My Family in American Samoa
on the eve of the Second World War
by John Fuhring
The following is the story of my parents' adventure on the Island of Tutuila in American Samoa immediately before and immediately after the outbreak of the war with the Empire of Japan, the war that began on that terrible Sunday December 7th, 1941. Almost all the photos I will be presenting were taken with a little Kodak folding camera that belonged to my mother and, of course, they will be in black and white. You will see pictures of the ocean liner that took my parents and sisters to Samoa, scenes of military life, scenes from around the Island and scenes of the family's tropical quarters. Finally there will be domestic images of my parents, my sisters, family friends and native Samoans as they were so long ago.
I was born just under four years after my parents were forced by war and circumstances to leave Samoa so, of course, I was not a participant in their Samoan adventure, but all of my life I listened to the wonderful stories regarding the happy and dramatic life my parents had during that time and those stories became part of my life too. To think, my parents were only on Samoa a few months, but what they saw, who the met and what they did in that short but critical time created the happiest and most fondly remembered moments of their lives. It is this period in my parent's lives that I am presenting in this story.
My mother's folding camera
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many young medical doctors, including my father, had a difficult time earning a enough money to support their families. This was a time before Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance or readily available credit through cards and lending institutions. In those days, a doctor was paid in cash (which almost nobody had) or in chickens or paid nothing at all if his patient had nothing. During the era of the Great Depression, a medical degree was not thought of as a license to become wealthy, rather a medical degree was something a man (and almost all doctors of that age were men) earned because being a doctor was a profession he was best at. For many men, and for my father in particular, there was great honor attached to the title "medical doctor" and my dad considered it almost as a patent of nobility. Most men became doctors for the honor and prestige appertaining to that title and out of a sense of duty to humanity. For my dad, who never considered his skills as his own, but rather as a "gift" from some higher being, this sense of duty to humanity took on the quasi-religious quality of a vocation. Still, a man and his family had to eat and be clothed and had to have a place to live and for that, a man had to be paid for his work.
My father, doctor S.A. Fuhring MD, had already completed his specialty in Ear, Eye, Nose and Throat (EENT) in the hospitals in New York City (where he met and married my mother), but he felt he needed to get out of the "Big City" because there were just too many other poverty stricken young doctors competing for too few paying patients there. Of course, there was no possibility of Dr. Fuhring starting his own practice. The medical practices and clinics that were already well established provided a reasonable living for the older doctors who ran them, but unless backed by a wealthy family, it was virtually impossible for a young doctor to start a practice on his own. My father, as was typical of most young doctors of that era, was forced to affiliate with an established clinic under very unfavorable circumstances. Even by the standards of the time, my parents were living in near-poverty with a future that looked bleak.
To make matters worse, my father's parents need help. My grandfather, Louis Fuhring, had once been moderately wealthy as the owner of a hardware business that was located in a rural town in Oklahoma. As careful as my grandfather was with money and investments, he suffered a terrible blow and lost his entire life savings when his best friend's bank failed. This failure was especially bitter because the day before my grandfather made a large deposit and his friend accepted the money without a word of warning. At about this same time, grandfather's health suddenly failed and he had to turn the daily operation of the business over to a trusted employee. This man dishonestly sold off the entire stock to the bare walls, pocketed the money and left town without a trace. Thus my grandfather's otherwise successful hardware business went bankrupt. When my father came to visit and attend to grandfather's affairs, he was shocked to find an empty store and had to tell his sick father that he was ruined.
Without savings, in bad health, and with nothing but a failed business they couldn't sell, my grandparents were destitute. There wasn't Social Security or Medicare (these and other New Deal reforms had yet to be passed), but there weren't today's expensive life-saving treatments or drugs either, so my grandfather saved himself a lot of humiliation, trouble and expense by dying a short time later. My grandmother, a very unhappy old lady by this time, had to move in with my struggling parents.
This was a heartless and socially irresponsible time that many today would like to see our country to return to. I'm sorry to say this, but it makes my blood boil when I hear people bad-mouthing FDR, Social Security and Medicare. I just hate to hear fools talk about "investing" Social Security funds in Wall Street where greedy men want all the regulations off of the rapacious practices of unscrupulous "Casino Capitalists." These were NOT the "good old days" but a time of intense suffering for hundreds of millions of people all around the world and here in America.
Original bank building in Union City, Oklahoma where my grandfather's savings were lost.
As I mentioned above, after completing his specialty, my father left the "Big City" and its squalor behind. He began practicing medicine at an established clinic in Cheyenne, Wyoming under an odious contract with the clinic's owner, Dr. Schunk. These times were hard for everybody except the very rich and most people in America struggled with a grinding poverty that was even worse than what my parents experienced. At least my dad could feed his family with the chickens his patents gave him in lieu of payment. By the way, my dad ate so much chicken at this time that he came to loath it and we never had it for dinner when I was growing up (except when dad wasn't home). I think I can say with perfect truth that my dad was eager and motivated to escape from his situation at the Schunk Clinic.
Dad joined a cavalry unit of the National Guard to earn a little extra money and drilled with them until Dr. Schunk discovered this and demanded that my father give him a full half of that money too, as per the contract. This must have been especially hard as I'm sure the money had already been spent. I think it is reasonable to assume that this was the last straw, so when my father heard that the Navy was to hold a competitive examination for medical doctors in far away Bremerton, Washington, he decided to pit his skill and knowledge up against the other doctors who would be there and who would likewise be wanting to get a commission.
For my dad, as for so many other young medical men, a commission as an officer in the military was a highly desired way out of poverty and considered almost the equivalent of winning one of today's lotteries. Many doctors were eager to try their luck and test their skills and so they flocked to the sites of these examinations. My father packed his travel kit and gassed up his Model A Ford and then drove himself from Cheyenne to Bremerton. I think we should remember that this was long before there were the good highways we have today, so a trip over the hundreds of miles of narrow, winding roads to get to Bremerton was one not taken lightly, but it was one he had to take. On the day of the examination, Dr. Fuhring did extremely well and he was one of the few doctors offered a commission as a Lieutenant (J.G.) in the U.S. Navy. Needless to say, he jumped at the chance and immediately accepted the commission.
As a short digression from this story of my parents' Somoan adventure, I would like to say that, to his dying day, Dr. Fuhring remained extremely grateful and loyal to the Navy. He would not allow me to say a word against the Navy after I had been literally forced to serve by my draft board in response to the immoral and unnecessary Vietnam War. Of course, as a disrespected and low ranking enlisted man, I served during a vastly different era and in a completely different part of the Navy. I saw a nasty, immoral and low-life side of the "real" Navy my father, his wife and his children had never been exposed to. The severe contrast between the Navy of my childhood and the "real" Navy was something dad didn't want to know about.
Page two is about the beginning of my father's Naval career and the family's voyage to Samoa.
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