The War in the Far East
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 21 Nov 1944, p. 133-147
Wassell, Commander Corydon M., Speaker
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Item Type
Personal opinions, anecdotes, and reminiscences of the speaker. Some topics covered include manufacturing, the motion picture industry, the English, the speaker's assignment in the Far East.
Date of Original
21 Nov 1944
Language of Item
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Tuesday, November 21, 1944

MR. CONQUERGOOD: Our guest speaker today, Commander C. M. Wassell, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He graduated in medicine from the University of Arkansas. He was first appointed a provisional Lieutenant, Medical Corps, United States Naval Reserve in 1924.

On April 28th, 1942, about two and a half years ago, the President of the United States in a radio message to the nation referred to the heroic group of men who were serving their country in an outstanding manner during the present war. As an illustration he told the story of Dr. Wassell, a doctor in the service of the Navy, who against almost impossible conditions finally succeeded in getting about twelve badly wounded men out of Java to Australia.

Since that time, Dr. Wassell has been awarded the Navy Cross, with the following citation: "For especially meritorious conduct, devotion to duty, and utter disregard of personal safety, while in imminent contact with enemy forces and under attack from enemy aircraft, in caring for and evacuating the wounded of the United States Navy under his charge in Java, Netherlands East Indies, about March 1, 1942."

Since that time, Dr. Wassell has been promoted to the rank of Commander. in the United States Navy.

Also since that time, a motion picture has been made and widely shown, which tells "The Story of Dr. Wassell" and newspapers, magazines and the radio have retold the story many, times.

Commander Wassell is visiting Canada as a goodwill ambassador from the United States Navy. The Empire Club is indebted to the Navy League of Canada for bringing our guest to Toronto to lead in their celebration of Navy Week.

Prior to the war, Dr. Wassell served as a medical missionary in China for 14 years. He is to address us today on "The War in the Far East."

I have much pleasure in presenting Commander Corydon M. Wassell, (M.C.), U.S.N.R.

COMMANDER C. M. WASSELL: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: You know, some time ago, before I left the West Coast, I was told a script would be sent me here from Washington, entitled "The War in the Far East." Now, when it comes to reading, I am about the poorest reader on the face of the earth, so it is a good thing the script didn't turn up.

I don't know where to start in today to talk to you people. I have been asking many questions about what you would want to hear, and what I should tell you. When I spoke about manufacturing, they said you were fed up on that. Well, I want to say you may be fed up on it, but it is going to have to roll ahead regardless, because the manufacturers have got to supply my buddies with things, and you, the executives and the financiers are going to have to carry on, as you are doing.

You know yesterday I asked them to let me go through an airplane plant. I have had the awfullest time trying to get in one, but I finally visited one this morning where they were manufacturing wings for the Mosquito bombers. People, you don't realize the lives that those wings are saving. I don't know a thing about Europe and you probably know more about that than I do. But I do know a little something of the Far East and they told me that these wings were going there, and, if they are, they can only be going to your cousins and my cousins, the Aussies. And God knows they need that help! You can't manufacture too many for them because they are the finest people in the world.

When I got back people asked me about the Australians, and I want to say this, that they are just exactly like our Westerners in the United States and like the people of Canada. They are just fine people and, incidentally, if any of you gentlemen go out there I have still got some good telephone numbers. I hope my wife didn't hear me say that.

I know you are interested in the motion picture about me and I would like to tell you just a few little points about it.

You know, a lot of people have said since I have been here, "I understood Gary Cooper was coming." Well here he is-the second. But I like the picture, Gentlemen, because it depicts the saving rather than the destruction of life, and to me it is an outstanding job because it does not go in for propaganda. You know there are mighty few pictures in this day and time that are not so full of propaganda that you wonder where to take on and take off.

And again, the thing that I am proud of is that five per cent of the gross receipts of this picture, which I am reliably informed will amount to more than half a million dollars, go to navy relief-that is, to my buddy in the ranks.

I wish I could convey to you just how I feel about that. The best way is to remember that Second Commandment: "Love thy neighbour as thyself." There is some thing in that, Gentlemen. I don't care what you say. You wouldn't be here today, neither would these people in the Canadian Navy League be working like they are, if they didn't believe in that Second Great Commandment. You really get a kick out of life when you pre doing for the other fellow, and you know it just as well as I do.

I will shock you when I tell you that the picture is ninety-eight per cent true. In that regard, most people say, "Doctor, did you ever take in any live hogs?" No, I never took in one in my life. I have taken many a dressed one. I have had six, seven or eight carcasses hanging up in my smoke-house at one time. Mr. De Mille said, "You don't think I am going to hang up a dressed hog in my super-duper technicolour picture, do you?" That is all right, C.B. I think you did a pretty good job. At least Gary only held on to one of the hogs that got out of the pen.

I want to tell you a little story about hogs. To you people who are businessmen it shows how some people make money. When they were getting those hogs Mr. De Mille telegraphed down to Florida for some razor-backs. Some man in the swamps of Florida said, "I will sell you them at $70 or $80 apiece." That was for real razorbacks. They are wild hogs and sometimes they lose two or three good dogs in catching them and that makes them expensive. He said to me, "What do you think of that--$70 for a hog?" I said, "Well, C.B., if you pay that you are just a fool, that is all I have got to say." He said, "Where will I get them?" I said, "Send up to Marshall in Arkansas, and I am sure you will get all you want for $90--just plain wood hogs."

He telegraphed to the County judge up there and he replied, "It's as cheap to send you a carload as a dozen." He wired back, "Send the carload."

Gentlemen. I want to tell you that carload cot there just about the time pork was going up in 1942, and he sold the carload for three times what he paid for it and still had the dozen hogs left.

Now, as for Three Martini; the little Javanese nurse, she was a real entity. People ask whether she was built up like that. Mr. De Mille did a good job, I think, in building her up to represent the Javanese because she gave blood by direct transfusion to three of my boys and I think she deserved credit. That is the way I feel about it.

That little boy, Johnny--I want to say that he was the most "skirt chasingest" white man God ever put breath into. He always had a girl. Even in the hospital he would get right up close to the Sister and smile and make eyes at her. He really liked the ladies. He was a lovable little boy. I loved him but he could get me in more hot water in ten minutes than I could get out of in an hour. And why Mr. De Mille took his pyjamas away in Java, I don't know; but that actually did occur in the Hollywood Hospital in Freemantle, West Australia. That is actual fact.

I know a lot of you wonder about the love story in this picture. Yes, I worked with the present Mrs. Wassell in the Hospital in Wuching, China--the General Hospital of the Episcopalian Church, the same as the Church of England. The regular practice of medicine was my livelihood and investigation or research was a hobby with me.

But I want to say this to you in passing. Mrs. Wassell's father and mother were both British--one from Sunningdale and the other from near Sherwood Forest, and as for myself, I am a Wassell, and I have a lot of my people in England.

Now, we Americans and British can have our little difficulties. Like in a hockey game we scream and fight, but just don't let somebody outside the family butt in. I am very proud to say that in China I was on His Maiesty's Service for about five years, and all of my relations in that Service were delightful I like the people. I like them very much. You know, a lot of people, who come out from England, learn that in the Far East there are some English customs that they have never heard of before. I don't know exactly how it is in Canada, but when you picked this glass up and drank to the health of the King here today-don't you try that in China. You will have a fight on your hands. Somebody will throw the water in your face, because a toast like that in water is just not done. It has got to be the regular alcoholic champagne.

Well, enough of that picture. But I do want' to say I sailed on a beautiful ship from San Francisco on December 7, 1941, at 11.00 a.m. It was a brand new ship and it was her maiden voyage, around the world. Before we could pass under the bridge the news came in that Hawaii had been bombed and we didn't get under the bridge. We kept turning around in the harbour there and about 2.30 we came back to the pier and unloaded that cargo of people. The ship was taken around to the army pier on the north site, where in forty-eight hours it was loaded with what I call "hell and destruction"--war munitions--and the first P-40's to go across.

Now, I am quoting a Canadian who I believe is correct when I say--did you know?--that Canada declared war on Japan before the United States. I can positively say that the Dutch did. The Dutch actually, according to time, declared war on Japan before we had the news in San Francisco. They were right on the jump. They knew what was going to happen. They had the aliens all lined up and I have this direct from a good Dutchman. He walked into the Japanese Consulate in Soerabaja and said, "You and everybody else here are under arrest." The Consul said, "Well, what for?" "We have declared war on you." The Japanese said, "But what for?" "We don't know what for."

Actually the Japs didn't have the word yet of what had happened. The Dutch had it before they did, and they just took them right in there.

We sailed the second time on December 17th from San Francisco and we were sitting on a ship that was like one of those that blow up in the Port of Chicago. It was dynamite, Folks. Fifteen hundred American boys on it and 48 P-40's. That is that pursuit plane. And we were riding a 21-knot ship.

After leaving San Francisco, of course, it was a military secret where we were going, but if you think you can fool fifteen hundred American boys-and when I say "American boys" I make that applicable to America -you are just mistaken, because three to three and a half days out of San Francisco the boys were laying their bets, seven to five, that we would pass south of Pitcairn Island, which, as you know, is south of the Equator. But I want to tell you we passed so far south of it that we didn't see it. And we sailed without an escort. We were a 21-knot ship and felt that we could dodge the most of them.

We had a forty-eight hour stay in Auckland, New Zealand. That is the first point of land -we looked at after leaving the Golden Gate. We sailed to 48 degrees south of the equator and then due west and if you do that perfectly you will go right into the harbour of Auckland. I tell you it was so rough we couldn't even take the pilot on; his boat couldn't get close enough to us. That is a rough harbour to enter, but after you get in it is just as peaceful as a lake.

It is a beautiful place, and the homes in Auckland are beautiful. They were all painted up. They had beautiful lawns and showed that people really lived there. And the people were so kind to the boys for the time that we were there. You know, you can take a bunch of lads--they may be sailing into the entrance of hell, or what-have-you, but if they have got an hour or two they are always up to f un and having a good time. They don't look over the hill to see what is on the other side.

You know, looking ahead is not a good plan for the young fellow who is, going to the Front. So the people of Auckland, allowed the boys in uniform to ride the trams or trolleys without charge. They gave them cigarettes and candy. They had a band concert and opened up all the dance halls and the girls were certainly there to dance with the boys and give them a good time. That may have been the last good time for a lot of those boys. From there we went to Brisbane and the people there were very kind to us, too.

We unloaded those P-40's on January 18, 1942. Now, you can figure out how long it took to get them therefrom December 17, 1941 until January 17, 1942. That will explain why we were so slow in some of our work out there, and it will show you why we were retreating. And, listen, don't fool yourselves. Retreat is exactly what we did.

From there we sailed behind the Great Barrier reef, and I will never forget passing a ship one night. It looked like a big blaze on the horizon but as it came by it turned out to be an Australian hospital ship. It was lit up like a sore thumb, and all we could say was, "What fools they are!" Now, that is what we said. Do you get that? "What fools they are!" And it afterward proved true that ship was bombed. Nobody could mistake what it was, with the great big red cross and all of its lights burning.' But I think it would have been a whole lot better to have put out the lights and without them I believe it would have gotten through. They were dealing with an enemy at that time that might or might not observe some of the rules that we do.

Now, I don't say that was backed up by the Japanese Government because when our flyers go out we are not entirely responsible in a way for what they do. But, anyhow, that ship was finally sunk.

From there we went to Cookstown, stopped for about two hours, and the Captain of the ship and the Colonel got off for further orders. Outside we picked up the U.S.S. "Houston", two destroyers and another ship, also bearing ammunition, and we sailed into Soerabaja, Java, arriving there on January 24th. The Admiral had come down from the Philippines with his fleet-the remainder of it-and the Army Commander, with the remainder of his 19th Bomber Crew, and your British ack-ack units and aircraft units who had gone to the succour of Singapore but got there too late. Singapore had fallen, and they had come to Java. They first went to Batavia and then to Bandoena on the western part of Java, where they entrained for Soerabaja, the great Dutch naval base. There was a wreck on that railway on the way down and the majority of their officers were killed.

I want you to know the truth. I heard the inside story, and the Dutch were all of the opinion that it was simply a wreck and not sabotage. I think they were honest about it. But still the boys in the British ack-ack unit said, "Isn't it horrible? We have come all the way from England to here and within the last 150 miles something happens to one of the train coaches, we have a wreck and most of our officers are killed."

They went to Soerabaja, but things got hot there--the Japanese were coming in at between 23,000 and 30,000 feet and dropping their eggs on us. Now, in those days, Gentlemen, we didn't have any guns that could actually shoot up to them. You can take a .22 pistol and go out and try to kill ducks going over--you might kill one in three or four years. You see what a fat chance we had to hit any of their planes. All they had to do was sail around up there and drop their eggs at us.

I want you to remember this: You can have all of the Army, you can have all of the Navy, you can have all of the Marine Corps--the C.B.'s, God bless them and all the submarine service, and your seamen, but, unless you have an air umbrella up there, those services, every last one, are going to have to get in a hole or run under cover of darkness, and don't kid yourselves. So we have to maintain supremacy of the air if we expect to get anywhere with our surface units. Lack of it was what ran us out of Java, and out of the Philippines. The Dumb Doras of Japs just didn't have sense enough to go into Darwin and Freemantle and Perth in West Australia. They could have had them like a snap but they didn't have the brains. You don't realize how close that call might have been. We were running when I got to Australia. I am not joking with you about it. The people of Perth and Freemantle had moved to the hills. That is a fact and I don't blame them.

When I went into Freemantle on, Friday, the 13th of March, 1942, one cruiser and two transports of soldiers could have come in and taken the whole of West Australia in no time. We had nothing there. As you will recall, the troops of Australia were in Egypt.

I was in Freemantle when the Queen Mary came in and brought the first contingent back, They were a happy lot of boys, and I am telling you they really took Freemantle and Perth. That was their home and their town. They really took the place--so much so that the next ship to come in went around to Melbourne and they anchored it out in the high sea and only took two hundred troops off at a time and spread them out.

They were a grand bunch of boys. They are just like our Western boys. One of the greatest troubles that came up there was the way the American boys were running off with the Aussie girls. I will never forget-the Admiral put out an order that you couldn't marry an Aussie girl under fifteen days. That order didn't amount to a row of beans. Listen: when the Padre said, "I will make you one--the two of you," there was nothing the Admiral or anybody else could say about it. So those boys really got the Aussie girls. And I want to say this frankly to you. I am proud of those girls and I think it will do the United States a lot of good to get some of that blood from over there.

I could tell you a great deal about the bombing of the ships on the way back from Java but you have seen and heard about it. I want to eliminate some of that be cause I see my time is getting short and I do want to tell you about some of the other things.

After we had been machine-gunned the majority of the people left the ship at Patjitan. The next day out, all of a sudden the ship commenced going around in circles. If you ever saw a bunch of iittery people, that crowd was. The Captain didn't know what was the matter from the bridge the engineer didn't know what was the matter in the engine room, Naturally, we all thought they were trying to dodge a tin fish. The truth was that the electric telegraph had broken and there was no response from the engine-room, and the break threw the rudder at a 45 degree port angle. We were just going around in a circle, not very fast -just 5.5 knots--but that seemed mighty fast to us. Everybody was trying to see what was up. Nobody could see a submarine, nobody could see an aeroplane. We soon found out what was wrong. From there that ship was steered by hand into Freemantle. They repaired the engine, but were a little afraid to use it except in an emergency. There was always an officer standing on the bridge and the word was passed back to the bridge to those towing, just how many points and which way to move the wheel.

One morning three days out of Freemantle, we saw an aeroplane on the horizon. My Commanding Officer, so to speak--he was my superior officer, although he was still my patient--and a graduate of Annapolis--was sitting aft. He had been badly shell-shocked and still was. Everybody else was running hither and yon on the ship, trying to make out what this aeroplane was but the Commander had that instinct drilled into him in his days in Annapolis and he was sitting there, perfectly quiet. I said, "Bill, what do you think of that?" He said, "That is a friendly ship. That is a PWY." I said, "Yes, you are the only one who recognizes it as a PWY-what do you think about it?"

He said, "It's a friendly ship-quit worrying about it." I said, "How do you figure it is a friendly ship? Everybody else doesn't figure that way about it. They think it is serious."

That was my one horror, that the bombers would come over and drop bombs on that ship. I never worried about being killed. The only thought that came up in my mind was how in the world would I take care of all the sick and wounded on the ship. That was one thing that worried me sick. I didn't worry about a tin fish. If we were hit all we would do would be take to the "briny" in a life preserver, get a stick and float it out. That didn't worry me in the least.

The Commander said to me, "Didn't you see him dip to the right, staying well away from the ship, and then circling us?" Well, he was right.

When we were a few days out the ship had no map of the West Coast of Australia, but one young fellow, a Chicago news correspondent, had a book of RandMcNally's maps. Australia is a little country. about this big on the map, but the Commander had two Dutch naval officers enlarge the map on white paper and we sailed by it. The Captain had said, "The Lord permitting, and if we have no untoward trouble, we should make the lights at Freemantle at 4.30 on Friday, the 13th of March." Listen, I was up all night long and at 4.20 a.m. I picked up those lights. So did everybody else, and we kidded him for bringing us in ten minutes ahead of time.

But two days out of Freemantle one morning there was a terrible commotion on the deck. I guess it must have wakened me up because I had gone into my little ten o'clock siesta-I didn't do much sleeping at night. As a matter of fact I didn't do much but cat napping the whole way-I got up, opened my eyes, and everybody was running hither and yon. A Dutchman was trying to look through a long glass. I felt like saying, "Throw that thing away-you can't hold it still enough to look through it." He was looking at a submarine. Sure enough, it was a submarine.

My Commander was sitting perfectly quiet as before. Naturally, he was my barometer, and I said, "Bill, what do you think of it? Is it a submarine?"

He said, "Sure it is. Can't you see it?" Every now and then in the waves you could see it on the horizon. "You don't have to worry about it, Doctor. There is no need for worry in the least. That is a friendly submarine."

"Alright, Bill, that is alright to tell me it is friendly. I want to know why." We were so close to Freemantle I had hopes of getting ashore with those boys.

He replied, "Well, that submarine can make ten to twelve-we can't make over five and a half to six knots. We could have been sunk long ago."

"I had been watching that ship for half or three-quarters of an hour. When we anchored in the river the submarine went by with the Dutch flag up, and I said, "Why in God's world didn't they put the flag up out there when we could see it?"

Now, that is the way you feel about some of those things. I could carry on and talk to you about many other things, but I do want to tell you this. Somebody asked me to tell you how I got the news that the President talked about me. In Perth we had the show home of the town and I am not kidding you. I really mean it--we had the show home. It was on Birdwell Parade, overlooking the river. The people living in it took to the country and they were tickled to death to rent it to the Navy. We used to have parties there, and dances; we also had dinners and we would invite the people in. One night we had a party there--that was after I had been awarded the Cross--and among other people there was one young lady whose name I will have to give you--it was Grace. I won't give you her telephone number. She worked at the general storehouse.

We had had a nice party that night, but we always had a rule that we were to break up between 12.30 and 1 o'clock, because we had to work the next day. My first trip in the morning from the home was to the Hollywood Hospital and my next was the medical storehouse. I had the only naval storehouse in Australia at that time for the United States Navy.

I got over to Hollywood Hospital this morning and one of my Corps men said, "Did you hear the President talk about you last night?" I said, "You tie that outside--forget it. I don't want to hear any more about it." I thought they were throwing corks at me, if you understand that expression.

At the medical storehouse my Chief said to me, "Doctor, did you hear the President talk about you last night?" I said, "Listen, when I was a young boy George Washington used to talk about me. Don't let me hear any more about it."

I am telling you the truth of just how it occurred.

I got to the general storehouse. It was as wide as this room and about twice as long. Right down the center was an aisle and it was about twelve feet wide on each side. They had fencing all the way up to the ceiling and inside were the stores and the different people working. There were about 250 people in there and as I started down the aisle, I noticed them all looking at me and about that time from the back here came Grace, just running. I will never forget-she had her arms behind her like this, and she was running up the aisle, and she put her arms around me and squeezed me and she said, "Doctor, did you hear the President talk about you?"

I said, "Listen, Grace, if that is true, show me the paper", and she pulled out the Perth Gazette. Gentlemen, I have still got it today. That is the way I got the news that the President talked about me.

Now, Mrs. Wassell was down in Arkansas, on the White River, and some of her friends heard the President talking about this Doctor Wassell, and they came over to see her. They finally got the rebroadcast--it was about eleven o'clock at night--and that is the way she heard it.

Now, as to receiving the Cross. You know, Men, it was a crucial moment on that ship when I put it up to the boys whether or not they would go ashore or stay with the ship, and I said, "Fellows, the majority voices rules in what we do here."

Now, between 70 and 80 percent of the people had left the ship at Patjitan after it had been machine-gunned. But those boys without any hesitation all said, "Stick with the ship, Doc." I want to say that again to you. They said, "Stick with the ship, Doc."

I went back up on the bridge to see the Captain who was with the Dutch officers. They were sitting there, pretty downcast, their heads hanging down. I said, "Captain, I want to report to you that the American Navy boys want to stick with the ship and take a chance."

Gentlemen, I tell you it built the morale of the Dutch officers up--I don't care what you say--because, after 70 or 80 percent of the people had left the ship. those wounded boys--four of them couldn't walk-had the guts to stick with the ship. I was given a Navy Cross for bringing those boys out, but I want to tell you that Navy Cross belongs to those boys and I will wear it for them.

I want to say how happy I have been to be here in Canada and to be with you people. I just want to add what I have said before: Thank God, we haven't got any barbed wire between us. I think that is one of the grandest things in the world, and don't let us ever have any barriers between us! Never!

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The War in the Far East

Personal opinions, anecdotes, and reminiscences of the speaker. Some topics covered include manufacturing, the motion picture industry, the English, the speaker's assignment in the Far East.