Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sullivan Bedell on Bougainville

My father recently wrote a little manuscript about his father's experiences in World War II. These stories were told by my grandfather to his children and then remembered by my father 70 years later, but I reproduce them as they came to me.

My grandfather, Sullivan G. Bedell, became a licensed psychiatrist in 1939. Without any exciting job prospects and with war obviously looming, he entered the US Navy in early 1941. He spent the first 21 months of the war stateside, mainly helping with recruiting.

Then in September 1943 he was ordered to the South Pacific. He went with the 3rd Marine Division to invade Bougainville in the Solomon Islands and spent the next few weeks as a combat surgeon. But then fighting died down, and following plans made before the invasion the Marines were pulled off the island and replaced by men from two US Army divisions. Here is where the story gets rather weird. According to the tale as I have received it, all the Navy doctors but one left the island with the Marines. Only my grandfather stayed. He assumed that he would continue to serve as a surgeon, but the Army refused to send any of their wounded men to a Navy doctor. So for a while my grandfather was left more or less by himself with a Lt. Commander's rank, an empty hospital hut and a private jeep. He was beginning to feel lonely.

Then two young Marines entered the door of the small "clinic" on the beach. They held in their hands a strange looking package, open at the top. Inside the package was a very young cockatoo. They said they had been sharing a two-man foxhole and receiving Japanese fire when a round severed an overhead tree branch and dropped it into their foxhole. In clearing the branch from the foxhole they noticed a bird's nest attached to the branch. They peeked into the next and there was a baby cockatoo. They decided to adopt the bird. They named him Pete and taught him to talk a little. Now they were shipping out and knew they couldn't take him with them. Would someone at the hospital please take care of him? SGB said he would be delighted, and that he had raised chickens when he was a boy. The two young marines said thanks and rushed out the door saying they were late to catch their boat. SGB was indeed delighted. Now he had a friend to keep him company. Soon he called the bird Peter and the bird called him Doc. They were inseparable. Having been taught to talk by frontline Marines, the bird's vocabulary left much to be desired and he was given to colorful expressions not acceptable in mixed company, but SGB didn't object and there was no one else around to be offended.

Shortly thereafter, SGB received a message from a senior officer in ordering him to perform a complete psychiatric examination on a certain Marine private who would be arriving on Bougainville in the next few days. They message asked for a confidential response on the result of the examination and a recommendation ASAP. It seems that the senior officer had been part of a group at a medal-awarding ceremony following the ultimately successful invasion of Tarawa. One of the medal recipients was a young Marine private who had gone ashore in the first wave, which was pinned down on the beach and taking heavy casualties from several hidden machine gun nests. He was credited with single-handedly and without orders moving around the flank of the line of nests and destroying them with grenades. After pinning the medal on the Marine's chest, the officer asked him casually what prompted his heroic action. The marine replied, "Sir, I heard the voice of the 8 Ball and the 8 Ball told me to move around to the left and get behind those Jap machine guns and wipe them out with grenades, and so I did. I always do what the voice of the 8 Ball tells me to do, Sir." The officer was stunned but tried not to show it and moved along.

The officer eventually heard that there was a trained Navy psychiatrist on Bougainville, so he sent the Marine along for evaluation.

Soon the young Marine arrived in Bougainville and found the navy hospital. SGB greeted him and proceeded to conduct a thorough psychiatric exam. The young man retold the story of the 8 Ball in the same language he had used during the medal ceremony. He also cited other instances in which he had received good advice from the 8 Ball and concluded by saying, "That's why I'm in the Marines. The 8 Ball told me to join."

In his "eyes only" report SGB acknowledged that all the communications the young man had received from the 8 Ball to date had been good advice. However, he suggested the possibility of bad advice that would could cause the young man to defy military discipline or perhaps in combat to jeopardize the lives of fellow Marines. He recommended that the man should be transferred stateside and given an honorable discharge. We don't know for certain what action was taken on the recommendation but we can intuit that it was well received, because it was the beginning of frequent referrals by Navy and Marine officers to SGB for psychiatric evaluation or care, mostly of men suffering from "shell shock" or "battle fatigue."

So my grandfather was back in the war effort, this time as a military psychiatrist. But those duties still left him time for other pursuits:

He began each day with a dip in the Solomon Sea and then cooked breakfast for himself and Pete. Often he worked on his seashell collection, which included many large and beautiful specimens of giant clams, conchs, whelks, alphabet shells and others. At the end of the war he was able to have much of his collection shipped home and he kept in on display in a large, built-in bookshelf in our living room in Jacksonville.

Another hobby that he and Pete enjoyed was exploring the Bougainville jungles (inside the perimeter) and collecting seeds from some of the unusual plants they found. Pete especially like those expeditions because he got to ride in SGB's personal jeep, in which he had his own private perch. SGB had always been a gardener and an enthusiastic amateur botanist. When he ran across plants he didn't recognize from his studies he took seeds and had them shipped to the USDA tropical plant experimental station in Miami. The Miami botanists seemed to appreciate his efforts and one of the seeds turned out to be from a previously unknown species which they named in his honor. One day, after an unusually heavy rain the previous night, they set out to explore and the jeep hit a deep submerged pothole, bouncing Pete right off his perch. When SGB got his jeep under control and stopped he looked around and there was Pete marching up the road toward him cursing at the top of his lungs.

As ground fighting intensified in the Philippines and elsewhere in the South Pacific, the number of shell shock cases grew to the point that my grandfather was overwhelmed and asked for help.

A short time later he received a surprising response. He looked up and was amazed to see four female Navy psychiatric nurses in full uniform trooping through his front door.

Not exactly what he had asked for, but, hey, the patients loved it.

Everyone was happy except the head nurse and Pete. The nurse couldn't stand to listen to Pete's foul language and decided to do something about it. Whenever Pete would voice one of his favorite gross expressions, she would grab him by the neck and wash his mouth out with soap. Pete hated that! Gradually he cut down on his swearing and finally ceased altogether.

It was a good thing too, as matters turned out. SGB had wanted to bring Pete home as a pet, and he had been corresponding with the USDA about getting a permit to do so. In the end, the USDA denied a permit and stated that the only way Pete could enter the country would be at the request of a zookeeper for public exhibition. They suggested that SGB correspond with the supervisor of the Jacksonville zoo. This he did, and found that the Jacksonville zookeeper was very enthusiastic about having Pete to exhibit, and would make all the arrangements for his transportation when the war ended. It wouldn't have done to have had a foul-mouthed cockatoo on display in the Jacksonville zoo.

Pete, incidentally, lived long enough for me to vaguely remember him, I guess from around 1967; my older brother and sister remember him very well and say he was always excited to see his old friend Doc.

I may have mentioned here that my grandfather's grandfather, William F. Bedell, was a Union Army surgeon in the Civil War. He was from Brooklyn but served in the Gulf of Mexico, spending a lot of time at a hospital on Key West. He liked Florida so much that he settled in the state after the war, which is why my grandfather and father grew up in Jacksonville.


David said...

What a wonderful story. I'm impressed that the cockatoo survived the nurse's treatment.

I'm also curious about the origins of the "advice" the marine was getting. It's one thing when the voices a schizophrenic hears say things that seem of obvious psychological significance, like "they're all out to get you," "you should be ashamed," etc. But what are we to make of a voice that gives practical advice, especially advice that makes sense? I can imagine all sorts of partial or provisional explanations, or at least interpretive-sounding redescriptions, such as a permanent state of internal dissociation in which the patient experiences their own ideas as coming from outside them, etc. etc. But the phenomenon is interesting, especially in a case like this where it's consistently good advice, never garbled or random (and never having to do with fear, as in, "don't get out of the landing craft").

G. Verloren said...


Is the phenomenon all that different than people who attribute good decisions they made to the intervention of a deity? There are lots of stories of people in crisis situations making decisions, and then explaining those decisions later by saying, "I don't know, I just knew what I had to do, God must have told me", or similar.

There's also the possibility of confirmation bias and selective reporting - chalking up good decisions to a positive force like God after the fact, while dismissing bad decisions as some other negative force leading them astray through trickery. "I thought it was God telling me what to do, but given how badly it turned out, it must have been the Devil in disguise".

There's also the possibility of sheer fabrication - a Corporal Klinger type situation where some clever soldier who just wants to go home decides to put on a straight face and act fairly convincingly like they've suffered a mental break to convince their superiors that they're crazy and need to be taken out of service. After all, it's not like the military can devote a lot of time or resources to figuring out if such a case is actually just a ruse - wartime pressures demand expediency, and a diagnosis must be made rapidly and on limited information.