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Three centenarians recall World War II medical service

From John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, WashingtonCentenarian L. F. Beasley sold his car when he went off to serve in World War II because he expected to be gone for 10 years and didn't want to come home to Tennessee to a 10-year-old car.Dr. Beasley, 100, who now lives in Franklin, Ky., ended up spending four years in the medical unit of the 80th Infantry Division, including several nights in a

From John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

Centenarian L. F. Beasley sold his car when he went off to serve in World War II because he expected to be gone for 10 years and didn't want to come home to Tennessee to a 10-year-old car.

Dr. Beasley, 100, who now lives in Franklin, Ky., ended up spending four years in the medical unit of the 80th Infantry Division, including several nights in a French family's home in 1945.

"The people I was staying with couldn't speak English, and I couldn't speak French, so we didn't have a whole lot of fun together," he said recently.

The only German that Dr. Beasley ever tried to shoot was a German Shepherd dog that threatened to attack him.

"I thought I'd kill that dog, but my gun [a .25 caliber pistol] wouldn't fire," he said. That's the only time I ever tried to fire it, and it wouldn't fire. I had a driver, and he and I jumped in the car and left."

Dr. Beasley's mother was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1945, and he was "rushed" home by the Red Cross.

"I came home on what I thought was a cattle boat," he said. "It took us 10 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean. When we went over to Europe, we went over on the Queen Mary and landed in four days.

"By the time I got home, she was much improved. When I got to New York, first thing I did was call home and found out she had left the hospital."

Since Dr. Beasley was already home, he was allowed to muster out of the military ahead of his unit. After the war, his son John asked him if he'd like to go back to Europe as a tourist.

"He said, no," John said. "He said he'd seen all of that, and he might enjoy it if he hadn't been there during the war."

Another World War II veteran who had no interest in returning to Europe was Dr. Leo Greenberg, 100, of Chicago, who served in England, France and Germany during the war. He wrote home in 1945 describing the often acrimonious relations among the Allies.

"Americans criticize the English strongly and even more of them dislike and distrust the French," he wrote, "but then the majority don't like or trust each other too much so what else can you expect.

"I, incidentally, do not care for the French mind. I really did not have enough experience with them to draw such a conclusion, but somehow the conclusion sticks to me."

Several other interesting observations made by Dr. Greenberg after he landed on Normandy's Utah Beach in August 1944, two months after D-Day:

  • "Recent figures show the Krauts laid more than 1,000,000 mines. You can step on one anywhere. Wandering is a dangerous business."
  • "A lot of personnel had foxholes. I never had one during the entire war. Too lazy to dig one."
  • "After a couple of days we moved to Flages near Nemours-arrived there 26 Aug. Nemours is where we saw the French gals with the shaved heads." (Many French women who fraternized with the Germans had their heads shaved after France was liberated.)

A third centenarian, Dr. J. Gordon Spendlove, 100, of Lakewood, Colo., (where he lives with his wife, Elizabeth, also 100) worked with German prisoners of war at Moore General Hospital outside of Asheville, N.C., during the war.

"Some of them were very intelligent people," Dr. Spendlove remembers. "They were doctors, laboratory technicians, that type of thing, who were doing excellent work in the hospitals. Some of them did highly skilled work, and later they became citizens of the United States."

Dr. Spendlove said the hard-core Nazis were kept at Camp Sutton near Charlotte, N.C.

"If the German prisoners got sick, sometimes the German staff sergeants would beat the heck out of them after they saw the doctors, because they considered that showing weakness in the face of the enemy," he said.

Dr. Spendlove said the Italian prisoners at Camp Sutton were a different matter.

"The Italian prisoners of war were very friendly," he said. "They'd rather sing Italian songs."

Dr. Spendlove's son Gordon remembers seeing Italian officers eating dinner at Camp Sutton's Officers' Club.

"I asked my dad about it, and he said not for me to worry because they were very cooperative," Gordon said. "They didn't try to escape. They didn't try to do anything else that a prisoner of war is suppose to do with his captors.

"So they were allowed privileges like coming to the Officers' Club, and that's a real interesting twist that I don't think many people know about."

Photos: Dr. L. F. Beasley , Dr. Leo Greenberg and Dr. J. Gordon Spendlove in the military (family photos).

Drs. Beasley, Greenberg and Spendlove were three of the centenarians featured by Willard Scott on NBC's TODAY show. If you know of any centenarians who've had a brush with history over the past century, please tell us a little bit about them in the comments section below and be sure to fill in your return e-mail address so we can get back to you for more details.