This was written by Robbie Janowitz, grandson of Dr. Jack Palestrant, as a school project, May 11, 2006.
Veteran’s Memory and Views from Historians that Look Back on Them
When discussing memory, there usually are differences between first-hand accounts, given by people who are witnesses to an event, and what one reads in textbooks. People who witness events can change their stories, whether consciously, because of their unique perceptions, or because of the passage of time. Historians may bring their own biases to how they look at events, or may be influenced by eyewitness accounts that vary from what actually occurred. So there can be inaccuracies in both the eyewitness accounts and the later analysis by historians. World War II, often thought of as the “good war,” might be particularly vulnerable to imprecise memories. However, this is not always the case. As an illustration, Dr. Jack Palestrant, a dentist who was stationed on an army air base in England during the last two years of the European portion of World War II, remembers both his dental practice and the air campaign against Germany during that time in a way that could form the basis for a John Wayne movie: life and war were easy and success as assured. Historical resources reviewed for this paper raise some questions about the state of dentistry in the armed forces during that period, but otherwise generally agree with the recollection of the air war during that time. With regard to dentistry for the armed services in England and the air campaign against Germany from 1943 to 1945, the truth may be reflected not in Dr. Palestrant’s memory and the historical writings on these topics.
Dr. Palestrant, who practiced dentistry for over fifty years, was a young man when he entered the Army Air Corps during World War II, joining as a newly graduated dentist. He describes his preparation as follows:
I attended the Ohio State University for both my undergraduate degree and my dental degree. When the war began they hurried up our dental training so that we could go into the service. When I went into the service I was a lieutenant and when I left I was a captain in the Army Air Corps.¹
At first, Palestrant was stationed on an air base in Missouri, but soon was transferred overseas, and “was in England in September²” of 1943 until the end of the war in Europe.
The contrast between the historical perspective on the quality of dental services to World War II troops and Dr. Palestrant’s memory is minor but distinctive. Both Dr. Palestrant and a historical study view the dental treatment provided as to the same standards as civilian care; however, the historical view is more global and recognizes the difficulty of providing care to large numbers of soldiers. As Armstrong discusses dentistry in the service:
The techniques of dentistry as practiced in the United States Army do not differ significantly from those in civilian life. The task and problems, however, involved in applying these techniques in providing dental care to some 8,000,000 men and women, under such trying conditions as existed in a global war, stand unique and unparalleled. ³
Dr. Palestrant made it known in the interview that the care for the troops was excellent. According to his view, the dental corps as a whole worked to save and care for soldiers just as they would for civilians at home. When asked whether he and the other military dentists tried to save teeth or just extract them, Dr. Palestrant states that “[t]here were very few pulled teeth, if the tooth was so far gone, then we would take them out, but that did not happen that often. In contrast, Jeffcott states that, “The Dental Corps was…accused of being more interested in extracting than saving teeth. Dr. Palestrant refutes these comments, making it clear to the interviewer that the goal was to save teeth and make them last for the patient’s entire lives, not just during their period of military service. According to Dr. Palestrant, “[b]efore the troops came overseas they had full physical and dental appointments, so if there were any problems they would be taken care of over there. Dr. Palestrant led the interviewer to believe that there were few dental emergencies on the air base, due to the fact that all of the men were treated before they were shipped overseas. Because he was the dentist for the air base, Dr. Palestrant was most concerned with the pilots; making sure they did not have toothaches while flying their missions. He states:
…I was very careful with the pilots because I felt the least I could do was do a good job, because they were defending my country. If they had a tooth problem that might need further repair, I would put a treatment filling in so that they would not get a toothache while they were in the air and then we could treat it later
Dr. Palestrant’s perspective, understandably, is limited to the soldiers he treated, while Jeffcott and Armstrong have a broader view of dental care for the troops overall. The differences in opinion as to quality of care, however, do not seem great.
There are more differences between Dr. Palestrant’s statements and historical documentation regarding the dental equipment provided to dentists in the armed services. Since all of the soldiers had prior checkups before departing overseas and there were not that many dental emergencies, Dr. Palestrant remembers his equipment needs as very simple. According to Dr. Palestrant, his equipment consisted of:
…field equipment to start. We had to pump a foot pedal to run the instrument for fillings. We did not have or need a whole lot as far as equipment. We had a rinse basin without running water. My sergeant took an engine from bomb bay doors, since he was sick of pumping with his foot, and connected it to the engine so that I could have an electrical hand piece
While Dr. Palestrant thinks the equipment was sufficient, the historical view, at least earlier in the War differs. As Jeffcott relates:
Overseas…the shortages were further aggravated by delays and losses in shipping and by difficulties of storage and distribution; the situation was for a while even worse. The dental surgeon of the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) reported in November 1942 that 30 percent of the dental officers in England had no equipment
As noted above, Dr. Palestrant does not remember experiencing this problem when he arrived at the American air base in 1943. Dr. Palestrant believes others medical professionals may have had equipment needs; he states that, “[e]ven though I did not run into equipment problems the medics might have, since I was on tan airbase we were pretty stable and did not really move aroundIt is possible that the difference between Jeffcott’s view and Palestrant’s memory related to the equipment problem being solved by September of 1943; it also is possible that Dr. Palestrant does not remember difficulties, or that, again, the more global perspective of Jeffcott differs from Dr. Palestrant’s individual experiences.
There are few differences between Dr. Palestrant’s remembrances of the air campaign during the period of World War II that he was stationed in England and a historian’s view. The air campaign was a major form of combat. Werrell states regarding the idea of strategic air campaign that:
Soldiers desperately sought a better way to wage war, a way that would restore decisiveness to warfare. New technology, especially aircraft, provided the principal hope. While most military men proposed traditional roles for the aircraft, some espoused much grander doctrines
Dr. Palestrant’s views of the air campaign were generally very positive. When Dr. Palestrant was in the service as he states, “[w]e had control of the air right from the get go.Stationed on an air base, Dr. Palestrant was in close contact with the pilots that flew most of the missions, whether dangerous or routine. Regardless of their assignments, Dr. Palestrant remembers that the morale of the pilots was high and that they were, for the most part, very relaxed. He sometimes overheard them talking about their mission, but they were for the most part “happy go lucky guys.Dr. Palestrant’s opinion is that the Americans always had control of the air war, but it is not clear if he is thinking just of his time of service from 1943 on. As Werrell notes “[d]uring the early years of the war, the Germans achieved great success with tactical aviation.When Dr. Palestrant was in Britian, however, the allies did hold air power superiority, and he specifically recalls D-Day. He recollects that “[m]edical personnel and dentists never had firearms, but for the day before D-Day we all got side arms. June 6th, the day of the invasion, all the planes we had were sent into the air and the skies were black with airplanes.The one time that Dr. Palestrant talks about witnessing actual death and destruction is during the D-Day invasion:
One plane was returning from its mission and was coming in for a landing. As it came in for a landing, the plane following it opened fire and shot the plane down. As it turns out, the pilot that shot the plane down was a German in a restored American airplane. We were always alert
This is the only remark that Dr. Palestrant made about observing a tragic occurrence. Even then, he really does not focus on it. Dr. Palestrant’s remembrance of the D-Day invasion proves Werrell’s point that “…when we discuss the accomplishments of strategic bombing, we are speaking of what occurred during the last months of the war.Werrell continues with, “[t]he fierce battle for air superiority proved costly to both sides, but by April 1, 1944, the Allies had clearly emerged as the winner. The GAF had lost daylight air superiority and the air war” (Werrell, 705). Both in the eyes of Dr. Palestrant and Werrell, the allies held control of the air by D-Day. From the tone of Dr. Palsestrant’s interview, it seems as though he felt a positive attitude about the War; although planes were lost, during the interview he never dwelled on the topic. Both Dr. Palestrant’s first-hand account and Werrell’s historical analysis seem to agree on many of the same principles regarding the air campaign.
Overall, Dr. Palestrant’s memories seem accurate at least when compared to historical texts. None of his stories seem to be outlandish or extreme. He did not witness any combat, but his memory is strong. The historical documents differ from his recollections in minor ways, primarily with the respect to approach to dental treatment and equipment. However, this may be due to the fact that Dr. Palestrant can only really tell the interviewer about his particular experiences, while the historical perspective is a general overview. It also could be the tendency of Dr. Palestrant to be positive about all aspects of his service in the “good war.” But the differences are minor, and Dr. Palestrant’s first-hand account provided this interviewer with more of a feeling about the actual experiences of war than the analysis of the historians. Thus oral history provides an eyewitness view that plays an important part in understanding historical events.
- Armstrong qtd. In George Jeffcott, A History of the United Stated Army Dental Service in World War II (Washington, D.C., Office of the Surgeon General Department of the Army), v.
- Jeffcott, Dental Service in World War II, 214.
- Jeffcott, Dental Service in World War II, 165.
- Kenneth Werrell, TheStrategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments (Journal of American History),702.
- Werrell, The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II, 703.
- Werrell, The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II, 703.