Joined the Navy, found a career

Alisha Jucevic/The Herald
Joe Wagner of Jasper, 86, served for four years as a Navy hospital corpsman during the Korean War. After his time in the service, Wagner continued his education with medicine and worked in physical therapy for more than 50 years.

Herald News Editor

Joe Wagner still remembers the smell.

It’s been 65 years since he helped a fellow Korean War veteran into a pool at a hospital in Oakland, Calif., but the stench was powerful enough to stick with a guy. The man was covered with burns — only swatches of his face, his feet and his mid-section had been spared — and Wagner and fellow U.S. Navy corpsmen removed the bandages and lowered the man into a whirlpool to treat the wounds.

The chief of surgery and the chief of nursing left the room.

Wagner endured, because physical therapy was why he was there and he had a mission to complete.

“We put a sterile sheet on him then took him up to the ward for dressing,” Wagner recalls. “Some of the things I saw ...”

Wagner, an 86-year-old Mariah Hill native who moved to Ireland after the war and now lives at Cathedral Health Care in Jasper, entered the military in 1948 looking for something else. Earning 90 cents an hour at a factory in Ferdinand wasn’t cutting it. What he found in the Navy was a calling and a career.

Wagner started the physical therapy department at Memorial Hospital in Jasper and later worked independently leading therapy sessions at nursing homes in the area. What he began in 1948 didn’t end until he retired in 2001.
Some of the first lessons were the hardest.

The man in the whirlpool in Oakland was a mechanic injured when he was welding an airplane tank and the tank exploded on him. The tank was supposed to be filled with water overnight to make it safe for the mechanics to begin their work the next morning. But somebody forgot to fill the tank with water.

There were others. Frozen toes so cold they were ready to fall off. Shrapnel sliced into limbs. A man driving a Jeep badly burned when the vehicle flipped and the load of gasoline on board ignited.

“I joined the Navy but I found what I wanted to do,” Wagner says. “I was in PT all my life. If I hadn’t gone into the service ...”

The first time he tried to join, not long after he graduated from Dale High School in 1947, he was rejected because he had bad teeth. A dentist pulled two or three and Wagner reported to the induction center in Louisville on Dec. 10, 1948. The Navy had recently closed the facility near Chicago, so Wagner was sent to San Diego.

After boot camp, he worked a few months at a naval hospital in San Diego and when a friend left California for lab school in Maryland, Wagner asked if there was room for him. The class was full, but Wagner was told of PT school in Maryland. Shortly thereafter, he was learning the trade at the Naval Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“There’s not a lot of jobs out there where you can sit in treetops and shoot people and get away with it. And we don’t need a lot of tank drivers,” says Air Force veteran Pat O’Keefe, whose become a close friend of Wagner. “The Navy and Air Force has ... more career-minded fields that can be transferred to civilian from military. In Joe’s case and in a lot of cases with Korean veterans, World War II was over and Korea hadn’t started, but the military needed people. It was a good opportunity to get training and a job. They went in with the mindset not knowing what was going to happen in 1950.”

While Wagner was completing his lessons, the Korean War began. Duty called.

“When I graduated from PT training, they said they needed me on a ship that was taking 1,500 troops to Korea,” Wagner says. “We went back and forth training in Korea and to docks at the base in Japan.”

The ship crossed into Korean waters at least once a month to ensure the seamen received a cut in taxes that came with working in the combat zone.

Not that everything they did was risky.

There was a party of guys from southern Indiana — Mariah Hill, Ferdinand, Dale, Winslow — linked by their roots and reunited if only briefly overseas.

There was a July 4 trip to Hong Kong, China, where “all we could do was go out and drink,” Wagner says, chuckling.

Wagner played on the ship’s basketball team “because I was from Indiana. They figured if I was from Indiana, I’d be good. That doesn’t mean I was good.”

Wagner and his peers played a Chinese team on a concrete floor, and Wagner figures he was actually picked to make the trip because he could help treat anybody who was injured during the game.

Wagner later worked at a hospital in Japan for six months then was sent to Oakland until December 1952, when he was discharged. A nun at Memorial told him that when he finished his college education to return to Dubois County and set up a PT department at the hospital.

Wagner studied at Indiana University for two years and when there wasn’t room in IU’s PT track, he diverted to St. Louis University and graduated in 1958. He worked in Missouri until October of that year then came back to Memorial and founded the PT unit. He worked there until 1972 then traveled to various nursing homes — Dale, Leavenworth, French Lick. At one point, he drove more than 500 miles a week.

He retired in 2001, but even when he slowed down, he kept working.

Wagner served 10 years as the leader of the Dubois County Veterans Service Office, often driving veterans to clinics and hospitals. When they told him his balance was fading in 2011, he gave that up, too.

His wife, Viola, still lives in their home in Jasper. She’s a Jasper gal and they met when Joe was working at Memorial. She had red hair. Joe likes redheads.

“I saw her downtown,” Joe says. “I saw that long, red hair.”

Come December, they’ll be married 60 years. They had four children — daughters Therese Eutsler of Lafayette (she works in PT like her dad) and Clare Raley of Louisville and sons Blaise of Eldersburg, Md., and the late Philip, who died in 2011.

At one point, Joe and Viola lived on $280 per month in a St. Louis apartment without air conditioning. When Wagner thinks about what came later, he can’t help but be grateful for his time in the Navy.

“Do the time. Do the job. Get the (GI) Bill,” Wagner says. “I would have never gotten there without those four years in the service.”

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