June 1941: Army Medicine and Col. Strong

With the passage of a quarter of a century - always a good point to indulge in reminiscence - we recall that at this time of year in 1941, we were in New York City trying to make up our mind whether to stay on in residency training or join some branch of the armed services. (This seems to be a recurrent decision each generation must face.) Unlike the interns and residents of today, most of us then were single and unattached, so the added complication of what to do about wives and families did not exist. At that time the European war was already in progress, and it seemed obvious that the remaining three to four years of training ahead were due to be interrupted. In retrospect, there was no real reason to make a hurried decision, but somehow, then, it did seem important to get things settled.

Through laziness and general disinterest in all things military, we had not had the foresight, on graduating from medical school two years before, to sign the offered application, and as a result did not hold a reserve commission. Others at the hospital talked knowingly of the advantages of the Air Corps, Navy or Army, and even of the British and Canadian Services, but we were ignorant of all. The influence that headed us finally in the direction of Army medicine was a letter from a former close friend and classmate. He was already in service and comfortably located at the Fort Benning Station Hospital, and he was looking for company. We were urged to join immediately, since the Army was still honoring requests for particular assignments. After the decision was made, we informed our chief and the hospital administrator that we would not be staying for the next year, and took the subway down to 90 Church Street, where we filled out forms, had a physical examination, and waited.

Two complications developed in short order: first, our eyesight, while apparently adequate for draft requirements, was below the required standards for commission as an officer; second, to be stationed at Benning, it would be necessary to apply through the Fourth Corps Area instead of the First. Obstacles like these, however, were only minor challenges. The eyesight problem was solved by several interviews, considerable paper work, additional examinations, and by signing some sort of disability waiver form. We counted on connections in New Orleans, our native city located in the Fourth Corps Area, to deal with the second complication.

We did not realize fully how solid the connections were until mid-June when, having left New York and returned south, we stood before the proper desk in the Federal Building on St. Charles St. Colonel Robert Strong, a friend of the family and our own former Professor of Pediatrics at Tulane, was not only the officer in charge but, by virtue of his reserve rank, also the senior medical officer in the entire Fourth Corps Area. He greeted us pleasantly and made a great show of shuffling through stacks of papers, found the right ones, made us sign one or two more forms, and assured us in an official and efficient manner that everything possible would be done to grant the commission and the assignment as requested. The papers would have to make their usual channeled movements up to Washington and back, but, in due time, he was certain, all would be in order. He rose formally, and, as we did not think a salute was yet in order, we merely shook his hand, expressed thanks, and went our way.

One hour later, at noon, we walked into the dimly lit, air-conditioned bar in the Roosevelt, and were promptly hailed by our first name from a corner alcove. The earlier visit must have terminated the morning's medical work, for there, glowing rosily in a seat against the wall, was Colonel Strong making violent motions for us to join him. His jaunty overseas cap with its silvered eagle was perched symmetrically, but transversely, across his head, running from ear to ear above the bright red of an advancing forehead. This descent from protocol was reassuring, and as the conversation progressed from drink to drink, our faith in military medicine was bolstered.

Dr. Strong (it was difficult to think of him then as "the Colonel") had always been a favorite professor. A brilliant and knowledgeable clinician, author and editor of several texts, and a top authority in his field of Pediatrics, he had retained humor and tolerance that endeared him to his students. It was rumored that he occasionally enjoyed a nip or two during working hours, and he was a familiar figure on the charity wards, making rounds all alone at odd hours, handing out pennies and candies to the small patients. One of his eccentricities was that he invariably wore white tennis shoes. That day in the bar he expounded at length about the frustrations of his new job. His troubles with the Army, if indeed there were troubles, arose only from his age and rank that unfortunately, from his viewpoint, placed him behind a desk in the corps command instead of on the road to adventure. It was a far cry from the A.E.F. and the memories of what must have been a gay, gay Paree. When we left the Colonel, this time with an exchange of brisk saluting, we were certain that our papers could have fallen into no better hands.

Colonel Strong never did get overseas. He commuted to his desk from the Gulf Coast (where he lived after his retirement from teaching) and, just prior to his retirement from the Army as a Brigadier General, he had become a great favorite of the M.P.'s there. Every evening after cocktail time, the General would appear at one or two of the busy intersections in Gulfport and spell the M.P.'s at their posts directing traffic, while they ducked out for a quick beer. In spite of an occasional traffic snarl, his regular evening appearances were looked forward to by the military as well as the civilian residents. After his death a few years later, there was talk of erecting a memorial to him on one of the corners, but somehow it never came about. It must have gotten lost in the red tape he so despised.

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Jun 1966, Vol. XIII Vol 6, p.12

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