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Interview with Robert Wheeler [undated]

Sarah Thomas:

This is the beginning of an interview conducted in West Virginia University's Martin Hall with Mr. Robert Wheeler. His birthdate is April 29th, 1942. His current address is 908 Briarwood Road, Morgantown, West Virginia, 26505. My name is Sarah Thomas, and I'm a graduate student in the school of journalism at WVU. I will be conducting the interview. Kelly Saunders, another graduate student, will be recording the interview.

Sarah Thomas:

Mr. Wheeler, can you state for the record what war and branch you served in, what your rank was, and where you served.

Robert Wheeler:

I was in the U.S. Army, and I served during the period of 1966 to 1971. I was a medical service corps officer. I served at Fort Sam Houston Texas, Edgewood Arsenal, the Pentagon, back to Fort Sam Houston, to Camp Zama Japan, and from Camp Zama Japan back to Fort Sam Houston Texas where I was discharged in the fall of 1971.

Sarah Thomas:

Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Robert Wheeler:

I was an ROTC graduate of West Virginia University. I was in the ROTC program from 1960 to 1964 and was commissioned second lieutenant on graduation 1965. I deferred my entrance to active duty to obtain my Master's Degree in environmental engineering at West Virginia University.

Sarah Thomas:

So you were living in Morgantown?

Robert Wheeler:

I was living in Morgantown, when there were 4,000 students at WVU. We didn't have traffic jams and a few other things.

Sarah Thomas:

And why did you join?

Robert Wheeler:

I -- I had a -- a great interest in serving in the military as an engineer. I thought that would be a worthy thing to do. My father never served in the military during World War II because of a medical condition, and so I thought it was, you know, it -- the military had triggered me as a career opportunity to serve and to go places and see things and do things. And so, you know, it was -- it's much different today of how people were in the military. But then it was 27 dollars a month for support, no tuition, class five days a week. I actually extended my time at the university for another year because of the course requirements to complete the ROTC commitment, including summer camp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Sarah Thomas:

Why did you choose to join the Army?

Robert Wheeler:

The choices at the time were the Air Force and the Army, and it was mandatory on the campus of West Virginia University that all males were required, as a land-grant school, to enroll in ROTC their first two years in school. And when it came to choosing, it was either the Air Force or the Army. I chose the Army. The more I spent with, time with the Army, the more I liked that portion of the training. I thought it was very helpful to me. And so I think in a certain sense, if ROTC had not been here, I probably would have been drafted sometime in the future or had applied for -- or I would have applied for direct commission or I would have gone to OCS. But because of the opportunities of enrolling in the ROTC program, I was able to go on to get my commission as a second lieutenant.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you recall your first days in the service?

Robert Wheeler:

Well, I think if you take the two -- two-day -- there's two days if we want to start in the 1963 of summer camp for ROTC, I would think that was probably more appropriate to what life was going to be probably like. The five weeks at Fort Bragg, and I recall getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning and going to bed about 10 o'clock at night, never sleeping in your bed. Because you couldn't bounce a quarter off it; if you did, cleaning latrines with a tooth brush, hoping you'd get up early enough not to become the dining orderly on KP so you -- you could -- you didn't have the tough job of peeling potatoes or washing pots and pans. Riding in what we called cattle trucks, sleeping in tents, eating meals with probably 400 other people at a sit-down off of a metal tray, through the sweltering ___. Run at sunrise for three or four miles every morning in combat boots, no sneakers then. We ran in combat boots and fatigue pants. And so it was -- that was probably the most intriguing portion of what basic training was like for officers, future officers, at the time. The second portion of my induction training was at Fort Sam Houston with other allied health professionals who were veterinarians, nurses, physicians. Anybody that supported the medical aspect of the Army went to Fort Sam. I was in a class of approximately 400 people in the September through first of November portion of a very hot time in Texas in unair-conditioned classrooms and which were very conducive to sleep after lunch. We didn't run. We partied a lot more. It was a gentlemen's eight weeks, ladies' eight weeks, and it was a fairly good time to get ready to go off and serve. Many of us in our class went off to serve in Vietnam. Others went to serve in hospitals and other allied health positions.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you remember your instructors?

Robert Wheeler:

At -- at summer camp in 1963, yes. They were mostly 82nd Airborne. They were young captains. The person I remember probably the most was a Sergeant Cubey. Sergeant Cubey was my experience as a Northerner going to the South and having a black Afro-American sergeant. Sergeant Cubey spent the night up most of the time. I don't know where he was partying, but our joke was always he had the road maps of the world on both eyes because they were so bloodshot. He continued to always wear sunglasses because he slept in the truck most of the time. He was a very funny guy, very humorous, dealing with a bunch of prima donnas. And he was the one person after 40 years I still remember the most because he was our -- he was our platoon sergeant or he was our company sergeant. On to Fort Sam Houston. Some of the instructors would have you stand up if you fell asleep. They were -- they were not as -- you don't remember -- I do remember some of those young fellows who taught me, but those were the ones that had a life profession as I did, and I still am friends with them after 40 years. And I still know them, and I still see them professionally usually once a year.

Sarah Thomas:

Now, you served in Vietnam?

Robert Wheeler:

I did not serve in Vietnam. I served in Japan, and the portion of Japan, the actual support of Vietnam, started at Edgewood Arsenal. We supported the helicopter rebuild facilities in Corpus Christi, Texas. When helicopters were shot down in Vietnam, they flew them back to the United States. They repaired them at an area called ARADMAC, which is an Army rebuild facility, and they would bring five to seven helicopters back and completely rebuild the helicopters. And my job was to go down and assess the occupational exposures of workers in that 18 acres under one roof where they rebuilt the helicopters. I did work also with many of the Army hospitals or Army medical centers during my time at Edgewood Arsenal. My next assignment was to the Pentagon where we ended up supporting many of the -- many of the hospitals. Our job was to support from an engineering standpoint the hospitals at Walter Reed, Fitzsimons which was in Denver, and Valley Forge Hospital which was in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, or a suburb of Philadelphia. They were old hospitals that had been built to support the -- the military during World War II, and as such, when we became involved, or my job -- many of the problems we saw with the young people who would die in World War II lived in Vietnam, and they would come back with one limb missing, two limbs missing, three limbs missing, sometimes four limbs. And the people who did not survive in World War II or Korea actually survived in Vietnam. And we -- the hospitals were not prepared for them. So we spent a considerable amount of time getting the hospitals ready to support these -- these returnees who had many, many medical problems to hospitals that weren't prepared for them. And we spent a -- the year I was at the Pentagon we spent a considerable amount of time trying to upgrade some of the electrical conditions because many of the hospitals from World War II weren't air conditioned. And we spent time trying to get the transformers and the money from Congress, which was fairly easy, to upgrade the transformers like at Valley Forge, and we spent a lot of time answering congressional letters about the various senators who were upset because their constituents' families were complaining about the conditions of the hospitals. From there I went to Japan. In Japan, when I arrived, we had four hospitals, a medical depot, a helicopter detachment, and a laboratory, and we had 3,000 patients in the hospital. There were four hospitals: On Camp Oji, Camp Drake, Kishine Barracks, and Sagamihara or what was Camp Zama Hospital. And each of these hospitals had varying amounts of patients, several hundred to up to a thousand. Plus they would have families of the physicians, nurses. So the medical technicians all lived in the area, so we had 15 to 18,000 family members in addition to the support people in the hospitals that lived in the surrounding community in Japan. At that time it was a fairly significant issue, at least in my mind, because Japan had been malaria free, and many of the patients we were admitting to our hospitals eventually developed malaria because they could not -- could no longer take their prophylaxis for malaria. And this became a reportable incident to the World Health Organization, and we were not very well received in Japan at the time by the Communist party who did not support what was going on in Vietnam. And so that was one of our dangers over covering these people with nets after we discovered they had developed malaria because the mosquito was still present in Japan. Probably the most -- some of the greatest people I probably met in my military career were there because their laying on hands of how they cured people's, not only their medical portion, but their minds as well. And it was a -- it was a labor of love that was often missed here and probably the thing I remember most about Japan. We had one English TV station show. We didn't have CNN then. But we had one English show, and it was Tom Jones on every Saturday night at 11 o'clock. We lived with Stars and Stripes for our news, and the Far East Network which was the Armed Forces radio network which took selected materials from the U.S., and they would play them for us from -- they were very non-- nondenominational in the sense that they had many, oh, they had opera, they had the Mormons, the Catholics, the Jewish. They had all denominations on the radios. But it was a -- it was a group of 18,000 people set down in another country, and we had to learn to live in that country. Many of the people lived on the bases, but many of the people lived off the bases. And the ones we were responsible, my job was to be responsible, for the water, the food, swimming pools, exposures. It was also the time when, during this period of time, that helicopters were used extensively to transport patients. It's my, my -- if you've -- the history would show that the use of helicopters transporting patients to a hospital emergency room was first really used extensively during Vietnam, and since that time that's the way of life. Even here at Morgantown, in the last 25 or 30 years ago, we had no helicopters to transport people when I first moved here, and eventually they put helicopter service in at the med center. But we had a helicopter detachment that flew the patients from the airhead at Yokota Air Base or Tachikawa Air Base to our hospitals. It was a 15- to 18-minute flight if it wasn't -- if it didn't fly in the rain. The weather was so bad it was about a four- to five-hour bus ride because the Japanese traffic was just bumper to bumper for miles. So it was a -- a very interesting time to watch what was going on. Sort of the upshot of drug usage became very prevalent during some of the -- with some of the people in Japan. It was just beginning. The people were growing marijuana in some of their flower boxes. And it was very difficult in Japan because if you were caught with marijuana, you went to prison. There was no -- there was no parole. There was no we're just going to put you on probation. So it was severe, and we ended up often sending people home before we told the Japanese authorities. It's not something people talked very much about, but certainly I'd seen that on the fringes. So it was -- it was a very interesting, the support we gave. We brought people to the hospitals. They came in from Vietnam. We always knew when something was going on in Vietnam because we knew that when our hospitals would get loaded up, a large offensive was about to start in Vietnam. They had to clear the hospitals out down there so they could handle the patients. The minute we saw four or 500 people coming on a plane every day, we knew that something was going on in Vietnam. Unspoken, we didn't talk about it, but, you know, you would then read in the newspaper that's what had gone on. We'd put many people in the hospitals. We'd stabilize them. In the early years, '69 when I first got there, we sent many of them back to Vietnam after we were able to stabilize them. The ones who were not able to be stabilized we sent back to the United States on the same type of aircraft to the various Army hospitals, Walter Reed or whereafter, Valley Forge. They would fly them through Alaska into -- into St. Louis or into Andrews Air Force Base and then take them to the hospitals here. They would take them to the hospitals closest to their families so the families could offer them the support they'd need. It's a very -- to watch what had gone on and some of the technology that was developed in burn patients, we were on the cutting edge of some of the technology in burn patients in Japan. We had -- I was stationed near the hospital where many of the burn patients came, and they -- they were stabilized. They'd try to stop the infection. Eventually everything, when they were stabilized, they were then taken to Brooke Army Medical Burn Center in Fort -- in San Antonio, Texas. So that was one of the aspects of watching what people had done. And one of my best friends there, a physician, was a maxillofacial surgeon, and he did many gunshot wounds to the face. So you, you got to see many of the -- many of the technologies that had been under development probably in the early sixties they were then using in the 70s. Today the technology would be very antiquated, but at the time it was -- it was very far reaching what they were doing.

Sarah Thomas:

So, let me just -- let me just make sure I'm not confused. So when the soldiers would get wounded out in the field, they would go to a hospital?

Robert Wheeler:

In Vietnam.

Sarah Thomas:

In Vietnam, and they would transport them to your hospital?

Robert Wheeler:

Right.

Sarah Thomas:

At Camp Zama?

Robert Wheeler:

Right. Or they would actually bring them to the -- they would bring them to the Yokota Air Base, and once they got them to Yokota or Tachikawa Air Bases out of Vietnam, we would then decide which hospitals had the most available beds based upon their medical conditions, if it was an orthopedic, if it was a burn, or if it was a gunshot or other type of thing that they had to treat them. We treated hernias, cancers, maxillofacial. Each hospital had their specialist, so that's where we'd try to get them to.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you remember arriving at Camp Zama like the first day?

Robert Wheeler:

I arrived in August. It was August of 1969. And we landed at Yokota Air Force Base, and the -- I got off the plane and thought I was in the wrong country. The air pollution was so thick you couldn't see. My -- the fellow I was replacing picked me up at the airport, and it was 18, 18 miles to the base, and it took us almost five hours because of the traffic. And the funny thing was my first experience of watching people use -- not using public bathrooms, but just every -- the Japanese get off the bus, and they tended to water down the hill by urinating without using a public bathroom. I came to find out that was very common in Japan. Unfortunately, as a sanitary engineer, that was -- that was my specialty, but in Japan they had the sewers that were very close to the surface, and they were called benjo ditches, and I became known as "Benjo Bob," the sewer ditch -- the sewer ditch engineer. But it was funny that -- or the flying garbage man, because I used to have to go to all the bases and check on, on hazardous waste. I do have some sketches and things I did. I saw your comment about the caricatures that people had actually drawn of me flying around in a garbage can with a propeller on the bottom holding on to both hands.

Sarah Thomas:

That's funny.

Robert Wheeler:

It was a -- I would say it's a little cultural shock. I ended up living in a one-room in a dorm. And probably the most scary thing was at 3:00 o'clock morning when the earthquakes hit. You'd look up, and the lights would be swinging back and forth in your room or you'd almost fall out of bed. Because we lived in an area, the Kanto plains of Japan, where earthquakes are very common. And that was probably -- nobody warned me. Or you would sit at your desk, and the lights in your office would start swinging back and forth, and you didn't realize that that was going on, you know. But nice people. We were all in a -- we were all there for a defined period of time. We all learned to get along with each other. We all had a mission. So it's very different than living in an integrated community. If you took Morgantown, I was in a medical unit here. I'd integrate and associate with other people. Over there it was more difficult because the only people there were serving in the military one way or the other.

Sarah Thomas:

Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.

Robert Wheeler:

I think when I was in the military one of the most memorable to me was going to the inaugural parade as a military officer in 1969 and walking from where I parked my car to the parade route. And as I walked up, President Elect Nixon drove by. We saluted him, and he waved to us. We were going up Pennsylvania Avenue -- I'm sorry, Constitution Avenue because we walked up Constitution Avenue -- and he waved back at us. And then we watched the parade and saw the 82nd Airborne "Fixed Bayonets" because of the -- all the consternation that had gone on during Vietnam. Probably a couple of the other things was actually moving to Washington and living there right after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis and seeing the rioting that had gone on. And during the period of time there to actually go to the Rotunda and see -- and visit the, where President Eisenhower had died and laid in state, and while waiting, Charles de Gaulle showed up to go visit him. So that was one of those situations as well. As well as being in Washington when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and living in a turbulent time of a year that was very historical. A lot of things happened in a short period of time within that year. Living through the poor people's campaign. There were people living on the -- near the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial. Overseas, I think seeing Creighton Abrams, a four-star general, in the hospital being operated on by my friend the physician. Creighton Abrams was Commander-in-Chief of all the forces in Vietnam. I think that was, that was very, very high in the things that you end up seeing in life. But probably my most lasting military experience was working for a man who I learned a lot of management from, who was a physician, which is very unusual. He is -- he treated everybody with a lot of respect. He never micromanaged. I think that was probably one of the most memorable things of working for somebody that cared a lot about people. All of them did, but some of them were worried about their careers. He was never worried about his career. The other was going to the World's Fair when we were in Japan on official duty to the American embassy to help them look at their sanitation. That's what we said we'd do. And going to Chitose to watch, to the area where the Japanese had planned the invasion of Pearl Harbor, and there's a military base at Chitose, and actually to see that. The people, I guess the people that you -- you try to remember all the people you've met, and you become lifelong friends, because we were all in a situation where we were alone, and we only had each other, and we were isolated from our families. So we tended to, even to this day after 35 years, we still communicate at Christmastime with several of the people that we, we got really close during that time, and those friendships have extended for over three decades, are probably the most telling thing that I remember about it. The experience of seeing some people during that time and, you know, seeing what people had done and how they'd try to do things. That was probably the most interesting thing.

Sarah Thomas:

How did you keep in touch with your family?

Robert Wheeler:

Once a week we'd call home. We would go to the officers' club, and it was very expensive to call home then, and we'd call on a Sunday morning which was Sunday night in the U.S. My mother sent me the "Wheeling News-Register" every Sunday, so I would get the Sunday paper and keep up with it like that. A lot of letters from my mother and my grandmother. And I guess probably the hardest thing, though, was I was -- in '71 my grandmother, my grandfather, and my uncle all died within 60 days of each other, and I wasn't -- you know, I couldn't come home. So it was -- that portion you -- if you had an emergency, the Red Cross would tell you what had gone on, and the social worker from the Red Cross would tell you what had gone on and what had happened. During that time I had been divorced from my first wife, and I had a two-year-old son who lived in San Antonio, and so there was a separation from my child for almost two years. And I went to see him; I was able to get home three times from Japan to go see him, but it was very superficial at that age. He didn't remember much. That's all -- separation from the family is one of the hard things. And, obviously, we didn't watch very much television. We didn't have television in our rooms. We missed Woodstock being over there. I do have the Woodstock -- the one thing we did, we bought a lot of records, and I have now records that are over 35 years old in mint condition sitting in my basement. But it was Jim Morrison and the Doors, and it was the Beatles, and it was Woodstock, and it was really classy people that -- the records were inexpensive, two dollars for an album, an LP. We had reel-to-reel tapes then. We didn't -- that was the advent just in '71 of the smaller cassettes, and now you're into disk and MP3s, and there was a huge change in how we're able to record technology today.

Sarah Thomas:

Let me see. How did you entertain yourself when you were -- when you had time off at night?

Robert Wheeler:

Probably too much time playing slot machines. As a bachelor, you know, you attempted to date when you were gone. Generally the people you ended up dating were either school teachers or nurses because those were the only females really in Japan. You didn't date anybody, any of the local nationals. It's just, you know, you didn't have much time or opportunity to associate with them. We -- we sometimes played, played sports, played softball. We had a softball team, slow pitch, in the company. I played for that. Sometimes officers were accepted; sometimes they weren't. And it's very difficult that most of the individuals were enlisted men, and sometimes they would resent an officer getting involved with them. So, you know, there were some times you couldn't step across that line. At least, in my feeling, you couldn't step across that line. There were many receptions and parties because that's all we had. A lot of people would invite you to their home for dinner knowing that you were a bachelor, and I did go to many homes for dinner on the weekends sometimes. We probably had -- some weeks we'd have two or three parties, and then we'd go a couple weeks without a party. I developed a -- in my off-time I -- we had one afternoon a week off, and I ended up getting, obtaining a position teaching English to Japanese engineers. And so I got -- I was integrated into Japanese society to the extent of going down, and every Thursday they would have us go down, and we would work on our English, their English, conversational English. And then they took me out to eat at night. I learned to eat food that I would never have attempted on my own. Octopus, squid, just things that -- abalone. That's not something I would order off a menu, but they would order it off. Carp, carp was not my favorite, but they would order a lot of stuff off menus, and they knew, they knew the delicacies, and they knew the right stuff to eat. And if you drank enough, it never bothered you what you ate. A lot of Kirin beer, a lot of sake, would just do wonders to get you over the hurdle of eating a small tentacle from an octopus. It's really pretty good food.

Sarah Thomas:

Really?

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah, it was. And they took me on their outings on the train, and I was the only gaijin, or foreigner. "Gaijin" is the Japanese term for foreigner. I would take them on their company outing which -- and they mimicked me in my teaching English, and they had fun with me. And years later in '87 I took my family back to Japan. We stayed with my contact at the company. We actually stayed in his home, and we slept in a Japanese home with my children there. So we still communicate after -- after 35 years, with my contact at the company.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you speak any Japanese?

Robert Wheeler:

Skoshi. That means little.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you recall any particular humorous or unusual events?

Robert Wheeler:

Oh, probably the going-away party for my boss. He often referred to -- there were two captains, and I was one of the captains, and the other was an Afro-American captain. And he referred to his two captains, one was as smooth as a butt on a new baby, and the other was like a rasp. And you can guess, I was the rasp, and he was the smooth as a butt on a new baby. That was one, probably one of the more humorous things. And my boss, traveling to the World's Fair together and getting VIP treatment at the World's Fair in Osaka Japan. Going to the World's Fair, humorous, yes. They had 835,000 people at the fair on Labor Day in 1970 and could not get everybody off the property that night until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.

Sarah Thomas:

Oh, wow.

Robert Wheeler:

So that, it wasn't humorous, but it was, it was an exciting time to, to do the, to watch some of the young men in my -- who worked for me, some of the -- some of their growth as people and what small role you took in some of that growth. The Christmas party where we all are there, and we all had a great time, that was one of the more memorable funny times because we all could carry on and drink, and nobody would be too judgmental.

Sarah Thomas:

Uh-huh.

Robert Wheeler:

I think that it's the -- flying space aid to -- we flew space aid to the -- space available on military plane to Okinawa, and we were trying to go visit a friend in Thailand. And we, we bought a commercial ticket, and we went to Thailand, or to Okinawa, and saw friends that we had -- both another fellow and I had come over and we had both worked for, and he -- we eventually got on a plane. And the most humorous thing was to, to get on the plane, and it was a -- it was a C1, KC-135. And when we got on the plane, it was loaded up with all kind of materials, and we flew from, from Okinawa to Taiwan and from Taiwan to Utapao, which was on the Gulf of Siam in Thailand, and when we landed in Thailand, I'll never forget the panel truck sitting on the runway loaded with ceramic green elephants. These were a specialty item that they moved around on these planes like it was a flying PX, a transport plane. And they had rattan furniture going to Thailand and other things going out of Thailand back to Oki- -- back to Guam. In fact, it was going back to Guam. And we landed there, and we got a flight up to Bangkok, and we were trying to go to an area called Korat which is in the middle of Thailand. And we hired a taxicab for 20 dollars, and it was 150 miles, which was two of us in a cab. And we, as we drove to Korat, the taxi driver was going up a hill, and he passed the trucks on the berm on the left side of the road. It was so -- one truck was passing another, and we went over to the left side of that truck. We probably could have been easily killed. And when we got to Korat, we were offered some of the local drink, Leaping Deer, which was very green and had been bottled that day. It's pretty tough. It's pretty tough. And, you know, sleeping in a room in Korat with lizards running up and down the wall eating mosquitoes in a hotel room. It was very -- one of the funnier things that we probably, we probably did, and trying to get out of there back to Japan. And we were able to go back to Japan. We flew from, from Bangkok to the Philippines, and from the Philippines to Okinawa, and then from Okinawa back to Japan. So we were all night on the plane, and that was the night we landed in, in Saigon. And that was the only experience of having ever been to Vietnam was that flight. There's a subsequent issue about actually being in the Army during Vietnam was when I worked for the World Health Organization. I probably could not have been offered a job if I had been stationed in Vietnam because one of the areas that we serviced in the World Health Organization was Vietnam, and if I had served in the Army during Vietnam, I probably would have been persona non grata. I couldn't have done it. They wouldn't have -- they would have turned me down. So that was the funny thing about flying around all over Europe and the opportunity to go to Korea up to Panmunjon where the truce was negotiated and seeing the conditions of a trunk of a jeep with a machine gun behind us and a jeep with a machine gun in front of us; you know, flying on planes all over the Far East, military planes. It was -- it was probably the most fun. I got to co-pilot a helicopter with -- I wasn't in control of it, let me assure you, but sitting in the co-pilot's seat and playing like I knew what I was doing, that was the -- because I had friends who were helicopter pilots -- that was one of the more fun things.

Sarah Thomas:

I can imagine that was some kind of fun.

Robert Wheeler:

Oh, yeah.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you recall the day you came back to the States, when you came home?

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah. It was a -- it was a 4:00 a.m. departure from my hotel, or from my BOQ to the airport. We got to the airport, and we were supposed to leave at 8:00. We left at 8:00 o'clock, and that was the change of guard at the base I was stationed at. And when we took off, the fire warning light came on on the airplane. And you -- we were scheduled to go all the way to -- we were supposed to go to -- we were supposed to go to Travis Air Force Base. And we took off, and the fire warning light came on, so we had to land. And so we flew around for two hours while they dumped enough fuel that we could land back at the base. And when we landed back at the base, we were put up then for 14 hours before we could go. And we eventually got home to -- put us on a long commercial flight to San Francisco then rather than on that flight, and I had to go to Travis Air Force Base to get my car. And we were not very well accepted when we came back. People didn't like them, because we had been in a -- I wore a uniform, a short haircut. But obviously you wore -- you had to wear the uniform on the plane, but, you know, you got out of it as soon as you could, and you're not very well accepted. That was the date I returned from overseas was sometime in June, and took my car and drove all the way to San Antonio. It was -- it was difficult. But that was my return from overseas, and eventually I was discharged in the fall of '71 from, from the Army at San Antonio.

Sarah Thomas:

And then what did you do?

Robert Wheeler:

I stayed in the Reserves, and I was stationed at a hospital in Pittsburgh, 339th General Hospital, as an environmental engineer. And I went to Reserve meetings every other Sunday and summer camp at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. I went to work for EPA as an environmental engineer, sanitary engineer, in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I was there about a year, 14 months, and left there and went on to become a consulting engineer in Indianapolis. I was assigned to Orlando, Florida, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and back to Indianapolis. And it was the third move in five months. I gave up my commission. I gave up my Army commission and took one with the U.S. Public Health Service as an environmental engineer, or environmental engineer with the U.S. Public Health Service when I was assigned to Morgantown. I took a research Appalachian laboratory in here, in town. And I stayed there for 16 years.

Sarah Thomas:

Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or about the military in general?

Robert Wheeler:

I think, I think my experience taught me that as bad as and disorganized as I thought the military was, and how I thought they were hurry-up-and-wait, I learned that they were much further ahead of the general population. Everybody knew how you would be judged, how you would be graded, what the rules were. When I walked away from the military, I found it a difficult adjustment because certain words were given or expectations were given; I didn't see the same thing occur in, in industry. I knew the military was always the mission or the military became so important. Well, how do you make the transition into being a civilian and seeing whether people would follow the same guidelines or same, same rationale of doing things was, it was a tough transition because I was so used to the structure that I didn't see when I left. That's one of the bigger differences I noticed when I took my Public Health Service commission. I think we're so -- we were 180 degrees different in the military because they were so loosey-goosey about everything and, you know, it's whether you got your hair cut, or whether your hair was on your collar, or whether you learned to salute, or whether you came to work looking grubby. It was just -- it was very difficult to make the adjustment, after serving five years in the military, to see a person who had a commission not adhere to the rules. What's expected of an officer and a gentleman or a lady, an officer and a lady, it was just completely -- it was a difficult -- I probably got jaded being in the military watching people after I left who wore a uniform who expected -- didn't know how to salute, didn't know what it was to be an officer, what was expected of them. It was a way to be paid more than it was to be, to be respected.

Sarah Thomas:

Do you -- do you belong to any veterans' organizations?

Robert Wheeler:

No.

Sarah Thomas:

No? Okay. How did your service and experiences affect your life?

Robert Wheeler:

I think the -- I think living in other countries and, and giving back to people, and helping me grow as a person probably was the greatest effect on my life. The transition from being a student, going from being a student in the military was a tremendous transition for me. Learning that, the transition of an engineer of two and two is four; sometimes two and two is what you want it to be, and how you make the transition and how you learn to deal with people. I think learning to deal with people is probably the, maybe one of the better things that I learned to do. Never to -- to trust, but verify. I think that was probably what I learned. After a few times when you get burned, you learn to deal with those things. Probably the thing that was questioned probably the most of my time in the military was your, your basic integrity of do you look the other way, or do you stand up? And do you want to be a stand-up guy, or do you want to be, do you want to look the other way and make things easy? And it's difficult to do the right thing. There was one incident in the military where I was the person who was responsible to do an audit, and when I couldn't find the devices I was supposed to audit, I reported that. I discovered that the devices had been turned into property disposal. The major who was responsible for it had been signing off and had never verified that they were there, and we had to actually go back and buy them from the Japanese. He was given Article 15, which is a severe reprimand in the military. It probably cost him his career. But it was the kind of thing that I would never put my name to something that I didn't, you know, I didn't see as something real. I don't know that -- I think the military, the military taught me a lot about camaraderie, about people from other disciplines other than engineers, what their roles were. And I think that I was sort of a duck out of water. Rather than being in the corps of engineers, I was in the medical service corps, so the people around me were hospital administrators and veterinarians and nurses and operational people and helicopter people, so integration from being a pure engineer into a group of people who didn't maybe appreciate engineering, that I had to learn to go along, to get along. I think that was probably one of the bigger things I think I realized from it.

Sarah Thomas:

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Robert Wheeler:

Probably one of the -- maybe one of the other funny things, now that you've triggered my mind, a funny thing was that I was hospitalized for 30 days because I tore my leg open in the ocean on a piece of coral, and Sergeant Bombardiere often brought me my orange juice for breakfast laced with vodka. Learning never to get out of bed for -- it's terrible to say, but having to stay in bed for almost 18 days until the plastic surgery took on my leg, using that bed pan and what you had to learn to eat; and treasuring a shower after 18 days with a plastic bag around your foot sitting on a stool was probably something I'll never forget, but it was one of the more difficult things. But appreciating here I was, I did something from a recreational standpoint, and the person that I was lying next to in the bed was there because he'd been shot in Vietnam. And I spent 30 days with these guys, and again it was the orange juice with vodka and riding around in a wheelchair, that nobody would cut you any slack, and you were on your own to go to the dining hall to eat. And it was, you know, they put me on -- actually put me on diet, and I lost weight. And, unfortunately, I grew a mustache which my boss didn't like, and it got shaven off pretty quick. So it was -- it was a very interesting experience, spending 30 days in a hospital ward with other people.

Sarah Thomas:

Did you talk to the other soldiers when you were there?

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah, there were many people. In fact, one of the people that I was in the hospital with was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. He was the only living chaplain from Vietnam. And I still have his fatigues today. He gave me his fatigues when he got out and came home. I still have his fatigues as a remembrance of him. He was a Catholic chaplain who was wounded three times and carried, I don't know, eight or ten people to safety.

Sarah Thomas:

Wow.

Robert Wheeler:

But those were some people that you, you know, you're in a ward with, and you end up meeting a lot of people. And some of them came and didn't stay very long. But he, I think, may have had cancer, and so he came and stayed a little longer until they got him back to the U.S. So those were some of them, some of the people that you really remember and situations you remember.

Sarah Thomas:

Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about or add?

Robert Wheeler:

Probably I would have made the military a career, but I had one efficiency report that was not -- I didn't walk on water. And I figured in 15 more years I'd find somebody else that said I couldn't walk on water, and I wasn't willing to take that risk, so I gave up my commission or actually went off active duty. I was going to make it a career until I was told that. And it's probably a good move because by the time I got out, the military was starting to downsize because the Vietnam war came to an end in '75. I'll always remember the end of Vietnam, as it occurred the day before my birthday or on my birthday. April 29th was the day they left, the last U.S. troops left Vietnam.

Sarah Thomas:

Uh-huh.

Robert Wheeler:

That's something you remember.

Sarah Thomas:

Yeah, no, it would be. Well, I thank you very much.

Robert Wheeler:

I think the, the subsequent time of serving in the U.S. Public Health Service was -- and actually going overseas and working in the World Health Organization and working with coal miners -- and I think it was professionally rewarding. But I think the service in the military taught me to learn to be able to deal with people of all backgrounds and all educational levels, whether it's a CEO or whether it's a man with a GED or without a high school degree. If you can talk to people, then you become very effective in what you do. The time I was in, there was also a scandal going on, people stealing money from slot machines, so we got very much involved. And during Vietnam there was a great hullaballoo about people were stealing and skimming money from slot machines. So we were on the periphery on that because we had slot machines in Japan. That's why our clubs, we didn't have to pay very much money, and our meals were subsidized by the slot machines.

Sarah Thomas:

Wow.

Robert Wheeler:

Flying over, flying in a helicopter to, to the officers' club in downtown Tokyo where the embassy's people use our clubs, and flying with three colonels. And, you know, we'd fly over the city of Tokyo, and if you ever had to set the helicopter down, there weren't many places to set it down.

Sarah Thomas:

It was so crowded, yeah.

Robert Wheeler:

You lose power, and then the plane has to go down and sit down somewhere. That was always the danger of flying. So there were, there were such very interesting situations that occurred with these people. And watching the -- I got to see all the records of who came and who went out of our hospitals. And so we would lose probably -- eight to ten people who would come from Vietnam would end up dying in the hospitals in Japan. But we eventually closed one hospital where there were a lot of Communist hotbed. We closed Camp Oji, and then we started to close the other hospitals. And then we eventually came down to Camp Zama. And when I left in 1971, we were down to a hundred patients from 3,000 when we arrived, and all the patients were then going to Okinawa, which is significant because there was a change in how they were running the war, and of course we didn't have as many people injured or as many casualties.

Sarah Thomas:

So the hospital in Camp Zama, was that called -- was that the U.S. Army hospital?

Robert Wheeler:

It was the Army hospital on Camp Zama Japan or U.S. Army Hospital Sagami-Ono -- Sagamihara, it was Sagamihara. Sagami-Ono was the prefecture. Sagamihara was the town. It was U.S. Army Hospital Camp Zama. Camp Zama was the planning area for the Japanese army during World War II. We had a Pentagon-size building there. It looked like the Pentagon. And concrete blocks. I was it. We had to sleep in a vault when you're the duty officer. I got duty on Christmas day because I was a bachelor, and on New Year's Day, I think I got to sleep in the vault on New Year's Day.

Sarah Thomas:

Yeah.

Robert Wheeler:

But we were always on call, and if something happened, we had to do it. Three, three young men, three young fellows in my group, were killed in accidents when we were in Japan, automobile accidents, some of them. Some of them -- one was crushed by a truck, one was decapitated off his motorcycle. You know, people, you know, they speed, they drove too fast, may have gotten run off the road by the Japanese.

Sarah Thomas:

Yeah.

Robert Wheeler:

But it was stationed next to the base where the Navy had lost a plane to the North Koreans a couple years before, Atsugi Naval Air Station. They had flown a listening plane around North Korea, and they shot it down. So that was one of the other things that occurred. We used to always get the ships in, and they would be protested when it was a nuclear carrier. I don't know, it was a very interesting time, a very intense two years, to watch the flow of patients because we were always involved with the people who moved the patients from Vietnam. It was very intriguing to see how we were able to manage people and get them back to the U.S. They're always on the phone. There's telegrams. We had, they called them "twixes" then, T-W-Xs. We didn't have fax machines. It was telephone or teletype. That's how everything, everybody communicated then. You didn't know about a fax. We didn't have computers. Everything was white-out or correction tape that you'd put over it. So, you know, today we get a little sloppy. You don't worry too much about spelling. Spell-check will catch it.

Sarah Thomas:

Yes.

Robert Wheeler:

That didn't occur then. You got it right. You got it right. It had to be right or it didn't go out.

Sarah Thomas:

It was interesting, last night I actually found a patient brochure from the U.S. Army Hospital Camp Zama from 1969.

Robert Wheeler:

Really?

Sarah Thomas:

It was interesting. I found it online. The whole thing was on it. It even had a map of the hospital.

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah.

Sarah Thomas:

It was really interesting.

Robert Wheeler:

It was a -- it was down the middle, and the wards were on both sides. And right behind the hospital was the 406th General -- the 406th Lab. And the lab did all the support of research. They did malaria research. They did -- the pathologists were back there, so they did all the pathology from Japan. And the officers' club was there. And this was the hospital that supported -- the closest to Zama and the U.S. Army Japan. But that was U.S. Army Hospital Camp Zama, and it was different than where the base was because the base had where the general lived, and he was in charge of all the forces in Japan. We had a place where they rebuilt all the tanks and armored personnel carriers that were shot up in Vietnam. Rather than bring them all back to the United States, they brought them to Japan. They took them off the ships, brought them up there, and the Japanese contractors rebuilt the tanks and armored personnel carriers. We sent them back to Vietnam. It's very unusual that nobody really talks very much about that. That was one of the jobs we had. We had a lot of stuff that was called retrograde cargo. They would load stuff in big containers and bring them back to Japan, and we'd have to gas it so we'd kill snakes and mosquitos and everything else that might be in the containers. And we'd bring them the containers, you know, and open them up and decide what to do with the property. So it was a -- it was a -- I don't think anybody ever wrote a true story about what the U.S. Army Japan did in support of the war in Vietnam. There was a fellow named Glasser wrote "365 Days," and he wrote it like he had been in Vietnam, but he was actually a pediatrician in Japan. Ron Glasser is his name. He wrote that book 20 years ago. You may see that. But it's a very interesting story. He was a -- he rode his motorcycle into the middle of the officers' club. He was a little nutsy, even for a doctor. But you always had strange people in those environments that do strange things, because they were drafted, and they didn't particularly like the Army, but they weren't getting shot at either. So it's -- it was the kind of thing that people, you know, nobody -- you didn't really get put in jail for drunk driving, and you didn't do a whole lot of other things. We had a number of people end up going to the Japanese prisons for various things that they did. One of the individuals in the helicopter detachment killed his Japanese girlfriend, and they were able to track that it was really circumstantial evidence that he had done it. And he got 20 years. There was no parole. There was no heat. There was no blankets. There's no nothing. And he was released in the early nineties. So you didn't get a parole from them. They're very harsh prisons. That's the last place you ever wanted to go in Japan. That's just the way they did things. But it was, you know, it's a very, very interesting country that was just starting to -- all the stereo stuff that you see today, the Hondas are driven by bicycle chains; that was their drive. They didn't have the kind of motors, and all the military, we bought inexpensive cars. I bought a four-year-old car for 400 dollars. I drove it two years and sold it for 375. But we didn't pay taxes, and the Japanese did. Our gasoline was 19 cents a gallon, and their gasoline was about a buck-and-a-half then.Sarah Thomas:: Oh, wow.

Robert Wheeler:

So we would get gasoline, no tax over there on gas. So we would get fairly inexpensive gasoline. Budweiser, a can of Coca-Cola cost more than a can of Budweiser did.

Sarah Thomas:

Really?

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah. Ten cents for a can of Budweiser and 11 cents for a can of Coke.

Sarah Thomas:

Oh, wow, that's interesting.

Robert Wheeler:

The James -- remember the James Bond movie "Man with the Golden Gun" where they were in Thailand?

Sarah Thomas:

Uh-huh.

Robert Wheeler:

That's the area we spent in Thailand. And we'd go down the Chao Phraya River. But it was, again, a very developing country that, you know. The unfortunate thing is, you go through life, and from my background in public health, eventually I got a Master's Degree in public health when I got out of the Army and went into the Center for Disease Control. The public health aspects are very, very difficult to understand in other countries. AIDS, communicable diseases, just they're not even discussed. There's no money for treatment. So many people just are -- they end up dying, which we don't hear of that here because we think of prolonging life. And living in countries where young ladies -- I have three daughters, and I spent time in the Philippines and again Thailand. But in countries you go to, young women are sold into prostitution at 12 and 13 years old for 1500 dollars by their parents, and probably they're going to be dead at 17 with AIDS. It's -- I don't know how difficult you can fathom -- you can't fathom that until you see it. But that's what I saw in 1987 when I was with the Public Health Service as an officer and had gone to Tagana-an in the Philippines. It was just beginning to occur. And now probably the most talked about is probably Bangkok where a whole generation of young women are dying of AIDS. By 17. They don't make it past 17. And that's why the public health things you see when you go to other countries, we take a lot of stuff for granted. I quit taking stuff for granted having served in the military. All you had to do was go to other countries and see how they had to eat and how they had to live.

Sarah Thomas:

Yeah.

Robert Wheeler:

And subsequently, and during WHO, we learned that 25 percent of the children in 1986 in Vietnam ever reached age five because of bad food and bad water, the stuff we take for granted. So that's just some aspect I thought that -- the military gave me that opportunity to do that and see things in a different light, and gave me the opportunity to take my commission and transfer it to the U.S. Public Health Service. I think that's one of the greatest things that occurred to me. It opened doors that would never be opened to me otherwise. Fair enough? I don't know of anything else to tell you. I don't know if it's boring at 9:00 o'clock in the morning.

Sarah Thomas:

No. It's interesting.

Robert Wheeler:

One of the ways that, stationed in Japan, they often sent us home was to accompany a patient home to his family. And the young man was a graduate of the Citadel, and he was engaged; his fiancee was a WVU graduate. And he was going to Walter Reed, and they sent me home with him to his parents. His father was a lieutenant colonel or a colonel in the Pentagon. And he had stepped on a mine and blew both legs off, and he had a perforated eardrum. And I accompanied him home to Walter Reed and turned him over to his mother and father. But it was -- it was one of those kind of things that they offered us when we were in Japan, to accompany patients home to their families. Probably never talked about it very much, and it was done to get us home sometimes to our families. But there was a young man who was 23 years old. Had wire cages for legs so that the tendons would not shrink until they were able to give him a prosthesis and close the wounds. And this -- this occurred a lot. We were often sent home with patients. The doctors and the nurses and the medical people were sent home to help on the planes. And here would be a plane full of wounded, Stryker frames, whatever they had, to get them home, and we would come home with them. And I don't think anybody would ever talk very much about that because not too many people ever got that opportunity. You had to be with the hospital units to do that.

Sarah Thomas:

That must have been an experience, taking them home.

Robert Wheeler:

It was. It was because here you're bringing home -- you sent away a son who was whole, and now you're bringing home a son that's, some of him is not there anymore. And it was really tough to turn him over to his mother and dad. They waited for him in the plane, and I waited for him in the hospital so we can do that physically as a sign of respect and courtesy to the family. So it was -- it was very difficult to do that kind of stuff. And --

Sarah Thomas:

Did you do that often?

Robert Wheeler:

Well, I didn't do -- I did it once. Other people, if they -- probably every medical person that wanted to come home during the two years I was there, that was a way to get them home and get them back because you were guaranteed a seat back to Japan on a, on a charter. But you could, you could go, you could go home, and then they would give you a seat back. You might have to pay to get back to San Francisco, get back to Travis to come back to Japan. So they did that for many of us to get us home for a reason to see our families. So it was, you know, it was one of those kind of things where we did reach out and try to, try to have some compassion for the families who were waiting for the injured when we brought them home. So I think that was one of the nicer things they were able to work out. Didn't ever talk much about it. It was sort of an unwritten rule, cut you orders and send you home. So I just wanted to make sure, if you thought that would be of interest.

Sarah Thomas:

Yeah.

Robert Wheeler:

Yeah. But, yeah, it was just one of those things. (END OF CD RECORDED INTERVIEW)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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