On Nov. 13, 2021, DMU presented a collection of books on World War I military medicine to the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center, a Des Moines institution that represents two significant and extraordinary events in U.S. military history: Built in 1901, Fort Des Moines was the site of the U.S. Army’s first and only officer candidate training school for African American men in 1917. Twenty-five years later, during World War II, it hosted the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later renamed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), where the Army’s first female officers earned their commissions.
“We are pleased to donate this collection of U. S. Army Medical Department books to the Fort Des Moines Museum. Given the groundbreaking history of Fort Des Moines as the U.S. Army’s first and only officer candidate training school for African American men as well as where the Army’s first female officers received their commissions, I feel honored to contribute to the lasting legacy of ‘being the first,’” said DMU President and CEO Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D. “Fort Des Moines’ history is rich with providing opportunities for those who may not have been given those opportunities before.”
A letter of transmission from the Surgeon General to the Secretary of War on the opening page of the collection’s first volume describes the series both as “the permanent written record of the accomplishments of the Medical Department in the war, thus rendered available for study with a view to the betterment of that department for the future, and also as a contribution to medical science” and an honor to those who did that work – the men and women of the Army Medical Department. The 16-volume collection delves into a wide variety of war-related medical issues and corresponding treatments to share medical officers’ experiences and expertise.
DMU’s donation of the books came about when Larry Marquardt, M.L.S., retired director of the DMU Library, contacted President Franklin. He recalled that the University had two sets of the collection and asked whether DMU would consider donating one of them to the Fort Des Moines Museum. President Franklin agreed it would be more than fitting because of the museum’s educational mission and the significance of the fort, including:
- In response to America’s entry into World War I, Fort Des Moines graduated 639 men as commissioned officers in October 1917.
- Most of these men served in France; when they returned to the United States, many went on to become civil rights leaders.
- More than 100 doctors and 12 dentists were commissioned as the first African American medical officers in the Army at the fort in 1917.
- During World War II, Fort Des Moines trained 72,000 troops and commissioned the first female officers for non-combat duty.
- Among the 436 initial WAAC officers were 39 black women who graduated as 3rd officers (2nd lieutenants) in 1942 and served in England and France in 1945.
- Fort Des Moines produced 118 black female officers and 3,656 enlisted women by the war’s end.
“We strive to preserve, promote, protect and perpetuate the fort’s history to honor those who served years ago and who serve today,” said Matthew Harvey, an Army veteran and president of the Fort Des Moines Museum Board. “The museum can inspire current and future generations to appreciate how we all can participate and serve. Its history can instill a sense of service greater than service to oneself.”
The Nov. 13 event was attended by representatives of Iowa’s two U.S. senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst. In conjunction with DMU’s donation of the books, a team from the Boston Legacy Foundation presented its impending project: a comic book based on the life of Dr. Frank Erdman Boston, an African American World War I veteran who served at Fort Des Moines. He went on to become one of the first African Americans to establish both a hospital and an ambulance corps, in Pennsylvania, that are still in business and thriving. Among his many achievements, he is thought to be the first African American physician to receive two presidential citations from two U.S. presidents – Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower – for his community work.
“When I learned about Dr. Boston, I felt like I’d found a needle in a haystack,” said George Whitehair, an author and member of the Boston Legacy Foundation team. “He is among the many unknown ‘real’ heroes who don’t have superpowers; they just do super things.”
Celebrating, honoring and raising awareness about such heroes are key parts of the mission of the Fort Des Moines Museum.
“Studying the history of Fort Des Moines allows us to appreciate the things that connect us,” said Matthew Harvey. “We’re all better off knowing the stories of these many unsung heroes.”