Tom H. Ebbinghouse
“Today is September 30th. I am Connor Ebbinghouse and I am interviewing Tom H. Ebbinghouse at 1126 W 75th Street Indianapolis, IN. Mr. Ebbinghouse is my grandfather, and he is 87 years old. He was born on August 22nd 1920. Mr. Ebbinghouse served in World War II and was in the Army Medical Corps and served as captain."
CE: How old were you when you when you first heard about WWII?
TE: I was in my early twenties.
CE: Were you drafted or did you enlist in the army?
TE: I enlisted three times. First I went to enlist in the navy, but was rejected due to poor eyesight. The second time I went to enlist in the army, but was rejected because of irregular heart beats. My wife wanted to know why, and I said my pipe smoking certainly wouldn’t cause that, but [I] would prove to her that it was not the cause, but I lost [the bet] and in two weeks my heart was running evenly and I enlisted in the army and was accepted.
CE: Why did you join the army?
TE: I joined the army because I was anxious to go to medical school, and the army recognized that they needed ongoing group of young men studying medicine even though the war was becoming protracted. So they organized the ASTP, army student [training] program, to prepare young men for medicine and do this while they’re in the army with the provision that they would serve any place that the army directed them for two years upon graduation.
CE: Do you recall your first days in service?
TE: First day was to go to Fort Benjamin Harrison with my duffel bag and enlist. I remember Mr. Brown came and he was a little bit late. He asked the sergeant where his room was, and he didn’t realize that we were all in a great big bunk. He soon began to realize the army concept of togetherness, however.
CE: Where were you living at the time when you enlisted?
TE: My home was in North Manchester, [Indiana] and then later I lived in Indianapolis.
CE: What was your training experience like? How did it feel?
TE: When I was in the ASTP program, we actually wore army uniforms. We started at revelry each morning and inspection, and after that we marched to the mess hall, had our breakfast, then march to various classes. We had classes all morning, and all afternoon, six days a week and this was summer and winter, a speed up program to get the young men through the medical program as fast as possible to replenish the diminishing number of physicians that were available for the added load of the war.
CE: What strategies did you use to get through your first days of training?
TE: When I first went to school we had a lecture, they said that “you’ve been students and you think you know how to study, but when you get done studying you don’t remember a damn thing.” They said “you’re going to have to learn to study, and when you get done studying for an hour or two, ask yourself what you learned.” And I learned that when they had a test, if I didn’t know the answer, probably I should go ahead and learn that. And sure enough it began to show up later in the subsequent tests. And that principle helped me to do better.
CE: Where exactly did you go during your service?
TE: We were— all the time we were in Bloomington living in the dormitory rooms that were designed for two, but had bunk beds for four soldiers. They turned the lights out at ten, and that made it a very short study evening. We couldn’t go to the library to study either. During the day it was difficult because they were building onto the university and they were using jackhammers to chisel on the stonework, and that made a terrific noise. The army, though, didn’t take much account of that because they had very strict regimented… very strict limits on what your academic performance had to be. One of my classmates missed the cut by half a percentage point, and he shipped off to the army and within two weeks he had gone to the front and was dead. This was certainly a very graphic reminder to us, and if we weren’t studying hard before that, I think we were all studying very hard after that.
CE: What caused you to join and be in medical school?
TE: What caused me to do that? When I was in Boy Scouts I was in a first aid contest, and won that, and I enjoyed bandaging. In fact, incidentally, that is the only place I ever was taught how to bandage. I graduated from medical school and nobody had taught me how to bandage, but I learned that in the Boy Scouts. I also was interested in how you diagnose and treat people and hoped that I would be able to treat somebody and later see that my course of treatment had helped them.
CE: What was your main event every day during medical school?
TE: the main event was the continual grind of class after class monotonously unfolding as we journeyed on through the medical program. We hand only a break at lunch, and there for a little bit we would go out and sit on the steps at the medical school and we’d sing songs, and vent some of our frustration and some of our enthusiasm by all singing together. Then, in Indianapolis, while I was up there, the next year, we lived in individual homes, and Bob Squire and I would go down on Sunday to a King Cole restaurant and have one nice meal once a week on Sunday and that was our entire entertainment, and back to work on the books preparing for the next test, and the tests came hot and heavy.
CE: What did you during your free time?
TE: We didn’t have free time. [chuckles] There was almost no free time at all. Almost, as I said, almost everything was…
CE: How did you entertain yourself to keep yourself sane?
TE: Well, as I said, we enjoyed singing together at noon and reminiscing and we stood in line going into the mess hall, as we stood in line waiting to go through to get our lunches served on the characteristic metal army tray, well of course we’d visit and chat with each other, and that was social contact with each other. We were listed alphabetically in the seats in school, and so I knew the people in the first of the alphabet, but actually I never did get quite as well acquainted with the people at the end of the alphabet because of the seating arrangement.
CE: Did you make any close friendships while in medical school?
TE: Bob Squire is my best friend, and he was the best man at my wedding. Joe Shetkin was another, and Bob— another was a pediatrician who is now practicing in Indianapolis.
CE: Where all did you travel while in the service?
TE: I didn’t get to see the road or travel at all. I was sent to Memphis and there I stayed the entire time. After I was out of the service I stayed over further in Memphis to take some residence training work in OB and in surgery.
CE: Did you feel pressure or stress to perform well?
TE: Yes, I think we all felt considerable pressure and stress. It was very necessary for us to perform well. It was crucial that you performed well. One of our professors said- in urology said “Gentlemen, you’ve absolutely got to learn this,” he said, “if I could climb to the top of the highest flagpole with no clothing on, I would do it!” but he said “this will not help you, you’ve got to grind and grind until you get this.” And that’s what the German professor told us.
CE: What were some of the most memorable moments or experiences that you had?
TE: Later on in the practice of medicine in the service I went to Memphis and was assigned a group of patients, and I found a patient who caught my interest, and as I looked at him I thought maybe he had early signs of leprosy. I thought that the new doctor in the ward would be considered out of his mind if he brings this up, so I kept secret thought to my mind for a week or two, then I mentioned it to an old lab technician and got him interested in doing repeated tests on this man. After about six or seven tests, he did confirm that this man had leprosy. So that was interesting, and we ended up sending this man to Carville Leprosarium as a proven case of leprosy where he could get proper proven treatment.
CE: Do you remember any particularly humorous or unusual events while either working or during medical school?
TE: I might tell you a serious event in caring for one of the paraplegic patients that was addicted to drugs. Two hundred and forty six patients were under our care in Memphis, and many of the ones that were rehabilitated left. Those studying laboratory work, watch makers, all those others had left, but the hardcore ones still remained, and many were addicted to drugs and morphine. I had worked especially hard on one very sturdy fella’ for weeks to finally get him completely off of morphine, just a week or so prior to the fact that I was off call one weekend when my chief took over. When I came back Monday I was dumbfounded and infuriated to find out that this patient had persuaded the chief to give him a shot of morphine, undoing all the work that I had done for weeks. I told him that I could absolutely not tolerate that, and he said “well we’ll just give that patient to somebody else to take care of.” I said “well I can’t have the respect of all of the rest of the patients on my ward if I just can’t handle the toughest one.” I said, “I want to be transferred off.” So I worked on that and eventually I got myself transferred to surgery service where I did anesthesia for some time, and later transferred to surgery where I assisted with surgery in my procedures. However, my captain’s wrath followed me for months afterwards because my other colleges were promoted to captains from first lieutenants with a pay raise, but mine never came, and about three weeks before I was dismissed, why, at last I was promoted to captain with the appropriate pay raise. So he… he got back at me, but I did get off of his service.
CE: What was the most difficult job you did while doing medical things?
TE: Well technically difficult was intubating patients that had short thick necks. We had to intubate them with inter-tracheal tubes, and those short thick necks were technically difficult to do. Also a sacral anesthesia was a difficult time to the anomaly to the sacrum. The bones to the sacrum were irregular and not consistent, and so in giving anesthesia there it taxed your dexterity and ingenuity, but I found those things interesting and I was on the service for several months with anesthesia with good success.
CE: Was there anything that you found emotionally difficult to do?
TE: In the army, on very, very rare occasions, there was a patient that neurologically was brain dead and finally after a long period of time, well then decisions were made, the respirator had to be turned off. I found that very hard.
CE: Did you use religion to get you through any parts?
TE: Well, I think I have a religious background and I have this religious feeling, not for tough times, but as in everyday support and strength that I can turn to. Incidentally, one minister lost his wife from breast cancer and I admire him so much and as he began his sermons he posted this one bible verse, or one song it is “ have thy known way lord, have thy known way, you are the potter and I am the clay.” And I think that says it well— that we’re in God’s hands.
CE: Did you have problems keeping in contact with your friends or family while serving?
TE: I think my problem was one of non responsiveness with this busy schedule that I outlined and the things that were happening and the fact that I had become married just two days before going off to active duty, and all of those new responsibilities, I didn’t write to my parents as frequently and keep in touch as closely as I should have. However, as my father in a few later years developed cancer, why then I did entirely change my home, moved back home and built a home for him and lived with him till he died, and my mother too. But during the early years I could have been more attentive.
CE: Did you find it hard to have gotten married two days before going off into service?
TE: It’s a tremendous shock, not only to me but to my wife because the date was chosen two weeks later and announcements were printed and all things were in order, the order for the cake had been left. So much was arranged for, the minister was arranged for but was on vacation, so everything was going to fall in place two weeks later, but two weeks before nothing was ready! So she left in great haste and told her supervisor at the medical school that she was going to have to leave, and she left abruptly and her nursing supervisor that she had worked under and served well never gave her her bonus. She was entitled to a couple few hundred dollars but the fact that she left, she wouldn’t give her her bonus. So it was difficult, but Anne [wife] and her mother got it worked out fine. I think its gonna last… [chuckles]
CE: What did you do after your service ended?
TE: After the service ended I wanted to come back to Richmond, bring my parents to Richmond and build a house, but there were three groups of people desiring places in communities. First of all interns and residents coming out of medical school wanted a place, then the doctors that were already there wanted to keep on practicing in their particular place, their location, then there’s the service people; army and so forth coming back, and they wanted a place to practice medicine, and physically there just weren’t that many office spaces available, it was extremely difficult to get a place to practice. So I looked at two or three places that turned out not to be suitable, and a doctor in one town actually told us that I could assist him occasionally on a surgical case, but he doubted that he would ever need me do to a surgical… a surgical operation. So we looked around and my mother said, “you know, you got that call about Richmond; it’s a nice town and you better go look.” So we ended up in Richmond and that’s turned out to be our home then. I bought a “practice” from Dr. Penticost who was leaving to go into anesthesia. By buying a practice I got an office building, so that’s the way I got a place to practice. I got some instruments, and my instruments, since my retirement, have been shipped down to Sierra Leone where they are down there.
CE: What did you do as a career after the war?
TE: I did general medicine. I was the last doctor in our community to do “everything”. I did pediatrics, OB, internal medicine. I did dermatology, surgery; tonsils hemorrhoids, hernias, appendectomies, and all those things. So I was the last one in that community to do all of those things. Since then vary specialties of residents... vary specialties are required in [the] hospital.
CE: Did your military experience affect the way you think about your government or war in general?
TE: Well, as I think about the way the government was then and our particular posture and the presidents that we had, I compare them with our present situation; I’m disappointed because I feel that our country has lost stature, and I’ve been disappointed in the war that we’ve got embroiled with, and where I had great faith in the pervious war now, I don’t fell that this war actually was completely necessary, it was under unusual circumstances and now we’re in a quagmire and nobody seems to have a solution as to how we can extricate ourselves. So my comparison of then and now… I’m disappointed.
CE: How did your service affect the experiences of your life?
TE: Well, I don’t think it had a profound effect, I think its one of those things in my case where I practiced medicine, and I continued to practice medicine under different circumstances. I was in a 6,000-bed hospital in Memphis and came here in Richmond to a 250- bed hospital, quite a different circumstance. I was in a particular department so I had no contact with most of the hospital and their internal medicine department. So… we had very good men actually in the hospital where I was, but one of the terrible consequences of pride and the head of the anesthesia department and the head of the surgical department got in a terrible debate over one pint of blood being hung up during surgery that the surgery hadn’t ordered, and this tore the whole department apart over months in which people were taking sides, and I had no idea of the politics that could take place in a government facility like that. That helped me decide that I believed that I didn’t want to be in that big hospital.
CE: While you were working in Memphis, was there ever any shortage of supplies that made it difficult to work?
TE: No, we had good supplies, we were very well taken care of that way...very well…
CE: Where there any difficulties while working
TE: No, we had an adequate staff, we had good numbers of staff, and we had highly trained people in anesthesia and surgery and we had some extremely good surgeons, and in orthopedics we had a nationally known surgeon that operated… Dr. Speed from the speed clinic operated and they were operating to be in the hospital, so we had very good staff. No problem there.
CE: Since you were in the army, did you ever have to follow certain protocols?
TE: Always, we always had...[chuckles]... that’s it, absolutely, everything is by the numbers.
CE: Do you recall any specific ones that you either liked or disliked?
TE: oh, the first one was getting there on time [chuckles] there’s no question about the fact that you’re supposed to be there right on time and ready to go and you didn’t hand in late excuses. Yep…
CE: Do you attend any reunions or still see any of the people that you served with during the time?
TE: No, those people are all scattered... we’re all scattered, actually several of them have died, and several of them have health problems or are living so far away that we cant get together anymore. Dr. Squire, my best man, lives in California and he’s the one that had a battle with lung cancer, fortunately making a better progress, but we never have gotten together…
CE: Is there anything that you would like to add that we have not covered so far? Any stories?
TE: no, I think that is pretty much everything that comes to mind.
CE: Do you have any words of wisdom?
TE: I’ll keep on thinking, if I think of some special ones I’ll let you know.
CE: All right, thank you.
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