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William Gary Cumbie, M.D., U.S. Army Medical Corps, WWII, Merrill's Marauders - Part Two

Author: John Vick

Captain William G. Cumbie, MD, U.S Army Medical Corps, WW II.
[Photo: Dr. William G. Cumbie, Jr.]

It was not long after completing medical school and internship at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, that Dr. Gary Cumbie joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was sworn in as a First Lieutenant on July 3, 1943. He was sent to Camp Barkeley, Texas, for training. He wrote his mother on July 4, 1943, “Please excuse the writing as I’m sitting on the side of the bed and using an apple box for a table. There’s not room for a desk as there are five fellows in here…We bathe, shave and eat at another place…All in all, we have a pretty good set-up…several fellows from Charity are here.”

Camp Barkeley was the first stop for Cumbie that included assignments to Camp Polk, Louisiana; Fort Lewis, Washington; and Fort Meade, Maryland. From Fort Meade, Cumbie was sent half-way around the world to Burma, where he joined the 5307th Composite Unit [Provisional]. The unit was composed of volunteers, some of whom were veterans of the Pacific campaigns at Guadalcanal and New Guinea. Others came from garrisons in the Panama Canal Zone, the Caribbean and the remainder came from Army correctional facilities. They were given jungle training and sent to the China-Burma-India [CBI] theater of operations to fight against the Japanese. The 5307th became the first special forces unit in the U.S. Army.

Eventually there were three battalions that made up the 5307th, called the Galahad Force. Some journalist nicknamed the unit, “Merrill’s Marauders,” after the unit’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Frank Merrill. The Marauders were sent on an 800-mile trek, through the jungles of Burma, to divert Japanese forces from General Joe Stillwell’s Chinese/American forces fighting in China. Their goal was to capture the Japanese-held airfield at Myitkyina.

The Marauders used pack-mules to haul supplies and equipment over the most inhospitable jungle and mountainous terrain imaginable. After four months of fighting the Japanese in the leech-infested tropical jungles of Burma, they were able to take Myitkyina and its airbase. The original force of some 2,750 men had been reduced to about 200 men who were still able to fight. Some 272 men had been killed by the Japanese and 955 had been wounded. Nearly 1,000 men had been evacuated for disease such as malaria, amoebic dysentery and other tropical diseases.

William Gary Cumbie was born August 6, 1916, in Morris, Georgia. His parents were Emma Gary and James Lewis Cumbie. An older sibling, James Lewis Cumbie, Jr., died a few months before the death of his father in 1928. Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Cumbie moved the family to Troy, Alabama, where she took a job at the Baptist Children’s Home. Gary’s younger brother, Frank, age 13, died in an accident sometime after the move to Troy.

Gary graduated from Troy High School in 1935 and enrolled at the University of Alabama, where he received his degree in pre-medical studies in 1938. He was admitted to the University of Alabama Medical School which was at that time, only the first two years. After completion, he was inducted into the prestigious Gorgas Society, the highest formal honor for a student in the School of Medicine. He was then admitted to Tulane School of Medicine, where he completed his 3rd and 4th years and received his MD degree in May 1942. In July 1942, he began a one-year internship at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Midway through his internship, in December 1942, he received a letter from the War Department requesting that “upon completing your internship, please submit your name to the Surgeon General of the United States.” Apparently, all doctors were “volunteering” for service. He completed his internship on June 30, 1943. Three days later, he joined the Army on July3, 1943.

Dr. Cumbie was sent to various camps for training including, Camp Barkely, Texas; Camp Polk, Louisiana; Fort Lewis, Washington; and Fort Meade, Maryland.

While still at Fort Lewis, Washington, Cumbie was assigned to the Medical Department Replacement Pool for the 44th Infantry Division. That same group was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, prior to their departure for the CBI theater in May 1944. Cumbie was not able to tell his family about his movements until arriving in India. He wrote, “I’m not to tell you where I’ve been, where I am, nor where I’m going.” On the voyage, he wrote his mother, “We’re riding high in the seas and I’ve fed the fish a few times.”

Dr. Gary Cumbie’s letters to his mother and sister, Betty, continued after he arrived in Burma.

On June 1, Cumbie’s unit was sent to Burma. He wrote, “I’m somewhere in Burma... I’ve seen a good many patients and don’t have much spare time.” Again, he wrote on June 19, “I wish the folks back home could see and appreciate just what our boys are doing on the front lines…I’ve had the opportunity to treat every type of wound imaginable.” He wrote again on July 18, “I’ve done more surgeries here in seven days than I did as an intern in six months.”

On June 27, he wrote, “We sleep in foxholes at night. When it rains, the water gets pretty deep. It’s not so bad when the generals are doing the same.” In a letter dated June 30, he wrote, “I’m now attached to a Surgical Portable Hospital and doing lots of surgery…The situation changes rapidly and you never know today, where you may be assigned tomorrow…I spent several hours last night treating an injured Japanese soldier, who to my amazement, seems to be much better this morning….He is the only live Japanese soldier I’ve seen. We treat them just like we treat our own.” He continued, “Some patients are coming in now by ox cart and I must get back to work…We can usually know when to prepare for work when we hear the guns in the distance.”

On August 4, he wrote, “Things are very quiet now as our current mission is about over. In a few days we go back to rest camp. As you probably know, we are the only American ground force in this theater, we being part of ‘Merrill’s Marauders,’ under command of General Stilwell. This is the China-Burma-India theater.”

In his letter dated August 22, he wrote, “I’ve been on special duty away from my unit several times. Believe me, I’ve gotten to do a lot of real medicine…Work is not so hard and there are no ‘fox holes’ in this place. In fact, we are a long way from any enemy. We did have quite a time of it however, in the Battle of Myitkyina which is now over.”

On August 27, he wrote, “Once again, it is Saturday night in ‘dear old Burma,’ the land of jungles. Speaking of jungles, I just saw a couple of fellows preparing for a tiger hunt. There are elephants, tigers, deer, wildcats and most any other type of animal one might dream about. In other words, it’s a hunter’s paradise…It rains practically every day. And cows – they are here by the hundreds but for some reason very sacred and no one dares injure one.”

In his letter dated August 30, Cumbie mentions a medical missionary he had met, “Did I tell you about the medical missionary from the U.S., Col. Seagraves, author of ‘The Burmese Surgeon?’ I worked several days in his hospital. I understand he has been over here some 20 years. I want to get a copy of his book and read it.”

Beginning on October 6, Cumbie’s letters are postmarked from, “Detachment of Patients, 20th General Hospital and the usual Armed Forces postal address. On October 6, Cumbie shared some not so good news, “I mentioned in my last letter that it might be some time before I could write again as I was leaving on a trip that I thought would take me to China. But things didn’t work out so good. On the very first day, I became very ill and was brought back to a field hospital, then flown out the next morning to this general hospital in India. I was fortunate enough to run into an old friend, Captain James Donald [from Pineapple, Alabama], who is a medical officer at the hospital here…James offered to write you for me…. I suppose you’re wondering what’s my trouble – well I’ve got typhus fever. It’s a horrible disease, but if one lives through the first three weeks, he usually recovers. I’m over the danger part now, just very weak.”

On the same day, Dr. James Donald wrote Dr. Cumbie’s mother, “You may have heard Gary mention me in past years. We were very good friends in college. I’m James Donald from Pineapple, Alabama, and am a medical officer in this hospital….Gary came in a week ago with rather high fever and has felt miserable from his disease until the past two days…His disease is rather common in this area…He wanted me to write you because he is still a bit shaky and weak. You may put your mind at ease about him. His fever has subsided and he is definitely recovering now….Believe me, he is practically well now and is in no further danger, although a week ago he was quite ill.”

On October 15, Cumbie wrote his mother, “This is the 25th day of my illness with typhus fever. I’m now much improved but weak as a mouse…Now it’s only a matter of time to recuperate which will no doubt be two or three months.”

In his letter of October 22, Cumbie wrote about his missionary friend, Col. Seagraves, “The war situation in Burma is somewhat better, but there’s more to be done. Seagraves has so many patients that I know he doesn’t do much missionary work. You know he takes care of the Chinese and the natives. I’ve seen as many as 100 patients waiting after dark to be operated upon. Of course, these are war casualties. He works with only a handful of nurses and other help. His hospital consists only of a few tents and sometimes the ground gets knee-deep where he operates. He has to move his hospital around every few weeks because the Japanese locate it from the air and start bombing. Quite a life but he seems to take it the course of a few days work. He looks very tired and worn out but I guess the good Lord gives him strength.

LEFT: Dr. William Gary Cumbie, Captain, U.S. Army Medical Corps, WW II. [Photo: Dr. William G, Cumbie, Jr.] RIGHT: Gen. Frank Merrill, commander of the 5307th Composite Unit [Merrill's Marauder's [left] and overall commander of the Burma theater, Gen. Joseph Stillwell [right]. [Photo:]

Soon after contracting typhus fever in September 1944, Captain Gary Cumbie had been flown from a medical facility in Burma to the large, 20th General Hospital in Assam, India. Most cases of typhus contracted in Burma at that time were classified as “scrub typhus,” a bacterial infection usually contracted from chiggers. A vaccine was produced later and flown to the CBI theater in June 1945.

On November 4, Cumbie wrote his mother, “Happy birthday mother. Here’s hoping I’ll be home before you have another. Speaking of going home, 80% of all typhus cases are being sent to the States for recuperation. Each case is handled by a disposition board…Disposition is determined by severity of disease, complications and the type of work one does. Cases are divided by classes, from 1-10, with one being the most severe. I was put in “class one,” a large percentage of which die, but fortunately I pulled through. I have no complications and my work is not considered strenuous. Thus, my chances of coming home are practically nil.”

By November 1944, Cumbie was in his second month of recovery from typhus fever. On November 23, he wrote, “Didn’t get to Thanksgiving service as I was called over to help out here at the hospital. From now on while recuperating, I’ll be in charge of one of the medical wards. I’m very glad as it will help occupy my time.”

On December 3, Cumbie wrote, “I’m as good as well now and keeping very busy. I’m still listed as a patient and take my medicine, but I’m also doing full time duty. No doubt I’ll be moving on somewhere around Christmas.”

On January 1, 1945, Cumbie wrote, “I was discharged from the 20th General Hospital a couple of days ago and assigned to this field hospital [44th Field Hospital in Burma]. I flew into Burma and reported to this field hospital. I’m very happy as I know most of the medical officers and many of the nurses. We have a nice place to live, a nice mess hall...plenty of work. Now I’m just hoping I can stay at this hospital for the duration.” One of Cumbie’s mother’s letters to her son had been returned marked, ‘Enroute to the U.S.’ Cumbie explained, “That letter returned to you sounded good to me but that was a mistake. There was some talk of my returning when I was so ill but fortunately, I got well faster than they expected.”

On February 7, Cumbie mentioned a newspaper clipping his mother had sent, “The clipping you sent about the U.S. convoy from Burma to China was most interesting. I know the men mentioned and have lived in and visited all the towns mentioned. It’s almost unbelievable that a road could be built over such mountains, jungles and swamps.”

The road Cumbie referred to was the “Ledo Road.” In December 1942, U.S. General Lewis A. Pick was put in charge of building a 1,000-mile road from Assam, India, to northern Burma. The road was built to re-establish the land supply route to China which has been blocked by the Japanese earlier that year. The road was not officially finished until May 1945. Until that time, supplies were flown over the Himalayas into China by the U.S. Army Air Corps [this came to be called “flying the hump”]. Nearly 150,000 tons of supplies were carried over the road by the end of the war.

Captain William G. Cumbie, MD, U.S Army Medical Corps, WW II.
[Photo: Dr. William G. Cumbie, Jr.]

In March, Cumbie wrote “I received orders to report to the 98th Station Hospital…It is located in Shingbwiyang, in north Burma about 100 miles below Ledo. The theater medical consultant told me they had no one there who was experienced in tropical medicine. It is a new unit from the States.”

On April 15, Cumbie wrote, “We heard the sad news of Roosevelt’s death early this morning. I’m going down town to be an usher at a memorial service in the morning. Too bad he couldn’t have lived to see the end of this war.”

In his letter of May 10, he wrote, “I’ve had a most pleasant visit to Calcutta…I’m now staying at a city called Darjeeling. It’s very cold here…the scenery is beautiful…We go fishing, hunting, horse-back riding etc….It’s about 8,000 feet altitude, in fact the city is on the side of Mt. Everest.”

Back at the field hospital in Burma, Cumbie wrote on July 8, “On June 30, I finished my first six months with this field hospital…During this period, we’ve moved only twice, once to Myitkyina to Rhamo, then back to here.”

On August 12, Cumbie wrote, “We had several big parties this week over the rumors that Japan will surrender in a few days. Actually, that’s only a rumor but it definitely has some basis…With Russia entering the war and our use of the atomic bomb, things seemed to have changed.” He followed on August 15, “Well, it seems it’s all over but the shouting, speaking of the war….It’s almost unbelievable…Somehow, it’s hard to relax and feel happy when one thinks of the sacrifices so many have made…We at the hospital are carrying on as usual until notified otherwise.”

In his last letter from Burma and India, Cumbie wrote on September 15, “I left Ledo, Assam at 11:30 am yesterday…arrived in New Delhi about 1:30 pm this afternoon….As you know, Delhi is the headquarters of the entire CBI theater…The physical setup of the hospital here is indescribable…I felt like the little country boy who had come to town for the first time…The grounds cover acres and acres with green Bermuda grass that reminds me of the University of Alabama campus – streets and sidewalks all paved and the hospital buildings are all marble and brick and all painted white…Surgery and officer’s wards are air conditioned…each room has a refrigerator, running water and a ceiling fan…Sure would like to be on my way home.”

Captain Gary Cumbie returned to the States on February 4, 1946. While still on active duty, he married Carolyn Boatner in Troy, Alabama, on April 30, 1946. Following the wedding, Cumbie was ordered to Camp Pickett, Virginia, for processing out of the Army. He was discharged on July 16 from Fort Meade, Maryland. He had earned the American Campaign Medal, the Distinguished Unit Badge, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

After his discharge, Dr. Cumbie and his wife moved to New Orleans where he worked for a brief time in a hospital. He worked all night at the hospital and slept during the day. Such an arrangement didn’t last long and the couple moved to Moultrie, Georgia, where he joined the practice of Dr. A. G. Funderburk. The couple’s first child, Caroline, was born in Moultrie in November 1947. In a little less than two years in Moultrie, Dr. Cumbie delivered 280 babies [this number was verified by the Georgia Department of Human Resources in a letter to Dr. Cumbie, dated August 6, 1983].

Dr. William G. Cumbie in his later years.
[Photo: Dr. William G. Cumbie, Jr.]

After leaving the Georgia practice, Dr. Cumbie moved his family to Andalusia, Alabama, in late 1947 or early 1948. The Gables apartments had just been completed and the Cumbie family was one of its first residents. Sometime later, the family moved to West Watson Street to be near the Covington Memorial Hospital which was located on the southeast corner of West Watson and South Cotton Streets. Dr. Cumbie set up his practice in an office on Court Square, on the 2nd floor above M. H. O’Neal Drugstore [on the corner across from the old First National Bank Building]. A son, William Gary Cumbie Jr., was born in August 1949. He was followed by sons James Ellis Cumbie, born February 1952, and John Franklin Cumbie, born August 1955. Another daughter, Martha Claire Cumbie, was born April 1958.

When the new Winn-Dixie shopping center was completed on the corner of East Three Notch Street and Oak Street, Dr. Cumbie moved to a new office just behind the Village Prescription Center. That would be his office until he retired in 1981. No one knows how many patients Dr. Cumbie treated nor how many babies he delivered during his 33 years of practice in Andalusia. He normally worked 5 days a week and half a day on Saturday, but he worked most days, long past eight or nine o’clock at night. He left a lasting legacy of care and concern for his patients.

Dr. William Gary Cumbie died September 10, 1987, at his home in Andalusia, after an extended illness from cancer. He was survived by his wife, Carolyn Boatner Cumbie; a sister, Betty Cumbie [Hinton] Smith; daughters, Caroline [Ron] Picking and Martha Claire [David] Cumbie-Drake; sons, Dr. William G. [Becky] Cumbie, Jr., James Ellis [Ida Sue] Cumbie , John Franklin [Elizabeth] Cumbie and two grandsons. Carolyn Boatner Cumbie died on May 14, 2019.

Dr. William Gary “Bill” Cumbie, Jr. followed his father into medicine, graduating from the UAB School of Medicine in 1974. He received further training in internal medicine and oncology before beginning his practice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1978. He was asked to reflect on the legacy of his father: “The first inkling of medicine as a career entered my mind during the summer of 1966,

between my junior and senior years in high school. I was working as an orderly shortly after the opening of the new Andalusia Hospital.

“My father was one of the town doctors. He worked long hours, often leaving for work long before we left for school and returning home late in the evening. After his office closed for the day, he would frequently go to the hospital to check on patients and sometimes make house calls to see patients unable to travel to his office.

“His favorite leisure activity was fishing with his preferred piece of fishing equipment, a cane pole, enjoying the moment whether the fish were biting or not. In some ways, this is a mirror of his life. In good times and difficult times, whether energetic or tired, his attitude was always positive. He loved practicing medicine.

“I knew these things growing up, but during that summer of 1966, I began to see firsthand how he interacted with his patients. Occasionally, when he came to the hospital for his evening rounds, if I was not busy with my orderly duties, he would take me with him to check on his hospitalized patients. I vividly remember how some patients, after lying quietly in their beds all day, would perk up and smile, finding reassurance when he walked into their hospital rooms. The effect of his presence was magical to me! It was then I knew I wanted to be just like him.”

Furthering his grandfather’s legacy, Dr. William Gaines Cumbie, son of Dr. William G. Cumbie Jr., is a physician, currently completing his fifth year of residency in orthopedic surgery in Cleveland, Ohio.

The author thanks Dr. William G. Cumbie, Jr. for his help in telling his father’s story. Dr. William G. Cumbie, Sr. was the author’s doctor growing up in Andalusia. One particular visit to his office still stands out in my mind. My left hand was badly injured during a Friday night football game [by an opposing player standing on it with aluminum cleats]. I still remember going to Dr. Cumbie’s office Saturday morning for an x ray [it wasn’t broken but it was twice normal size].

[Sources: Wikipedia;;;]

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