A., and Jack Rabbit had arrived.
As they were trying to figure out what to do with the thing, one of the Jacks got a bright idea. They decided to help out the Marine I mentioned above, the one with the maggots in his wounds. He had been complaining a lot—he was probably psychologically troubled—and was doing as little as possible to help himself or others. The three Jacks made their way to his bed, and Jack Rabbit was shoved under him as he awoke. According to the story from the other two Jacks, that guy was out of bed like a shot, quite capable of locomotion he had been unknown to perform since his arrival. I guess something warm, fuzzy, and big-eared was not his idea of an ideal bed partner. Needless to say, that story went round and round.
Another of my jobs was to work in the area that I think they called Central Supply. Needles were re-used back then, as were the glass syringes and surgical tools. After they had been cleaned, they were wrapped in an orange-colored cloth square and autoclaved. Our job was to clean out all of the needles and syringes and sharpen the needles before wrapping the set in the densely woven cloth. After we had autoclaved them, the packages were placed in reserve for use as needed. The needles and syringes were washed in soapy (probably tincture of green soap) water. The syringes were used to force the water through the needles. Then the needles and syringes were washed in a tray of alcohol using the same methods. I would get almost drunk from an hour or two over the fumes from that alcohol. I often had to de-burr needles that someone sharpened poorly or not at all. Every needle I got I inspected for sharpness and honed and de-burred on a stone if at all necessary. Believe me, you don’t want to be injected or have your blood drawn by someone using a dull needle with a burr on it. It damages on the way in and then hauls out a string of flesh on the way out.
Speaking of needles, there was one patient on the scarlet fever ward that was constantly being a pain in the neck for the attending corpsmen and everyone else. To appreciate this story you have to know that there was scuttlebutt going around that treatment for certain diseases consisted of “shooting you in the left nut with a square needle.” So, one day when that guy was being especially obnoxious, the corpsmen decided to have some fun at his expense. They got the biggest spinal tap needle they could find and put it on the largest syringe they could find, and then filled the whole thing with tincture of green soap, which really is green. When the corpsmen arrived at that guy’s bedside with that apparatus nearly 15 inches long and oozing greenish froth from the needle, the poor bastard started almost pleading for his life. “No! NO!! You’re not shooting me with that!” he yelped. The whole ward had a good laugh over that, even the victim when he realized that his left testicle was safe.
I was really naïve back then. I knew virtually nothing about homosexuality, but I learned almost all the wrong way. We went on liberty mostly to San Francisco, and a guy there befriended me. Things that should have tipped me off way happened, but because I just thought he was trying to be friendly, I nearly got myself into a real pickle before the penny dropped and I left for good. They seemed nice enough until I finally realized the unsaid messages. Nice or not, that wasn’t for me. I was also solicited by a guy who picked me up while I was hitch hiking in the San Francisco Bay area. Even then homosexuality seemed more open there than elsewhere. I remember one sailor was discharged because of his homosexuality, which he was no longer hiding.
I was also propositioned by the opposite sex, but at least I understood that. For example, one time, a young and pretty woman asked me to go bed with her because she had found out that her husband had cheated on her. I demurred, partly because I didn’t want to get involved in that mess, and also because I was staying faithful to my girlfriend at home.
A few months before my discharge and a few more since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a call for personnel to volunteer to attend a nuclear test at Eniwetok Atoll. I decided against it and again I lucked out. Those who went were really military guinea pigs or lab rats. They were not informed at all. They were irradiated at substantial dosages. So much for patriotism. You serve your country, and that’s how it treats you. They haven’t changed at all for the better as far as I know.
When the war was finally over and the Japanese capitulated, almost everyone got leave to go into San Francisco, or Oakland or wherever to celebrate. I didn’t try hard to get leave and was one of the few to stay on the base. I went up on a hill in the yellow grass and gave thanks that it was finally over—the killing and maiming would stop—and that I had survived it. How do we ever stop these wars? Could we identify the psychology of people prone to start wars and promote wars and somehow ensure that they cannot hold or control a public office? We need to do something like that and soon before we humans pull the plug on the human species, the warmongers included.
When it was finally time for me to be discharged, I was a Pharmacist Mate 2nd class, a petty officer myself. They didn’t just discharge us, though. They made us go to a discharge center. There they held us for about ten days. They tried mightily to get us to sign over as regular Navy enlisted personnel or Navy reserve. At the time they were saying things like if there was another war—things were already heating up with Russia—they would come and get me anyway. Might as well enjoy the pay and higher rating of staying in, they said. My response was that all may be true, but it is a little harder for them to come get me if I am all the way out than if I am Navy reserve. Again I lucked out. Those who went into the reserve got to fight in the Korean War also. People like me didn’t, thank goodness.
The day I got home after being discharged from the Navy, I was at my folks’ house in Madison. I remember being on the metal-sheathed deck above the sun room, where the large catalpa tree had branches almost touching the house. It was in full bloom. Both the sight and the smell were beautiful. I was home.
(Edited by David Chrisinger)
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)