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Medical memories from Dec. 7, 1941: Attack on Pearl Harbor

From the first moments of the attack until the close of the day, Hickam's small new hospital, which had opened only a few weeks before, was the focal point of activity on the base.

From the first moments of the attack until the close of the day, Hickam's small new hospital, which had opened only a few weeks before, was the focal point of activity on the base. (Courtesy photo)

Edited from 7 December 1941: An Air Force Story

From the first moments of the attack until the close of the day, Hickam's small new hospital, which had opened only a few weeks before, was the focal point of activity on the base. Capt Frank H. Lane, the acting hospital commander, was an Army Air Forces flight surgeon who lived with his wife, Carmen, and their two sons in family housing located only a short distance from the Pearl Harbor boundary. He awoke shortly before 0800 that Sunday morning to take his family to church and had just finished dressing when he heard a loud explosion. His first thought was that one of the oil storage tanks on the hill just inland from Pearl Harbor had exploded. When he looked out the bedroom window, a cloud of black smoke in that direction seemed to confirm his guess. He ran downstairs and out the back door, just in time to see a small plane marked with the rising sun insignia of Japan flying slowly by, slightly above the level of the tops of the two-story houses. He could plainly see the pilot and thought at the time that a Japanese carrier must be in Hawaii on a diplomatic mission. As the plane flew toward Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, more explosions occurred; then another plane flying in front burst into flames and fell in the water. Only then did Captain Lane realize that a real attack was underway. He called to his wife to stay inside, ran to his car parked behind their quarters, and drove to the hospital about four blocks away. By then, the air was filled with the high-pitched whine of diving planes, the chatter of machine-gun fire, and the roar of exploding bombs. 

The Hickam hospital, located about three blocks away from the flight line, was built of reinforced concrete three stories high, with wide, tropical screened porches on three sides. In the back, and connected to it with a ramp, was a building that housed medical department personnel, a kitchen, and mess hall. The hospital had a capacity of only 40 beds, about 25 of which were occupied at the beginning of the raid. Seriously ill patients were normally sent to Tripler General Hospital. Hickam's hospital staff consisted of about seven medical officers, five dentists, seven nurses, and forty enlisted men. 

As Captain Lane parked his car on the street in front of the hospital, the medical officer of the day, Captain Andre d’Alfonzo arrived in an ambulance with a wounded soldier. The captain had been at the flight line to meet the incoming flight a B-17's, to get them sprayed for bugs, and certainly did not expect to treat victims of an enemy attack. About the same time, a severely wounded soldier came in, carried on a door, conscious but with a good part of his abdomen and one hip cut out by a piece of shrapnel. Captain Lane felt he was probably beyond help but, to reassure him, sent him on to the operating room, telling him he would be fixed up. By this time, all available personnel had been pressed into service. The entire hospital staff came in, even those who had been on night duty and just relieved at 0700 that morning. Three Filipino orderlies—Maguleno H. Jucor, Torihio Kendica, and Cosme R. Echanis--ran through a hail of bombs and machine gun fire to get to their jobs. Hospital patients left their beds and either went home or joined in to help with the flood of casualties. All the phones in the facility were busy with calls for help. The trucks and drivers augmenting the fleet of seven ambulances began a regular pick up of injured at the consolidated barracks, mess hall, and the flight line, Where most of the casualties were occurring, then made regular runs to Tripler. 

When the first of the injured started coming in, they found the hospital staff prepared and waiting. Surgeons performed numerous emergency operations to remove bomb fragments. One of the dentist, Lieutenant Robert Lee Kushner, turn surgeon that day, working alongside Lieutenants White and Garret and all the other medics to put in long, continuous hours of labor. Not knowing how long the raid would last, they did not attempt to fill the beds in the Hickam hospital but evacuated the road to Tripler as fast as they could after administering first aid (which was limited to applying tourniquets, splints, bandages, and giving morphine). The pharmacy prepared morphine in syringes in holding 10 doses each, and they did not have time to change the needles between patients. Every few minutes, a medical officer would go out and check the corpses that were being stacked in the back of the hospital to make sure that none of the living was among them. 

Sometime during the attack, a delayed-action 500-pound bomb landed on the front lawn of the Hickam hospital, about 60 to 70 feet from the building.  Shortly afterward, the air was filled with the acrid smell of the explosives from the bomb, and a number of people yelled “Gas! Gas!,” adding to the tumult and confusion. Hickam’s nurses, including Monica E. Conter and M. Kathleen Coberly, provided a calm, steadying influence and won the praise and admiration for all their hard work.  This was the first time that Army nurses had been on the front line of battle; always in the past they were in evacuation hospitals at least 10 miles behind the lines.  Annie Gayton Fox, who was the nurse in charge that day, later received the Purple Hart, not for wounds, but for bravery.  She was believed to be the first woman receiving the medal since it was revived as an award of honor by President Roosevelt in 1932. 

Hundreds of casualties arrived at the hospital on 7 December 1941, but two made a special impression on Captain Lane. The first was a soldier who walked in the front door under his own power with one arm completely gone but waving his remaining arm in greeting, still managing to wear a big smile on his face and make a joking remark. The other was a young flight surgeon, 1st Lt William R. Schick, from one of the B-17s arriving in the middle of the raid. He was sitting on the stairs leading to the second floor of the hospital and drew Captain Lane's attention because of his winter uniform (which was never worn in Hawaii) and the insignia of a medical officer on his lapels.  He had a wound in the face but, when approached for treatment, said he was all right and pointed to the casualties on litters on the floor, saying "Take care of them." Captain Lane told him he would be placed in the next ambulance going to Tripler.  He was, but died after arriving there. Schick General Hospital, which occupies 160 acres in the northern limits of the city of Clinton, Iowa, was later named in his honor. 

During the evacuation of dependents from Hickam, a group of about 30 wives begged to be allowed to stay and help in the hospital. Several of them had husbands who were killed or wounded during the attack.  At first they went to work making dressings and bandages to replace the hospital's depleted stock, since no one knew whether or not the attackers would return. Later, they assisted in the hospital kitchen, releasing military members for other duties. The hospital itself sustained little damage. Besides the large bomb crater on the lawn, there were a few machine-gun bullet holes in the screen of the hospital porches and some bomb fragments on the porch floors. The only casualty from the medical  staff was an "aid man" (not further identified) who had been killed by strafing while picking up injured personnel on the flight line. The interior of the hospital, however, was a bloody mess; and clean-up efforts were hampered by the broken water main, which made it necessary to haul water in water carts. 

By mid-afternoon, when the excitement of the attack had subsided, people began to get hungry. Sgt Clarence W. Schertz, the hospital mess sergeant, had anticipated this and, with the help of this regular crew and many of the volunteer wives, was soon dishing out food to all comers.  Earlier, he had gone to Honolulu with a large truck and returned with a full load of food supplies. Exactly where or how he got all the food, the hospital commander did not know and never asked. The word soon got around that the hospital was feeding the troops, and a steady stream of men showed up and were fed.  The little hospital mess, designed to feed about a hundred people, must have fed well over a thousand that day. Most of the medical personnel stayed the hospital that night, sleeping on the floors of the offices and dressing rooms. The volunteer wives all slept on mattresses placed on the dining room floor. 

By 1000, the attack was over; and despite rumors to the contrary, the Japanese attempted no landings. In less than two hours, however, they had crippled the Army's air arm on Oahu, leaving wrecked aircraft, hangars, and other buildings, in addition to exacting a heavy toll of nearly 700 Army Air Forces casualties.