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This General Douglas MacArthur's popular image is that of a strong but aloof supreme commander. But was he really that hard to know? 'Not as an officer, not as a commander…,' said Robert M. White II, president of the MacArthur Memorial Foundation. 'He was what he was, as a soldier–tall, handsome, sure, keen, articulate, with awesome presence.
'As a man,' White continued, 'he kept to himself; he was withdrawn somehow, at arm's length, even remote. All of which adds up to being… shy. I hesitate to use the word, but that is the way he seemed.'
To Roger Olaf Egeberg, M.D., MacArthur was anything but remote. From 1943 through '45, with the exception of MacArthur's wife, Jean, perhaps no other person was as close to MacArthur as 'Doc' Egeberg. MacArthur would sit and talk for hours to Egeberg on a variety of subjects. As a deep trust developed between the two men, Egeberg became his confidant.
After many years, Egeberg has finally written a book about his personal experiences with General MacArthur. Titled The General, MacArthur and the Man He Called 'Doc,' it gives an intimate account of what it was like to be close to one of the giants in American military history. At the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., Egeberg discussed his years as General MacArthur's personal physician and aide-de-camp.
WWII: How were you chosen to be MacArthur's physician?
Egeberg: I had been in Milne Bay, New Guinea, for about a year. I had been the doctor of the command and was responsible for about 8,000 men. My duties included malaria control, sanitation and evacuation. When I first arrived, people asked me what I had done bad to have been sent there. I loved it there! I had the opportunity to do important things for thousands of people. Malaria was our great enemy. However, for some reason, whenever I wrote about the malaria problem they would send me instructions on how to prevent venereal disease. I finally received an order that stated, 'You will reply by endorsement hereon.' So, I endorsed it. I was fed up. You must realize there were very few women in Milne Bay. There was no physical contact between the men and the local populace. So I replied: 'In Milne Bay the venereal disease situation is well in hand. The only females here are 500 sheep sent to us by the Australians for eating purposes…. Then I wrote a nasty poem about 'painful sores' and 'bleeding scabs.' I still have a copy of that letter. Well…that letter did the trick. It went up to Colonel Blank, the main doctor in New Guinea. He telegraphed my commanding officer, Colonel Burns, and said to arrest Dr. Egeberg and hold him for court-martial for being obscene in channels. This was the third time that someone had suggested I should be court-martialed. My commanding officer, kept saying, 'What have you done now, Roger?' So I told him. He said that the letter might have gotten through to MacArthur.
WWII: And you thought you were in real trouble.
Egeberg: When I was transferred to Brisbane I got a call from General George Rice, the highest ranking medical officer in the southwest Pacific. He told me that General MacArthur needed a personal physician, and I had been selected as a nominee. I said no! I thought he was the cause of all our troubles in Milne Bay with the malaria. Rice told me to go back to my barracks and calm down and talk to some of my fellow doctors and return in the morning to speak with him. After talking with a few friends, I sold myself on the idea that this could be a very interesting job. The next morning I apologized to Rice and said I would be honored to be considered. Later, I found out that I was the only one being considered.
WWII: The letter maybe?
Egeberg: Exactly. Years later, the clerk in MacArthur's office told me what had happened when my letter arrived. One day he saw it on MacArthur's desk and the next day he saw it on Sutherland's desk (Lt. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, MacArthur's chief of staff). One day he heard them talking, and MacArthur said, 'I think we ought to have somebody like that in our headquarters.' That's how it happened.
WWII: So you went from a near court-martial to being MacArthur's doctor?
Egeberg: That's the Army way.
WWII: What was your first meeting with MacArthur like?
Egeberg: When I got to Brisbane I didn't have much in the way of clothes. In a few days I got a call to see MacArthur. So I got a new pair of pants on the way and changed right in the jeep. I asked the driver what to do when reporting to the general. He said, 'You come to attention, salute and say, 'So-and-so reporting as ordered, sir." This colonel took me up to see a two-star general who was the acting chief of staff. Lo and behold, he was the same general I had called a no good SOB when he ran me off the road just a few months earlier. He said, 'We've met before, haven't we?' I replied, 'Yes sir, in Milne Bay.' He snapped back: 'I remember! I well remember. If you have any dealings with General MacArthur, don't use the language you used on me.' He then took me in to see MacArthur. I started to come to attention and salute when I saw his hand coming toward me. He had a very friendly face. He wanted to know a little bit about my background. Well, I had done some exploring in the Himalayas years before, and this sort of intrigued him. He listened to me for about 10 or 15 minutes. He was interested in hearing more but he wanted to get down to business. He wanted me to evaluate his officers. He said he knew them all and their problems; he could mention any name, and he could tell you about that person. Later on I found that to be true. The general wanted someone to tell him if they needed a rest. He wanted me to set up a dispensary.
WWII: It seems MacArthur had already selected you.
Egeberg: I got that distinct impression after a while. He had already made up his mind. After a month, I asked myself, 'What have I gotten myself into?' I rarely saw him. However, one day I was called in and told we were going to make a landing. I was invited to go. We went to Milne Bay next. We boarded the cruiser Phoenix in Milne Bay and we anchored in Finschhafen Roads around noon. We first stopped off in New Britain and visited Marine General William Rupertus' headquarters. The Marines had recently landed at Cape Gloucester, and they had fought pretty hard there. MacArthur praised the Marines and had a sincere admiration for them. That evening we headed for the Admiralties, Los Negros Island specifically. That's where the landing was to occur. I had the terrific surprise of seeing a salvo of 5-inch shells fired toward the island. We watched as troops from the 1st Cavalry Division loaded into landing craft and headed toward the beach. We then boarded one ourselves and went through a narrow pass. Even though one of the coxswains had been killed a few minutes earlier by machine-gun fire as he went through, MacArthur stood up all the way. We made it to land and started to move forward. There were soldiers digging holes and placing coconut tree logs in front of themselves for protection. Along would come MacArthur and step right over the coconut log and keep right on walking.
WWII: He didn't take cover?
Egeberg: No. I asked myself: 'Why, are we walking? Shouldn't we be crawling?' When we reached the airstrip we stopped and looked at two dead Japanese. They only had on those little loincloths they wore. MacArthur looked at them with real interest. Now, someone has quoted him as saying, 'That's the way I like to see them…dead.' That wasn't true. In all my time with him, he never said that. Quite the contrary, he respected the fighting ability of the Japanese soldier. What he was looking for was insignia to see what units he was engaged against. Anyway, the strip wasn't very wide and as we turned to go, I tried to put myself between the general and the enemy. I thought it was the proper thing to do, being his doctor. Some spit-and-polish colonel said, 'Egeberg, you're on the wrong side of the general.' MacArthur stopped the colonel and said: 'I know why he's walking on that side. Thanks, Doc.' Then I heard Japanese voices on the other side of the strip. Quite a few, I might add. MacArthur conferred with Maj. Gen. William Chase, head of the task force, and told him to expect a banzai attack. Chase was already aware of this and was tightening his perimeter. The rest of the force hadn't landed yet. We waited until all were ashore and MacArthur was reassured that we had a secure foothold on the island, then we went back aboard the cruiser. That night they killed hundreds of enemy soldiers.
WWII: How would you characterize MacArthur, the man?
Egeberg: People say he was arrogant. I say he wasn't. He once heard me use the expression 'GI' and he exploded: 'Don't ever let me hear you say that again! They are not GIs, they are men. They are our comrades in arms. They are our soldiers.' When he heard GI, he immediately thought of government issue. He had a lot of respect for his men. I was surprised by how much time he spent fighting Washington to get men and materiel. Most of the equipment and manpower were being sent to the European theater, as the Pacific War had taken a back seat. He did his best to see that our losses were as little as possible. This was on his mind constantly, and the ratio was 10 Japanese dead to 1 American under MacArthur. That was incredible!
WWII: Washington did not want to retake the Philippines. The government had decided on a different route to conquer Japan. MacArthur convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to have two separate drives to Japan. Did he ever discuss this with you in private?
Egeberg: Oh yes! Why did he say, 'I shall return'? Well, MacArthur knew the East very well. If he had said, 'Our army will return,' it would not have had the same effect. Knowing him, that's why he said it. And I heard that from Filipinos as well. They knew MacArthur. They didn't know the United States or the U.S. Army. Back in the States they used that phrase to poke fun at MacArthur. It sounded egotistical, and pretty soon people had him walking on water. But those of us who knew him real well knew the truth. As a person he was shy.
WWII: That's interesting–someone of his stature being shy.
Egeberg: For example, when we went aboard Nashville, I asked him if he would join some of the men for dinner. At first, he accepted. But as the time approached he got to pacing and said to me, 'Doc, I don't think I'd better do it.' He'd be embarrassed to talk to a group he didn't know. He'd talk in front of thousands or in front of the old 'Bataan gang' and that was all right. He was also very proud. My God, he was proud of his father!
WWII: His father won the Medal of Honor at Missionary Ridge during the Civil War.
Egeberg: That's correct. After we landed in the Philippines on the main island of Luzon, he searched for hours to see if he could find the areas where his father had served years earlier in the different campaigns there in 1901 and 1902. I honestly think he wanted to get wounded. This would demonstrate to everyone that he was doing what he believed in. When we landed in Lingayen Gulf, we went to see General Hanford McNider's 158th Regimental Combat Team near Rosario, about 30 miles from us. He was having a tough time moving forward. At one point we ran into a barrage maybe half a mile away. MacArthur wouldn't stop until a tank drove across the road to halt his jeep. Suddenly he hollered, 'Stop!' I almost landed in the driver's lap. He pointed, and said, 'Go over there.' There was a block of concrete with a brass plate on it. In it, muzzle down, was a cannon. He said: 'Doc, on that spot, my father's aide-de-camp was killed, standing at his side.' Finally, I told the driver, 'For Pete's sake, let's get out of here!' We were buzzing along until we saw land mines strewn across the road and came to a screeching halt. We finally located McNider's headquarters. He was having a difficult time, but MacArthur told him to keep nudging them and keep moving. A couple of days later, he decided to use me as an intelligence officer. He was frustrated to have to go through battalion, regiment, brigade and division to Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, commanding general of the Sixth Army–and probably receiving news a day late. He showed me where to go on the map. I took the jeep, and I would report back and inform him where our troops were and where the front was. I did this six or seven times. One time I almost went too far. A couple of soldiers who were lying down in a ditch called to me and told me not to go any farther because the Japanese were right up the road.
WWII: Talk about the first time MacArthur stepped ashore on Leyte in October 1944.
Egeberg: He was very anxious to get back. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf there were tense moments. We were watching the night firing at the mouth of the gulf when we suddenly saw magnesium flares; those flares make the sun pale in comparison. MacArthur became very excited: 'My God, they haven't got radar! We'll win!'
WWII: He drew that conclusion by just spotting the flares?
Egeberg: Yes, because he knew without radar the Japanese couldn't find our ships. With radar, the enemy could have sunk our ships and annihilated our landing force.
WWII: In Leyte he delivered his famous 'I have returned' speech. Isn't that right?
Egeberg: Yes. He had told our communications people that he and President Sergio Osmena (of the Philippines) would make a speech after they had landed. As he was going over his speech the night before, he said, 'Doc, I know the term 'I have returned' has been said a lot, but I've got to say it.' He read the speech to us, which wasn't very long, and wanted our opinions on it. I thought it was very good until he got to one point. It said, '…and the tinkle of the laughter of little children will again be heard on the streets.' I said: 'My God, General, you can't say that! That's a time-honored cliché!' The rest was straightforward, but he got sentimental at that point.
WWII: So he listened and took that part out?
Egeberg: Yes, he did. He followed my advice maybe three times. He also told me to remain with Osmena because he probably would not like the feeling of being ashore.
Egeberg: He was afraid that Osmena might want to return to the cruiser too soon. We maneuvered into a quiet grove where they could set up the communications equipment. We were to broadcast to a ship offshore and they, in turn, would broadcast his message to the world. Well, MacArthur gave his short speech and Osmena gave his. Then, as soon as he could, probably a month later, MacArthur had a ceremony on the steps of the capital of Leyte, at Tacloban. He said, 'We are turning over the governing of this province to you, the Filipino people.' He wanted to give them power as soon as he could.
WWII: How did the Filipino people regard MacArthur?
Egeberg: They looked on him as a leader. In fact, on Luzon, every time we would stop somewhere, people would come dragging a man in and wanting MacArthur to pull out a pistol and shoot him. They accused individuals of being collaborators with the Japanese. So MacArthur had to come to a conclusion–unless the accused man was at the governor's level or he had become extremely wealthy during the Japanese occupation, he didn't think that the person should be labeled a traitor or collaborator. In fact, many thought that General Manuel Roxas y Acuñia was a collaborator. But MacArthur had known him, and he didn't think he was the kind of man to do that. He made the decision that Roxas wasn't a collaborator. And I think MacArthur was right. Sometimes you have to deal with the enemy to save your people. MacArthur said to me, 'You watch, Roxas will be president someday.' And he was. Right after Osmena.
WWII: MacArthur was very perceptive at reading people, it seems. Would you agree?
Egeberg: Yes. He was a very complex individual. Some people say he separated people by different functions so that only he would know the whole picture. I don't believe that. Hell … I lived with him in those forward headquarters. I'd say he was courageous-foolhardy at times, but courageous nonetheless.
WWII: Would you say he was trying to emulate his father? Or was he embarrassed at the circumstances surrounding his Medal of Honor as compared to the manner in which his father earned it, by charging heroically up Missionary Ridge?
Egeberg: I don't know. While we'd be driving places, we would talk. He once asked me, 'What qualities would you like most in an individual in your command?' I thought about it and said, 'Courage.' He said to me: 'I'll tell you what they should be. First is loyalty, and don't forget it. Without loyalty you're on quicksand. Second is courage. Third is intelligence.'
WWII: Interesting he should place loyalty first.
Egeberg: He was adamant about that. He was a sentimental man, too. Also, caring and loving. He would travel a lot through the villages in his jeep. One day he came back from one and he had a little black-and-white dog in his lap. He said to me: 'Doc, I couldn't resist this one. He got up out of a mud puddle and looked at me. Get him cleaned up.' He named him Blackie. Well, Blackie got sick and MacArthur stayed up all night with the dog. He had distemper. I found a Filipino vet, and he agreed. We wanted to put the dog to sleep, but MacArthur wouldn't hear of it. The dog's legs were paralyzed, and we rigged up some wheels for him to get around. The truce was accepted a few weeks later, and we left for Japan. I had to put the dog to sleep. It was the hardest thing I had to do. Sometime later, MacArthur and I were talking and he said, 'Doc, about Blackie.' And I told him: 'General, Blackie's dead. And I killed him.' At first I thought he was mad. Then he became more thoughtful and he remarked: 'I guess it was the right thing to do. Thank you, Doc.'
WWII: You said earlier that he was fool hardy. Any examples of such behavior?
Egeberg: At Tacloban our headquarters was at the Price House, and during dinner, there was one Zero that would buzz us. We knew what the plane was aiming at–us. Even though there was a red alert, MacArthur would make the meal continue as though we were dining at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. I couldn't quite forgive him for that. His whole staff was there! What if the plane had made a direct hit?
WWII: That must have made everyone very nervous.
Egeberg: Oh yes! There was one general who had never seen much action, whose tongue would get dry, and when he'd stick it out his upper plate would be on it. That did help defuse the situation–seeing this guy's false teeth on his tongue. MacArthur made us sit there. Everyone else was taking cover.
WWII: That does seem foolhardy.
Egeberg: While we were moving with the 1st Cavalry Division toward Manila, the Japanese blew the bridge before we could cross. The general was upset. We finally crossed the next day, and we kept going. Coming into Manila was very traumatic for MacArthur. He wanted to be in the thick of the fighting. We moved way ahead of our troops and arrived at Malacanan Palace. One soldier jumped up out of a foxhole and saluted, then said: 'General, you can't go in there. We haven't taken it yet!' MacArthur asked, 'Are any of our soldiers in there?' The soldier said no, that his group was the first to arrive and was digging in farther back. The general turned to me and said, 'Why don't you and Larry (Colonel Lloyd Lehrbas) go in and make sure there are no Japanese in the business part of the palace.' That was the only time he asked me to go in front of him in a place of danger. We proceeded into the palace. I took my carbine and began to go through the rooms. I had taken some rifle practice, and if the barn was close enough I could hit it. I remembered the Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson gangster movies when the cops knocked down the door. So, when I reached the first door, I kicked it open. I discovered, however, that I had not taken off the safety on the carbine. It's a good thing nobody was in there. After we cleared all the rooms, the general joined us. It was a large building. We were walking down its center when a Filipino woman approached us. She was the head housekeeper. The general spoke to her in Spanish and asked if any Japanese were in the building. She said there were some at the other end of the palace. He then turned into Manuel Quezon's office. He felt very emotional about Quezon (the exiled president of the Philippine Islands who died shortly before his country was liberated). He sat in his chair and reminisced. Meanwhile, I was thinking: There are Japanese running around this place! While MacArthur was talking, I wandered over to the window and saw a square concrete box that couldn't have been more than 40 or 50 yards away. In the box were two machine guns and two Japanese soldiers. I informed the general of what I had just seen and asked him if he didn't think we should get out of that room. He leaped up, went to the window, put his hands in his hip pockets and stared out into the muzzles of those two machine guns! He stood there for about 10 to 15 seconds. He turned and motioned for us to leave. I was the last one out. I hadn't gone five steps when those machine-gunners let loose. They tore up that room!
WWII: That was close! Did you discuss it with him later?
Egeberg: That night I asked why he did that. I told him I could see why he insisted that officers be in front, so they could better assess the situation. Then I said: 'But why did you go 10 miles in front of our troops on your return to Bataan when you'd been told by our intelligence that 20 to 30 enemy tanks were only 200 yards from us?' He said to me: 'Doc, I used to think that I had a mission, that I would be spared to accomplish it. But I don't believe that anymore.' Then he smiled, 'But today I was testing my timing.' I felt sad and somewhat resentful toward him. After all, he had endangered me as well as himself He went on: 'I left because I saw one enemy soldier say something to the other. Then they looked across at us. When they hunched their shoulders and started taking aim at us, I thought it was time to get out.' I only told that story to my wife once. She really got angry when she heard it.
WWII: Speaking of wives, you know Jean MacArthur, the general's wife, pretty well. What kind of person is she?
Egeberg: I still have lunch with Jean when I'm in New York. She's 95 years old. She is a very loyal and very unpretentious woman. When she lived in Brisbane, she would go food shopping and there would be a line of ladies waiting to get their food. When they saw her, they would tell her to go to the front of the line. However, she never did. She stayed and talked to them. I'm sure she was the general's real confidante. But whenever visitors from Washington would hound her with questions, she would always reply, 'I only know what I read in the papers.' I thought their questions were often rude. He had a lot of critics. For example, we landed four divisions abreast at Leyte. On the first day we were in the third wave heading toward White Beach. I may be wrong on the color–anyway, we landed and moved with the men. There was sniper fire, but MacArthur shrugged it off, saying, 'They were left behind as snipers and couldn't hit anything.' Well, if you could have heard the bullets whizzing overhead or bouncing off the pavement, you would have thought differently. Then he left, and the next day he joined up with another unit on another beach, and so on and so forth. Well, people would pick up the paper and it would say, 'MacArthur lands with troops at Leyte.' One fellow would say: 'He wasn't here until the third day. That's a lie!' Well, he did land on D-day–but with another outfit. That's the kind of gossip that made me mad.
WWII: So he did derive much of his strength from his wife.
Egeberg: Definitely. There were only two occasions that MacArthur chewed me out, and one of them was concerning Mrs. MacArthur. We had some general hospitals set up in Manila, and I asked the general to go through some wards. I thought it would boost morale. He shook his head: 'I couldn't. I couldn't. I feel responsible for every man in those hospitals. I couldn't stand it. Why don't you take Jean.' So I took Mrs. MacArthur to three hospitals. Mrs. MacArthur put on her white gloves for the occasion. The ward officer would conduct the tour. She would stop by each bed and greet the men with: 'Hello, my name is Jean MacArthur, and I'm from Mufreesboro, Tennessee. Where are you from?' Most were excited to talk to her and shake her hand. Except for one fellow who turned his face to the wall because he was embarrassed–his leg had been amputated below the knee. She wanted to get closer to the front, so I took her to a regimental field hospital that had been under shell fire. It was part of the 32nd Division. I called ahead and everything was all right. They had taken over an abandoned schoolhouse as a field hospital. They couldn't believe the general's wife was there. The next morning MacArthur called me in. He had found out I took her to this field hospital. He slammed his fist on the desk and hollered at me, 'Doc, I don't know what I'd do to you if anything happened to her.' I know it wouldn't have been a court-martial–it would've been death by strangulation.
WWII: In your book, you mention the meeting between MacArthur and Hirohito when Japan surrendered. What happened?
Egeberg: Let me tell of a few things leading up to that meeting. I remember the general saying: 'You know, Doc, they say we ought to do this. But if we do that, then the Japanese can do this.' It was like a chess game. On Luzon, he told me that he wanted to keep the military in charge long enough to establish a democratic government in Japan. He said: 'I'm going to ask the emperor, which is the same as telling him, to create some cabinets within the new government. The first one will be a high-ranking military cabinet. I know that sounds crazy, but who else would you select to demobilize an army of 5 or 6 million men and eliminate the elite, which is the core of the army? The second one will be made up of the large industries and the people who run them, to discuss labor. The third will be women's suffrage, and the fourth will be agrarian reform.' I was the first man in Tokyo under orders from MacArthur to see if the Imperial Hotel and a large office building near the Imperial Palace was still standing. I also called on the Swiss Embassy. I drove in a Japanese cab with the lights on at night! There were Japanese soldiers walking around with weapons, celebrating the end of the war. Nobody did anything. The word of the emperor was law. And MacArthur knew that.
WWII: He really knew the East.
Egeberg: He knew it very well. They told MacArthur to order the emperor to see him. But he wouldn't hear of it. 'That man has been through a tremendous ordeal. He knows what to do. Give him some time, and he'll ask to call.' And about a week later, Hirohito did come. MacArthur had had a large sofa placed in the hall, and he kept wanting it moved around. I became the furniture mover. While we were doing that, the emperor's car drove up. The general had forgotten to station a soldier at the door, and he told me to greet him. So I went out, and Hirohito got out of the car first. He was wearing a cutaway and had a deadpan expression on his face. I knew enough not to offer my hand. I wanted to smile and I wanted to be stern at the same time. MacArthur went up and immediately shook his hand. Earlier, Mrs. MacArthur had said to me, 'Doc, why don't you and I watch this.' I thought that was great. She and I got behind some big screens and we peeked. The meeting was dignified but friendly. There were no harsh voices.
WWII: You got to see history in the making. Did you see MacArthur after the war?
Egeberg: Yes. We had reunions every year at the Waldorf-Astoria on the general's birthday. He wasn't feeling well. He was terribly jaundiced on two occasions. I thought he had cancer. But it had happened before. There was an obstruction by a large stone below his gall bladder. He was stubborn. He did not want to see a doctor. He had prostate trouble also. A few months before he died, we had a birthday party for him. General Jack Sverdrup, Larry Lehrbas and I went up to the general's apartment and escorted him down. He addressed the group on this occasion: 'Comrades in arms, you know I look forward to these birthday celebrations. I want to share a story with you. There was a train going from London to Edinburgh. The coaches were very full. There was a man in the midst of the group. When the train reached the first station, the man excused himself, and he went into the station. just before the train left, he came rushing back on. This happened several more times. Finally, one of the passengers said to him: 'Jock, you know there is a convenience aboard the train. You don't have to get off at every stop.' The man replied: 'You don't understand. Yesterday I saw my doctor. He told me I didn't have too long to live and if I wanted to see my beloved Edinburgh again I'd better go, but I'd better go soon. So, I'm buying my ticket from station to station."
WWII: He knew he was going to die.
Egeberg: That's right. That was the last speech he ever made. It showed compassion, pathos, humor and philosophy. People ask me if I ever took notes. I kept a diary once in a while. But, hell, do you think I needed to take notes about the things I just told you? No. They're embossed in my mind forever.
This article was written by Al Hemingway and originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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