Baby Boomers never forget where they were on November 22, 1963, when they found out that president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. For Generations X and Y who followed, and older Millennials, September 11, 2001 is the day that will be forever etched in memory. But 75 years ago this month came an event of equally shattering impact, which brought the US into World War II and would, as president Franklin D. Roosevelt ringingly predicted, “live in infamy”: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Alas, not very many people are still around who can personally recall the way that their lives were turned upside-down on December 7, 1941. But one surviving member of the “Greatest Generation,” who did his bit for the war effort as a medic, shared his memories with the New Paltz Times: Dr. Paul Lurie, a retired pediatric cardiologist who now lives at Woodland Pond. An avid swimmer and woodworker, Dr. Lurie is still physically active and intellectually lucid, and seems well-poised to make the centenarian mark.
Lurie describes the public response to the Pearl Harbor bombing as “spectacular.” “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the United States as united as they were in those early days, as we got organized to beat the Axis,” he recalls. “Everybody seemed ready to enthusiastically do whatever they could. Politics just kind of evaporated.” There were, he admits, “people who didn’t like Franklin, that’s true. But even then, they went along with the war effort.”
Born to a family who owned a small department store in Amsterdam, New York when it was still a “prosperous mill town,” Lurie got his undergraduate degree at Harvard and then entered the medical school at Columbia University. A fourth-year student, he was playing tennis with friends on a visit to Philadelphia when the terrible news of the Pearl Harbor attack arrived. “Everything in my life had been nice and smooth up to that point,” he recalls. “My first thought was of self-preservation: I was afraid that I might get drafted into the Army as a private. I was afraid that my four years of medical school would be wasted.”
But surprisingly, he says, so many fully qualified physicians volunteered for the war effort that the military “didn’t need the whole new crop that I was part of. They said, ‘You people who are in medical school, finish up, then get one year as an intern before you sign up.’” So young Lurie was able to complete the first stage of his degree, along with a one-year internship in pediatrics at Yale/New Haven Hospital. “I signed up the day I finished my internship,” in June 1943, he says.
His first wartime assignment was on the home front, learning more about topics like tropical medicine and epidemiology at the US Army Air Force’s Medical Services School at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. Six weeks later, Lurie was sent to the Air Force Station Hospital at Drew Field, near Tampa, Florida. He was assigned as a ward officer, supervising the care of a subunit of the facility whose patients were mostly suffering from what today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. “The soldiers in my ward were mostly radio officers who had been stationed in solitary positions all over the Pacific Islands, in constant threat of being discovered by the Japanese,” he recalls. “These guys were very sick psychologically.” Despite the fact that his expertise was in pediatrics, not psychiatry, Lurie was tasked with deciding whether or not his charges were fit to return to duty. “Most of them I discharged honorably,” he says.
After about a year, Lurie was transferred to the Headquarters Fighter Command, an airborne unit whose mission was to “protect the engineers building the Burma Road, to provide land access to China.” Previously, with Japan commanding the Pacific airspace, shipments of Allied troops and supplies to China had been accomplished by “flying over the Hump”: the Himalayas. Army Air Force crews were delivering roadbuilding equipment to the mostly Indian soldiers, with transport planes hauling gliders carrying “tiny bulldozers” and detaching them to land in the jungle.
“It sounds very romantic and exciting,” says Lurie; but in fact, his work near the India/Burma border as a medic for the 327th Airdrome Command consisted of taking care of “cooks, mechanics, guards — anything but flying personnel. They had specially trained flight surgeons to work on them. I got to inspect the mess and latrines, and took sick call every morning…I never saw a battle wound in all the time I was there. In wartime, you never know what kind of assignment you’re going to get. It may be dangerous, or not.”
Lurie was sent back stateside on “compassionate leave” when his younger brother, who was being groomed to take over the family business, died of an illness, shortly followed by his father’s death from a combination of stroke and heart attack. With brief excursions to see the Pyramids and the Qasbah during fueling stops in Cairo and Casablanca, he made his way back to the US, reassigned to a station hospital near Holyoke, Massachusetts: close enough to visit Amsterdam by car when needed by the family.
As the war neared its close, Lurie says, he discovered that “the next phase of my military career would be as a medical officer in the unit that would’ve invaded Japan. I’m not a great fan of nuclear weapons, but when Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb, I was so grateful that we didn’t have to invade Japan.” He thinks that the US “went overboard” during World War II with the internment of citizens of Japanese descent, however: “A lot of good people got put away for no good reason. They were largely American patriots.”
After the war ended, Lurie completed his pediatric training and became the first fellow at Yale in the brand-new field of pediatric cardiology. “We set up the first cardiac catheterization lab for children,” he recalls with pride. “Medicine is a joy if you get into an area that you love.”
After a 32-year career in academic hospitals in Indiana and California, Lurie went into semi-retirement, moving to the Hudson Valley with his wife Barbara because their daughter Andrea was then at Albany Medical School. He taught courses through Union University at the Albany Medical Center, and was his wife’s primary caretaker through a decade of progressive dementia. Barbara died in 2011, and Paul came to live at Woodland Pond to be near Andrea, who now lives in Esopus.
Dr. Lurie says that he prefers to be “more future-focused,” but looks back to observe that, while there was “again a feeling of unity that spread quickly,” the response of Americans to 9/11 was “not nearly as clear-cut as the Pearl Harbor experience.” The contrast is even greater in 2016, he says: “People can’t help but be partisan right now, because we are about as divided as we have ever been.” Perhaps we all stand to learn something about our common goals and values from the perspective of those like this veteran who vividly remember December 7, 1941 and how that crisis brought America together.