The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on this date in 1941 launched World War II, a global conflict of massive proportions that changed the world, with enduring ramifications for millions of people.
For Dr. William T. Carleton, it was a stark beginning to his career in medicine and his life with his new bride, Isabel.
Carleton celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this week and recalled the day of the surprise attack and the resulting four years he spent in Navy, including time in the South Pacific.
Carleton returned to his home in Worcester, Mass., after the war and practiced family medicine for 40 years. After the death of his wife in 2008, he moved to New Bern and now lives at McCarthy Court. His son Bill, a retired Foreign Service officer, lives in River Bend.
Carleton and other Americans thought they had survived the worst — the Great Depression — when he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1939, completed two years of internship, met Isabel and prepared hopefully for the future.
“I joined the Navy in order to get married,” he recalled. “I had no income.”
It was August of 1941 when they wed and 11 days later he was called to duty at Charleston (S.C.) Navy Yard.
Soon, he was deployed on a Navy hospital ship, the USS Solace, a converted passenger ship, which arrived at Pearl Harbor in November.
He was a 28-year-old lieutenant junior grade and he brought Isabel to the islands, 10 days before the attack.
There were no rumblings of war.
“Everything was peaceful, absolutely no sign that there was a war coming,” he recalled. “That Saturday night, everybody was having parties.”
But, on Sunday morning, shortly before 8 a.m., everything changed.
“The island was under attack and the enemy was presumed to be the Japanese,” he said. Officers and construction engineers were ordered to their stations.
He was at a hotel eight miles away and hitched a ride. He would not see Isabel again for a week.
“There was this terrible cloud of smoke and the burning battleships,” he said. He rode a launch to his ship, which had been docked next to the USS Arizona and then moved when the attack began.
“I spent the rest of the day inside the ship taking care of the injured, mostly burns and shell-shock,” he said.
There was the immediacy of the chaotic situation and little time to think.
“The only thing I could think was this is the end of the United States as a major power — all these battleships burning and sinking,” he said.
He didn’t get a break and come topside until 8 p.m. that night.
About that time four planes approached and as he learned later, recognition signals had not been re-established and one was shot down. It was an American aircraft. Carleton attended to the pilot.
“I said, ‘what a terrible experience,’ and he said ‘oh no doctor, this is a very good experience. We have to know how to save ourselves.’”
Three days after the attack, he attended to another memorable victim, a sailor dripping in oil who had been rescued from the keel of the capsized USS Oklahoma. He had been in chest-deep fuel until he was found.
“He represented resurrection from the dead if I ever saw it,” he recalled.
Shortly thereafter, Isabel returned to the states and the two did not communicate again for many months. His ship departed Pearl for other points in the South Pacific.
Before his discharge in 1945, he was in charge of the officers’ ward at the 103rd Fleet Hospital in Guam.
He treated American POWs and observed first-hand what they had encountered at the hands of the Japanese.
“They all had at least two to four intestinal worms and all were (down) 20 to 40 pounds,” he said. “There was a lot of tuberculosis.”
From talking with the men, he found they had been fed once a day, what he called “a bowl of slop that couldn’t have had more than 400 calories.”
The survivors, he said, were an inspiration.
“I have never seen such determination to live as these guys,” he added.
Carleton returned home in 1945 to practice medicine in his Massachusetts home town, where he and Isabel spent their 66-year marriage and bore four sons. Three of them — Bill, John and Randy — are still living. A fourth son, Teddy, died when he was 18.
Carleton practiced medicine until he was 77, then did utilization and review work for the local hospital until he was 80.
“I wanted desperately to be a doctor and follow in my grandfather’s footstep,” he said. “I had a very, very happy and successful career in medicine.”
These days, he uses a cane and has hearing loss. Otherwise, he looks 30 years his junior.
He may also be the only 100-year-old around who uses email.