A Memorial Day salute to the WWII service of Jewish St. Louisans


Main Headquarters staff of 21st General Hospital – April 1945

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

An estimated 550,000 Jews served in the United States armed forces between 1941 and 1945, according to the Jewish Welfare Board. As Memorial Day approaches, the Jewish Light salutes the Jewish St. Louisans who served during World War II.

Base Hospital 21

The United States officially entered World War II on Dec. 8, 1941. Two months later, 55 officers were deployed to Fort Benning, Ga., to form Base Hospital 21. It was the successor to the World War I Base Hospital 21 in La Havre, France, which treated 60,000 patients over 18 months until it was demobilized in May 1919.

In early 1942, after several months of stateside training, the troopship SS Mariposa carried Base Hospital 21 personnel to Liverpool, England. From there, the hospital went on a nomadic journey, moving first to Algeria, which was occupied by Free French Forces. The hospital finally admitted its first patient on Dec. 24, 1942. Eventually, it would ramp up to treat an average of 1,750 patients. By the end of 1943, Base Hospital 21 was on the move again, this time to Naples, Italy. Its third and final stop was Miercourt, France, where the 21st   General Hospital was established from Oct. 21, 1944, to Sept. 12, 1945.

Main Headquarters staff of 21st General Hospital - April 1945
Main Headquarters staff of 21st General Hospital – April 1945

Cytologist (and violin aficionado) Harry Agress

Base Hospital 21 was notable for another reason. Most of the officers who staffed it came from Barnes Hospital and Washington University School of Nursing. A number of the medical personnel was also Jewish, including Capt. Lawrence Milton Shefts and Lt. Col. Harry Agress Sr.

Agress was a likeable, respected St. Louis doctor who was 38 years old when he was stationed at Base Hospital 21. He was born in St. Louis in 1908 and graduated from Washington University in 1932. After a residency at Jewish Hospital and graduate study at the University of Minnesota, Agress entered private practice in 1936.

Like his colleagues at Base Hospital 21, Agress was a medical professional by trade, not a soldier. 

It’s easy to imagine Agress and his colleagues as dedicated doctors with an unorthodox approach to the military, not unlike the crew of the fictional 4077th “M*A*S*H” unit on the TV show of the same name. In a passage from an oral history at the Washington University School of Medicine Becker Library, Agress said:

“I might say that the Army had more trouble with us than we had with them. We had a bunch of really fine medical men … and we had fine, trained people. But they also happened to be characters.”  

Agress’ son, Harry Agress Jr., a retired radiologist who lives in New York, said: “These guys had guts. This whole group from Barnes, Jewish and Washington University Medical School — doctors, nurses, staff — they created this entire unit. They were right near the German border, less than 200 miles from the Battle of the Bulge.”

Base Hospital 21 was a general hospital that treated wounded Allied troops and, from time to time, German POWs.

“It had to be a pretty strange thing to know that someone you’re operating on may have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews,” Agress Jr. said. “(The staff) just acted as doctors, and they were there to take care of people. They did their duty. They really were the greatest generation. They didn’t like to brag about it or talk about it. And my guess is it was also horrendous, what they saw in the hospital.”

Agress Sr., in an attempt to buoy the morale of his staff, regularly organized special dinners in the mess hall and, on one memorable occasion in 1941 while the hospital was in Naples, he arranged for a special concert after another officer picked up a new arrival from the U.S. In the Becker Library oral history, Agress recalled the other officer telling him:

“‘Hey, Colonel, I got a fellow, his name is Heifer, or something like that. He plays a fiddle, and the guys over at the airport told me he’s just arriving fresh from the United States. What do you think?’

“I said, ‘Just bring him by.’ So I had just finished dinner and I was sitting in the lab and in walks Jascha Heifetz with his accompanist. We just sent word out that there was going to be entertainment tonight. … Heifetz didn’t know what the hell to do. He was shaking. I said, ‘Just be Heifetz. Just go out there and play.’ So he played and they wouldn’t let him get off the stage. They tore the handles off the seats and banged them just to keep him on. Finally, I waved to him, ‘Come on, I think you’ve had enough.’ But it was a great experience to have people like that come through.” 

Agress happened to be a violin aficionado, so he knew Heifetz was a rare find in the middle of the war. 

In addition to his social duties, Agress was a pioneer in medical practices, especially transfusions.

His son said: “They would give transfusions to a limited number of soldiers who were going to have surgery. He pushed to have them get transfused well in advance of the surgery. It turned out to be a major, major good move. What they did got transferred into public knowledge and general medical surgical approaches later on. They did as many as 132 transfusions in a day, which was unheard of, a massive number of transfusions. And it turns out that if you transfuse these severely injured soldiers and gave them more blood and plasma before they were operated on, they did much better. That was a major discovery. That’s what hospitals do all over the United States now. And that’s where it came from.”

Remembering Uncle Len

Leonard Hulbert (far left) and fellow B-24 pilots
Leonard Hulbert (far left) and fellow B-24 pilots

Laura Goldmeier was named after her Uncle Leonard Hulbert (her parents chose a name that began with L). But Goldmeier never met her uncle. He was killed in World War II, before she was born. 

Goldmeier, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona and a 2021 Jewish Light Unsung Hero, has always been interested in history, and she has researched Leonard Hulbert.

“Leonard was a tailgunner in a B-24 Liberator,” Goldmeier said. “Its name was the Lady Eve. On their third mission, they were bombing oil refineries near Dortmund, Germany, and the plane was shot down over Garbek.”

Laura Goldmeier shows her Uncle Len’s photo.
Laura Goldmeier shows her Uncle Len’s photo.

Hulbert, known as Len to his friends and family, was the youngest of three brothers who served in the military. The oldest, Dave, survived the war. He was slated to go to mainland Japan when President Harry Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The middle Hulbert brother was Bernard, a doctor who was stationed at the hospital in Fort Riley, Kan., as the admitting officer.

Bernard Hulbert was Goldmeier’s father. He was close with Len and had a hard time talking about his brother after the war. He also kept a couple of letters from Len, but it was painful for him to read them, so he stuck them in a closet. Bernard died in 1998. Eventually, Laura Goldmeier asked her mother, Gertrude, about the letters. She knew the family kept them, but she wasn’t sure where. Gertrude Hulbert died in 2021, and while cleaning out a closet, Goldmeier and her brother found two of Uncle Len’s letters.

They offered a glimpse into the peculiarities of military life and reflected Len’s sense of humor. Ona passage that said that Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida was “almost like a vacation, except we have to get up at 5 in the morning.” In another description of his company striking a base (removing cots, weapons and other equipment), Len wrote that it was “no problem for strong (?) young men like us.”

Among the correspondence was a grim letter from the Department of Defense indicating that Leonard Hulbert was declared missing in action. It suggested that there were survivors from the Lady Eve and that families shouldn’t give up hope. Goldmeier said that letter is difficult for her to read, but the ones from her uncle helped her gain a better understanding of him.

She also posted a note on the B-24 Liberator website that said, “how proud I was of Leonard and how honored I was to be named after him.”