Leah Bennett Sartin was a navy physician. Between the two world wars, Sartin served many assignments around the country and around the world. After the Second World War was over, Captain Sartin served as the third and last commander of the United States Naval Hospital in Dublin, Georgia. During World War II for more than 480 days, Sartin’s most difficult commission came not from his commanding officers in the Pentagon, but from his Japanese captors, a task which he performed with oustanding effectiveness while under some of the most atrocious dying conditions American prisoners of war ever had to endure.
Leah Bennett Sartin was bo+rn on January 26, 1890 to his parents Dock and Nora Chandler Sartin in the small city of Brookhaven in the north-central region of Mississippi. A graduate Mississippi College at nineteen, Sartin then entered medical school of Tulane University before serving his residency in the Presbyterian Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sartin chose for his bride the beautiful Cecile Menville, whose family operated the Houma Courier in Houma, Louisiana, southwest of New Orleans. During World War I, Sartin served as the physician for the Butterfield Lumber Company, based out of Norfield, Mississippi before joining the navy as a lieutenant at the age of 28 on October 30, 1918, less than two weeks before the end of World War I.
Lieutenant Sartin first major assignment came aboard the U.S.S. Rapidan in 1921. In 1922, he was transferred from Hampton Roads, Virginia to a position with the 3rd Field Hospital of Marine Expeditionary Force in Port Au Prince, Haiti.
The year 1925, saw Lt. Sartin’s transfer to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois as one of the family physicians on the base. After being promoted to Lt. Commander in June 1926, Sartin served in the U.S. Navy’s medical school in Washington, D.C. (1928,) the Navy Yard in Philadelphia (1932,) the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. (1934,) Pearl Harbor Naval Base (1935,) and Long Beach, California before returning home as a commander in charge of the Naval Recruiting Station in New Orleans from 1939 to 1940.
In October of 1940, Commander Sartin and his family sailed for Manilla in the Philippine Islands under the command of the Asiatic Squadron. One day after the bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Japanese military forces launched a fierce invasion of the Philippines. Sartin was captured a few weeks later while he was serving as the Commander of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Canacao.
The first report of Commander Sartin’s capture came into the offices of the International Red Cross on the day after Christmas in 1941. Sartin and some 3200 other prisoners were taken to Prisoner of War Camp # 1 at Cabanatuan near Luzon.
“There was one spigot for 600 men to use to bathe and only for a small number of hours,” Sartin recalled of his first prison camp, where the men ate about an ounce and one half of meat only twice during his eight-week stay.
On May 5-6, 1942, the Japanese army and navy launched an all out assault on the thought to be impenetrable fortress of Corregidor. More prisoners were taken. On May 27, these prisoners were transferred to the Bilibid prison. On May 30, Commander Sartin was placed in command of the Bilibub Prison Hospital by his Japanese captors. Two weeks later, Sartin was promoted to captain.
“My recollection is to the effect that there were between two and three thousand prisoners there at that time. The buildings were old and extremely dilapidated and in an extreme state of disrepair. Plumbing and lighting fixtures had been stripped from the buildings. Sanitary conditions were extremely bad. Prisoners and patients were sleeping on concrete floors," Captain Sartin recalled.
"Hunger, such as Americans in the homeland have never experienced, was always present in Bilibid, and every camp and working detail throughout the Philippines. No person ever had enough to eat," Captain Sartin wrote of the deteriorating conditions in the Bilibid hospital.
Captain Sartin’s staff hastily established a dispensary in an old hospital after discovering that nearly ten dozen prisoners were suffering from malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition. Sartin established a hospital in the center of the compound, which was filled with Filipino civilians. Hospital wards were established in a series of disjointed buildings. Sartin used an old chapel building for an isolation ward, while he fashioned a two-story building into a medical library. Prisoners were put to work immediately to improve sanitary conditions around the area.
In July, the Japanese brought in a 165-man medical team with 26 physicians and 11 dentists - a positive change for what Sartin, affectionately known by his men as “Pappy” called “a filthy degrading hell hole.”
“It sounded like too much to ask, but we did it,” recalled Captain Sartin, whose pleas went unanswered.
Captain Sartin was, in 1946, awarded the Legion of Merit for his “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the government of the United States as Senior Medical Officer and Japanese recognized Commanding Officer of Bilibid Prison while interned as a prisoner of war from May 30, 1942 to September 26, 1943, when he was replaced by Commander Thomas H. Hayes, who was later killed in Formosa.
On February 4, 1945, Captain Sartin and some 513 other prisoners were liberated by American army rangers. After 1130 or more days as a prisoner, Captain Sartin was freed after serving one of the longest terms of internment during the war. After the war, Sartin praised the “magnificent fortitude,” of the American prisoners, who despite their debilitating illnesses, would always turn and take the time to help other prisoners.
“Those rangers who rescued us are really remarkable men and to think that we Americans in the camp didn’t even know of the existence of such an organization,” Sartin proclaimed.
“We never gave up hope of our liberation. Americans are just optimists and we in Cabanatuan were no different,” said Captain Sartin, who was dead tired but managed to make a long march to freedom at the American lines. “Of course, no boy minded that,” the Captain chuckled.
Naturally tired and thin, Sartin was given a 2-month leave of absence before returning to duty. After all, there was still a war going on. Sartin was sent home to visit with his family in Houma, where he gained 25 pounds in less than a month. He returned to duty in New Orleans where he served as Executive Officer of the Naval Hospital in the Crescent City.
Sartin left home one more time, in 1947, to assume command as the final commander of the Naval Hospital in Dublin.
Captain Sartin served at the hospital in Dublin until it was decommissioned in the summer of 1948. Promoted to Admiral, Sartin completed his 30-year career as the Assistant Medical Officer at the New Orleans VA Hospital in the charge of the 8th Naval District back near home in New Orleans, Louisiana when he retired in June 1949.
Admiral Sartin died in a Houston, Texas hospital on March 15, 1966. Cecile Sartin died in 1953. The Sartins are entombed in the mausoleum in Lake Lawn Cemetery in New Orleans.