Macarthur’s Last Battle


Throughout his stay with us he never lost his interest in world affairs. The Vietnam War was just beginning to heat up, and he had firm opinions about it, declaring in no uncertain terms that we must not send any more American troops to fight on the mainland of Asia. Mail for him arrived every day, in increasing volume. Soon there were two or more full sacks every morning. Most letters bore the expected address, but several were delivered with only “The Old Soldier” on the envelope, and one, from Australia, with only five stars in a circle.

General Heaton and the other surgeons performed the operation on March 6, 1964. The gallbladder was successfully removed, and the obstructing gallstones were cleared out of the bile ducts. General MacArthur withstood the procedure well, recovering quickly from the anesthesia; his jaundice began to fade, and within fortyeight hours the itching had subsided completely.

Then disaster. At four o’clock on the morning of March 23, bleeding suddenly began from those esophageal veins. Nothing would stop it, and a second operation was necessary. This was successful—the hemorrhage was arrested—but the general’s recovery from the anesthesia was very slow. He seemed to be gaining ground when, six days later, suddenly another crisis developed, a totally unrelated surgical emergency. A third major operation in less than three weeks was more than any eighty-four-year-old patient could tolerate. General MacArthur never fully regained consciousness. He slipped gradually into a coma and died on April 5. Mrs. MacArthur, their son, Arthur, and the general’s friend and World War II aide Maj. Gen. Courtney Whitney were at his side.

An autopsy was carried out immediately. It brought no surprises; we had missed nothing. I am convinced that everything we did was right, but unavoidable complications defeated us. I have heard rumblings of criticism: that it was unnecessary and cruel to have operated on a man of his age three times in such a short period. But what else could we have done? The indications for removal of his gallbladder were very clear. We could not stand by and allow him to bleed to death just to avoid the second operation. Failure to carry out that third procedure would have resulted in certain, agonizing death. It was a terrible disappointment not to have been able to save that gallant man.

Why had he refused for so long surgery to correct what was a rather common condition—gallstones? Certainly he did not lack physical courage, nor did he have an unrealistic fear of pain. Was it because he refused to surrender to the mundane? MacArthur does not scratch.