Francisco (Frank) Scozzari Adamo came from a family so poor that he began work in Ybor City cigar factories before he was in his teens — yet he rose to be an internationally recognized physician and a hero of World War II. He was one of the few doctors to survive the ordeals of Bataan and Corregidor, the war’s first battles early in 1942. Taken captive when Corregidor fell, he went on to treat thousands of prisoners of war in the Philippines, and his innovative use of sulfa saved lives and limbs. He was liberated by American troops in February 1945 and received a hero’s welcome back home; a section of Highway 60 in East Tampa is named for him.
Adamo Drive, the street named for Francisco Adamo, usually is pronounced “Adam-o,” but it should be “A-damh-o,” with the accent on the middle syllable. That would reflect the Italian-speaking origin of Frank Adamo, who was the son of immigrants from Sicily. He was born on January 20, 1893, less than a decade after the 1885 creation of Ybor City and its cigar factories. His parents were Maria Leto and Giuseppe Scozzari, but no one knows how or why that name was changed to Adamo. Frank was the second of four children, including two sisters, Francesca (b. 1888) and Angelina (b. 1897) and, and one brother, Phillip (b. 1901).
Sicilians usually had the lowest-paid jobs in the cigar industry, and like many Florida children of his era – white, black, or Latino – he had almost no education. Even though a school “year” was a mere sixteen weeks at that time, no child labor laws yet existed, nor any laws on mandatory school attendance. Indeed, a 1908 report showed that Florida had 217,000 school-age children, but 87,000 never attended at all, and only 17,000 had gone beyond the fifth grade.
Somehow though, Frank Adamo earned the ability to travel beyond his place in life. When all Tampa cigar factories went on strike in 1910 and no work was available, the 17-year-old left home. Although he spoke little English, he ended up in Chicago and supported himself while earning a high-school diploma and going on to the University of Chicago. Nine years after leaving Tampa, in 1919, he graduated from Rush Medical Institute, which is named for Dr. Benjamin Rush, a pioneer of medical education.
Dr. Adamo returned home, and according to historian Gary Mormino, complained of Tampa’s heat after living in Chicago. The weather doubtless was even more of an adjustment for his bride, Euphemia, a nurse from Scotland’s Orkney Islands. He was appointed medical director of Centro Asturiano Hospital in 1932 and was named the county’s medical director in 1937; later, he would be elected president of the Hillsborough County Medical Association.
He enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1923, probably for the extra income, as there was no compulsory military service in the 1920s. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1939 and was called to active duty in November 1940, well before the United States entered World War II in December 1941. That declaration of war, of course, was caused by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in what then was the Territory of Hawaii. Japan had conquered much of Asia by then, and he was in the thick of combat as soon it began. Indeed, in a story about military life in the Philippines, Life magazine pictured a shirtless Dr. Adamo early in 1941, many months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He was at the Army’s Sternberg General Hospital in Manila when enemy troops invaded on Christmas Day. Some Americans were taken captive immediately, while others evacuated to the Bataan Peninsula of Luzon Island. A nurse who managed to escape to Australia wrote in the August 1942 issue of Collier’s magazine about conditions on Bataan: “We had from eight to nine hundred victims a day,” she said, and “worked continuously amid the flies and heat and dust.”
Supplies were so scarce that medical personnel donated their own blood for patients, and at the end, a full day’s ration of food was “a few slivers of mule meat served with a half cup of rice.” On April 9, with the Japanese only a few hundred yards away from their jungle “hospital,” they evacuated again – and the lucky made it across the nearby water to the giant rock of Corregidor. There, Dr. Adamo worked in an underground hospital, where, according to a September 1942 article in Life: “There were too many people. Several times the power plant was hit… It was pretty ghastly feeling the shock of [bomb] detonations and never knowing when we would be in total darkness.” To celebrate their emperor’s birthday on April 29, Japanese planes dropped as many as 100 bombs per minute.
Through all of this, Dr. Adamo, who was described as “slight” in size, calmly led medical personnel in doing the best they could for patients – and was a stellar example to other doctors. One of them, William N. Donovan, MD, who held the rank of captain, would say in his memoirs:
“I got dysentery, and I tell you I really had it… I was passing blood… Col. Frank Adamo started me on sulfadiazine (nobody had ever used it for dysentery, and it worked beautifully…
On Corregidor… I know of one occasion at least when they [Japanese commanders] let an American doctor treat a Jap soldier. That was Colonel Frank Adamo, who was a very fine surgeon, and a hell of a fine fellow, too. One of the Japs had acute appendicitis and the Jap doctor was going on to operate on him, but he let Adamo assist him. The Jap started out holding the scalpel the way you would hold a knife, and he made the incision as if he were stabbing somebody; he went down and he yanked at some organ but he couldn’t find the appendix, so Adamo actually had to do the whole thing. Adamo reached in and pulled it out and tied it off – he took the appendix out and sewed the patient up. Colonel Adamo was very well liked by everybody. He was a very slick surgeon, very good.”
The Japanese gave up on occupying Corregidor and sent most captured Americans back to Luzon, where Dr. Adamo continued his work with prisoners of war. Patients then were not likely to be combat casualties, but instead suffered from the effects of malnutrition, overcrowding, and poor sanitation — diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and beri-beri. Prisoners in these camps were reduced to eating anything they could find, and Colonel Adamo’s weight dropped to 95 pounds.
Many were near death from starvation when American planes began to appear in the fall of 1944. Precisely dropped bombs indicated that U.S. intelligence had done its job well: With the exception of December 24, 1944, when planes dropped Christmas cards, POW camps were not attacked. Damage to the Japanese occupiers, however, was enough that Japan surrendered the Philippines in early February 1945. Although the war in the Pacific would continue until September, Dr. Adamo was freed about four years after his arrival in the Philippines.
During all this time, Euphemia Adamo had heard from Frank just once: A three-line-message sent via the Red Cross saying only, “I am well.” He was home by April 27, though, when Tampa celebrated “Frank Adamo Day” with a parade, and the former First Avenue of Ybor City was renamed for him. Today that 7-mile segment of State Road 60 reaches from there to Faulkenberg Road in Brandon. His military decorations included the prestigious Legion of Merit, which was awarded in 1943, while he still was a prisoner.
Dr. Adamo returned to practicing surgery and was voted the “most popular doctor” at Centro Asturiano Hospital in 1960. He retired in 1973 at age 80, but lived another fifteen years, dying at age 95 in the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa on June 24, 1988. His funeral was at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, and he is buried at Garden of Memories in East Tampa. According to his obituary, he was survived by a daughter, Mary Frances Robertson of Coral Gables, as well as eight grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.
Contemporary magazine sources include Eunice C. Hatchitt, “Bataan Nurse,” Collier’s, August 1, 1942; Frances Long, “Yankee Girl,” Life, September 7, 1942; Melville Jacoby, “Taking Care of the Wounded on Bataan’s Front,” Life, February 16, 1942. The autobiography of a colleague, William N. Donovan, POW in the Pacific, has references to Adamo, and USF’s Dr. Gary Mormino features him in “Learn the Fascinating Story Behind the Street’s Namesake,” Tampa Tribune, July 18, 2010. See also related entries in Doris Weatherford, American Women in World War II: An Encyclopedia (2010).