McAlester veteran, Dr. Thurman Shuller, a World War II hero
By Jeanne LeFlore Staff Writer
As war raged in Europe during World War II, U.S. pilots flying in endless bombing missions had little hope of surviving their tour of duty until a young flight surgeon intervened.
Dr. Thurman Shuller of McAlester, 98, says his service as World War II U.S. Army Flight Surgeon happened as a stroke of “extraordinary good luck.”
In 1943, at the age of 29, Shuller had risen through the ranks in 28 months from first lieutenant to captain to major to lieutenant colonel — as chief flight surgeon of the First Air Division of the 8th Air Force.
“I was among the first to go into England and the among the last to leave,” Shuller said.
Of his rise through the ranks Shuller said, “That could have only happen during the explosive expansion of the Army Air Corps during the years 1942 to 1944 ... and having had the extraordinary good luck of being at the right place at the right time.”
Born and raised on a working farm in Arkansas, Shuller said he received his primary education in a two-room school house before attending high school in Ozark, Ark., and then graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in 1939.
In 1939, he joined the Army Medical Corps Reserve after graduating from medical school.
One year, or five
“With war raging in Europe, it seemed the practical thing to do was to spend one year of service in the Army,” Shuller said. He was assigned as a first lieutenant to the Air Corps Gunnery School in Las Vegas, Nev., as a general physician.
Shuller said five months later, “Pearl Harbor extended my one year of active duty assignment to nearly five years.”
He said he took the advice of another doctor at the Las Vegas base and applied to the School of Aviation Medicine. He was also advised to pay attention to the promptness, accuracy and appearance of all his reports.
Shuller enrolled in the school with the goal of becoming a flight surgeon and after graduation he was assigned to Wendover Field, Utah. He said his first combat assignment was to the 306th Bombardment Group based in the heart of England, at Thurleigh.
He was the 369th Squadron flight surgeon for what was known as the longest continuously-serving bombardment group of the Eighth Air Force.
“That kind of war had never been fought,” Shuller said. “There had never before been an Air Force organization like this one and three others also being similarly newly organized.”
The others were the 305th, the 303rd, and the 91st.
The U.S. Air Force began combat from England in October 1942. Its first strike was the railroads at Lille, France, where the 306th lost one out of 24 planes. Another plane was lost on the second mission. Shuller said things drastically changed with the third mission. He said it was an experimental low-flying mission to St. Nazaire, France, a submarine base. The mission was a failure and was never attempted again.
“It was a vicious battle which we lost four planes and one man was brought back killed,” Shuller said. “Several weeks of bad weather followed the St. Nazaire disaster, resulting in multiple cancellations resulting in sinking morale and sloppy discipline.”
That’s when Col. Frank A. Armstrong took command, leading the first mission against a target in Germany. On Jan. 27, 1943, Armstrong flew the first plane over Germany to Wilhelmshoven, documented in the book and the movie “Twelve O’clock High.”
“It was a successful mission with no casualties and morale of the combat crews soared,” Shuller said.
Commanding Col. Claude E. Putnam described Shuller’s duties as “to maintain the physical well-being of his group and to effect to mental psychological state required for combat personnel,” according to a June, 1943, commendation letter to the Adjutant General, Washington D.C.
Shuller was commended by Putman as a “jealous guardian of rights and privileges of combat crew personnel.”
Shuller said he fought for the mental well-being of his crew in a report to his commanding officer after working with fliers who “faced endless bombing missions and faced the fear of never surviving the theater of war.’”
“The losses were terribly high,” Shuller said.
As flight surgeon, Shuller said he learned quickly that for some pilots, the flight surgeon may be the “only one who will really listen” He said one of the pilots confided in him about his fear of flying. “Being new to the situation, I just fluffed it off and didn’t respond to that confession sufficiently,” Shuller recalled. He said the next day on a high-altitude mission, the pilot ran into another plane in the formation and both planes went down out of control. Twenty crewmen were killed.
“To this day, I still grieve over the mistake,” Shuller said.
In March of 1943, Shuller wrote a report called Combat Expectancy of Fliers to his commanding officer requesting there be a maximum of number of 20 operational missions. He said in the letter that fliers suffered “unbearable casualties in personnel and planes, yet at the same time realizing their effort hadn’t done one thing to further the war effort.
“The fliers were actually saying among themselves that the only apparent hope of survival in the theatre of war is either to become a prisoner of war or to get ‘the jitters’ and be removed from combat,” Shuller’s letter states.
In the report. He described the incredible number of losses the crew had faced.
“In this group we have lost 20 of the original 35 combat crews in addition to several replacement crews, yet very few had seen as many as 15 missions,” he said.
”But even a limit of 20 which very few can actually reach, would be an invaluable morale factor in giving these men a least a small hope for the future and a goal for which to survive.”
Shuller cited Major General Ira Eaker in the report.
“Of this I am certain and you can count upon it,” Eaker said. “A combat crew must be told what their combat expectancy is.
“And they must be told that when they have completed that period they will never again be required to man a combat crew station in an airplane on operations against the enemy.”
The letter apparently made a difference.
“Three weeks after my letter was mailed, an order was written setting 25 as the number of missions required before relief from combat duty,” Shuller said. “The crews were jubilant because they now had hope that they had a chance of survival.”
Col. Putnam said in his commendation letter that Shuller “has always performed his duties in a superior manner without complaint or thought of reward. During nine months of combat in the European Theater of Operations the 306th Bombardment Group has had over 100 percent casualties among flying personnel. Many of the officers were close personal friends of Major Shuller.
“The esteem in which he is held by all combat crew members of the group is a tribute to his professional skill and sound kindly judgment.”
Shuller returned to the United States in 1945 and was discharged with the rank of colonel. Six months later he married Joanna Carter. They raised four children and were together until her death June 22, 2010.
In 1948, he began his pediatric practice at the McAlester Clinic, later named the Warren Clinic. He retired in 1989.
In 1969, Shuller received a letter signed by Col. B.E. Babcock of the Department of the Army office of the Adjutant General notifying him that he had completed the maximum years of commissioned service.
“Your devoted service and the important contribution you have make to the Army to our country is deeply appreciated,” the letter states.
Looking back, Shuller said “nothing in my background could have predicted that I could rise in the ranks so quickly.
“I had no prior military experience except for one year as a private in the Arkansas National Guard and a few correspondence courses.”
He said growing up, he had no experience in leadership.
“I had never been president anything more important than the president of my 4-H club in the eighth grade.”
And he never had been a team captain, not even an athlete.
“My greatest virtue was a work ethic acquired on the farm and determination to fulfill my parent’s admonition to ‘do right and work hard,’” he said.
Shuller believes his story is the same as countless young officers who, because of the demands of the rapid expansion of the military force during World War II, were placed into positions of responsibility far above their previous training and experience, and were forced to grow into their jobs.
“I had gone on active duty as 27-year-old first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was relieved from active in 1946 as a 32-year-old colonel, a much more mature and self-assured man,” Shuller said.
“It was a treasured opportunity for me and life-changing experience to have served.
“It’s been a wild ride.”
Contact Jeanne LeFlore at email@example.com.