Most heroes never get credit for their acts, but many never want credit. In the darkest days of World War II, one simple act made one Arkansas native, Dr. Corydon Wassell, a hero when America needed one the most. And Wassell became a hero just by being a modest soul who thought of others before himself.
Corydon McAlmont Wassell was born in Little Rock on July 4, 1884. His family had a long tradition of public service. His great-grandfather, in fact, briefly served as mayor of Little Rock. Wassell worked hard in school and earned his medical degree form the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1909 and went on to perform post-graduate study at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
As a physician in Arkansas in the early 1900s, Wassell could have had a life of luxury if he so wished. True to his calling, he wanted to do more to help those in need. He left Little Rock and served as a physician in the small town of Tillar, on the Desha-Crew County Line in Southeast Arkansas. Here, he would ride on horseback and by horse-drawn wagons to treat patients.
In 1913, he learned at church one day of the great hardships that the people of China were suffering. China, once a prosperous nation and the leader in world technology, had been transformed within a few generations into a backward and destitute land by squabbling elites and warlords. Wanting to help, he brought his family to Central China to work as a missionary. For the next twelve years, the family lived in China, and Wassell developed a reputation as a great humanitarian.
In 1926, Wassell joined the U. S. Navy Reserves. His skills as a physician were needed, and he was accepted in spite of now being 42. He returned to Arkansas in 1927. During the 1930s, Wassell worked as a physician for Civilian Conservation Corps workers who had been sent to the state. As war approached, he became more active in the navy. He was sent to a naval post in Key West, Florida, in 1936.
In late 1941, Wassell received new orders to report to the Philippines. The navy scheduled him to depart from California by ship on December 7. On that same morning, the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor and American forces in the Philippines. Wassell was ordered instead to the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) where the Allies were preparing a defensive position against the Japanese onslaught.
As Wassell arrived in late January, the Allied position was deteriorating rapidly. Wounded poured into hospitals from damaged ships. He tended to their injuries and tried to keep their spirits up, finding ice cream, cigarettes, and candy for them. With the fall of British Singapore on February 15, 1942, the Japanese set their sights on Sumatra. Java would not be far behind.
The fall of Java was coming. Army and navy personnel were starting to withdraw. Within days, Adm. Thomas Hart ordered Wassell to leave with whichever wounded could still walk. Wassell went to the port to try to arrange transport for as many from the hospital as possible. Most patients made it to safety. The overloaded ships leaving for the relative safety of Australia simply had no room for men in stretchers.
At the end, twelve men were left in the hospital. Their conditions were still serious, and none of them could yet walk on their own. The Japanese were getting closer, and Japanese planes now strafed the hospital with machine gun fire each day. Wassell had the chance to leave, as most of the medical personnel already had, but he could not leave those men behind. For him to leave would mean their deaths at the hands of the Japanese.
Wassell stayed with his last twelve patients, but he was not giving up. It was a fateful decision that would soon make the simple Arkansas doctor a household name.?