Every war seems to bring new challenges to those who provide medical treatment to the armed forces. The Civil War’s soft-lead, conical Minié ball that flattened on contact caused larger, more damaging wounds than the old, solid round balls did. World War I saw new medical challenges from the drastic increase in the size of artillery shells and the use of poison gas and flamethrowers. Vietnam brought Agent Orange and the First Gulf War produced a mysterious malady commonly known as “Gulf War Syndrome” that the Veterans Administration prefers to call “chronic multisystem illnesses.”
World War II brought its own new medical difficulties, not all of them as lethal as those from other wars mentioned above. Among the new phrases in military medical jargon were “jeep disease,” “destroyer stomach,” and “sousaphone backache,” according to a wire service story out of Cincinnati, November 17, 1943; I first came across it in the following day’s Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette. The article said the new ailments were described to the Southern Medical Society, which presumably was holding a conference in or near Cincinnati.
Brigadier General Fred Rankin of the army’s surgeon-general office, blamed “jeep disease” on mechanized warfare, “riding on jeeps, tanks and trucks.” which could cause a cyst near the base of the spine to become inflamed. The cyst itself might be no larger than a pimple.
Some cases were worse than others, of course, and that presented a military quandary. Surgery was often required to remove the “diseased tissue,” according to Dr. Louis A. Buie of Mayo Clinic, but that could require up to 100 days healing time, which would tie up beds needed by men with battle wounds. Surgeons had to decide which cases of jeep disease required the surgery and which would get a couple of aspirin, or some such.
TIME magazine, February 28, 1944, said “Riding in jeeps, touring in tanks and taking the bumps of basic training have caused such an increase in pilonidal-cyst disorders that some doctors call them jeep disease. Cause: an infection of a congenital cyst at the base of a man’s spine. Chief symptom: it hurts to sit down.
“Many a pilonidal cyst is never discovered. Discovery usually results from an infection, or an irritation like a jeep ride or a heavy fall (one doctor calls his lady pilonidal patients ‘basketball girls’).”
TIME’s statement that this was a “congenital cyst” was in line with medical thinking of the time, but Dr. Noorali Bharwani, a general surgeon who writes the “What’s Up, Doc?” column for the Medicine Hat (Alberta, Canada) News, says that belief was challenged in 1946 (the problem was first medically diagnosed in 1847), suggesting it is caused by enlarged hair follicles. There is still no consensus about the cause (“Medical Treatment of ‘Jeep Disease’ Should Be Individualized”).
If jolting rides over rough terrain resulted in jeep disease, seaman had their own problems. The wire service article quoted Lieutenant Commander W.T. Gibb Jr. of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, as saying “destroyer stomach” was a condition “appearing mostly in hospitals that receive men directly off the ships,” and was apparently a form of mild gastritis. (This should not be confused with “stomach destroyer,” which usually involves copious amounts of jalapeño peppers.)
He blamed “frequent seasickness, irregular meals, and constant nervous tension.” Most cases occurred among sailors serving in the choppy North Atlantic, hunting grounds of Nazi U-boats.
Gibb also described a patient in the Navy School of Music who complained of persistent backache, which the patient ascribed to carrying a 50-pound sousaphone. He wanted to switch to clarinet.
The backache continued for several weeks, Gibb said, and the patient was eventually sent back to duty. When next the doctor saw him, the fellow was playing a clarinet in a navy-sponsored show, “and in addition did a ‘jitterbug’ dance which required a tremendous amount of energy over a prolonged period.”
The former patient told the doc he’d never felt better in his life and was doing exactly what he wanted to do.
“Jeep” – To Capitalize or Not to Capitalize, That is the Question
Before closing, allow me to insert an aside here for readers who may be wondering why “jeep” isn’t capitalized in the body of this story. The famous World War II vehicle with that moniker was officially named the Truck, 3 ton, 4×4, or General Purpose (GP) 4×4. Military grunts were already referring to any handy utility truck as a “jeep,” probably taken from Eugene the Jeep, a helpful creature who could appear and disappear at will that was introduced in the Thimble Theatre (Popeye) comic strip in 1936. Soon, however, “jeep” became associated almost exclusively with the rugged little GP 4×4. Essentially a mule with wheels, it could traverse almost any terrain to “magically” appear like Eugene wherever it was needed. The vehicle’s popularity among returning veterans led to production of a civilian line and the trademarking of the name Jeep; hence, its post-war capital J.
(This is based on research I did in multiple sources for “Unarmored Vehicles,” The Encyclopedia of World War II: A Social, Political and Military History, edited by Spencer G. Tucker and published by ABC-CLIO in 2005. For other versions of how the jeep—lower case—got its name, see https://www.morris4x4center.com/blog/origin-of-the-jeep-name/.)