November 11 is Veterans Day. Although I never had to serve in the military, I honor those who did. I especially have the highest regard for those who actually saw combat and put their lives on the line for me and my country. To you ladies and gentlemen, I give my deepest thanks.
Today I’d like to honor my favorite veteran, my late father, Dr. Stanley Hollenbeck. Dad was born in 1911 in Milwaukee, Wis., where I was also born and raised. He graduated from Marquette University School of Medicine in 1936 and began a private practice. Around that same time, he joined the Wisconsin National Guard.
With the onset of World War II, his regiment became part of the Army’s 32nd Infantry Division which was sent to Australia in May 1942. Dad left behind his new medical practice, his wife and his newborn son, my brother Stan Jr. I can’t imagine how Dad felt about leaving his comfortable life behind, especially not knowing what he would be facing, as he would be thrust into the escalating war with Japan in the South Pacific.
Dad was the commanding officer of the 14th Portable Surgical Hospital, one of the army’s first Mobile Army Surgical Hospital units, which were later popularized by Alan Alda in the TV hit series “M.A.S.H.” Dad and his crew were sent to the north coast of New Guinea near a small village called Buna, where the enemy was deeply entrenched. His unit’s bulky, hot, humid hospital tent was set up less than 1,000 yards from the front line where hand-to-hand combat was taking place.
Health conditions for the troops were among the worst in the world. The mosquitoes and flies were horrific. Almost all soldiers, including Dad, suffered bouts of malaria. Everyone had recurrent dysentery. There were also scrub typhus, dengue fever, hookworm, yaws and countless cases of “fever of unknown origin.” Troops suffered from depression and severe battle fatigue caused by the relentless hot, humid, rainy weather, the jungle and inadequate food. For every two men who were battle casualties, five were out of action from fever.
Dad and his crew often operated day and night on the young wounded soldiers. This took place in a large canvas tent by lantern light. Temperatures inside the tent could reach up to 130 degrees. All of this was done under frequent machine gun strafing and bombing by enemy fighter planes, as well as the constant threat of being overrun by enemy troops.
Dad kept a daily diary of his life in New Guinea, which was later published by his Veterans of Foreign Wars group in Milwaukee. I would like to share an excerpt from that diary. On Nov. 16, 1942, a five-boat convoy bringing desperately needed ammunition, food and medical supplies to the troops was attacked by enemy aircraft, setting all the vessels ablaze. Dad and his crew witnessed the attack from the shore.
In his diary, he later wrote: “I grabbed my medical kit, forded the river and started up the beach. I could see the boats burning fiercely as night began to fall. I was frightened to death not knowing exactly where the enemy troops would be as I walked along the jungle’s edge. I continued up the beach, checked on survivors and rendered first aid. I had the more seriously injured sent back to our hospital tent. I hurried back to get ready to operate on the wounded. We operated all night long on the men, mostly with abdominal wounds, sewing up the bullet holes in their intestines, besides treating other serious wounds. We finally finished, getting to bed at 4:30 a.m.”
From October 1942 through February 1943, Dad remained just behind the front line, operating and treating wounds on countless injured soldiers. Lives were lost, but many more were saved due to the efforts of Dad and his crew. In February 1943, the 14th Portable Surgical Hospital was awarded the Distinguished Unit of Citation, and several individual members of the unit, including my father, received the Silver Star medal for gallantry in action. He also received the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Dad told me that he and his fellow soldiers were willing to put their lives on the line, believing that a victory would end all wars and that their children would never have to do the same. Unfortunately, such a dream was not to come true. Sons and daughters are still sent to battle.
Here’s to you, Dad, of whom I am so very proud, and to all the other brave veterans living and dead. I salute you and I honor you.