Chester “Chet” Merral Lessenden, Jr. was born in Downs, Kansas, on May 21, 1918. He was the third of four children born to Chester M. Lessenden, Sr. and Louisa Amelia (Manly) Lessenden. Chet went through the Downs school system, graduating from Downs High School in 1935 or 1936. He decided he wanted to be a doctor when he was just a boy. Dr. Jarvis Hodgson, a Downs physician and the Lessenden’s family doctor (and future fellow member of the Osborne County Hall of Fame), used to let young Chester accompany him on house calls.
Chester, Sr. owned the Lessenden Department Store, which failed during the Great Depression. The Lessenden family then moved to Lawrence, Kansas in the late 1930s. Chet went off to Kansas State University, but after one year transferred to the University of Kansas, thinking he would have a better chance of being admitted to K.U. Medical School if he were a K.U. graduate. He received his medical degree from K.U. in May 1943 and as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade was immediately assigned to San Diego, California, where he did his medical internship. During World War II Chet served as the medical officer aboard a submarine tender, the U.S.S. Nureus.
Chet had decided that he wanted to specialize in dermatology, so when the war was over, he made application for admittance to the prestigious New York Skin & Cancer Hospital, only to find that all the civilian places were filled. However, he learned that there was a place available for a naval officer. Fortunately Chet was not yet been separated from the Navy so he was appointed to the position. He spent four years at New York Skin & Cancer Hospital, after which Chet passed the Boards in 1950 and became a Diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology and Syphilology.
According to naval policy, Chet was required to repay year-for-year the four years of his post-graduate education. He was assigned to the NavalHospital in Bremerton, Washington, and his duty was to establish a dermatology department there. He was at the Bremerton, Washington, Navy Yard in June 1950 when 100,000 well-equipped North Koreans smashed across the 58th Parallel.
The Navy immediately denuded the west coast of all medical officers. Chet received “PROCEED IMMEDIATELY” orders. The Korean Conflict had begun.
“I was the first doctor to leave the States,” Lessenden later said. “A radiologist went over with me. I called my wife Edith from the hospital at 10 a.m. in the morning and said, ‘Pack me a bag,’ and by 5:00 p.m. that same day I was gone.” The Navy furnished all ancillary services for the Marines, and Chet was assigned to the 5th Marines.
While crossing the Pacific, “some old gunny showed me how to field-strip a carbine and we shot a can over the fantail,” he said about his combat training. On November 11, 1950, Lt. Lessenden was more worried about a smallpox case on board his troop ship. The ship was under radio silence-cut off from naval authorities in Japan. The 5th Marines were steaming off the east coast of North Korea while Navy tenders cleared mines from Wonsan Harbor so the 5th Marine Regiment could land.
“I was in the Pusan Perimeter and the Battle of the Naktong,” he later recalled. “I went over the sea wall at Inchon on a scaling ladder, and (General Douglas) MacArthur saw me and said, ‘Give that man a Silver Star!’”
That was because he and another man were carrying a long roll of canvas-wrapped medical supplies between them up parallel ladders when the other man was shot. Lessenden, filled with adrenaline, didn’t notice he was carrying the whole load by himself until he reached the top.
He never got the Silver Star. Not even after the Chosin Reservoir.
“We assaulted Kimpo Airfield, crossed the Han River under fire, moved on up to Seoul and a mile or two north where we set up a defensive line. We stayed there about a week and then got orders to board ship. We went over to Hungnam and on up to the (northern) plateau. We had two Army divisions and the 1st Marine Division.”
The 3,500 men of the 5th Marines marked Thanksgiving 1950 in tents pitched in the snow at 8,000 feet on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, 80 miles from the Yalu River and the Chinese border. No one knew that a quarter million Chinese were massed in the mountains, just out of sight.
The United Nations plan called for the 8th Army to drive north and east for the border as X Corps – which included the Marines – pushed north and west to link up with them in the middle of the peninsula. The 5th Marines headed west toward Mupyong-ni and the Army left on the morning of November 27th. They didn’t get far. The Chinese were dug in on the hills around them. In a day of hard fighting, the regiment made barely two miles.
For five nights and four days, the Marines were surrounded by tens of thousands of Chinese – possibly ten divisions. To the east, the 3,000 men of the Army’s 31st Regimental Combat Team were likewise besieged.
Lessenden’s big dressing station tent was full of wounded by November 28th. That afternoon, the aid station moved southeast to consolidate with the 7th Marines.
“It was bitter cold. It was the first time I saw blood that had frozen before it clotted,” Chet remembered. “We couldn’t cut a man’s clothes off to get to a wound because be would freeze to death. Actually a man was often better off if we left him alone. Did you ever try to stuff a wounded man into a sleeping bag?”
Chet and other medical workers warmed morphine Syrettes in their mouths before administering them to the wounded. Desperate cases were stuffed into the only ambulance with a working heater, because only there could the aid workers get plasma to flow through the IV tubes or apply dressings. Chet operated by lantern light in a surgery tent, which was easy to see in the dark, and a fair target. The Chinese began shooting at the tent, and so the lights were doused. Chet continued his surgery by a hand shielded flashlight.
The temperature sank from minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 30. The men ate snow, because even a direct flame wouldn’t melt it at that temperature and altitude. Lessenden fell asleep from exhaustion with his combat boots in the snow, freezing his feet, and became the chopper evacuation standard for frostbite cases.
“I was sitting there on a box, my boots unlaced, and the division surgeon, my direct superior, would bring someone over and compare feet,” he recalled.” I had a pair of crippled toes; didn’t amount to much.”
The division surgeon, Captain Eugene Hering, said: “When we got to Hagaru, the only way you could tell the dead from the living was whether their eyes moved. They were all frozen as stiff as boards.”
The order to withdraw from Yudam came November 30th. The Marines began a fighting withdrawal back down the narrow mountain track to Yudam-ni and the seaport of Hagaru-ri. Hobbling on frostbitten feet, Lessenden, a dentist, a senior corpsman and 30 other ranks ended up caring for 900 casualties, many simply strapped to the hoods of the vehicles for a shred of warmth.
For his valor at Chosin Reservoir Chet was decorated with the Legion of Merit with Gold Star and Combat V.
When Chet was mustered out of the Navy in 1953, he returned to Kansas to establish a dermatology practice in Topeka and practiced there for 29 years.
In 1955 Chet began giving his services as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine (Dermatology) at the University of Kansas Medical Center. By the time he retired in 1982 he was a full Professor of Medicine. Chet then served as associate chief of staff at the Topeka Veterans Administration Hospital.
Chet was past president of the Shawnee County Medical Society, past treasurer of the Kansas Medical Society, and a member of the American Medical Association. He also was president of the Fortnightly Club, the Topeka Symphony Society and the Salvation Army Advisory Board. He was a member of First United Methodist Church, Topeka Country Club and the Masonic Order, Scottish Rite Bodies and Arab Shrine.
Together Chet and Edith raised three daughters and a son. Chet passed away in Topeka on May 4, 1999.
(The following story was published in The Old Town Station Dispatch, #25, 1999)
A LIFE WELL LIVED
Eve’s dad died this Spring. He had a long and full life, and had some health problems the last few months, but we sure weren’t ready to let go of him. I guess you never are. There was a nice obituary in the local Topeka paper. The headline surprised me a bit – it read “Navy Hero Dies”.
Of course, we all knew about Chet’s military service, but he had just never been “The Navy Hero” to anyone that I knew. Born Chester Merral Lessenden, Jr., in the small central Kansas farm town of Downs, he’d always been “Jack” to his dad and “Junie” to his mom and “Chet” to his friends. Later he was “Doctor Lessenden” to many folks around Topeka, “Dad” to Eve and her sisters and brother, and then “Grandfather” to his 13 grandchildren (never “Gramps” or “Grandad” or “Poppie” or anything other than “Grandfather” . . . well, ok, “Gramfavver” to the little ‘uns for a few years when they’d first start talking with him . . . .).
And talk with him they did. His was a voice with authority that always seemed at odds with the twinkle in his eye. He’d engage the grandkids directly, as he did everyone, asking and listening to their opinions and never hesitating to tell his, if asked or if it seemed called for.
A trip to “Mimi & Grandfather’s” was always a Major Event. For the grandkids, it meant getting to see The Cousins. The older Cousins got to drive the rickety old tractor, hauling the little ‘uns in a cart behind. The entire pack would load up with Grandfather & go down into the woods to haul back a load of firewood, or pick whatever was ripening in the garden, or go see if the coyotes had got the goslings, or check to see if the damn dam on the pond had decided to hold water yet (despite many years of fixes, both ordinary and esoteric, the Pond had a distressing proclivity to devolve to a Basin.)
Edith [Chester’s wife] would always have fixed a remarkable dinner, with the help of Eve and her brother & sisters. The grandkids would sit around the dining table with the grownups if there was room, or at the adjoining card table annex if it was a full house. We’d “hold hands for food” (the Lessenden tradition of a silent grace), and then dig in, with etiquette being gently but firmly enforced (something of a novelty for the Supica brood despite Lady Eve’s valiant efforts) - Grandfather carves, the ladies are served first, there is leisurely and polite conversation during dinner, you say “please pass” and “thank you”, and you wait until everyone is finished before you ask to be excused.
As the little ‘uns drifted away, the adults and older kids would often play Password or Fictionary over coffee. And most evenings tended to end up with a request for one of Grandfather’s True Stories.
Usually Chet would be sitting on the brick hearth in front of the fireplace, sometimes fiddling with a pipe when the request would come. The stories were Ordinary and Wonderful. Usually they were about the goings on when he was young in Downs – a town peopled with True Mythical persons of the most fascinating habits and astounding proclivities. The telling came forth in a natural and conversational manner. At first, there would usually be some fidgeting and fussing. However, as the story inevitably grew, the eyes of the youngest grandkids would get bigger and their mouths would gape slightly. Those a few years older might set their mouths in a somewhat skeptical line and raise their eyebrows a bit, and the preteens might actually roll their eyes at times. We “adults” (we all sort of became kids when Chet would get a story going) sat on the outskirts of the circle smiling and suppressing an occasional laugh so as not to interrupt.
As often as not, the story would be left hanging. Chet would just stop talking and start fiddling with his pipe again. After about a five count, one of the little ‘uns could always be counted on to jump in with “But what happened THEN????” The casual response to this question would be something like “We never heard from him again” or “Well, I don’t really know, what do you suppose?”
This would be good for about a ten count pause, when the inevitable question would be asked, “Is that TRUE?”
The stock answers of “Of course it’s true” or “well, that’s how I remember it” would never quite suffice, and the older kids knew to skip asking Grandfather this last question and go straight to their parents with the question.
We all knew the answer. “All of Grandfather’s Stories are True”. And some of them were.
But he hardly ever told war stories.
He wasn’t really hesitant to discuss his service when we’d ask. He just never brought it up. I guess we all knew that he’d served in WWII in the Pacific, in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps as a physician and Lieutenant aboard the submarine tender USS Nureus. When his country had called him a second time, he’d kissed his bride and baby daughters goodbye and gone to Korea as a Lieutenant Commander, attached to the Marines. He was the first doctor called up for Korea.
When they made the Korean landing at Inchon Beach, we knew that Chet had climbed a ladder up the sea wall. He and a corpsman were going up 2 ladders, carrying a heavy pack of medical supplies between them. When Chet got to the top of the ladder, and heaved the pack up over the lip of the wall, he realized that the other guy had been shot, and left behind. He was amazed that he had carried the pack by himself, and not even known it. He had been watched by General MacArthur, who said, “Give that man a Silver Star.”
We knew he’d been one of the “Chosin few” – 3,500 Marines who fought their way, through 250,000 Chinese troops out of the frozen Korean interior at Chosin Reservoir to be evacuated. I remember him remarking on how it was the only time he’d seen blood freeze before it could clot.
I wish I’d asked more.
The Navy Cross didn’t come through for Chet, but he was awarded the Purple Heart of course, and the Legion of Merit with a Gold Star and Combat V. He had refused to be air evacuated although his feet were severely frostbitten. He chose instead to stay and care for the wounded during the frightful trek – Chet with a dentist and a senior corpsman had 900 wounded Marines to get out of enemy territory.
When the extent of their plight had become apparent, one strategist suggested that they break into small groups and fight their way to the coast. The Marine reply had been, “Hell no, we bring out our wounded and our dead.”
The vehicle Chet was in was a balky beast, and richly deserving of abandonment, but it was loaded down with wounded men and had to be pressed into further service. A clever corpsman had rebuilt the carburetor using a cardboard box and medical adhesive tape.
Helicopters had dropped L-bars, rails to lay across the deep chasms, so the vehicles could cross. They lay the bars with the small edges standing up on the inside of the wheels, facing each other, because the tires were wider than the bars, and overlapped them on right and left side. Halfway over such a crossing, Chet’s vehicle gave up the ghost. Chet opened the passenger door, looked down into the rocky ravine, and closed the door. Talking it over with the driver, they decided to use the starter with the ambulance in gear, which made the truck lurch a few feet each time it was fired. And so, the truck lurched its way a yard at a time across the chasm, then was chained to the truck in front and pulled the rest of the way to the sea with its precious cargo of soldiers wounded in the icy wilds of Korea. Chet never could bear to hear a grinding starter for the rest of his life.
Chet’s memorial service was simple and moving. Edith didn’t know if many people would come, but the Topeka Methodist Church was filled with people who came to say goodbye to Doc Lessenden. After the eulogy, the organ trumpeted a fanfare, and they all rose and sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I wanted to, but couldn’t because my throat seemed swollen.
The moment that moved me most was during the family gathering before the service. The pastor pulled Edith aside to introduce her to the young Marine Captain who would be presenting her with Chet’s flag at the end of the service. He was a perfect recruiting poster Marine, standing straight as an arrow, close cropped blond hair, transparent clear blue eyes, square jaw, dress uniform with creases you could cut a finger on. He reached out to shake Edith’s hand. She stood just as straight as he and looked up at him with eyes as clear and blue as his, took his hand and said in a soft but clear and unwavering voice, “Chet was always proud to be a Marine.”
I think we lose heroes every day and never read about them in the newspaper or hear about them on the TV. Men and women who have suffered to serve their country, or lost their husbands or sons or fathers in that service, or sacrificed to stay with and raise a family when it would have been easier to leave, or tried through their work or profession to do right and to leave the world a better place. I pray that we can be worthy of their heroism, that we remember them, and that we somehow pass on their values to a future generation of quiet heroes.