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Did you know that a knee injury almost changed WWII?

Ned Jilton II • Oct 16, 2019 at 10:55 AM

The recent story out of Hawkins County about former Cherokee High School NJROTC cadet being commissioned a Navy Ensign after a delay due to injury reminded me of the story of another cadet whose injuries almost ended his military career.

In the current day story, Ashley Bowery graduated from Cherokee High School in 2015 and received a full Navy ROTC scholarship to the University of Memphis, where she graduated magna cum laude. But she was recovering from a foot injury at the time she was supposed to be commissioned a Naval officer and would have to wait.

But things worked out well for Bowery. After a four-month delay she received her commission during a ceremony at the Rogersville American Legion Post 21 with the help of her old NJROTC teachers and the current cadets from Cherokee High School, who served as honor guard and color guard.

Now let’s turn back the clock to 1912. A second-year cadet at West Point by the name of Dwight Eisenhower had worked his way on to the varsity football team. He was thinking about earning his varsity letter and the two more seasons of football ahead when it all came to an end in a game against Tufts University, only a couple of weeks before the Army-Navy game.

“I suffered what I thought was a minor injury” Eisenhower later wrote. “I was plunging, having broken through the line, and a man got his hands on my foot. I twisted and threw my weight against it as I turned. Although my knee swelled rapidly, the inflammation was accompanied by little pain.”

Eisenhower was hospitalized for three days waiting for the swelling in his knee to go down. When he was discharged, he was given no instructions to be cautious in using his knee or to stay off it. In fact, Eisenhower said his biggest worry was that the coach would bench him for the Navy game.

Only a day or so out of the hospital, Eisenhower attempted to return to his normal duties and reported to the riding hall.

He wasn’t ready.

“While taking part in ‘monkey drill,’ I leaped off my horse to vault over him as he jumped a low hurdle,” Eisenhower said. “In this fairly easy exercise, the momentum of a trained animal helps pull the rider from the ground as, hand on the neck straps, he levers himself into the air and over the horse. The landing shock to my injured knee was more than I could take. I ended on the ground with my leg twisted behind me. Cartilages and tendons obviously were badly torn.”

It was back to the hospital for Eisenhower, and it would take four days for the doctors to straighten out his leg. He watched the Army-Navy game with a plaster cast on his leg. From then on he could no longer take part in “rugged sports.”

The medical authorities tried several different exercises and treatments to get Eisenhower’s knee back in shape but it never fully recovered. In fact it would bother him on-and-off for the rest of his life. Since he couldn’t play varsity football, he was made a coach of the junior varsity and did a surprisingly good job for two seasons. It seemed he had a knack for leadership and organization.

Then graduation came, time to be commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army. But there was a problem: that knee.

“I was called to the office of Col. Shaw, who was head of the medical department,” Eisenhower said. “He had just completed a review of my medical history at West Point. This consisted almost exclusively of my torn-up knee and subsequent recurrences, which had me in the hospital from time to time. He said that he might find it necessary to recommend that while I be graduated and receive a diploma, I not be commissioned in the Army.”

Eisenhower took the news surprisingly well. Then a few days later, Shaw reconsidered and asked if Eisenhower would consider a commission in the Coast Artillery Corps.

The Coast Artillery Corps was not part of the mobile force of the army. They were the big guns in the forts along the sea. Those forts hadn’t seen action since the Civil War, and the modern guns located there hadn’t even been fired because the large shells were so expensive.

Eisenhower didn’t fancy spending his military career doing nothing but sitting in a hot miserable fort, oiling and maintaining cannons that would probably never be fired. He said he wasn’t interested.

Shaw then said that since it was the riding accident that was most responsible for Eisenhower’s knee problems he would allow the cadet to be commissioned as long as he didn’t sign up for mounted service.

Eisenhower agreed and was finally commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry.

Think about it. If Shaw had not reconsidered his original recommendation, there would have been no Gen. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander of WWII, planning Operation Overlord for the invasion of Europe.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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