Hubert John VanPeenen was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on 29 December 1903, son of Hubert Peter VanPeenen, a native of the Netherlands, and the late Mrs. Minnie Lee (Day) VanPeenen. He attended public schools, including Central High School in Kalamazoo, from which he was graduated in 1922. After two years at Kalamazoo College (1922-1924), he attended the University of Michigan Medical School, graduating with the degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1928. At the latter he was a member of the Phi Chi Medical Fraternity. Appointed Assistant Surgeon, with rank of Lieutenant (jg) in the Medical Corps of the US Navy on 5 June 1928, he subsequently advanced to the rank of Captain, to date from 20 July 1943. His selection for the rank of Rear Admiral was approved by the President on 1 August 1955, his date of rank 1 April 1955.
Following his internship at the US Naval Hospital, New York, New York, in 1928-1929, he reported for duty as Junior Medical Officer at the US Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Detached in June 1931, he returned to the United States, and had graduate instruction at the US Naval Medical School, Washington, DC, and a short course in chemical warfare at Edgewood Arsenal, Edgewood, Maryland.
In June 1932 he reported to the Naval Hospital, Pensacola, Florida, for duty in Surgical Service, and after a year’s service in that capacity was transferred to duty as Assistant District Surgeon, District “G”, 4th Corps Area, Fort Barrancas, Florida. During the period September 1934 to June 1936 he was Junior Medical Officer of USS Idaho, operating with Battleship Division 3, Battle Force. He then had a year’s shore duty at the US Marine Corps Recruiting Station, Dallas, Texas, followed by postgraduate instruction in surgery in 1937-1938, at the Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
During the four years prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, he had successive service in Surgery, first at the Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and from 14 July 1940 at the US Naval Hospital, Guam, Marianas Islands. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese (while in the latter assignment) in December 1941, and spent forty-five months as a Prisoner of War (one month at Guam; 41 months at Zentsuji, Shikoku; and three months at Roku Roshi, Honshu, Japan).
“For exceptionally meritorious conduct…while interned as a prisoner-of-war at Zentsuji War Prison Camp on Shikoku Island, Japan, from 1 September 1942 to 23 June 1945…” he was awarded the Legion of Merit. The citation continues:
“The only doctor permitted by the Japanese to give medical treatment to the prisoners, Commander (then Lieutenant Commander) VanPeenen performed numerous major and minor operations, including several appendectomies under difficult and insanitary conditions and with limited equipment, with such skill that all operations were completely successful. Although in weakened condition himself from the same callous treatment and starvation diet accorded the rest of the camp, he fought constantly with the Japanese authorities for the welfare of the prisoners. At the risk of his security and quite possibly his life, he held out and hid from the Japanese valuable equipment ordered turned in and stole from their medicine for the use of the prisoners. By his tact, courage and perseverance in dealing with the unsympathetic and extremely difficult Japanese Medical Department, and by his unstinting efforts on behalf of prisoners of all nationalities, (he) inspired the admiration of all who knew him and sustained the morale and health of all prisoners in the camp…”
He has also been awarded the foreign decoration, Order of Orange Nassau (Grade of Officer) by the Government of the Netherlands.
After his repatriation by the Army on 13 September 1945 and a period of rehabilitation at the Naval Hospital, Great Lakes, Illinois, he was ordered on 29 January 1946 to duty as Chief of Surgery for the Dependents’ Unit, US Naval Hospital, Long Beach, California. He reported for duty on 5 February 1946, and remained there until 31 May 1950. He then served for more than two years as Executive Officer (part of that time as Acting Commanding Officer) of the US Naval Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.
From August 1952 to June 1953 he was a student at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Washington, DC. On 1 July 1953 he reported as Fleet Medical Officer on the staff of Commander in Chief, US Atlantic Fleet, with additional duty on the staff of Supreme Allied Commander. On 1 November 1955, he became District Medical Officer, Third Naval District, with Headquarters in New York, NY, and on 1 December 1958 assumed duty in the Fifth Naval District, his Headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. On 30 November 1959, he was designated Commanding Officer of the US Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia, with additional duty as Fifth Naval District Medical Officer.
In addition to the Legion of Merit and the Netherlands decoration, Admiral VanPeenen had the American Defense Service Medal, with star; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one engagement star; World War II Victory Medal; and the National Defense Service Medal.
He died 6 October 1980 in Long Beach, California and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.