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“The Odyssey of the Dental Service of the 21st General Hospital" by Earl E. Shepard, 1946

Earl E. Shepard

Earl E. Shepard graduated from the Washington University School of Dentistry in 1931.  He served during the Second World War in the U. S. Army Dental Corps with the 21st General Hospital and the 40th Station Hospital.  From 1953 to 1975 Shepard was professor and head of the Department of Orthodontics at the Washington University School of Dentistry.  This article was published in the May 1946 issue of the Washington University Dental Journal.

Earl E. Shepard

(Sponsored by Washington University)
by Earl E. Shepard

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1941, a telephone message alerted, for active military duty with the 21st General Hospital the following members of the faculty of the School of Dentistry, Washington University:

Webb B. Gurley, Major, Dental Corps, Chief of Service
Joseph A. Laffler, Captain, Dental Corps
Lane W. O’Brien, Captain, Dental Corps
Earl E. Shepard, Captain, Dental Corps
Lester H. Jasper, 1st Lt., Dental Corps
Carl W. Lattner, 1st. Lt., Dental Corps
James M. Rose, 1st Lt., Dental Corps

From the dates of January 10, 1942, to February 15, 1942, the above officers reported for duty with the 21st General Hospital training at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The time not spent in training of strictly military nature was occupied in serving in the Dental Clinic of the Station Hospital.

Without fear of contradiction, the personnel served in a superior manner in the difficult assignment of “attached officers.”

During the month of June, 1942, the Tables of Organization for a 1000 bed general hospital such as the 21st, was changed and it became necessary to transfer two of the dental officers to bring the strength of the service to five.  Sad hearts bade farewell to the then 1st Lt. James M. Rose and the then 1st Lt. Carl W. Lattner.  These two officers, together with about 18 medical and medical administrative officers moved to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and formed the nucleus for the 21st Station Hospital which ultimately departed from the United States in September, 1942, and served well in the Middle East, finally in the latter stages of the war coming to rest in Italy.

A very complete series of immunizations guaranteed to prevent anything save homesickness were tendered each unwilling left arm.

After a veritable epidemic of rumors the 21st General Hospital was alerted for overseas movement on October 12, 1942, and departed from Fort Benning in the wee small hours of October 13, 1942.

After a long troop train sojourn the organization entered the staging area known as Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.  After a few days in the mud and rain of this area, the unit left the New York Port of Embarkation on October 20, 1942, aboard the former luxury liner “Mariposa.”

The North Atlantic was crossed without escort.  Berth accommodations were necessarily at a minimum.  The dental officers were employed en route as Compartment Commanders, serving alternate shifts, during which time they were responsible for all personnel in designated areas of the ship.  Dental emergency treatment was also an incidental function.

With the exception of the usual occurrences of “mal de mer” the crossing was uneventful.

On the morning of October 28, 1942, the shores of Ireland and Scotland were sighted and after a slow tortuous trip around wrecked and sunken shipping down the Mersey River, late at night, the port of Liverpool, England, was reached.

Undoubtedly the most exerted and overly exercised personnel in the army were finally walked, carrying all luggage to trams which deposited a badly worn outfit at Liverpool railway station and then to strictly blacked out railway carriages.

After a trip of several hours in the blackest of nights again the unloading process and another bus ride in the blackout.  Finally a low cost housing estate known as Pheasey Farms, some ten to twelve miles from Birmingham, was reached and billets were assigned.  The first “exposure” to the British “Nuttin but Mutton” occurred at 3:30 A. M. in the form of “muttonbergers” and Brussels sprouts, plus tea.

An eventful month of staging with an occasional stolen sight-seeing trip followed.  Again the deluge of rumor along with British rain and fog.

A disappointed and wary organization was again loaded aboard a ship, this time the “Monarch of Bermuda,” destination unknown, but unofficially guessed at as being North Africa.  After several days aboard in Liverpool Harbor while a shell hole suffered in the North African invasion was repaired, a huge convoy got under way in the early morning of November 28, 1942.

A dental office was established in the sick bay aboard the ship and the dental service functioned almost continuously throughout the eight-day voyage.

Surely, the private feeling of many of the organization was, upon being loaded aboard ship bound (supposedly) for Africa, one of being sent to virtual life imprisonment in a jungle-like atmosphere on the “Dark Continent.”

Therefore, the arrival at Gibraltar the afternoon of December 5, 1942, was a pleasant stimulus to uneasy minds.  The grim warlike atmosphere did not detract from the natural beauty of the scene.

After riding at anchor all night, the part of the convoy bound for the North African Mediterranean port and rumored to be Oran, proceeded under destroyer and corvette escort.  Part of the original convoy having coursed to Casablanca on the Atlantic side.

An all-day coastal voyage on Mussolini’s “Mare Nostrum” terminated in the late afternoon at Mers-el-Kebir, the great water entrance to the ancient city of Oran.  From the deck of the “Monarch” never did a city look more truly beautiful, the wind-having been in a shoreward direction!

After the usual delays and formality, the 21st General Hospital was transported by truck convoy and otherwise, to a staging area next to the famed veterans of the invasion, the 77th Evacuation Hospital.

Followed the usual rumors and contemplations, with the advent of the rainy season and flooding of improperly prepared ward tent living quarters.  Many lessons in field soldiering were indelibly written on the minds of all personnel in the next two weeks.

Finally all personnel came to rest in a small hot springs spa deep in the Atlas mountains some sixty miles south of Oran.  This new home bore the romantic Arabic title of Bou-Hanifia.

All hands were overjoyed at the choice of locations and fell to with a will and prepared to launch its first overseas dental service in four rooms and a dark high ceilinged hallway waiting room.  In fact, this was the first 21st General Hospital Dental Service.  After an unbelievably short time, officers and men working side by side, wall paper was removed, walls were painted, “bidets” removed, benches built, and on December 30, 1942, the service officially opened.

The personnel on duty with the Dental Service as of this date were:

Webb B. Gurley, Major, DC, Chief of Service
Joseph A. Laffler, Captain, DC, Oral Surgery
Lane W. O’Brien, Captain, DC, Prosthetics
Earl E. Shepard, Captain, DC, Oral Surgery
Lester H. Jasper, 1st Lt., DC, Operative Dentistry
Helen A. Bowen, 2nd Lt. A.N.C., Nurse

Enlisted Men
T/3 Sidney Liroff, Clerk-Typist
T/4 Kenneth C. Lindahl, X-Ray Technician
T/4 John J. Cristiano, Hygienist
T/4 Wilbur H. Ostlund, Prosthetic Technician
T/4 Abraham Fine, Chair Assistant
T/4 Thomas Watson, Chair Assistant
T/4 Frank J. Cerro, Chair Assistant
T/5 Abraham Kalish, Prosthetic Technician
Pfc. Raymond I. Schmidt, Clerk-Typist
Pvt. Alois J. Brunner, Chair Assistant
Pvt. Coluccio, Chair Assistant

Dental Service, 21st General Hospital, 1943
Dental Service, 21st General Hospital, 1943

Words are inadequate to express the gratitude for the services of the Army Nurse Corps in the Dental Service.  The responsibility for this was borne by 2nd Lt. (later 1st Lt.) Helen A. Bowen, who served almost continuously as surgical assistant and “general balance wheel” in this service.  During her compulsory night duty shift she was relieved excellently by 2nd Lt. (later 1st Lt.) Helen Leet.

With the great expansion of the Dental Service an equally superior member of the A.N.C., 1st Lt. Amy Tabor, spent most of her assignment as a member of the Dental Service.

Many additional duties were carried by the dental officers, including Post Exchange by (the then) 1st Lt. Jasper whose chief stock in trade at that early opening was native oranges.  Administrative and Executive Officer of the Day, as well as Dental Officer of the Day duties helped to pass the “off-duty at the service” hours.

Never was the service at a loss for work.  Outlying units in the surrounding country were surveyed and brought in for treatment.  Casualties arrived in increasing numbers at the hospital, furnishing patients requiring from the so-called maxillo-facial treatment on down to the simplest restoration.

Ingenuity was rampant to supply non-existent supplies and equipment.  The U-boat menace was at its height and shipment of arms, troops, and ammunition was tantamount to success in the campaign.  Foot engine technics were reviewed and revised, and “business” flourished.

As a due regard for his services, on March 1, 1943, Major Webb B. Gurley, Chief of the Service, became Lt. Colonel Webb B. Gurley.

The first officer casualty in the dental service occurred when Captain Joe Laffler, Chief of the Oral Surgery Section, became ill and on April 8, 1943, left for the Zone of the Interior, i.e., the United States.  The service lost an officer impossible to replace.  His ability and willingness to work were superior.  His morale building attributes were often thought of and mentioned during the years that followed.

The application and results of the dental service were obvious and attracted the attention of the Dental Surgeon of the North African Theatre, (the then) Lt. Col. Van Egbert Cowan, as well as the Mediterranean Base Section Dental Surgeon, (the then) 1st Lt. Clyde Ellison.  It was only natural that when they saw the need for increased prosthetic service in the theatre, that they seek the services of the Chief of the Prosthetic Section of the 21st General Hospital, (the then) Captain L. Woodrow O’Brien.  Cheerfully, so as to never thwart one of his officer’s chances for recognition, Col. Gurley agreed wholeheartedly to the transfer.  Captain O’Brien then moved, April 27, 1943, to Ain-el-Turk, a suburb of Oran and established, by virtue of much hard work, an excellently functioning Prosthetic Clinic on the grounds of the 2nd Convalescent Hospital, high on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

Additions of officer personnel to the Dental Service during these months included one 1st Lt. Stanley S. Goldberg who remained with the organization until June, 1945.  Replacements were most difficult to obtain, and then began a “long parade” of attached duty officers.

During the month of May, 1943, 1st Lt. Lester H. Jasper received a most deserved promotion to captain.

On June 20, 1943, (the then) Captain Shepard was transferred to the 40th Station Hospital to become Chief of the Dental Service of that organization at Mostaganem, Algeria,[1] some forty miles northeast of Bou-Hanifia on the Mediterranean coast.

The only original members of the service remaining were then Lt. Colonel Gurley and Captain Jasper.  Many officers served on detached service with the dental service, including the 70th General Hospital, the St. Louis University affiliated unit.

Needless to say, experience in all the branches of dentistry continued to mount.  Every officer to a man, daily donned the operating gown and served the best interests of the dental profession.  There were no “prima donnas” or non-working supervisors.  The work had to be done and so it was.

In October, 1943, Captain Spellman was transferred from 2nd Convalescent Hospital to the 21st General Hospital but remained on temporary duty with Captain O’Brien at the Prosthetic Clinic.  He was to become an “honorary original 21st’er.”

During this period Capt. Jasper had as an honorary special duty the Presidency of the 21st General Hospital Officers’ Club.  During his tenure of office an attractive building of native design and architecture was built and almost ready for use when the alert order for movement arrived.

After a sojourn at famed “Goat Hill” staging area, the unit embarked for Italy, December 6, 1943, exactly one year to the day from its arrival in North Africa.  Officer personnel was then as follows:

Webb B. Gurley, Lt. Colonel, DC, Chief of Service
Lester A. Jasper, Captain, DC, Oral Surgery
Stanley Goldberg, Captain, DC, Prosthetics
Lane W. O’Brien, Captain, DC, Prosthetics (rejoining 21st)
Elwood M. Spellman, Captain, DC, Prosthetics

An uneventful trip across the now familiar “Med” aboard the “Cameronia,” and Naples was the next port of call.

Ward dental care, 21st General Hospital, 1944
Ward dental service, 21st General Hospital, Naples, 1944

In the suburbs of this city, in the area once intended by Mussolini as a World’s Fair Grounds, the hospital became a part of a hospital center, including the 23rd General, 45th General, 182nd and 225th Station Hospitals, and of course, the 21st General.

Long hours of common labor by officers and men alike were needed to restore the two bombed, flimsily constructed, show buildings located across a small court yard from one another which were assigned to the Dental Service.

Officer’s quarters were had in a hot sulphur spring bath house called the “Thermi.”  Cots were installed over individually roomed bath tubs, and discounting the miserable cold dampness, comparative comfort existed.

The enlisted personnel were installed in wall tents whose facilities were enhanced by their own ingenuity.

Again the routine of continuous dental service.  Many medical organizations were “boarded” by the 21st and a “continuous flow” of detached dental officers supplemented the regular roster.

Virtually upon landing, Captain O’Brien was transferred to the 5th General Dispensary where he occupied the position of Chief of the Dental Service.  He soon received his well merited and long overdue promotion to major.

Air raid “red” alerts and the watching of aerial warfare provided a not too welcome entertainment, often coming in the early morning hours.  The term “Al Recovero” was soon recognized as air raid shelter rather than meaning the name of an Italian restaurant.

Lt. Colonel Gurley, during this period appended his already full schedule with the Presidency of this Special Courts Martial board.  Realizing the wisdom in dentists, Captain Jasper served as defense counsel, and Captain Spellman as Trial Judge Advocate.

On May 17, 1944, Captain Fred J. Wolfe, an old friend of Fort Benning days joined the 21st Dental Service on permanent status.  On June 24, 1944, Captain Harry B. Thurman and Joseph E. Eimers joined the 21st General Hospital.

The reorganization of the Seventh Army, preparing for the invasion of southern France, took an important person from the 21st General, namely, Lt. Colonel Gurley.  His appointment as Dental Surgeon of the Seventh Army was a special distinction, as he was of reserve army status.  He left the 21st on August 1, 1944.[2]

Captain Jasper then assumed leadership of the service as acting chief of service, until August 3, 1944, when Lt. Colonel Carl H. Metz, former Dental Surgeon S.O.S. Natousa was transferred into the 21st as Chief of the Dental Service.

On August 30, 1944, Captain Kenneth E. Drown, late of the 1st Armored and to be affectionately known as “H. R.” and “Tiger” joined the D.C. ranks of the 21st.

With the phenomenal success of the invasion of southern France and the status of the Italian campaign, movement of the hospital again became a reality.

This above coupled with the increase of bed capacity of the hospital to 2000 brought about a partial re-gathering of the “clan.”  On September 20, 1944, Major O’Brien rejoined the unit as Chief of the Prosthetic Section, and Major (having been promoted at the 40th Station Hospital) Shepard returned on September 26, 1944, as Assistant Chief of Dental Service.

As a point of interest it might be added here that although prior to August, 1944, the 21st was listed as a 1000 bed hospital it had treated as many as 3000 patients at one time.  The changing of Tables of Organization meant an additional regularly assigned dental officer personnel of five.  Rank position was as follows: 1 Colonel, 1 Lt. Colonel, 2 Majors, 6 Captains or 1st Lieutenants.  On October 6, 1944, the unit departed from Italy aboard combat vessels of L.S.T. class.  After a voyage of three days, variously reported as “smooth to very rough,” Marseilles, France, was reached.

Officer personnel of the Dental Service Roster of the “Fighting 21st” now read:

Karl H. Metz, Lt. Colonel, DC, Chief of Service
Earl E. Shepard, Major, DC, Asst. Chief of Service, Chief Operative Section
Lane W. O’Brien, Major, DC, Chief of Prosthetic Section
Lester H. Jasper, Captain, DC, Chief Oral Surgery Section
Elwood M. Spellman, Captain, DC, Prosthetic Section
Joseph E. Eimers, Captain, DC, Oral Surgery Section
Stanley D. Goldberg, Captain, DC, Operative Section
Kenneth E. Drown, Captain, DC, Operative Section
Harry B. Thurman, Captain, DC, Operative Section

Amid rain as only it can fall in France, the officer and enlisted personnel were installed in a newly laid-out staging area “Septembre,” some 10 miles west of the city of Marseilles.

The busiest member of the organization was undoubtedly, of course, a dental officer, in the person of Major L. W. O’Brien, who was in charge of moving the enormous amount of equipment from Italy to the new location.  This he accomplished with a loss of less than 1%, which is considered phenomenal.  For this exceptional work he was later awarded the Bronze Star.

Finally came the word – the new location – 500 miles north – 30 miles south of Nancy in the Seventh Army Sector.

By means of motor convoy, forty and eight, and French railway carriage, the unit moved and established immediately out of the town of Mirecourt, in Ravenal, the department of Vosges, France.

The picture was not too inviting.  The rain continued, the mud was deep, the weather, cold.

The physical set-up was a partially finished hospital for the insane.  Literally, nothing was finished.  The French began its construction in 1939 and the Germans, after conquering France added to the construction.

The Dental Service fared excellently and again after much wall scraping, floor mopping and painting, arranged the equipment and began to function officially, November 6, 1944.

A large central heating plant not being in operation, the dental officers wore combat jackets and 4-buckle arctics while operating.

A ward, on the second floor of the building occupied by the dental service, was a continuation of the plan initiated in North Africa.  In this way fractures of the jaws, alveolectomies and all cases of purely dental nature were cared for administratively as well as professionally.

Col. Metz, in addition to his other duties served as President of the Special Courts Martial as did Captain Spellman as Trial Judge Advocate.

All dental officers of field grade rank were on Saturday inspections roster, which they did in addition to their regular duties.

Captain Jasper was appointed on the Post Exchange Council and Major Shepard became President of the Officers’ Club.

At a dinner dance on October 28, 1944, commemorating the second anniversary of landing in England, Captain Jasper received a most deserved promotion to the rank of major.

All sections of the Dental Service became very much occupied with the task at hand.  Again the 21st settled down to its routine of hard professional work.

So great was the influx of complicated maxillo-facial wounds that in November, 1944, a maxillo-facial team consisting of Major Elergy Gay (known to the St. Louis men), a most competent surgeon possessing both medical and dental degrees, and Major Werner Sittler, an excellent dental officer, also previously known to the officers, were placed on temporary duty with the hospital.

Major Jasper continued to treat as many jaw fractures as ever and assisted in many of the most complicated cases done by Majors Gay and Sittler.

The month of January, 1945, was the largest month from the standpoint of work accomplished.  Here are a few statistics taken from the report for that month:

Official Hospital Census — 3900!!

New Admissions to Dental Service
Total sittings (operations)
Total restorations
Total prosthetic cases
Teeth extracted
Vincent’s Stomatitis (new)
Jaw fractures (new)
Cysts, removal of
General anesthesia
Local anesthesia
Total X-Ray exposures
Dental officers, 21st General Hospital, 1945
21st General Hospital dental officers, Mirecourt, France, 1945

The 3rd day of March, 1945, was a red letter day for Major Shepard, for before the unit gathered for its regular evening meal, Colonel Cady pronounced the magic words changing the gold to silver and thereby promoting him to Lt. Colonel.

During the same season, one evening a well groomed “Chicken Colonel” rolled in, and turned out to be none other than Webb B. Gurley on one of his periodic visits “home from the wars.”  Long overdue eagles were a welcome sight on the shoulders of his E.T.O. packet.

On the evening of the 3rd of April, 1945, a ranking promotion ceremony took place as an “after chow” performance, when not one, but three well deserved full Colonelcies were awarded: John Patton, the Chief of Surgery, Sim Beam, the Chief of Medicine, and last but by no means least and of most interest to the Dental Service, that being Karl H. Metz, the Chief of Dental Service.

One of the outstanding events in dental annals overseas was the two-day conference of all dental officers in the Conad-Burgundy Sector of E.T.O. held at the 21st General Hospital.  Some one hundred dental officers were present among whom was Colonel Thomas Smith, Dental Surgeon of E.T.O.

Major Gay spoke on the subject of “Sinus Injuries as a Result of Warfare,” Major O’Brien presented an elucidation on “Partial Denture Construction,” bringing “post lecture” title from Major Gay of “O’Brien’s Muco-Static Suction Niente” method, a real travesty on Major O’Brien’s fine work.

During the month of June, 1945, the following officers were transferred much against the mutual wishes:

Capt. Thurman, to Area Assembly Command
Capt. Eimers, to Area Assembly Command
Capt. Drown, to Area Assembly Command
Capt. Goldberg, to Area Assembly Command

Captain Thiel, long a sufferer of gastric ulcers was sent to the Zone of the Interior (United States).

Captain Spellman was initially transferred to a hospital going direct to C.B.I., but in view of the fact that he had been overseas so long, the “powers” were finally induced to change the transfer to read “Area Assembly Command.”  This drew a sigh of relief, which turned to one of envy, when the initial outfit was sent home after V-J Day!

The above transfers occurred after the Chief of Service, Colonel Metz, was ordered on temporary duty as of May 30, 1945, to (ultimately) Office of Production Control in Frankfurt, Germany, where as Executive Officer he gave a fine account of himself.

Lt. Colonel Shepard became Acting Chief of the Dental Service, with Major O’Brien as Acting Assisting Chief.

One of Colonel Metz’s additional burdens, that of President of the Special Courts Martial, was also transferred to the shoulders of Lt. Colonel Shepard.

With complete victory, naturally the influx of patients dwindled, fortunately, for the decreased Dental Staff.  However, sufficient work was always to be found within the parent organization and all were busy to the last.

One day a Colonel Gurley with an extra special grin arrived en route to the Replacement Depot and thence “home.”  This seemed to start the parade, and little by little most of the old friends were ferried home via the “Point” and “Green Plan” systems.  But the Dental Officers stayed on forever!

Welcome was the day when the hospital facilities, including patients, were turned over to the 197th General Hospital.

A period of “sleep and eat” was inaugurated and thoroughly enjoyed, after which the organization, on October 12, 1945, with extremely few original members, but including Lt. Colonel Shepard and Majors O’Brien and Jasper of the old outfit, Dental Officers all, were transported back to Marseilles-Calas Staging Area via motor convoy and “forty and eight” French train.  Colonel Metz and Captain Spellman rejoined the 21st several days before departure from Mirecourt.

Staging high on a plateau some 15 miles west of Marseilles the unit was fairly comfortable.  After two weeks the male members of the unit were loaded aboard the “S.S. Westminster Victory” and departed from the Port of Marseilles on October 28, 1945.  (Three years to the day after landing in England.)

An overload of some 445 brought the passenger number to 1945.

Major Jasper who had been ailing for two or three days prior to loading managed to stay upright long enough to get aboard – a no mean feat!  He turned in to sick bay a day or two later and was diagnosed “Hepatitis with Jaundice.”  His trip home was one of extreme discomfort.

Bad weather dogged the trip home and with little or no ballast the “Westminster” rode high in the water and pitched and rolled to an alarming degree.

About two days out of Boston harbor at 9:30 in the evening a tragic accident in the over-crowded hold took the lives of two American sergeants and injured ten more, when stored beams broke loose and crushed the personnel sleeping on the floor.

With the lack of medical officers aboard, the dental officers again went to work and assisted in surgery necessary to remedy the situation.

On the morning of November 7, 1945, a greatly relieved and joyous landing was made at Boston P.O.E., U. S. A.!

Colonel Metz and Captain Spellman were appointed to a Board of Inquiry into the accident aboard ship and were therefore left behind while the other personnel with the exception of Major Jasper boarded a train for Camp Miles Standish.  Major Jasper was invalided to the Station Hospital, Camp Miles Standish, later to follow “home.”

On November 9, 1945, two of the original members, Lt. Colonel Shepard and Major O’Brien of the “old 21st” boarded a train for Jefferson Barracks and arrived November 11, 1945, being placed on terminal leave November 14, 1945.

In conclusion, it may be said without any fear of contradiction, that the Dental Service of the 21st General Hospital rendered always the finest type of dental service to a vast number of patients.  The proper inception and utmost cooperation of the Commanding Officer, Colonel Lee D. Cady, M.C., made all who were a part of this service zealously proud of his heritage.

[1] Earl E. Shepard served with the 40th Sta. Hospital in N. Africa until 9 March, 1944, moving with that unit to Ajaccio, Corsica via Algiers and remaining on Corsica until Sept. 1944 when he was transferred back to the 21st, then in Naples, Italy.

[2] Webb B. Gurley (Professor of Operative Dentistry) served with the Seventh Army, under the late Lieut. Gen. Patch, from August 1, 1944, to August 28, 1945.  This army had as high as 23 divisions and from 250 to 555 dentists.  Its movements began in Italy, then southern France and through the French Alps into Germany at Kaiserslauten.  Its combat activities ended at Augsburg.  Several of our graduates served under Colonel Gurley in the Seventh Army.


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