The Sailing Surgeon
When Captain A.L. Bryan came to Dublin on Maundy Thursday in April 1944, he was on a mission. During his naval career, Bryan had sailed all but three of the seven seas. There was still a war raging in Europe and the Pacific. It would be two more months before the Allied armies would invad the Normandy coast. Captain Bryan was ordered to report to Dublin, Georgia to establish a naval hospital, a large facility situated more than one hundred miles from the nearest ocean. It would be a hospital to treat the flood of expected casualties of a war which seemingly had no end. This is his story.
Born on April 4, 1892 in the tiny East Iowa farming community of Dixon, Alanson Leroy Bryan was a son of telegraph operator Lindsey Bryan and his Norwegian born bride Mary. Before Alanson and his twin sister Alice reached the age of ten, his family moved north to Anoka, Minnesota on the Mississippi River above Minneapolis.
At the age of twenty-four, Alanson Bryan graduated from the prestigious medical school at Vanderbilt University in 1916. Dr. Bryan began his internship with the United States Public Health Service following his graduation. As President Woodrow Wilson was considering asking Congress for a declaration of war in Europe, Bryan entered the United States Navy when he was commissioned a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Naval Reserve on February 1, 1917.
Following the entrance of the United States into World War I, Lt. Bryan traveled to the nation’s capital where he entered the Navy’s Medical School and was commissioned a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the regular Navy.
Lt. Bryan’s first assignment came in Boston, Massachusetts to serve as a lieutenant aboard the USS Vestal and the USS Supply, an 1873 iron steamer, until the summer of 1919. As a first lieutenant, Bryan served the next three years aboard the U.S.S. Fulton and the U.S.S. Eagle.
Bryan returned to shore duty taking courses at a New York University and serving at a Boston hospital from 1922 to 1924. Around Christmas, Bryan reported for duty to oversee the fitting of the U.S.S. Memphis, a light cruiser which sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific during Bryan’s 14-month stint. After eight months aboard the USS Procyn, Bryan received his first assignment in a hospital, the Navy’s premier hospital in San Diego, California, where he served until the fall of 1930.
After a nine-month stint aboard the USS Chaumont and the USS Medina, Commander Bryan, trained in eye, ear, nose and throat surgery and specialized as a general surgeon, began to settle down to shore duty at Mare Island, The Navy Yard, Pearl Harbor and back to San Diego where he served until the end of the 1930s. The commander returned to Pearl Harbor as the tumultuous decade of the 1940s began to serve aboard the U.S.S. Maryland. Bryan was reassigned stateside in the spring of 1941, but the Maryland remained at her base, where she was severely damaged on December 7, 1941.
Commander Bryan’s first experience in establishing a naval hospital from the ground up came in Jacksonville, Florida, where he served as the Chief of Surgical Service during the hospital’s first six months of operation.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bryan’s skills and expertise were needed to assist the Navy in converting older ships into virtual sailing hospitals. Bryan worked aboard the French ship Normandie, which was converted to the U.S.S. Lafayette. Working with Bethlehem Steel, Captain Bryan oversaw the construction of the U.S.S. Massachusetts, a Dakota Class battleship, which was engaged in the Battle of Casablanca in November 1942.
From December 5, 1942 until March 6, 1944, Bryan, a slender, sandy-haired, sailing surgeon, served as Senior Medical Officer of the U.S.S. Relief, a base hospital ship of the Atlantic Fleet based in Charleston, South Carolina. In the winter of 1943, the Relief set sail for Boston in preparation for the duty in the South Pacific, where she saw duty in the engagements around the Solomon, Gilbert and Marshall Islands, including Tarawa and Kwajalein.
Dr. Bryan’s staff of surgeons, nurses and orderlies took on the unenviable task of treating massive numbers of Marines many of whom had been gravely battered on the beaches of the paradise islands of the South Pacific as the island hopping campaign slowly began it’s deadly swing toward their main destination of the island of Japan.
Captain Bryan left the horrific fighting in the South Pacific for a new and completely different assignment. His mission was to travel to rural east-central Georgia to serve as the Navy’s Prospective Officer in Command of its new hospital in Dublin, Georgia.
When Captain Bryan arrived in Dublin, he brought with him his wife, the former Margaret Grady of New York and his daughter Mary Anne, who enrolled in Dublin High School. His sons were following in his footsteps. John Dennis was serving as an ensign in the South Pacific and Alanson, Jr. who was serving a surgeon in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The Bryans lived in spacious brick home on the hospital grounds. Bryan and his wife immediately became involved in the community affairs of Dublin. Captain Bryan joined the Rotary Club.
Bryan’s red-letter day came on a rainy Monday, January 22, 1945 with the dedication of the $10,000,000.00 dollar Naval Hospital. Bryan worked closely with Commander Louis Dozier, in charge of the building of the hospital, the contractor Beers Construction Company and his executive officer, Commander A.J. Delaney.
During his early months in the completed hospital, Captain Bryan arranged for the visits of Helen Keller and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker to the hospital to help raise the spirits of the patients at the hospitals. Bryan was also instrumental in convincing some of the country’s greatest bands to stop by the hospital during their cross country travels to play unscheduled performances for his patients.
Within four years of his departure from the Naval Hospital, Captain Bryan died on October 5, 1950 at the Naval Hospital in San Diego, where he has spent many years during his thirty plus year career in the Navy. He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, some 2300 miles down the road from where he oversaw the establishment of Dublin Naval Hospital.