LEGACIES OF WWII: Robert E. Lee – Navy Corpsman
“Our patients were given six shock treatments,” said Robert E. Lee of Auburn. “If that didn’t help them, the patients were sent home or to a VA hospital for further treatments.”
During World War II, Lee who was born in Van Wert, Ohio, in 1917, was drafted into the Navy. His early life — full of challenges — was similar to that of many children who lived during the Depression and may have helped to prepare him for his military service.
One of 12 children, Lee moved with his family first to a farm near Fox Island, then Auburn. His father, a sharecropper, plowed with horses. Robert attended school through the eighth grade, then quit to work on the farms.
In 1940, Robert began working at International Harvester. “I earned 37 and a half cents an hour,” he said. By then, he was married and during the next few years, he and his wife, Ruth, would become parents to two daughters.
When in December 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and the U.S. Congress declared war on the Axis countries, Lee continued working at the plant which made trucks used by the Navy.
Then, In March 1945, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. “If I had quit working at the factory to farm, I might not have been drafted as farmers were needed to raise food,” he said. Lee and several of his six brothers would serve during the war in the Navy and army.
Lee completed boot camp at the U.S. Navy Training Center in Sampson, NY. Afterward, he and several dozen other seamen rode trains to San Diego’s Naval Hospital Corps where they attended basic courses in hospital corpsmen duties. Lee has no sure idea why he was chosen for this type of service. “I had worked as a supervisor at International Harvester,” he said. “If a worker was hurt, I took him to the hospital to be treated. Maybe that’s why I was chosen.”
The Instruction lasted three weeks. From there Lee was sent to U.S. Naval Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he cared for a variety of illnesses, including polio.
Later, he was assigned to what would be his final, and perhaps toughest, location of service: Public Health Service Hospital in Fort Worth, Tx.
Lee was given training and assigned duties with Navy and Marine personnel that was different from anything he had ever known in the area of Neuropsychiatry. “Sailors who had mental problems were sent there for treatment,” he said.
Treatment for the patients typically consisted of having headphones placed around their heads through which waves of stimulation, or ‘shocks’, were administered. “A couple of us corpsmen were present in the room to hold the patients down on the bed,” he said. Twice Lee was knocked down by patients who struggled. The treatments were usually administered once a week per patient.
The hospital was part of a complex of four large hospitals in a circle of buildings. In the middle was a greenhouse in which the patients could rest or enjoy the weather. Tunnels ran under the quadrant between buildings. “That way the patients had privacy,” he said.
After six weeks, a patient was either sent home or to a VA hospital near his home, regardless of improvement. As one of the older corpsmen, Lee was chosen to accompany the patients on the train.
Privacy was a priority, and no conversation occurred between the corpsman and his patient and the other passengers. “The public was not to know our purpose for being on the train,” he said. As the train company was aware of their purpose, Lee and his patient were issued private rooms with two beds, but Lee often slept in a chair to keep an eye on his patient.
Sometimes they rode from California to Maine. The trip could be lengthy as passenger trains pulled off on sidings to wait for freight trains to pass.
Lee worked at the Public Health Service Hospital until the war ended. At the time of his discharge in April 1946, Lee earned $50 month and was issued $3.50 per day for housing and mess (food) allowance.
After returning to Auburn, Lee worked at International Harvester until retiring after 34 years. He and Ruth added another daughter to their family. A son-in-law served in the military in Korea. In 2009 Lee participated in Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.
During his training during the war, Lee became aware of a pattern of behavior called ‘sandbagging’. “That was when a sailor faked mental illness to get out of the war,” he said. Generally, he thought the symptoms he witnessed were genuine and he felt sympathy for his patients. “I was glad I didn’t have to go through what they had,” he said.
Kayleen Reusser is an author who just finished the book “They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans”