Taking care of the wounded during WWII
By Tamara Stevens, Special to Emmet County
In the latter half of 1943, a young man with dreams of going to Europe and fighting for his country in World War II found out his future was being decided for him instead by military leaders. Richard McMurray would not be going to fight Germans in Europe, but rather heading in the opposite direction.
“We were told our new address would be in care of the post master in San Francisco, California,” McMurray said. “That quieted down any ideas about a European adventure that I was looking forward to.”
McMurray went for an interview with the Army Specialized Training Program, ASTP, where he was asked if he wanted to go into engine school or study languages.
“I told them, ‘I don’t want to do either, I want to go to medical school,’” McMurray recalls.
The Army had a policy of not encouraging recruits to “clutter up the system” for specialties such as medical training if they didn’t have prior experience or education in that field, he said. He was informed that he needed to be already accepted into medical school before the Army would educate him in that field.
So he applied to the University of Michigan Medical School, having grown up in Coldwater, Mich. The involved process of debarkation had begun for McMurray and on Dec. 19, 1943, when he and other men sailed from New York Harbor. They were headed to New Caledonia in the South Pacific, located between Australia and Fiji.
“Coincidentally, I got my mail and received a letter from the University of Michigan that I’d been accepted into their medical program,” McMurray said. “I wrote to them and told them I was on my way to New Caledonia, thousands of miles away, and my medical training would need to be put in abeyance.
“I often said that someone else makes the decisions, it’s either good or bad,” McMurray said. “It worked out well for me.”
Taking care of the wounded during the war
McMurray grew up in Coldwater, where he was born in 1922. He graduated from Coldwater High School in 1940 and began attending college the following year. The minister at his family’s church, the American Baptist Church, had connections at a community college in Missouri. The William Jewell College’s president was McMurray’s minister’s father.
“Our minister got me involved in college out there,” McMurray said.
By his third year of college it became apparent that the war would interrupt McMurray’s education. He enlisted in the Army Reserve Corps, which allowed him to be an enlisted soldier when the military called him up for service in June 1943.
McMurray went to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis to the induction center. Then he went to Camp Barkley in Abilene, Texas, for basic training, where he remembers it being very hot. After 17 weeks, he was sent east to Camp Shanks in Pennsylvania, making McMurray assume he was heading to Europe. But soon, he found out he was heading to the South Pacific.
He remembers arriving on New Caledonia, a long, narrow island, on Jan. 31, 1944.
“We were on the ship so long, I wondered if I was in the Navy or the Army,” McMurray said.
They were transported on a 6,000 ton Liberty ship, a former banana boat, which wasn’t very comfortable, according to McMurray.
Arriving at the Replacement Depo, McMurray was assigned to the 27th Station hospital. Situated on a beautiful spot on Ansavada Beach, the hospital was two miles outside of the town of Noumea on New Caledonia.
McMurray, Private First Class (PFC), started out as a “ward boy,” running errands for physicians, taking care of bed pans and other less glamorous duties.
“We were getting the influx of injuries and casualties from Bouganville,” McMurray said. He recalls seeing all sorts of injuries, and a lot of sexually transmitted diseases, too.
A fellow named Fred, who was in charge of the lab, was looking for a new lab clerk. Fred was bunking with a tech sergeant who was in charge of hospital personnel. The tech sergeant noticed that McMurray could type, so he requisitioned McMurray to be the clerk in the lab. McMurray had previously requested to go to lab tech school. The commanding officers said that would be fine, but McMurray was already classified #858, in other words, lab tech. “That was the Army,” he said of the mix up.
“Clerking work in the lab took me about 30 minutes a day,” McMurray said. The rest of his time in the lab he observed and paid attention. Eventually he was allowed to perform a few procedures. The fellow in charge of the lab made McMurray a lab tech in no time and had to requisition someone else to be the clerk.
“I learned on the job,” McMurray said. “It was great duty for the Army. We would work hard in the morning, then half the crew sat on the beach in the afternoon. In Army-life, it was pretty nice.”
From lab tech to helping with casualties
Working in the lab was sort of a status symbol, he said. For one thing, it took him off ward duty. He liked running tests and going out in the ward to collect blood samples and doing counts. It provided him with independence, he said. Sometimes he might have to do a blood count at night, so he was “on call,” but most of the time he was in the lab at scheduled times. He didn’t care for examining stool specimens, though.
They ran a few clinics, as well, including a dermatology clinic, because the lab officer happened to be a dermatologist. They saw a lot of hook worm in the natives. The lab performed work that was ordered by the physician in the ward for the GIs, and also for the French people who lived on the island. New Caledonia had been a French penal colony. The French residents were a nice group of people, McMurray remembers. They knew the hierarchy of the military organization, and they’d come in and get lab work done.
“You had special privileges if you knew someone,” McMurray said.
The military closed the hospital about the time McMurray’s group went into Okinawa, which was D-day plus 12 (days). While he was on Okinawa, few months later in April, President Roosevelt died, McMurray remembers, an event that was marked by sorrow by most servicemen.
“I was sadder about Ernie Pyle dying than I was about Roosevelt,” McMurray said. “Pyle was one of us. He was killed on a small island off Okinawa.”
When McMurray went to Okinawa, he was immediately put on detach service. The 27th station hospital wasn’t going to be installed, or up and running, for a few weeks. McMurray was then attached to the 31st Field hospital because he had needed skills such as drawing blood, starting IVs, etc. He worked in the shock ward for awhile, helping casualties from an aid station.
“We did anything big that came in,” McMurray recalls, whether it required supplying the casualty with plasma, an IV, blood transfusions, they did it. “We’d get them stabilized, hopefully.”
More than a month after the battle on Okinawa began, they finally got the hospital organized and opened on the island. The tent hospital provided full services – surgery, an X-ray department, medicine department, you name it. Suddenly, that hospital was closed and McMurray and his outfit were moved “up north” to Saipan to open another hospital.
He remembers hearing the B-29s flying overhead as they were heading to bomb Tokyo, Japan.
“We were a staging area for the invasion of Japan,” McMurray said. “We were in the middle of the island.”
They were receiving casualties from Naha, a city on Okinawa. The largest group of casualties he remembers were from the sinking of a beer ship during one battle. “The casualties were the beer bottles,” he said. The military would provide beer to soldiers, and it arrived on ships. When the beer ship sank, some cargo was salvaged. After that, some beer bottles were fine, he remembers, and others were nothing but salt water.
“At least they didn’t charge you for it,” McMurray said of the salt water beer.
The war is over
The Okinawa hospital was an active hospital until the end of the Japanese war. The European war had ended. In August of 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
McMurray remembers he and many men were watching a movie outside one night. A Marine detachment on a nearby hilltop started shouting and carrying on. They were announcing that the war was over. It was still “business as usual” for McMurray and hospital crew until they finally closed the hospital in November 1945. He was loaded into a C-47 aircraft and they flew into Seoul, South Korea.
Once they were in South Korea, he was “billeted,” or “put into a space” in a hotel-style room. The Korean Institute of Technology was a beautiful building, but it had slit trench bathrooms.
“Our carpenters came in and installed stools over the trenches,” McMurray said, laughing.
When that hospital closed, McMurray was one point shy of being eligible to be sent home. The Army sent him to the 29th General Hospital as a lab technician. He describes it as leading by “the seat of my pants,” because he was enlisted as the man in charge of the lab, something he’d never done before.
While in Korea, he saw his first and only case of smallpox. The patient was an adult and McMurray said it was memorable.
In December of 1945, he was finally rotated home to the States. The liberty ship took McMurray and others from Inchon, Korea, to Seattle, Wash.
“The prettiest thing was seeing all the white houses along Puget Sound,” McMurray said.
After his discharge, McMurray returned to Coldwater. Within two weeks he was enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he “made up a few deficiencies,” he claimed, thus ending his military career as a T4 (Technical Sergeant). The following fall he began in the U of M Medical School. He graduated from medical school in 1950.
His medical internship was performed at Hurley Hospital in Flint, Michigan. He wanted to be a family practitioner, but soon learned that “I wasn’t smart enough to be a family doc,” he said, because they had to know everything. An opportunity developed for him to go into obstetrics and gynecology, an area of medicine he really enjoyed.
“I’ve been taking care of women and babies all my life,” McMurray said proudly. He finished his residency at the U of M Medical School in 1955.
By then, McMurray and his wife, Lemoine were married and had started a family. They were classmates in high school and had dated a few times before graduating. She ended up at the same community college in Missouri as McMurray, due to her family’s connections to the same church and pastor. Years later, they were married April 5, 1947.
“Most of the time ‘dating’ was writing letters back and forth,” McMurray said.
They had two boys and one girl. Over the years McMurray joined a physician practice in Flint. He worked for 37 years delivering babies. In the early years, he kept track of how many deliveries he performed, but then he lost count. He estimates at least 5,000 babies took their first breath with his help, and that includes his training years. His wife was a school teacher while raising the children.
The Emmet County connection
While working in Flint, the McMurrays had a cottage on Walloon Lake. By 1966, McMurray became involved in the National Ski Patrol at Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs. They were leasing the cottage when the owner asked if the McMurrays would like to buy it. In 1980 they purchased the cottage, their first home in Emmet County. The family skied out of the cottage for many years. In the summers, McMurray played golf in the Flint area.
Over the years McMurray took time out from his practice to go on two missionary trips to Honduras as a physician, an experience he found quite gratifying. He performed basically gynecological exams and surgeries, he said.
McMurray retired from medical practice in 1992. They didn’t move up to Northern Michigan right away. While working at the medical practice, McMurray became involved in medical politics statewide and served as the president of the county medical society. Eventually he became the president of the state Medical Society, and chairman of the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs for five years. He says he dropped it all when he retired, but he volunteered to supervise residents in the residency program at Hurley Hospital as a way to stay involved.
He and Lemoine purchased a condominium overlooking Little Traverse Bay in 2007 and moved permanently to Petoskey. Their condo is near their son Dr. Mark McMurray’s medical practice, Bay Street Orthopaedics.
Lemoine became ill a few years after they moved to Petoskey and passed away Oct. 18, 2011. They were married 64 years. They had three children, and six grandchildren. All three of their children went into medical fields, something that made McMurray and his wife quite proud. Their daughter, Gail, has a Masters degree in Sociology and Psychiatry and lives in Kalamazoo, and their other son, Kirk, is the Executive Director of the DuPage County Medical Society in Chicago.
“I’m very pleased with my kids,” McMurray said. “They’ve done well. And they’ve educated their kids. And now they’re looking after their old dad.”
McMurray is suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive lung disease and he is on oxygen. He blames smoking while in the service as contributing to his current condition.
“I smoked for 20 years,” he said. “It didn’t help me.”
McMurray has been a member of the Noon Rotary Club of Petoskey for many years.
When looking back at his service to his country, McMurray said, “I wouldn’t take a nickel to repeat it, but I wouldn’t a million dollars to not have had the experience.” He feels fortunate that it went as well as it did for him, knowing that many men didn’t have a similar experience.