Benson B. Roe

Benson B. Roe
Senior Lieutenant – U.S. Navy Medical Corps, USS Philadelphia
World War II (1945-1946)

Dr. Benson B. Roe of San Rafael, CA was born on July 7, 1918 in Los Angeles, CA. Growing up in the suburban area outside of Stanford University, Roe remembered observing the “remnants of the Great Depression.” Although poverty had touched all of the nation, Roe lived in an area of relative prosperity. His mother worked in real estate while his father worked in both engineering and finances. After graduating from Palo Alto High School in 1935, Roe attended UC Berkeley, where he participated in both crew and the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, or NROTC. Although Roe was very successful in his rowing endeavors, it was his involvement in NROTC that shaped his military career. 

The NROTC Program was created in 1926 in order to “provide a broad base of citizens knowledgeable in the arts and sciences of Naval Warfare.” As part of the NROTC, Roe participated in lectures and studies on basic astronomy, navigation, and seamanship. In addition to these classroom experiences, Roe also took part in several summer cruises, during which he was able to gain hands on experience in a Naval position. Roe explained, “Because we were being trained as line officers, we were given information and course work which had a parallel to the program at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.” A line officer is an officer who is trained for command and well educated in engineering, navigation, and gunnery. Though the participants in the NROTC program were only partially trained, they were theoretically capable of performing the same tasks as an Annapolis graduate. Getting involved with the NROTC allowed Roe to cultivate his interest in the Navy while still maintaining his other academic and extracurricular activities, such as economics, medicine, and crew. 

During the summer of 1936, Roe was sent on a month-long NROTC cruise on the USS New York, a battleship used in both WWI and WWII. The cruise began in San Francisco and continued to Honolulu, where the crew had navigation and gunnery practice, as well as liberty, or time off. Because the NROTC is ultimately a military training program, Roe and his peers were able to practice “the full spectrum of the ship’s activity where we might have future assignment.” 

While on the USS New York, Roe and his fellow cadets were assigned to relatively sparse living quarters. They were given a hammock to sleep on and little space to put their possessions. During mealtime, the cadets would eat at the mess hall, where they were treated to good, hot food. When asked about the entertainment aboard ship, Roe responded, “I guess you’d say the whole process was entertaining. The other thing we did was go to movies every night, which they had on deck. But, we had parties and just bummed around, the way sailors do.” Because all of the cadets were volunteers, Roe remembered the morale being very good. Furthermore, this cruise afforded many young men the opportunity to make lasting friends and travel, a luxury that was unattainable to many during the Great Depression. 

Roe’s second cruise began very much like the first. After boarding the USS Colorado, a WWII battleship, Roe and his peers traveled from San Francisco to Honolulu, where they would practice Naval skills such as navigation and gunnery. After a few hours on the island, Roe’s unit was reassigned to Howland Island, where they were to search for Amelia Earhart. Earhart was an American aviator who famously disappeared during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the world. She was not only a pioneer in aviation, but also a forerunner of the women’s rights movement. While Roe and his peers were obviously unable to locate Earhart, they were nonetheless participants in an interesting part of United States history. 

On the way to Howland Island, Roe and his fellow cadets underwent the Line Crossing Ceremony, a Navy tradition that commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the equator. During the ceremony, which is officiated by King Neptune himself, the experienced Shellbacks are able to haze the novice Pollywogs. Roe’s initiation involved eating a disgusting paste, being shocked on his back, getting dunked in water, and getting beaten by a canvas bag. Although the ceremony has served as a bonding experience among Navy servicemen, the increased use of airplanes has made crossing the equator too common an occurrence for this dramatic tradition. 

Due to a conflicting crew race in Poughkeepsie, New York, Roe postponed his third required cruise to the summer after his graduation from UC Berkeley. For this final cruise, Roe was acting as a line officer aboard the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier which was to travel along the California coast. Because Roe was considered a guest on the ship, he did not have any significant duties. His officer status earned him a shared cabin which he described as “modest but comfortable.” 

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1939 with a degree in Economics, Roe began his medical training at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was during this time that Roe’s commission as a line officer was put into effect and he was called into active duty. Once at the Boston Navy Yard, the Navy recommended that Roe complete his medical training and then later serve in the Medical Corps. Roe then continued his training at Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1943 and subsequently beginning his surgical training at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. 

In 1945, Roe was called to active duty at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. The NAS Norfolk was the training site of nearly all Naval air squadrons involved in WWII, and was therefore essential to the Allied victory. While at Norfolk, Roe was assigned to a ward of twenty-seven patients, twenty-five of whom were ill with a disease called Cat Fever. Unfamiliar with the Navy medical term, Roe claimed he “did lots of running around the library and asking questions until I could find out that Cat Fever was Navy lingo for Catarrhal Fever, which was the flu.”

After a month at the NAS Norfolk, Roe was reassigned to the USS Philadelphia, a Brooklyn class light cruiser. The USS Philadelphia weighed about 9,700 tons, was armed with both five and six inch guns, carried floatplanes, and included several aircraft catapults. Aboard ship were fully functioning medical facilities, including a dispensary, an operating room, and examination rooms. When Roe first arrived in Philadelphia, the ship was being repaired at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It would next participate in a shakedown cruise to the Caribbean, a trip to Norfolk, VA, and a mission to return troops from La Havre, France to New York. 

In one of the scariest events of Roe’s military experience, the USS Philadelphia was caught in a fierce storm while in the North Atlantic Ocean. Although the ship survived the storm, Roe recalled it having to “limp into the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Christmas Eve.” In another noteworthy mission, the USS Philadelphia escorted President Harry Truman to the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany in August of 1945. The Potsdam Conference was a meeting between Truman, Stalin, and Churchill to discuss a punishment for Nazi Germany, which had surrendered eight weeks earlier. Although Roe and comrades had no personal contact with Truman, they were part of a defining moment in world history. Roe reflected, “Truman was just a newly inaugurated president with no diplomatic experience whatsoever. Roosevelt’s death left him in charge of the country without any feed in or preparation and everyone was ashamed that he would be a disgrace to the nation. Of course he turned out to be one of our most active presidents.” 

While on the USS Philadelphia, Roe served as the equivalent to a general practitioner, examining and treating both crewmen and wounded soldiers. Aside from treating combat wounds, Roe also performed many hernia repairs and circumcisions. Roe recalled having few shortages and being equipped with both antibiotics and good, primitive surgical supplies. He commented, “I simply carried out what I was supposed to do to the best of my ability within the limitations of the equipment that was provided for me. But I had a pretty well equipped sick bay, which had x-ray equipment and a surgical operating room.” 

When asked about his fellow personnel, Roe responded, “Obviously there was a mixed bag, but the Navy has a better selective process.” He recalled having a good unit of responsible foremen who cooperated with him during medical and surgical procedures. As for his officers, the same can be said. Roe’s first Officer was “not very interested in doing anything except having a drink when he got to work.” Although this officer was incompetent and uninterested, Roe’s second Officer was much better trained and much more sensitive to his fellow sailors’ needs. According to Roe, he was deeply respected aboard ship. 

Being the Senior Medical Officer, Roe was able to share a private cabin with another officer. He described his cabin as having a desk, a bunk, and “barely enough room to move around.” During his time on the USS Philadelphia, Roe became a mess officer, meaning that he had to attend to the living and eating facilities of all officers at a captain rank. Because Roe had experience and training in navigation, he also volunteered to aid the navigators aboard ship. For entertainment, Roe and his colleagues would play bridge, watch nightly movies, or read. Overall, the morale aboard ship was high. Roe reflected that his time aboard the USS Philadelphia was generally positive. He commented, “I was pleased to have a coveted assignment. Officers of my age and rank very seldom got such a prized assignment to be on such a front line ship. Most of my contemporaries went to pretty lousy assignments. So I was very fortunate.” 

After being released from service in 1946, Roe resumed his surgical training, completed his surgical residency and fellowship at the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Next, he was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland for a Harvard fellowship. It was also during this time that Roe contracted tuberculosis from a patient. Although he recovered from the illness, it did result in his receiving an honorable medical discharge from the Navy Reserve. 

In 1951, Roe began working at the University of California San Francisco, where he was involved in groundbreaking research and surgery. His research on artificial hearts and induced hypothermia transformed the field of cardiothoracic surgery, allowing for safer, more efficient heart surgeries. Roe later performed the first ever heart transplant in San Francisco, making him immortal in the city’s history. Roe’s surgical career is remarkable not only because it resulted in the successful treatment of a great many people, but also because it significantly increased the knowledge base of cardiothoracic surgery. 

When asked to reflect upon his time in the Navy, Roe responded that it was a valuable experience and “a part of growing up.” Although his service was just one piece of his extraordinary life, it nonetheless shaped who Roe is today, a man of great curiosity, compassion, and character. 

Interview by Valerie Cherbero on June 8, 2012 and June 12, 2012

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