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A soldier’s battle with spinal meningitis and polio

November 11, 2016 GMT

When Devon Price was drafted by the United States Marines Corps near the conclusion of World War II, he ended up fighting for his life. But his battle was quite different than the ones being fought in Europe and the South Pacific at the time.

Just as he was starting a promising military career in 1945, he was stricken with spinal meningitis and polio.

Price’s remarkable journey began when he was born on Sept. 13, 1926 in Malad. He spent part of his youth in Lava Hot Springs, but when his father’s bakery went under, the family moved back to the town of his birth.

Now 90 years old and living in Ogden, Utah, Price remembers his childhood as fondly. It was a time when he would go to school, work on his father’s farm and play basketball and softball at Malad High School.

“Pocatello and Preston were always the big guns in our basketball league, but we tried,” Price laughs. “I always had to walk 7 miles back to our ranch after basketball practice. I never complained.”

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With his athletic pursuits and his physical work on the family farm, Price was certainly fit enough for military service when he was drafted in early 1945 at the age of 18. After basic training, he was assigned to advanced training at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. He remembers being assigned to a tent in the desert with three other Marines.

“They showed me where my tent was, and there was this long stick right by the door,” he said. “I asked, ‘What’s that for?’ They said ‘You’ll find out.’”

The desert landscape was filled with deadly rattlesnakes, and the stick was for routinely used to kick them out of the tents.

“There were thousands of them all over,” Price said. “One day we killed 19 rattlesnakes in a pillbox.”

Despite the issue with the snakes, his superiors saw a future U.S. Marine Corps officer in the making.

“I got a score of 320 out of 340 on the rifle range,” he said. “I don’t think the record still stands, but I was told it was the second highest score in 1945.”

Because of his high marks on the exams, Price was selected to serve in the tank battalion. On his first day of training, his superiors chose him to be the first recruit to drive the tank. He was a bit apprehensive at first because it was the first tank he had ever seen that wasn’t in a photograph or newsreel.

But once he sat in the driver’s seat, he noticed that the dials and gauges were almost identical to the ones on the trucks and the tractors he used to drive on his family farm. On his very first try, Price had no problem maneuvering the giant vehicle.

“I made an impression on the whole bunch,” he said. “My superior said ‘You just became a tank instructor with what you showed us.’”

Though Price was still an enlisted solider, his new position of tank instructor awarded him privileges normally reserved for second lieutenants. It was a rank many of his superiors believed was destined for the 18-year-old kid from Malad.

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However, soon after being awarded the new position, Price fell ill. He broke out in a fever that ultimately peaked at 107 degrees. He still went to work that day, because U.S. Marines weren’t allowed to take sick days back then. But he was so sick that he couldn’t instruct.

His commanding officer then ordered him to go to the doctor. When Price walked through the door to the sick bay, he lost consciousness and collapsed. He wouldn’t awake for 11 days.

During those 11 days, Price said he lost 60 pounds and was soon diagnosed with spinal meningitis. He was declared a lost cause by the doctors. The military even called his parents in Southeast Idaho and told them to come to California to say their final goodbyes to their son.

Luckily, the doctors told his wife Hope that they had a then-experimental treatment they could use on Price. It was the drug Penicillin, which they used on the tank instructor as he lied on his death bed.

“They injected the Penicillin with cow needles, every two hours, every day, for quite a few weeks,” he said. “Long story short, that worked. I was a miracle man.”

Though he was in rough shape, Price started to make a quick recovery. But just as the U.S. Marine was about to get back on his feet, he developed a nasty Penicillin rash and started to have unbearable pains in his legs. The doctors soon had another devastating diagnosis for the 18-year-old — polio.

“Have ever seen a Marine cry?” he said. “Believe me, I cried for six nights in horrible pain.”

Then one day, something odd happened. It took a few minutes to figure out, but he said it soon dawned on him — the pain in his legs had stopped. That was because the polio had now robbed him of most of the mobility in his legs.

“My legs were gone,” he said. “They put a full-length mirror on me, and I just cried. By then I only weighed 120 pounds.”

His entire stay in the hospital lasted four months. Afterwards, with the war coming to a close, Price was given an unlimited furlough so he could go home and recover.

Despite being hit with two devastating illnesses over the course of a few months, Price said there were two silver linings. It effectively ended his career as a U.S. Marine. But because the illnesses occurred while he was on duty, the military paid for his hospital bills, which Price estimated to be around $50,000, a gargantuan amount of money in 1945.

“If I had gotten sick and I wasn’t in the Marines at the time, that hospital bill would have sunk my dad,” he said.

The second silver lining was that it kept him from being killed in combat. While he was in the hospital, his tank battalion was ordered overseas to fight in the Battle of Okinawa, the final major conflict of WWII. However, Price was too sick to go and was left behind.

During his hospital stay, one of the other instructors visited him and told him some shocking news involving a tank battle that cost the U.S. Marine Corps dearly.

“It was hearsay, but my friend said we lost 66 tanks and 161 men in that slaughter,” he said. “I would have been the 162th. I didn’t see the massacre, but I believed him.”

Price regained some mobility as he recovered in Malad and eventually went back to active duty. But because of his disability, the Marines gave him a simple assignment — guarding a few boxes at Camp Pendleton. In 1947, he was honorably discharged.

Afterwards, he settled back into his old life in Southeast Idaho and Northern Utah with his wife Hope and their daughter, Jeannette. It was his love of basketball that helped him regain mobility in his legs.

His LDS church had started a basketball team and the bishop implored Price to play. Though hesitant at first, Price took the bishop up on his offer. As he played games against other teams across the region, he became more and more mobile.

“We didn’t have therapy like we have now, but I eventually got over it,” he said. “It was a terrible ordeal. But I didn’t complain. I was alive.”

His wife Hope died in 1953, and he married Mary Allen Castleton a few years later and helped raise her daughter Tamara. He has multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Jeannette, who currently lives in Pocatello, said she is working on a book and a screenplay about her father’s illnesses and remarkable recovery. She imagines that if the screenplay was produced by Hollywood, she would like to see a sentimental actor like Tom Hanks play her father.

“My father has defied the odds,” she said. “It has been quite a story.”