By Jess Wisloski
There’s a time in Kenneth Bessette Jr.’s life that’s still hard for him to talk about.
Most days, he can get by without thinking too much about his life aboard the U.S.S. Thomas J. Gary, DER-326, where he spent his two years of active-duty time as a diesel mechanic and third-class petty officer in the Navy.
“I’m retired now and I’ve had a love of cars forever,” said Bessette, now 77,in a recent interview with the Observer. “I had my own body shop for 45 years and I spent a lot of time working in dealerships before that,” he said. He still turns to working on cars as a means of busying himself and keeping his skills sharp.
But last fall, he said a message from his wife Gayle stopped him in his tracks and brought him right back to winter of 1958, aboard that ship out in the North Atlantic Ocean. “She said, you got a call from somebody, he wanted to know if you were on the Gary,” he recalled.
When he called the man back — a man who lived in Danbury, N.H. named Robert Wilson — he found out that it was a hospital corpsman he credits with saving his life. “Fifty-seven years later!” he said, tearing up at the thought. “I called him instantly…we had a wonderful talk, and we agreed to get together.”
Though Bessette’s time aboard the Gary was just one small stretch of the seven years he spent in the armed forces, it was where he spent a moment in time with Wilson that changed his life.
Bessette’s memories run deep, as does his recollection of his time that winter. That’s when, one February day, he began to suffer cramps in his stomach — which eventually became debilitating. Wilson, now 89, was the only medically trained Navy corpsman onboard the ship, and as such it was his charge to provide what medical treatments he could, given limited training and equipment, to the vessel’s roughly 300 servicemen.
Hospital corpsman was a role that evolved out of the medical assistants sometimes kept on hand in surgeries in wartime. And though he went by “Doc” to the ship’s crew, Wilson wasn’t exactly a medical doctor.
As was pretty standard at the time, he went through six weeks of hospital corps training, and then served for three months in an intern-type setting at a military hospital. “The Navy corpsman go to all different schools,” he said. In his case, he’d served as a corpsman for about 10 years by the time he was on the Gary.
The men’s future meeting was precipitated when Bessette, writhing in acute abdominal pain in his bunk, became unable to work, Bessette said. When he first asked Wilson for help, Wilson sent him back to his cabin, he recalled.
Wilson says now that was just to calm him down. “I very calmly said, ‘Why don’t you go back down there, and I’ll be in touch with you,’ he recalled. “I went down to sick bay, got the Merck manual and we took it from there,” Wilson told the Observer.
With “Doc” sitting next to him, a reference guide on his lap, Bessette watched as he pored over the book, looking for some way to alleviate Bessette’s agony. He ultimately settled on a homemade “Wangensteen suction,” essentially a gravity-siphon system, one that required him to force a soft-ended gastric tube through Bessette’s nose and into his stomach to suck out air and fluid and relieve the painful pressure he was feeling in his abdomen.
Later, Bessette would be diagnosed with intestinal obstruction — a blockage of the intestine — created by the folds in his intestine. It was possibly the result of a ruptured appendix he had at the age of five. He said that over his lifetime, he’s been hospitalized for the abrupt onset of abdominal pain caused by obstruction again and again, and has had 12 feet of his intestine removed.
In that first conversation he had over the phone with his old crewmate, Bessette asked the question he long wondered. “I said, ‘Were you a doctor?’ He said, ‘Not even close.’ I said, ‘An intern?’ He said, ‘Not even close.’ I said, ‘What training did you have?’ He said, ‘Six and a half weeks.’ …And they put him on a boat with 300 people!”
Wilson was exaggerating a bit, but said he had to learn a lot in the field.
“I don’t know if it saved his life, but [I knew enough to know] it’s not a good idea to walk around with intestinal obstruction, because a lot of other things could go wrong,” he said.
“There are a lot of different things to handle, and I’m out there alone as far as medical personnel. So I aged probably 12 to 15 years in the three years that I was aboard the Gary,” Wilson joked.
Though the tube helped immediately, Wilson knew right away that the pressure wouldn’t be alleviated for too long. “I had hours to live under those conditions,” Bessette said. “We had no vacuum on the ship,” he said, which is what was later used at the hospital to alleviate the swelling.
“(Wilson) put a jug of water on the ceiling, and a pail on the floor, and he took the tube that was in my nose, he put water in it and pulled [waste] out of it,” with the Wangensteen suction, he recalled.
Wilson then did what Bessette said probably made the biggest difference in his survival: he insisted that the captain of the ship reroute the Gary, leaving their station, to find land within 24 hours. “They had to send another ship out to relieve us,” said Bessette. “Imagine how much that must’ve cost, millions of dollars for just one person!” he said.
“I owe him my life – absolutely,” he added.
The closest port from where they were stationed was St. John, Newfoundland. Bessette said it took 20 hours to get there, and when they arrived, there was an ambulance “like in Mash,” a boxy, dark green WC54, waiting for him.
A day later, an operation left him with three less feet of his intestine. His stomach was later pumped, and he was at one point put on a vacuum in the army hospital to pump out his intestinal blockages. In total, he spent nearly six weeks in the hospital before he was able to recover enough to leave. He was down to 112 pounds at one point, he said.
His gratitude toward Wilson for acting so quickly was something he’d thought about many times, but Bessette hadn’t thought to reach out.
“I can understand me trying to find him for saving my life, but he came to find me. And I’m just so grateful. And now we talk regularly,” said Bessette. That regular contact has helped him get through some of his difficult memories of that time. “Fifty-seven years! That’s unheard of,” he said.
When the men reunited a few weeks ago, Bessette said he was reassured when Wilson remembered everything the same as he did. Wilson said he’d often wondered about the men he treated under special circumstances, but so many had passed on. He found Bessette recently by doing some internet searches, he said.
“I wondered whatever happened to him. Most of the other people I treated aboard ship have since died,” Wilson joked darkly. “Not really… I just wondered whatever happened to him.”
On Memorial Day, the two men agreed to meet up in Burlington, where they enjoyed lunch together and visited Battery Park. “We compared our notes of the happenings, we were so identical. Every single detail,” Bessette said.
He was so grateful to see Wilson, he said, he wanted to tell the newspaper and share the story of the man he credits with saving his life. “It was good, it was really good,” said Wilson of the visit to Vermont. “He didn’t seem to have changed that much,” he said.
Since the two served in different areas, Wilson said they rarely crossed paths after the incident on the ship, but because the crew was not too large, he did recall him. “I remembered what he looked like, so I was kind of surprised he looked so much like before, even though it was a long time ago.”
The two men have been talking on the phone ever since, and will see each other again late this summer, when the U.S.S. Gary’s crew will reunite at a gathering in Portland, Maine.