By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
At 102, Pahoa resident Gerald Booken may well be the oldest veteran living on Hawaii Island.
With Veterans Day approaching, his daughter, Wendy Peskin, recently attempted to find out, but to no avail.
“We have contacted numerous veteran offices and organizations, yet no one can confirm …” she said.
After building a successful career as a surgeon helping to prolong other people’s lives, it seems fitting that Booken would live to enjoy a long and healthy retirement.
When asked for the secret to his longevity, Booken says it’s a mystery.
“People are always asking me that, but I really have no idea,” he said Thursday from the Kapoho Beach Lots home he’s shared for about four years with his daughter, his wife, Sandra, and his son-in-law, Ted Peskin.
From the time he was a little boy growing up in New Jersey, Booken said he knew he wanted to be a doctor.
“I remember my mother saying to me when I was 5, ‘You’re going to be a doctor.’ So that was what I thought about,” he said. “I grew up wanting to be a doctor.”
After graduating from medical school at Temple University in Philadelphia, Booken says he entertained various ideas about the career he would build for himself.
“For a while, I wanted to be a pediatrician,” he said. “I also was interested in surgery.”
During a one-year internship, he roomed with a young man who hailed from a small town in Hawaii that he’d never heard of before.
“I interned with a guy who came from Hilo, Hawaii. He was of Japanese extraction. His name was Dick Hata,” he said. “I looked for him when I got here (four years ago), but I think he had passed away.”
After completing his residencies, Booken said he was itching to get his career started. But, like thousands of other Americans, he had to put his career plans on hold following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On Aug. 1, 1942, he was commissioned into the Army Air Corps as a first lieutenant.
Booken counts himself as very lucky, saying that his experience as a flight surgeon during World War II was relatively sheltered, keeping him far from the front lines of battle — unlike his brother, Sidney, who took part in the invasion of Northern France.
“I was headquartered on a base for B-29 (bombers) in India. … We had a lot of freedom, we could travel about,” he said.
Being a flight surgeon came with privileges, including the requirement that he put in a certain amount of flight time, so when he had free time, he would catch rides to various locations.
“I went as far as Cairo, and Chengdu, China,” he said.
Booken says one of his most memorable experiences during the war came when he was riding aboard a “Liberty ship,” a small troop transport carrying about 500 men to North Africa. A young seaman developed appendicitis, and Booken had to perform an emergency appendectomy using “open drop” ether, a method only used when all other possibilities have been exhausted.
“We were three days out from North Africa. … We had very little to work with. No operating facilities,” he said. “He was up the day after surgery though.”
Upon arrival in North Africa, Booken served with the Medical Dispensary Aviation Unit 224 attached to the 20th Bomber Command.
Among his recollections that family members had compiled in a biography, Booken recalled that in Algeria, temperatures had varied about 50 degrees between day and night, and he spent his evenings wrapped up in four blankets that had been stuffed with newspapers between them to keep the cold at bay.
In India, he helped to set up a small, 50-bed hospital and dispensary, complete with its own lab, a pharmacy, and X-ray machine.
“It (the hospital) was used sparingly,” he said.
He was also instrumental in procuring about 10,000 quinine pills to help fight off a malaria outbreak, he said. Among those he treated for malaria was Army Air Corps officer Hank Greenberg, first baseman for the Detroit Tigers who became a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Greenberg had by that time already achieved widespread fame by hitting 58 home runs in 1938, just two homers shy of Babe Ruth’s record set in 1927.
“He was already well known at the time,” Booken said. “We became friends.”
After serving in India, Booken boarded a troop ship and headed to Okinawa. While en route, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Okinawa had already been retaken by the allied forces when he arrived, but Booken was warned to be on the lookout for Japanese soldiers nonetheless.
“They told us some were still living in the hills and hadn’t gotten word,” he said.
In March 1946, Booken’s time in the military was up, and he returned home to pursue his medical career once again, moving back in with his parents in Orange, N.J.
“The Air Force wanted me to stay in the reserve,” he said. “But I was itching to get my practice started.”
During his tour of duty, Booken saved about $10,000 in pay, which he used to purchase equipment and open an office.
Booken went on to marry and raise two children, Wendy and Randy.
Ultimately, he says, the war was only a few short years in his personal history, but the experience he gained and the people he met have stuck with him.
Serving overseas may have slowed down his career plans at the time, but Booken says there wasn’t any question that he would serve.
“I was acutely aware that we had to go to war,” he said.
Now, however, Booken is enjoying just being able to kick up his feet and relax, enjoying his time in Hawaii with family and friends.
“I’m happy here. I sleep like a log,” he said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.