Earlier this year, when people were still going to the movies without fear of contagion, my wife and I spent an afternoon with “1917,” the big blockbuster about soldiers on a suicide mission in World War I. That got me thinking again — and writing again — about Dr. Brinsfield King, a Louisiana WW I veteran I’d first profiled decades ago.
With movies like “1917” bringing more attention to the sacrifices of WWI warriors, as I had mentioned in a column back in February, maybe it was time to remember the heroism of men like King, who was 100 years old when we met for a 1986 feature story. He died the following year, one among a handful of surviving WWI veterans then rapidly receding from the scene.
Americans don’t think much about that conflict, known in its time as “the war to end all wars.” LSU’s Memorial Tower was built to honor Louisiana soldiers who lost their lives in the war, but it’s a safe bet that thousands of students who have walked by the tower have no idea of the war — and the valor — that inspired it.
Valor was something King knew about. Fresh from medical school, he went to France to help mend wounded soldiers. “When the men went over the top,” King said of the trenches, “the medical officers went with them with nothing but Red Cross bands on their arms for protection. … When your head got above trench level, you’d hear machine guns firing. Zip! Zip! Zip!”
But what I failed to mention in February’s column, since space wouldn’t allow it, was another occasion in which King rose up to fight an enemy, though he was completely unshielded from the danger around him.
Like many medical professionals of his time — like many medical professionals in our present moment — King was called upon to treat patients suffering from a deadly virus, risking his own life in the bargain.
Back then, it was the great influenza epidemic that would eventually claim more lives than those lost in the battlefields of World War I. “You would see soldiers in the morning, and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with them,” King told me. “By that night, they were damn near dead.”
As he treated his comrades, King got sick, too. “I slept in the wreck of a schoolhouse building, and it was raining,” he recalled. “I took fever. I didn’t have a bad case of it, so I kept working. I was the only one left of eight doctors. The rest were down sick.”
The conditions were grueling. “We put them out in a field in tents,” King said. “They were out there four or five days, running temperatures of 105.”
When we get through today’s pandemic, it will be because healers like King pulled us through. Maybe, after this is over, Louisiana can build a monument to them, too.