James Petenbrink Geiger, MD
Colonel, U.S. Army
World War II, Korean and Vietnam Wars (1944-1970)
Mr. James Geiger is a self proclaimed Pennsylvania Dutchman. He was born September 21, 1925 in Connellsville Pennsylvania, where he grew up as well. His father worked on the Baltimore Ohio railroad but was tragically killed when Mr. Geiger was 5 years old. He was raised by his mother, a housewife, who raised both him and his sister alone. While a young boy he worked various odd jobs to help out the family. He delivered newspapers in his town as well as worked as a stock clerk in a local grocery store. One job he held that was difficult was that of a telegram delivery boy. It was his job to deliver the telegrams notifying families of the death of loved ones. After graduating high school Mr. Geiger attended college for a short time, but ran out of money. He was studying to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a surgeon. He recalls being a young boy and knowing this is what he wanted to do. Mr. Geiger contacted the draft board and volunteered to join the Navy. He took the physical and was surprised to learn that he was colorblind. Unable to join the Navy, he was joined the Army and began a long, varied service to our country for 26 years. His sister joined the Navy to serve in WWII after graduating from Philadelphia General Hospital School of Nursing. He remembers her as a “damn good nurse!” His mothers’ reaction to her two children joining the military was one of acceptance. Additionally, Mr. Geiger’s father, both grandfathers, and great grandfather served in the U.S. Army.
Basic training began for Mr. Geiger at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He had hoped to join the ASTP (Army Special Troops Program) upon entry to basic training, but unfortunately the program had folded due to the advancement of the war. Instead he was assigned to the 100th infantry division and was made a machine gunner. Mr. Geiger had let it be known that his dream was to be doctor and would prefer to be a medic. He interviewed several times and finally talked his commanding officer into a transfer. He was transferred to Camp Chafee Arkansas, as part of their combat engineer program. His first assignment was to rebuild a bulldozer. Mr. Geiger was disappointed to once again find himself in a field that he had no interest in, but remembers being excited to see a job posting requesting an applicant that was able to run the film projector for training films. He had learned to do this in high school, and was even licensed as a projector operator, so he quickly was given the job. No more machine guns or bulldozers!
Mr. Geiger was assigned to the medial detachment of the engineering outfit. He was selected to attend training school for dental technicians. He learned how to make dentures and assist the dentist during dental procedures. Although not quite the medical field he had hoped for, he was getting closer. Following his assignment as a dental assistant, Mr. Geiger was given orders to report to the HMS Esperance Bay, a British troop transport traveling in a convoy of approximately 100 ships. He boarded the HMS Esperance Bay in New York. He recalls that the food on board the ship was horrible. It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic where they slept on deck and took cold salt water showers. They slept on hammocks, using their boots as pillows. In the morning they rolled up the hammocks in bundles of 10. Mr. Geiger had a box of Hershey candy bars, which he recalls as the best thing he ate for the two weeks on board the Esperance. They finally landed in Bristol, England and made their way to Charlton Kings. The men did basic training and built bridges. Mr. Geiger was sent on temporary duty to a local army hospital to work in the dental clinic. His rank at the time was Private First Class.
While working in the dental clinic Mr. Geiger was introduced to a former obstetrician named Captain Jingles. He was a very nice person and Mr. Geiger enjoyed working for him. He taught Mr. Geiger to clean teeth and various other dental procedures. He also worked with a sergeant who was “tough as nails”. One evening the sergeant came into the clinic complaining of a pain in his stomach. Mr. Geiger tried to reach the doctor on duty, but couldn’t. He looked over the sergeant and told him he had appendicitis and needed to get to the hospital. The next morning the doctor was reprimanded for not knowing where his sergeant was located. The men in the clinic, including Mr. Geiger, got “chewed out” for not consulting the doctor regarding the diagnosis.
Around Easter time, they were ordered to head to the coast of England. They boarded an LST (landing ship tank) and crossed the channel in very rough weather. The battalion landed in Normandy, in the town of Le Havre. They traveled by a truck convoy from La Havre to Luxemburg and finally into Germany. Their battalion got as far as Mintz. Along the way one man was killed in a mine explosion. Mr. Geiger recalls that it was at this time that one of the scariest moments of his war time service happened. They had just entered Germany and had set up camp in their pup tents. That evening they heard the rumble of a large convoy of tanks. It was the Germany army. They remained very quiet, and the convoy passed without noticing them. However, the memory of that night is still sharp in Mr. Geiger’s mind. As the war wound down they were reclassified as occupation troops. They were shipped back to the Loire Valley in France where they remained for 6 weeks until they left for Marseille. In Marseille the convoy was approached by an old farmer who wanted to barter eggs for soap. Mr. Geiger happily agreed to the exchange. He remembers frying the eggs up in his mess kit. Unfortunately he was deathly sick two days later, He had dysentery paratyphoid! He was not able to get to a hospital and spent several days in the tent. The battalion had cleared an olive grove and set up troop tents, holding 14 men each. He recalls it was like a dustbowl, the wind blew hard. Not all was bar in Marseille. Mr. Geiger got a weekend pass and went to see a show by Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna who came to entertain the troops. He recalls that they put on quite a show.
Following their assignment in Marseille, the troops boxed up their things and marked the boxes TAT (to accompany troops). They loaded them on a freighter and sent them to Manila. Mr. Geiger boarded a troop ship that was a converted luxury liner and headed for Manila. There were 5000 troops on board. Rumor on the ship was that they would not be transiting through the Suez Canal as the British were charging $100 a head to go through. The ship sailed to Manila via the Panama Canal. Life on the converted luxury liner was a “wonderful experience” after serving on the ground in Europe, and the mail that they had not received in months finally caught up to them. They stopped in Panama one evening where a local town was putting on a dance for them in the town gym. They ate well and danced all night. It took 34 days to transit from Europe to Manila. Mr. Geiger served in the Pacific Theater until August of 1945. Following his release he returned to Pennsylvania to again follow his dream of becoming a surgeon!
He enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Pennsylvania and obtained his commission in the US Army. While in medical school he met his wife and was married in 1950. He and his wife had met at the clinic at the hospital. Mr. Geiger jokingly told her she was taking quite a gamble on a medical student. They have been married for 62 years and have four children. His son and daughter both became doctors, specializing in anesthesiology. Mr. Geiger’s other two daughters married Australians and have lived in Australia their whole lives. He has had the opportunity to visit Australia over 10 times!
In Vietnam Mr. Geiger had the incredible experience of taking care of Commanding General Creighton Abrams in Vietnam. He remembers him as an example of the West Point Dogma, “Service above self”. General Abrams had come to seek medical attention from Mr. Geiger due to a pain in his stomach. He was suffering from severe pain, fever, and fluid in his chest. Mr. Geiger diagnosed him with an acute gall bladder infection and scheduled surgery immediately. General Abrams was in full command when he told him, “I am going to give you a date and tell you where the surgery will be done. This is top secret discussion!” Mr. Geiger complied, and completed the surgery on General Abrams, the day that the United States pulled their troops out of Cambodia.
Mr. Geiger continued his service in the Army because of chance meeting with a “great man, a great surgeon” as he puts it. This man was General Hedon. When he was at Letterman Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco he was an intern and assisted with a gall bladder surgery with the commanding general. Mr. Geiger was quick to point out that he was just “holding the sticks” while the surgeon operated, but he must have made quite an impression. General Hedon asked Mr. Geiger what he wanted to do when he got out. Mr. Geiger replied that he wanted to find a good surgical residency and work in the field of surgery. He told Mr. Geiger that when he finished assisting that day he wanted him to go upstairs and tell them that he had sent him. General Hedon was going to be the new commanding officer at Walter Reed Hospital, and was offering him a residency position. He took General Hedon up on his offer and worked under him for four years. General Hedon was eventually promoted to Surgeon General of the United States, and held that position for 12 years. This has never been heard of before, and has not been duplicated. Mr. Geiger was proud to have served with General Hedon and credits him for his continued service in the Army. While at Walter Reed, Mr. Geiger had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. He proudly took care of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and also Secretary of State John Dulles. Mr. Geiger retired from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland as Chief of Cardio Thoracic Surgery. He had served in the Army for 22 years and retired as a Colonel.
Following his release from the Army, Mr. Geiger met a man in Chicago that he had come to know during his residency training at Walter Reed. He was doing work in San Francisco at St. Mary’s hospital in the field of cardio thoracic surgery. He told Mr. Geiger that he was looking for someone to work along side of him. Mr. Geiger told him, “stop looking, I am your man!” Mr. Geiger and his family soon found themselves moving cross country to being the next chapter of his life as a cardio thoracic surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Mr. Geiger is proud of his service to his country, and knows that due to his skills as a surgeon, many lives were spared, both during his war service and while stationed back in the United States. During his 22 year Army career He was awarded many awards and citations. They include Legion of Merit (2), Korean and Liberation of Philippians medal, good conduct, meritorious service, commendation medal, battle star (Germany), battle star (3) (Vietnam), and the North Atlantic campaign medal for his service in Germany. He is a member of the American Legion, Army Mutual Aid, and the Military Officers Association of America. The toughest part of the service for Mr. Geiger was not always knowing what was going to happen. But his advice to young men and women going into the service today is to remember that opportunities will present themselves, it’s up to you to take advantage of them.
Interview by Nick Langevin on August 2, 2012.