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Bringing War Home: How a leather medical kit was used during WWII

Knowing the inevitability of being drafted, this young farmer enrolled in the Navy with a plan to stay alive — one that stationed him among the dead.

KATIE WHITE: This is Bringing War Home, the show that connects listeners with the history of war through sharing wartime objects and the personal stories that surround them. This collaborative project is led by Utah State University professors Susan Grayzel and Molly Cannon at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. I’m Katie White, producer of the series.

The Pacific theater of World War II posed many dangers to American service members. Along with the usual perils of combat came illnesses like malaria and dengue fever, dysentery due to contaminated water, and the pervasive threat of wound infections.

Fortunately, service members also witnessed several advancements in the practice of medicine. Among the most important were the development of the first antibiotic Penicillin, the use of plasma and serum albumin for blood transfusions, and vaccine innovations that helped defend against some of the most virulent infectious diseases.

Naval doctors were assisted by service men with broad medical training. These men were vital in administering first aid and delivering medications to the ill and injured.

One such serviceman, Bruce Crane’s father, Rex, returned home from the war with a surplus item: a small leather medical kit containing surgical instruments. While the tools were used at home for things like pulling out Bruce’s loose baby teeth, Rex had used a kit just like it to treat serious medical conditions during his time in the Navy.

BRUCE CRANE: He was in training at Farragut naval base in Idaho about half a year, maybe eight months, and every time they offered any sort of training, he would sign up for it. He didn't know where it would take him and he didn't know how it would end up. But, he knew any skills he could acquire that he didn't already have — and he had very little skill that way, he was raised on a farm in Mink Creek — the odds were in his favor.

Anything medical he was drawn to because he knew that that would put him in a position of a different environment with the war. And so, by the time he shipped out he had received the rank of pharmacist's mate first class, and went to New Caledonia in the South Pacific. It was not an active conflict zone. Sailors would come for r&r. But it was also a place that they sent soldiers that were wounded from the Pacific theater before they could get them somewhere else.

He really liked working with the doctors because they were not so military. They were pretty good guys, I think is how he phrased it. They were a little more relaxed, more civilian than strict military. Images of M*A*S*H come to my mind when I say that. Whatever the doctor said to them, "They need this," they had to be able to do it. Injections, anything that would help that way. They had to know some pharmaceuticals but it was pretty rudimentary. And pharmaceuticals were more rudimentary then.

New Caledonia was also a clearing place for corpses of the soldiers that had died. And there would have to be a type of autopsy performed to monitor the spread of disease and where the soldier was from as far as the war went. He — again with other people that he was working with — would perform those very crude autopsies. One of the big challenges that they had among the soldiers was venereal diseases. And he was part of the team that had to monitor that.

He told me that he remembered when the first shipment of penicillin was delivered to the island, and it was brought off of the ship on a cart with wheels with an armed guard on each corner of the cart and escorted to the hospital and put under lock and key. He had never seen anything do for the servicemen and the soldiers that penicillin did. He said it was an absolute miracle to just watch it do its job.

KATIE WHITE: Support for Bringing War Home comes from Utah State University, the National Endowment for the Humanities Dialogues on the Experience of War, and Utah Humanities. Introduction written by Annika Shinn. More resources available at

Katie White has been fascinated by a multitude of subjects all her life. At 13-years-old Katie realized she couldn't grow up to be everything — a doctor-architect-anthropologist-dancer-teacher-etc. — but she could tell stories about everything. Passionate about ethical and informed reporting, Katie is studying both journalism and sociology at Utah State University.