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Introductions Pre-War and Joining the Army
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Hi, I'm Liza, I'm Robin, I'm Jake, I'm Karina and I'm Megan and today's date is Tuesday, May 4th 2004. This interview is being conducted with Dr. John Kerner in San Francisco, California.
Can you please state and spell your name?
My name is John Kerner.
Can you state and spell your name at your time of birth?
At time of birth my name was John Kapstein.
What is your birth date and how old are you now?
My birth date was February 9th, 1919. I'm now 85.
What was the city and country of your birth?
I was born in Portland Oregon, USA.
What is your earliest memory as a child?
My earliest memories were when I was very small, just remembering, I think I had some rabbits when I was very small, like 3 or so. That was my earliest memory.
Can you remember any details from it?
No, at that age I couldn't. The next earliest is I remember moving to San Francisco when I was around 3 and I remember riding in an elevator to where we were staying temporarily, with a kiddie car. That was a gift.
Can you share with us the story behind why you changed your name?
Yes. I'm Jewish, and during World War Two and around that time, I noticed that there was very often prejudice because of a name, not because of the individual or his accomplishments. And it seemed to me that my children would have a much better shot at life if they had no pre-conceived opinions about them and their choice of religion. So I thought it would be better for my children. I had experienced unpleasantness in my lifetime because of my religion and I thought it would be easier for my children if they weren't pre-judged.
Can you talk about any experiences before the war when you felt prejudice because of your religion?
In San Francisco where I lived most of my life, I never was aware of any prejudice. But when my family temporarily moved to Boston for a year and a half, the school that I went to was the first time I was ever called in an unpleasant way being called a Jew by my classmates. That was my first experience. I had never had anything like that in San Francisco.
You said that you moved around a lot because of your father's work. How did living in many different places help or affect your perspective on life growing up?
It made it more difficult to form permanent friendships, but on the other hand it made it easier for me to adjust as I went through life because I could meet strangers like you and relate to them easier than most of my contemporaries. So it was not a total loss.
What were the students like at the Boston Latin School? Did the Great Depression impact such a prestigious school during that time? What was the general feeling and atmosphere?
I was at the Boston Latin School during the seventh grade, all of the seventh and half of the eighth. The Boston Latin School, for those of you that don't know, is a public school in Boston. It was all male, it had great prestige and if you graduated from that school you could go to Harvard without taking an examination or anything. If you wanted to go to Harvard you just did. But if you didn't keep up your grades you had to go to a regular high school. The school was made up—because of the population and the interest in education in Boston—almost half the class were Irish, or of Irish extraction and almost half the class was Jewish. There often was competition, which wasn't all that pleasant, but actually after a while the relationships began to change and there was less hostility. They started in the seventh grade and by the end of the year things changed but they did enter the class with considerable hostility and they gradually mellowed, which was nice. I enjoyed the school it was a great school.
Can you recall any specific experiences where you felt hostility upon arriving there?
The one thing that was not real hostile was when I first arrived and would get up if they asked a question in class. If I wanted to answer it everyone else would put their hands down because they loved to hear the California accent and they'd all roar with laughter. And so in defense you developed a Boston accent. When I came back and went to school with all my old friends here they all laughed at my Boston accent, so I soon got rid of that. The other thing I got ribbed about a lot is when I went to school in Boston I was dressed like we dress out here. I was dressed like we dress out here. I was wearing a sweater and a shirt and everyone at the school was wearing a jacket and tie and most of them were wearing knickers. So I was out of uniform and they thought, "Is that the way they dress in California?" All that kind of stuff. So in defense I had to go get outfitted like they were outfitted.
Why did your family move to Boston?
My father thought that he wanted to retire there because he had a lot of relatives there. He thought that that would be a good place to retire. We got a lovely home and all that sort of thing but he missed San Francisco too much and the people he knew out here so we moved back and I was happy about that.
Can you talk a little about what your father did before he decided to retire?
My father was—you know the the Woolworth Company, the five-and-ten cents stores—he was with them from the beginning. So he was one of the early people in that firm of F W Woolworth. He started at a city at Fall River where there was another firm called E P Charlton and they joined with Woolworth and the whole thing was called the Woolworth Company. And he was the one who came to western Canada and the western United States to open stores for the company. He was in his early twenties when he was doing that. He was very successful in that business.
Did you ever consider taking over his business when he retired?
He was working for another firm and when he retired I was only in the seventh grade. So when he thought he was going to retire he came back and went into business with himself later on. And then I considered going into business with him but decided in favor of medicine, which I don't regret.
You said you went to medical school at Berkeley. In what years were you there?
The medical school started in 1939 and it started in Berkeley but that was only the first year in Berkeley. Then the next three years of medical school were here in San Francisco.
You were there during 1941, during Pearl Harbor. In San Francisco during that time the Japanese were put into internment camps. Did you notice that was going on and did you have any opinions on that topic?
Yes, at the time I was President of my class and I complained to the faculty because they took Japanese students out of our class. At that time we were junior students. One of these Japanese students in the class I had gone to grammar school with and through high school and college, and to have him taken out of the medical school where there was a shortage of doctors was absurd. So I did complain to the higher members of the faculty that that was done and I don't know whether it was because of my complaints or complaints of others, but they did find places for all of those Japanese students in other parts of the country where they could continue their education. All but one graduated as a doctor and a couple of years ago I had them all made honorary graduates of our class.
Did a lot of people have problems with what was going on with the internment camps or was there a lot of prejudice towards the Japanese?
Those of us who had been brought up in San Francisco couldn't understand it because I had gone to public schools and we had a Japanese contingent in every class that I was in and you know they were friends. If I had a birthday party Japanese kids would come just like anyone else in the class. But the other people in the country obviously had different feelings.
When you were in Berkeley at medical school, you said that you had to join the ROTC?
Yes, before you go to medical school, when I was there, the first two years of the University you had to take ROTC, either Army or Navy. It was a rule then; I don't know whether it continues to be. But it's a land grant college so to get federal funds that's what you had to do.
What did you do in the ROTC and what was that like?
We didn't do much more except drill and we learned how to take apart rifles and put them together and a little bit about army tactics I guess, but I think we spent an hour or two a week I forget, but it wasn't a lot of time.
Were you willing to go into the ROTC?
I didn't object. I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn't I? Actually I did better and got—in high school I had been in the ROTC. I forget why I did it, but in high school I sort of liked it, so it was no hardship going into the University one. I knew all of the stuff that they were supposed be teaching everyone so that made it easy because they did have examinations, which were easier for me to do. I didn't object.
Can you describe to us the different places where you trained before becoming a member of the army?
I went to the University of California medical school. The first year of medical school was in Berkeley, the next three years were in San Francisco. The second year was spent—there were some buildings up where the University of California now is that aren't there anymore—and the third year was spent at the San Francisco County Hospital. That was where the first—we had seen some patients prior to that. We had gone out to Laguna Honda Hospital to learn physical examination—but the San Francisco County Hospital is the first place where we were assigned patients. In all honesty I was at that point a little upset because there was a lot of competition in the class and there seemed to be a lot of emphasis on book learning, which I didn't enjoy. Then I spent a summer up there working with one of my favorite doctors and my attitude changed because I started to really feel that you could learn more from people than from books. When I discovered that I began to really enjoy medicine. The last year was spent where the UC Hospital now is up on Parnassus. And there, though I was a student, they were short a doctor, so I acted as an intern instead of a student but I still had to do the intern's work and my student work. So I was pretty busy. I lived at the hospital even though I was a student. At that time I really got to enjoy medicine and I have ever since.
After medical school you went to Camp Carlisle. What was that like? What did you do there?
Camp Carlisle was a place where you were supposed turn doctors into soldiers, which is not an easy thing to do. It was really not; it was completely out of character. But they did a lot of road marching and they told us that we had lectures that were very well done on various aspects on the military. The one good thing about Carlisle was that I learned about—that was the first time of my life where I had heard really good lectures with good visual aids. Up until then there were some slides but they were rather crude, but at Carlisle they had excellent teaching visual aids. That was the first time I really saw good ones, so when I got out of the Army that was something that I was able to institute in things that I did. But they did—we learned how to shoot a rifle, we learned how to—you probably have seen people in training where they had to crawl on the ground and they shoot bullets over your head and real live bullets. There were sort of map tests where you were given a map and a compass and told that you have to get to ten different points in the night time. That sort of thing, which was, we did pretty well at. It was sort of funny to see a group of medical students out there marching trying to look like soldiers, and most of them didn't want to, but we had to do it, so.
At the medical school in Camp Carlisle did you see yourself utilizing what you were learning in war or was it still hard to imagine?
It was hard to make that connection because most of us at the time—see that was in early 1944 and we thought by the time we get organized and assigned to units we would probably be in hospitals because all of the troops were already in position in the Pacific, or for the invasion of Europe or what not. We didn't picture ourselves really being involved in that. I don't think anyone of us really thought of ourselves as soldiers, we were thinking of ourselves as someone that would be working in a hospital or in a field hospital or something like that.
Did you take that aspect of the training very seriously?
We did, you know, because medical students by nature are students, so if someone lectures to you, you pay attention and you can take an examination on it because in order to get to medical school in those days you really had to be a good student. In my class in medical school there were fifty. That was the only state medical school in the state. There weren't—there were almost as many people in the state then as now, and now there are must be ten university medical schools, or at least eight. I forget how many. And they maybe have close to a hundred a class. So the competition was tremendous to get in, so they were really good students. So if the guys began to lecture to a medical student, they'd really listen and be able to take a test on it. So that they did pay attention to those army lectures.
Did you feel that they were preparing you for the medical aspects of war too or more the techniques that were involved in medical care?
We learned some of the things that doctors do in the service, but not a lot. And there were lectures on various aspects of the Army, but I don't remember much of it being of great value to me later on.
About how long would you say?
So after that, you went on to be a part of the 10th Mountain Division?
No, I first spent six weeks in a general hospital in Denver. The Army was committed for every doctor to go into an internship which was supposed be a year, but they called us in at the end of nine months, so the army was supposed commit us to three months more to finish out the end of the year. We had six weeks in Carlisle and six weeks in a general hospital and then we were assigned to military units. It was after finishing six weeks at the hospital in Denver that I went to the 10th Mountain Division.
What exactly did you do in the hospital?
Well my training was in obstetrics and gynecology so after I was there for a week or so they assigned me to that department and so I did that. It was wonderful. I got to do all the things I like to do. I got to do some surgery and there was no one having babies there because the women patients were mostly WACs or WAVEs or people like that from various branches of the service, nurses, so they had gynecologic problems, so that was my job to look after them, and that was a something I knew about.
What was your feeling when you got a letter saying that you were going to be a part of the 10th Mountain Division?
We sort of knew that would happen, but I thought that—I knew that I was well liked in the hospital, and I thought they might have kept me but I was not a qualified specialist. The head of the service I know liked me and would have kept me but I just wasn't qualified to stay in that hospital for the position there, which was a disappointment.
You say that it was a disappointment. Does that mean that you didn't want to go the 10th Mountain Division?
I knew I had to go somewhere and the 10th Mountain Division sounded not too bad. At the time I liked to ski, a number of my friends were also being assigned there, so it didn't sound like too bad a thing.