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Column: 80 years ago, they gave their all on Guadalcanal

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On Aug. 7, we will remember and honor the 80th anniversary of our U.S. Marines who landed on Guadalcanal early in World War II.

Before that battle, almost no one in America had heard of Guadalcanal, a small island in the South Pacific, but in 1942 it became the most important island to protect Australia and defeat Japan. Now, here is how my story unfolded 28 years later.

I completed my residency at Washington University’s Medical School in St. Louis. Navy doctors were needed for the Vietnam War, and I enlisted. I volunteered to be certain that I would be assigned to a neurological post.

In 1970, shortly after I arrived at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Great Lakes, Illinois, just north of Chicago, I met the commanding officer, Adm. William H. Turville Jr.

I don’t remember what I said to him, but he sensed that I had an interest in U.S. Navy history during WWII. He told me about his father, Capt. William H. Turville Sr. Both were physicians who made the Navy a career.

My commanding officer loaned me a book that his father had written about his WWII experience.

In 1942, Turville Sr. was then a young captain, stationed in Los Angeles where he was assigned to assemble and teach a command of doctors and nurses to construct and establish a mobile hospital unit that could rapidly become operational. His unit was assembled on a troop ship and went west from Los Angeles into the vast Pacific, destination unknown.

The second day at sea, Capt. Turville opened his sealed orders which read, “Proceed to Cactus.” He hurried to the radio room where he consulted the code books. “Cactus” was the code name for Guadalcanal.

Eighty years ago, on Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marines waded ashore onto Guadalcanal. The name Guadalcanal immediately came to embody the hopes and prayers of the American people to repulse a cruel and treacherous enemy. The Marine foothold on Guadalcanal was our first land offensive in the Pacific, and all America watched spellbound, because everyone knew that a victory at Guadalcanal would be the key to controlling the South Pacific.

The Marines struggled against a larger force of determined Japanese troops who would fight to the death.

Conditions on “The Canal” were unbearable in the scorching 120-degree heat and a terrifying jungle filled with typhus-spreading rats, dysentery and swarms of biting, stinging insects. The folks at home had no concept of the unbelievable hell their loved ones were in.

It was the incredible courage of those young men in the suffocating and terrifying jungle that carried them through.

Those brave young Marines prevailed, and Guadalcanal was declared secure on Feb. 9, 1943, six months after the initial landing. Capt. Turville put his men to work constructing the Naval Hospital. He kept a journal and took many photos, all of which he published in his book.

I marveled at the photos of those young Navy doctors, shirtless and wearing only their skivvies. Those doctors dug post holes, poured cement casings for the walls of the hospital — those skilled physicians worked alongside the enlisted men. The faster and better the medical care was provided to the wounded and sick Marines.

Capt. Turville reported that the hospital admitted 23,000 patients — 70% of those were Marines — and only 51 patients died. That low death rate is incredible, considering the primitive state of knowledge and available treatment for combat wounds and massive trauma and infectious jungle diseases.

When I returned his father’s book to Adm. Turville, we agreed that never in the 20th century were the American people so united and committed to a common purpose. And we also lamented the deep divisions of the American people over the Vietnam War.

Those physicians in WWII gave it their all, and they did whatever it took.

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Harvey Blumenthal, M.D., is a retired Tulsa physician who spent 40 years at Saint Francis Health System and served as the vice chair of the neurology department at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.


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