Monday, December 07, 2020

Remembering Pearl Harbor and Dr. John Paul

Lucas Countyans were spared personal loss when Japanese bombers struck Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 --- 79 years ago this morning. But two young men from Osceola were there. One, John Pence, died; the other, a young navy dentist named John H. Paul (left), lived to tell his story.

Pence, who had moved to Chariton to work and attend high school during his senior year and so was a 1938 graduate of Chariton High School, was billeted ashore while his ship underwent repairs, but rushed aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania after the initial attack to help defend her --- and was killed. I've written a little previously about him, "John Pence, Chariton and Pearl Harbor."

Paul, who went on to a career as a U.S. Navy dentist, was in his bunk aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia when the attack began. His ship went down, but he scrambled aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee and was able to aid the wounded there.

A portion of his story was told in an article published in The University of Iowa's College of Dentistry Alumni News, Summer 2002, and I've lifted the following paragraphs from there. Paul was a 1935 graduate of the college.


Dr. John Paul received the assignment on his wedding day in August 1940. He and his wife, Virginia, were at their reception when he heard he would serve as the dental officer for 1,500 men of the U.S.S. West Virginia.

After a two-day honeymoon, they left for the new assignment at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon the Pauls would find themselves caught up in one of the pivotal moments of the 20th Century.

Today (during 2002) the couple lives in San Diego, the city where they met and married. Dr. Paul recounted his experiences of Dec. 7, 1941, just after the 60th anniversary of the attack that launched the United States into World War II.

Dr. Paul’s story begins in Osceola, Iowa. Growing up, he thought about becoming an engineer, but pursued dentistry instead.

The lean years of the Great Depression made education a challenge. Dr. Paul waited tables in his fraternity house in exchange for room and board, and he earned $4 a week cleaning a local restaurant. Most importantly, his mother provided $20 each week for tuition and expenses. Thanks to hard work and family support, Dr. Paul graduated second in his class.

After dental school, he went to Chicago for an internship at the U.S. Marine Hospital, and while there was one of 1,700 dentists across the country who applied to take the Navy Dental Corps entrance exam. One of about 300 chosen to sit for the exam, Dr. Paul scored first in the region and third nationwide. He resigned his internship and was ordered to duty at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

“The more I look back, the more I think I made the right decision,” said Dr. Paul of his military career, noting that the service was an attractive option for dentists starting out in the 1930s. The years that followed would take him to Asia, first to the 4th Marine Hospital in Shanghai, China, then aboard the submarine tender the U.S.S. Canopus. That tour completed, he returned to the United States and within a few years married and headed for Hawaii.

It was nearly 8 a.m. that Dec. 7. Dr. Paul was in his stateroom bunk aboard the West Virginia when he felt the ship shudder — the first torpedo had hit. He fled the stateroom with only his glasses and trousers. On the way to the battle dressing station, which was already knee-deep in water, he learned that the Japanese attack was under way.

When word came to abandon ship, Dr. Paul helped carry an unconscious man to safety, then went to the adjacent U.S.S. Tennessee, crawling across the ropes that connected the two ships. He was the first medical or dental officer to reach the Tennessee’s sick bay, where he treated wounded until the attack subsided.

At the end of the day, 2,008 Navy personnel had been killed, 710 wounded and 20 American ships seriously damaged in two waves of attacks. More than 100 perished aboard the West Virginia, which took seven aircraft torpedoes and several bombs. The ship sank into the mud of the harbor, but counter-flooding measures kept it from capsizing. It was raised, repaired and returned long before the war’s end.

Needless to say, friends and family on the mainland worried about Dr. Paul’s fate. Virginia had returned to California the previous October, and it was three days before she learned he was safe.

Citing his “conspicuous acts of heroism well above the standard to be expected,” the head of the West Virginia’s medical department recommended Dr. Paul for the Silver Star, but he never received the medal. A rear admiral ordered him to testify against an officer accused of intoxication the evening of the attack, but Dr. Paul refused, as he hadn’t seen the man on Dec. 7. In retribution, Dr. Paul said, the rear admiral denied the award. The nomination was submitted again years later, but the admiral lived to be 102 and scuttled it the second time as well.

Dr. Paul remained in Hawaii until fall 1942, then returned to the mainland. After an eight-month assignment at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, he became head of operative dentistry at the Naval Dental School, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. In 1946 he was assigned to the Planning Division, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in Washington, D.C., then completed a second tour of duty in China, this time with Virginia and two young children.

In 1952 he helped establish the U.S. Naval Dental Clinic at the U.S. Naval Base, Norfolk, Va. He served six years as its first commanding officer, overseeing extensive improvements to the dental clinic and its expansion from 17 to 55 officers. During this period, Dr. Paul was elected to fellowship in the American and international colleges of dentistry.

Then it was back to San Diego and finally to Pearl Harbor, where Dr. Paul completed his naval career as dental officer for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. 


Dr.  Paul and his wife, Virginia, both died during 2007 and are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, that city where they lived following retirement.

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