Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Hobart, IN) Although Doctor Edward Zalen practiced family medicine for 50 years, he almost became a comedian in Hollywood instead. As you read about Doc Zalen you will discover that he had a most interesting time in the service. It all began when he was drafted out of La Porte High school in 1943. He served with the 15th Army Air Force 460th Heavy Bombardment Group 760th Bomber Squad in Spinazzola, Italy until 1945.
As with most draftees, Doc took many tests during basic training to determine what field or assignment he should get. He did well on multiple tests so he was given a choice for his vocation in the service. He selected the surgical tech field and eventually became a certified Assistant Flight Surgeon. In this field he worked with
B-24 bomber pilots making sure they were fit to fly while educating them on the effects of flying. He also maintained their medical and flight records.
His early training assignments took him to Randolph, TX, San Francisco, CA, Salt Lake City, UT and Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Following those assignments, he was sent to Italy where the 15th Army Air Force was based. He also served in North Africa and other parts of Europe, and overall spent three years overseas.
Doc tells the story of when he saw someone climbing up the water tower on base. He thought that was odd so he reported it to the guards. When they checked it out, they found it was a German trying to poison the water system. Doc also shared the time when a B-24 was taking off and someone pulled the wrong switch causing all the bombs to be dropped on the runway. There were many injuries but fortunately most of the bombs did not explode. Doc seemed to be lucky throughout his service days as he recounted events from that time. One time he was taking a pilot with a broken leg out of his plane when suddenly there was this bright light shining on him. It turned out to be another plane that had stopped just short of hitting them both.
If being in harm’s way from the war was not bad enough, Doc also experienced the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. In March of 1944, a two-week long eruption began. Soldiers and airmen of the 340th Bomber Group were stationed at the Pompeii Airfield, just a few miles from the base of the volcano. Doc was based further away, but still could see the black ash that fell around them.
In addition to his medical skills, Doc also had a knack for entertaining as well. He shared a joke during the interview that we can’t repeat; however, he did share some details of a skit he put on as part of a USO program. It was based on a man arriving at Ellis Island and not being able to speak English. He finally learns enough to order apple pie and a coffee, but when he tries to order a ham sandwich, it becomes a disaster. The skit was so well done that Doc was asked if he would like to come to Hollywood after the war and continue his career as a comedian. His talents were not limited to comedy as he also played the harmonica, but with a nickname like Doc, I’m sure you know what decision he made.
After completing his service, Doc was discharged from Camp Atterbury in Indiana. He worked on the farm at first and then went to medical school. Eventually, he opened his family practice in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. During this time, he met his future wife Norma. Always the comedian, Doc says he met his wife on a blind date. When he got to the car where she was sitting, he asked her if she could help him into the car because he was her “blind” date. Fortunately, Norma overlooked his attempt at teasing her and they were married for 60 years. They have four daughters and Doc is very proud of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Thank You Doc for your honorable service to your country and for your dedicated service to your community. We hope you enjoy your well-deserved Honor Flight!