Paul Lurie, a World War II veteran and resident of Woodland Pond at New Paltz, was a pioneer in the field of pediatric cardiology when he began his medical career. His desire to help others started long before that, though, when he served in the United States Air Force as a medical doctor in World War II. These experiences would affect him greatly, and as Veterans Day approaches, he reflects on his service, the many lives he impacted and the lives that impacted him.
“I would share this advice with those currently serving our country – try to make the most out of your service,” said Lurie. “Every day you are going to learn new things, and some of those lessons may be helpful for the rest of your life. Today we are fortunate to have a volunteer Army, yet in years before, many young men were drafted to serve their country. I was in my fourth year of medical school when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. Everyone was shocked when we heard about the sneak attack. The shock was followed by outrage and an intense outpouring of patriotism. Everyone wanted to help with the war efforts. It was a very united movement and we all jumped on the bandwagon. Then many of us began asking, ‘What’s next for us? Will we be drafted?’”
Lurie’s main concern was finishing medical school before he was drafted. Fortunately for him, they couldn’t handle the influx of doctors enlisting, so he was able to finish school and complete his one-year internship in pediatrics. After completing these requirements, he headed to Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania to complete a six week course to become an Army doctor. There he attended lectures covering tropical medicine, he practiced how to properly salute officers and march in formation, he watched a film titled “Kill or Be Killed” and learned other useful skills pertaining to Army life. From there he was assigned to a station hospital in an air field outside of Tampa, Florida. There he served as a ward officer in a medical ward.
“They called it a medical ward, but in reality it was a psychiatric ward,” said Lurie. “Every patient there was suffering from what we would now call combat stress disorder, but in those days it was diagnosed as shell shock and other inappropriate terms. I was dealing with a group of very sick men. These were guys who had been isolated manning radar stations on small islands in the Pacific Ocean and others who had gone a little nuts. My job was to interview them and decide if they were fit to go back to service or if they should be given an honorable discharge. My supervisor was a qualified psychiatrist, and he assisted me in these decisions. It was very difficult and stressful, as I was empathetic to these men because they were indeed sick. Most of the men I interviewed were discharged.”
A few months after that, he met with the chief medical officer and was assigned to the 2nd Air Commando Group in Burma. This group was responsible for the mission of air commandos, which entailed dropping men into the jungle by glider with tiny bulldozers and other mechanized equipment. The Army used the equipment to open up the jungle and create little air strips so supply engineers could open the land route to China known as the Burma Road. The aircraft were surrounded by fighter planes for protection.
“When I got to my post it wasn’t actually in Burma, it was in an area now known as Bangladesh,” said Lurie. “We held the beach while the Japanese held the territory over the coastal mountain range. The beach was used as a runway for the aircraft, as the sand stretched wide and was hard packed. Here I was assigned to the 327th Airdrome Squadron, and my job as a physician was to see to all the mechanics and cooks. I got many morning sick calls and painted people with compounds used to treat a variety of fungal skin diseases. Thankfully there were no bloody wounds. I was there for almost a year when I got a call from the Red Cross. They informed me that I was requested to go back to the United States, as my younger brother had passed away, my father had suffered a stroke and my mother was beside herself with anxiety and grief.”
Lurie boarded an empty cargo plane to return to the states. In those days, planes didn’t travel great distances, but made several stops between the site of departure and the destination. Along the way Lurie and the pilot stopped in Cairo, where he took a taxi to catch a glimpse of the pyramids and the sphinx. They also stopped in Casablanca, where he visited the Kasbah. Eventually he returned home and found that everything was as bad as the Red Cross described in their message requesting his presence back home. He was reunited with his wife, and they had a short furlough before he was given a new assignment working at a station hospital near his family’s home. His father passed away shortly after, and he was able to assist his mother for a bit. Then the Air Force prepped him to train for a landing in Japan. Fortunately, Japan surrendered before they embarked on their new assignment. He was discharged shortly thereafter.
“Paul’s account is an incredible journey, one that is interesting to reflect on given the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Michelle Gramoglia, executive director of Woodland Pond. “We are privileged to hear his story, as well as the stories of the other veterans living in our community. A few years back, the veterans collaborated to produce a book called ‘War Times Remembered.’ It is a testament to the varying roles every one of them played and the sacrifices that were made in serving our country. We will honor them this Veterans Day, and we appreciate them sharing their experiences with us, as this is how history lives on.”