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It is April 29, 1942. Anxious and despondent over ominous war news, Americans cling to their radios, seeking a glimmer of reassurance from the master of the Fire Side Chat, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His
noble voice resonates with a tale of heroism in the Pacific, " ... I should like to tell you one or two stories about the men we have in our armed forces . ...”
Roosevelt would go on to tell listeners the story of a Navy physician serving in the Pacific named Corydon Wassell comparing him to a shepherd looking after his “wounded flock.”
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, part of the United States Asiatic Fleet had put into the oil ports of Borneo, Indonesia. When the fall of the Philippines became imminent, these cruisers and destroyers steamed north to convoy non-combatant ships from the danger zone area. Admiral Thomas Hart—commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet— moved his headquarters from Cavite to Surabaya, as Java became the center of resistance to southward advance of the enemy.
In January and February 1942, several bitter battles were fought in the waters between the Philippines and Australia, with Imperial Japanese forces continuing to advance. The USS Houston, USS Marblehead, USS Langley, and USS Pecos were among the gallant American ships participating in these actions.
In March 1942, USS Houston went down between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra in the Sunda Straits. Of a crew of 1,003, 368 survived the sinking. The majority of survivors were picked up by Japanese rescue crews, but many of the wounded were left abandoned at sea. The captured would spend the remaining war years in captivity as POWs. Some 70 of the Houston’s crew would die at prison camps.
The USS Marblehead engaged in battle with the enemy on February 4, 1942. She received two direct bomb hits killing 15 crew members and wounding 84. On February 6, 1942, the Marblehead limped into port at Tjilatjap, Java. She transferred her wounded to the evacuation hospital at Djokjakarta and the local hospital at Tjilatjap.
In the Netherlands East Indies at the time of these actions was Lt. Cmdr. Corydon Wassell, MC, USNR. Wassell arrived at Suribaya, Java, on January 27, 1942 as a member of Admiral Hart’s staff. There were good Dutch hospitals in Java, with Dutch and Javanese doctors and nurses, where American wounded could be cared for. To Wassell fell the task of assigning patients to these institutions.
Dressed in his elephant hat, Wassell visited the hospital wards talking with the patients and handing out gifts of candy, ice cream, soap and cigarettes to boost morale.
During the month of February it became clear that the enemy’s pincers would soon reach out and close on Java. Admiral Hart ordered Wassell to evacuate from the island “all wounded who can stand a hard trip.” Wassell sorted the patients accordingly, finding ten men, including Lt. Cmdr. William Coggins (XO of Marblehead) whose state was so serious that transporting them was not considered. Dr. Wassell elected to remain behind with the ten.
"Just when our hopes had almost gone," Bob Whaley, one of Wassell's patients, later recalled, "Dr. Wassell walked in and told us to get ready as quickly as we could. 'We've another chance to get out' he said, 'and it's our last chance."'
Left to his own devices, Wassell began to search for suitable means of getting the men to a place of safety. Just when all efforts would fail, a British colonel organized a motor caravan of anti-aircraft batteries and agreed to let Wassell’s patients ride the vehicles to Tjilatjap. With the aid of Dutch medical personnel, Wassell prepared the wounded for travel and made them comfortable as possible. The convoy would reach Tjilatjap the next day. One of Wassell’s ten patients was lost in the trip to Tjilatjap.
In the harbor the small Dutch coastal vessel Janssens was making ready to sail from Tjilatjap. Many of the ships had sailed recently had been sunk by enemy aerial attack, and nearly 800 persons crowded aboard the Janssens in a space that normally accommodated 150 passengers. Wassell found room aboard the Dutch vessel for himself and his remaining nine patients. The ship set out for Australia.
As Bob Whaley later recalled, "Everybody but three of us who couldn't walk scrambled below to get away from nine large bombers that were overhead. They went over. They didn't bother our small tramp steamer. Butt [sic] a few hours later the planes flew over and machine gunned the ship and fired aircraft cannon and machine gun shells."
The little ship was heavily attacked the first day out and had put in for repairs. On March 15, 1942, the ship finally reached Perth, Australia.
The story of Wassell and his “wounded flock” quickly leaked out of Australia and was brought to the attention of the public through Roosevelt’s fire-side chat in April 1942. Writer James Hilton, known for such popular novels as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon, captured the doctor's saga in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943). And in 1944, Hilton’s book was adapted into motion picture directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Gary Cooper as Dr. Wassell.
For his selfless service, Corydon Wassell would be awarded the Navy Cross.