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Norman T. Kirk

Surgeons General | Norman Thomas Kirk

“A General’s Journey - Norman T. Kirk,” by e. a. duryea*

From Maryland to Manila to Montauk Major General Norman T. Kirk, Surgeon General U.S.A., saw four wars and every battlefield of his country's involvement from 1912 until 1947.

Along the way he garnered many honors including the United States Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Service Medal, the French Legion of Honor, the Italian Order of the Crown, the Order of the British Empire and the Swedish Order of the Northern Star.

These were in recognition of his exceptional contributions in World War II. “Under his supervision, the Army Medical Corps. was expanded from 1,200 to 47,000 physicians, plus 15,000 dentists, with 500,000 auxiliary personnel used in the care of over 15 million patients. Under his administration the Army death rate from disease which was 165 per 10,000 patients in World War I dropped to 60 per 10,000”.  His skills as a physician as well as administrator were recognized by President Harry S. Truman when he chose him as his ‘personal physician’ during the Potsdam Conference.

In addition, he was a medical author of note, having written many books on orthopedic surgery, which was his specialty. “Amputations, Operative Technique” has gone through several editions and is considered a classic in its field.

There was nothing military or medical in General Kirk’s background to indicate what he was to become. He came from a family of farmers in Rising Sun, Maryland. He attended the Tome School then went straight to the University of Maryland Medical School. Members of his family are still puzzled by his career choice. They just know that he wanted to be a doctor and a good one and he was. His daughter, Ann Kirk Willard, of East Hampton who is married to Brigadier General Harry Willard, USAR, Ret., tells of her father’s devotion to his patients. “He had no bedside manner, just a no nonsense manner. He insisted that all the men on his service make morning rounds every day including Christmas, and that they revisit their patients every night.”

He was equally strict with his family. Ann was a high school graduate before she was allowed to use lip stick, entering college before her first dates and a college graduate before her first drink. “I didn’t get away with anything because I wouldn’t talk back to my father. My sister Jane did though and she was able to bulldoze him once in awhile.” Jane is now Mrs. Marvin Kimbrell of Pensacola, Florida.

His interns were thoroughly intimidated by him and those who aspired to dates with his daughters asked them to meet at the corner so they wouldn’t have to joust with the General.

Yet this man who might have been viewed by some as a martinet was not considered so by others. His son-in-law, Harry Willard, described him as “friendly, outgoing, straightforward and a great father-in-law.” His nephew, Perry B. Duryea, Jr. remembers him as a “precise taskmaster, direct and charming”. I remember him as feisty, fun and kind.

As the man who presided over the largest medical organization in the world he must have had incredible experiences.

Unfortunately, he kept no personal journals so we are not privy to his private thoughts. But from the recollections of others we can gain some insight into the man, the military and the  medical profession.

There was one occasion when he was called on the carpet by a superior officer for supposedly swearing at a patient, saying “God damn you.” “Never! I never say Gad damn you I always say God damn it.” Feisty, he did not forbear to rage against General MacArthur either, when he was not allowed to enter Manila following VJ Day [Ed.-actually, this incident occurred in early March 1945 shortly after the seizure on Manila when Major General Kirk was in the Pacific visiting hospitals and medical personnel]. He was told the area was not secure but he was anxious about the health of the newly released POWs at Sternberg Hospital where he had served two tours of duty. He did manage to get a few of them out and fly them home with him. One was Raymond Bliss Jr. who had lost an eye at Japanese hands and whose father eventually followed General Kirk as Surgeon General.

When reorganizing the 1,750 bed Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan to the Percy Jones General Hospital with a 12,000 bed capacity he deplored the total removal of everything by the previous director, J. Harvey Kellog, MD. Dr. Kellog had cleared the place out to the bare bones including removal of the goldfish. Exasperated, the General asked him “When are you coming back for the wallpaper?”

He had other military mishaps, too. On one occasion, a dress parade, he and his horse parted company in front of the reviewing stand, and he had to beat an ignominious retreat on foot which may explain why he hated horses. At another parade, while delivering the saber salute, his sword stuck in the ground, like King Arthur’s Excalibur, and he had to march on without it. We can assume that on both occasions he said “God damn it.”

General Kirk’s first engagement was in 1913 on the Texas border, chasing Pancho Villa in the Mexican War.  Also present were General John Pershing and Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower.  It was here he met his future wife Army nurse Anna Mae Duryea who arrived in Brownsville, Texas ill with an infected vaccination. His [He] was in the ambulance which met her ship and the romance began. As she told it, , “Once I returned home I realized I would have to get myself married because  I had three brothers who bedeviled every beau I ever had so I bought myself a wedding dress, traveled to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia and married Norman there.” She was a very determined lady, also quite handsome, capable and good company. They both chose well.

It takes a particular kind of family to live the service life well. There is little or no permanency about the husband’s presence, the children’s education or even a residency. The first home they ever owned was after the General’s retirement in Montauk 35 years after entering the service. It was the first time they owned a dining room table. Ann Kirk attend four different high schools with a 

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*From the Montauk Light [Montauk, Long Island, New York],  31 October 1985, with permission of E. A. Duryea and the Montauk Light with the assistance of Kirki Willard Thompson, Major General Kirk’s granddaughter.


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year’s interruption traveling to Manila and still managed to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 20.

There were compensations. The service can be one big family with familiar faces all over the world. On a general’s level one rubs elbows with the country’s greats. Mrs. Kirk was often General MacArthur’s official hostess. General Kirk visited every theatre of war with Secretary of War Henry Stimson and he received his General’s Stars from General Eisenhower. They moved with the history makers and made history themselves.

There were also hometown connections. The Kirks, having spent many leaves in Montauk, near their relations, the Perry Duryeas, began to think of it as home. Netty Edwards, soon to be Nettie Rattray, of the East Hampton Star was then a journalist in Manila. Kathryn Edwards, Army nurse and daughter of the legendary Dr. Dave Edwards, of East Hampton, a close friend of General Kirk, was in Italy when he passed through. “All of a sudden Dad’s dear old friend was chief of the whole Army Medical Corps, and I didn’t know whether to salute him or shake hands when we met. He settled the question by giving me a great big hug and a kiss.”

His appointment as Surgeon General was still to come when he was travelling by ship in 1941 from Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He said to his daughter, Ann, who was travelling with him “Bring your typewriter with you. I need to make revisions in my book on amputations. There is going to be a war.” Chilling words, and with these words General Kirk stepped center stage into the world's greatest upheaval. He performed his role so well he was universally revered by his peers and, to this day, by all who followed after.

When he retired in Montauk in 1947 he was returning to family, friends and especially fishing. He was an avid angler and did it with assorted companions. His maritime and medical pal, Dr. David Edwards, his nephew Perry B. Duryea, Jr., commercial fisherman such as Ellis Tuthill and anyone else who had a way with the water.

He utilized all of his catch. The best of it went on the table. His wife was a good cook. The guts went into his asparagus beds and the bunker fish went into the lawn. The first time he fertilized that way he neglected to cut them up so when the lawn greened up in the spring there were fish shaped patterns all over it.

Dr. Kirk did not hang his shingle out here. He did not have to. He was the only doctor in town and everyone knew he was here. Real retirement wasn’t possible. He worked very closely with Dr. Dave, East Hampton’s wonderful country doctor, and he took care of anyone who needed him. He treated the fishermen for free and was always amused and pleased to find a mess of fish on his doorstep the next day. Of course, his extended family called upon his services too. I was one of his best customers, often in trouble, always after hours so he would be called upon to minister to me when most people were asleep. After a string of early a.m. calls to deal with broken toes, an appendectomy, etc. he said “Bettie, the next time you have a party why don't you just invite me?! Then I'll already be there and won't have to get out of bed to come and take care of you.”

He involved himself in the community, too. He led the drive for a community flagpole and it stands today in The Plaza flying the flag of the country he served so well. He was a prime mover in the effort to get zoning in Montauk, an idea which finally came into being.

He was cofounder of the Montauk Civic Association, precursor of the Montauk Village Association, and brought his generalship to bear there as everywhere. One of the thrusts of the group was to get the proliferation of signs removed from the roadsides. When persuasion failed he was not above a bit of guerrilla warfare which involved the dead of night, a jeep and a few other like-minded warriors. The following mornings the landscapes were littered with broken signs never to be raised again. Nobody wanted to argue with a man who might have the whole U.S. Army behind him. Further, it was a fine example of a righteous citizen uprising. There is more than one way to win a war.

Over his 13 years as a Montauk resident he became a familiar sight in his Bermuda shorts, Uncle Ben glasses and piercing blue eyes. He could skewer you with a glance but it was usually tempered with a twinkle. He was liked by all, loved by many and universally respected.

When it was discovered that he had an aneurism requiring surgery he must have had intimations of mortality. He took his son-in-law aside and charged him with the special care of his wife knowing he might be leaving her behind. He spoke to others, too, and requested the company of all his grandchildren for what was left of that summer. He was operated on August 6, 1960 at Walter Reed Hospital by Dr. Michael DeBakey, the now famous heart surgeon. A week later he died leaving all of Montauk shocked and saddened that such a vital force was gone.

He is memorialized at Kirk Park just west of the village, fronting on Fort Pond. This oasis of green is owned and maintained by the Montauk Village Association and honors a man who did so much for this community and for his Country.

    The memorial plaque reads

    “Major General Norman T. Kirk”
    “Village Physician, fisherman, friend”

    He was all of that and a good deal more. The park is peaceful and pastoral and the pond is full of fish He would have liked that.   

    Many thanks to the Willard family for their memories and, memorabilia and to Perry B. Duryea, Jr. for his observations on and memories  of “Uncle Norman”.    e. a. duryea

Illustrations: 

 
MG Kirk

Major General Norman T. Kirk with Insert

   

 

Mrs. Kirk and Daughters at Walter Reed

Mrs. Kirk and Daughters at Walter Reed

     
On the VSAT Thomas in 1928

On the VSAT Thomas in 1928

   

 

Anne at Fishing Dock

Anne at Fishing Dock

   

 

Kirk on Fishing Boat


Kirk on Fishing Boat