Marine comes back to family roots in Okinawa
U.S. Marine Capt. George Tolhurst McArthur, whose grandfathers were both in Okinawa before him, sensed his fate in Okinawa. His paternal grandfather landed in Okinawa as a U.S. soldier during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. A decade later, his maternal grandfather came to Okinawa as a missionary doctor and lived on the island for five years. With these family histories, he decided to collect oral histories from those who worked with his maternal grandfather, George Monroe Tolhurst.
McArthur, a communication strategy and operations officer with 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, first came to Okinawa in 1999 to meet his mother’s nanny, Nobuko Futenma, who was the house maid for the Tolhursts from 1959 to 1963. McArthur came back to Okinawa as his first duty station in 2014.
“I was excited when I learned I would be stationed in Okinawa,” said McArthur, a native of Chapin, South Carolina. “I had heard so many stories growing up from my mother and uncles who spent their early childhood years on this island. I came to Okinawa when I was small for a short visit. As an adult now, I wanted to learn more about the family history and legacy of my late grandfather.”
--- Medical effort by missionaries---
The Tolhurst family history with Okinawa dates back to 1956 when Dr. Tolhurst and his family first arrived in Okinawa as a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary doctor from Georgia. War-torn Okinawa had lost two-thirds of medical staff during the battle, and had limited clinics and medical care providers.
The Seventh-Day Adventists operated a small clinic in Shuri, Naha City, in 1953 with the help of a U.S. military doctor volunteering at the clinic twice a week. Humanitarian efforts, such as establishing medical facilities, were one of the ways missionaries evangelized to the local residents after the Battle of Okinawa. In 1958, Makiminato Clinic opened in Urasoe City, headed by Tolhurst.
--- Adventist Medical Center ---
While local clinics were in full operation, a central Adventist Medical Center hospital was being constructed. The medical center was completed on March 1, 1959, located in Uenoya, Naha City; later relocating to Nishihara Town in the 1980s. Ejler Jensen, then president of The Seventh-Day Adventist Okinawa Mission, assigned Tolhurst to be the first medical director of AMC.
Postwar Okinawa’s limited access to sanitation and medical facilities led to outbreaks of contagious diseases such as dysentery, measles, encephalitis and tuberculosis. The patients were amazed by the immediate effect of donated medicine from the U.S. military such as penicillin, steroids and other antibiotics. Word-of-mouth spread throughout Okinawa and patients managed to travel from all over the island to be examined at the clinic. The hospital occasionally offered free medical examinations at remote districts and islands. Clinic record included Itoman City, Kunigami Village, Kudaka Island, Ikei Island, Tsuken Island, Miyako Island and Yaeyama Islands. Sometimes, medical care and medicine were free of charge; provided by the U.S. military. These imported medicines from the U.S. were not available in mainland Japan during that time.
“Although AMC did not specialize in dermatology, the simple procedure of thoroughly washing and cleaning wounds and applying medicine by Dr. Tolhurst was so effective that a lot of patients came to AMC to get their infected skin treated,” said Hideko Kinjo, former nurse who worked with Tolhurst.
Donations kept coming in. Other than medicine, medical supplies and equipment were also donated by the U.S. military and U.S. organizations in Okinawa. To name a few, an ambulance, birthing table, an operating table, an X-ray machine, an anesthetic machine, refrigerator and a sink were donated.
“AMC ordered medicine and supplies via U.S. Army Hospital Ryukyu Island on Camp Kuwae, now Camp Lester – a process which was started by Dr. Tolhurst,” said Michie Kuniyoshi, who was a nurse during the early 1960s. “Every doctor who was assigned to AMC went to the military hospital once a week and volunteered. This was an act of kindness reciprocating with what each other needed during that time of austerity.”
Medical effort by AMC went beyond bringing cutting edge supplies and modern procedures to Okinawa. With the help of the U.S. military, medical staff flew to neighboring islands to take care of emergency patients.
“Our main goal was and still is to serve others where there are medical needs,” said Norris Matsumoto, the director of AMC. “Back in the day, with the help of the U.S. military, many local residents benefitted from the medical assistance we provided.”
--- Piecing together family history ---
Staff members who shared parts of their lives in late 1950s to 1960s with the Tolhursts gathered to pass on their history with McArthur. The reunion brought back memories that launched the former hospital employees into continuous conversation. The outpouring of almost-forgotten history was strong again as each staff member took turns reminiscing about their encounters with the Tolhursts.
“Dr. Tolhurst didn’t know any Japanese when he first came to Okinawa,” said Kinjo. “But before we knew it, dermatology didn’t need a nurse to translate since he was speaking to the patients in Japanese with no trouble. We not only had dermatologist and obstetrics; we also had internal medicine, psychiatry and family medicine. Dr. Tolhurst was manning the whole hospital since he was the only doctor we had.”
The AMC doctors and nurses worked constantly during the earlier years of the hospital due to staff shortages. The hospital records treating around 600 patients during their busiest day. The bigger the hospital became, the larger the influx of patients.
“I remember seeing Dr. Tolhurst working while he had a cold,” said Futenma. “He would put patients before himself since he was the only doctor they had. He knew that being absent from work meant more hassle for nurses.”
Futenma was one of the first staff members to closely work with the Tolhursts. The Tolhurst family went back to Cleveland, Georgia, in 1961 with Futenma where she worked as a maid for the Tolhursts for more than two years. She still bakes cookies and bread with recipes that were taught to her by McArthur’s grandmother; keeping the legacy alive from Georgia.
“When I was in the U.S., I took care of George’s mother as my own child,” said Futenma who fondly recalled back to her time in Georgia. “Because of that, I see him as my grandson. I was very grateful that he came and found me. I really cherish these moments.”
Reuniting with generations who once worked with his late grandparents provided McArthur with memories, stories and histories that were not passed on to him. McArthur was able to live vicariously through the unfolding anecdotes of his family. The beauty of oral histories is that it can add significant dimensions to what history books cannot offer – the recollection of emotions of those who lived through the history.
“It was an honor meeting everyone, and hearing stories about their times with my grandfather and his efforts to serve those who needed medical attention,” said McArthur. “These shared memories and experiences of those who lived through postwar austerity, saw the horrendous views of war-ravaged Okinawa, and survived hardship then starting from scratch, are things that can be shared and passed on to families and communities. Because of our older generations’ continuous selfless efforts, and regardless of our backgrounds, we are here today. I believe it is our duty to learn about our roots and histories for they help us learn from our past mistakes, appreciate diversity, and respect cultures. There should be no boundaries when it comes to serving those in need; rather, enhancing our efforts in building bridges between communities will lead to greater good.”
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