December 7, 2001

Pearl Harbor, Trade Center spark memories for Vanderbilt veteran

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Dr. Robert “Buck” Buchanan, 91, recounts his days in World War II. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Pearl Harbor, Trade Center spark memories for Vanderbilt veteran

Dec. 7, 1941 still lives in infamy.

Despite 60 years of healing and the eventual close economic and cultural relationship between the United States and Japan, the jolting shock from the attack that awakened a “Sleeping Giant” and jarred us into a worldwide war stirs, even in the minds of generations begotten decades later.

If there was any chance the infamy died, Sept. 11, 2001 shocked it back to life.

The Reporter sought a veteran with Vanderbilt ties who remembers that day, and, with the assistance of the Emeritus Office, found a remarkable man who might well be Vanderbilt’s oldest veteran, 91-year-old Dr. Robert “Buck” Buchanan, clinical professor of Dermatology, Emeritus.

From his comfortable chair in a Nashville assisted living home, Buchanan slowly unhinges to greet this reporter and a photographer. A charming smile beams from his lean face. Years have tightened his joints and curved his spine, but when unfolded as much as his body allows the once Lt. Col. Buchanan, U. S. Army, still stands above 6 feet. He has dressed for our meeting, consistent with his generation’s custom, in coat and tie, and his ivory hair lies obediently combed. Dermatology journals, novels and historical non-fictions litter his bed. He apologizes for the less-than-formal arrangement, seats his guests and begins to let loose memories of Dec. 7, and of his tour as the consulting dermatologist in the Mediterranean theatre as part of the Fighting 300, the Vanderbilt Hospital Unit. He recounts details, dates and names too quickly for this reporter to jot them all down.

“I remember Pearl Harbor quite well,” Buchanan begins. “All of us who could read could see war clouds gathering. Hitler was marching, one little conquest after another. It didn’t take a smart fella to see we were going to be involved in the War.”

But, he said, “That day shocked us, because even though the war clouds were building, we didn’t expect it on our soil. It gave us a real hard lick in the solar plexus. We all went to work the next day (Buchanan was a dermatologist in practice then at Vanderbilt), but I don’t think any of us were busy seeing patients when Roosevelt addressed the nation.”

The young dermatologist had spent the morning of Dec. 7 with his father, a country doctor in Hendersonville, on a house call. He lived with his parents, and remembers first hearing news of the Japanese attack on the radio when they returned home, around noon, or 8 a.m. Hawaii time.

Anger spread quickly, he recalls. “It was a sneak attack. They were the same feelings I had about the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. It was not warfare (in the traditional sense). You wanted to hit somebody.”

Buchanan had already stepped toward his personal contribution to the war. Even during medical school at Vanderbilt (class of ‘34) he signed up for an ROTC class. But his first exposure to the military wasn’t all spit and polish.

“They had an Army medical officer teaching the class,” Buchanan said. “He was telling us how to build a compost pile so it wouldn’t attract flies. The whole class was built on the premise that the Army still rode on horseback and horses still pulled the big guns. I thought, ‘we have automobiles now. We have the gasoline engine.’ I didn’t see any sense in learning how to make a pile of manure less attractive to flies. I thought the rest of the program was as outdated as that course and I dropped it.”

But as a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1939, as those war clouds began to loom, Buchanan heard about Army hospital units forming around the country. He inquired about one at Vanderbilt and was invited to join the Fighting 300th by Dr. Hugh J. Morgan, then the chairman of Medicine who soon would be the chief medical consultant for the Armed Forces, working under the Surgeon General.

Once called up, in May 1942, Buchanan went to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and was tapped for a special multi-center Army research project, trying to find out why troops treated for syphilis came down with jaundice. The culprit, Buchanan and his cohorts discovered, was arsenic used as part of the IV treatment.

After fighting venereal diseases, Buchanan joined the rest of the 300th (more than 80 nurses and almost 50 physicians and male staff) and shipped out to the Mediterranean. “We (Patton’s cavalry, sans horses) had kicked the Germans out of North Africa and kept them out of Egypt, their ultimate target, and kept them from gaining control of the Suez Canal,” he says. The 300th spent September and October 1943 on the continent and moved north to a hospital ship near Naples, Italy, closer to the European front, on Nov. 11. “I remember that date because at 11 a.m. they held a moment of silence for Armistice Day, and I thought that was so ironic. Here we were, at war, remembering a time of peace.”

The next day the 300th moved inland to a former tuberculosis sanitarium. It was, Buchanan says, “a showplace,” with wide-open wards to let fresh air blow in from the tree-shaded grounds.

The hospital was originally equipped to handle 1,000 beds; but as casualties grew, and without infirmaries to handle less-serious injuries, the patient census swelled to more than 3,300, Buchanan says. “Either you were able to do your soldier duties or you got to be in the hospital,” he says.

In “The Fighting 300th,” a book written by Dr. Louis Rosenfeld, a member of the unit, Buchanan relates a story that won him a “silver star” fashioned from a tin can. It seems the hospital’s nurses were popular among Air Corps fliers in the area. The pilots would buzz the grounds to signal their dates of their arrival. Male members of the unit were not impressed; even the commanding officer, Col. George Reyer, took to throwing dirt clods at the planes in annoyance, Buchanan says. During a baseball game one flier buzzed too low and Buchanan, playing centerfield, tossed a large rock into the air, right into the plane’s path. The plane hit the rock, sending shrapnel far and fast enough to rip through several tents. No one was injured, but the pilot had to jettison fuel tanks that were damaged. The story quickly spread, and Buchanan became a hero to the anti-pilot physicians.

As the front moved northward, the 300th became the anchor, and Buchanan was called on for a special assignment; he was made the consulting dermatologist for the entire Mediterranean theatre, a job that took him to hospitals and medical units from Casablanca to Iran to Paris, where he attended a conference on VE Day.

The exposure gave him a breadth of experience that included treating two patients with leprosy and one pilot afflicted with a rare aleppo boil, an infection caused by a parasite. He saved one nurse from a medical discharge by dissolving fears of lupus and correctly diagnosing contact dermatitis created by a reaction to her fingernail polish. “She was nervous, and the more nervous she would get the more she would polish her fingernails,” Buchanan says.

The 300th pulled out of Italy in August 1945.

“I had a lot of good breaks in the war,” he says. One came when he returned to the States. “I had written this girl, and we had a few dates before I left,” Buchanan says. His trip home was supposed to be temporary; he had ordered to ship to Manila. He met his girl in Hampton Roads, Va., “and we decided to go on and get married.” He says. He and his wife, Rachelle Blackman were wed, and his orders to ship out were canceled.

After the war, Buchanan returned to Nashville and a very active dermatology practice. He saw his last patient in 1996, at age 85.