Dr. Corydon Wassell had traveled the world in his 57 years by February 1942.  He had been a small-town country doctor in Southeast Arkansas.  He had studied with some of the best medical minds in the country.  He had raised a family and served as a missionary in China.  He had made life-and-death decisions as a doctor.  Now, in one of the most desperate days for the Allies in World War II, Wassell was now the only man standing between the Japanese army and the lives of twelve injured men.

       The Arkansas native helped send as many patients to safety as he could as the Japanese approached the island of Java in present-day Indonesia.  But these last could not be safely moved.  Most of the other staff had already left.  But he also understood that to leave his patients behind for capture was certain death.  He could not leave, even if it meant risking his own life.

        Japanese planes attacked the hospital almost daily.  Wassell looked for an escape for them all.  He walked into the recovery room and told the men, “We’ve another chance to get out.  And it’s our last chance.”  He arranged for transport with a retreating British anti-aircraft unit who allowed the wounded to ride in their jeeps in the slow, 50-mile ride through the jungle.  Two men did not finish the journey, one severely injured sailor who was in too much pain to continue and a British soldier who had just lost both legs.  They asked to be left at a first aid station and were captured.

       When the remaining men reached port, they found a city in chaos.  People were fleeing the island on whatever could float.  Sunken ships littered the harbor.  Wassell managed to get passage on the small Dutch freighter Janssens.  The ship was slow and unarmed, no match against the advancing Japanese fleet.  But it was the only way out.  Though it usually had room for only 150, the ship was overloaded with more than 800 passengers.  Japanese aircraft rained fire down on the ship and the port as they departed.  They barely escaped.

       Now at sea, their situation grew even more dangerous.  The Japanese Navy was swarming through the area.  For the next couple of days, Wassell worked with the ship’s crew, and the Janssens hid in coves to avoid Japanese air and naval patrols.  The Janssens made port in Australia on March 15.

       Wassell quietly resumed his duties, and their story spread.  He was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt highlighted his story in one of his Fireside Chats on April 28, praising Wassell’s courage under fire.

       At a time when the news was almost all grim for the Allies, Wassell’s escape gave many hope.  Wassell simply the public adulation in stride and simply looked to doing his part to help the wounded.

       James Hilton, the famed English novelist revered for such works as Random Harvest, Lost Horizon, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips was so inspired by the story that he immediately began writing his biography.  The Story of Dr. Wassell was published in 1943 and was one of his very few works of non-fiction.  The book was an immediate best-seller, and Hollywood producers began talking about a movie version.

       Famed director Cecil B. DeMille worked with Wassell to recreate the story for the silver screen.  The movie version of The Story of Dr. Wassell would star popular actor Gary Cooper.  It premiered to wide acclaim on Independence Day 1944 as part of a larger effort to continue to rally public support for the war.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1945.  Wassell was very self-deprecating about the whole matter.  “The most trying period in my life was the 31 months I spent with Cecil B. DeMille,” he laughed, recalling the period making and promoting the film.

       Not surprisingly, he did not accept a dime of the money from the movie.  Instead, he quietly donated all the money to institutions helping the deaf and blind in Arkansas.  Several years after World War II, Wassell retired from the navy reserves as an admiral.

      Always the missionary at heart, he worked for a couple of years at a hospital in Hawaii, declining to be paid so the hospital could divert more of its resources to helping the patients.   He died quietly at his home in Little Rock in 1958.  His modest house was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

      World War II was a time when the world was being torn apart by madmen who only thought of themselves and their twisted vision of the world.  The world was saved by men like Wassell who risked their own lives to put others first.

Kenneth Bridges is a professor of history at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado.