Saluting a Veteran Who Served Her Country and Cared for Its Soldiers

When most people think of Veteran’s Day, they think of those in our military who fought in our armed services.  Since becoming a national holiday in 1938, Americans have honored those who served in the military, particularly those who are still living.

I have written previously about my Dad’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II as well as that of my other uncles who also fought in that War.  But I’ve barely touched on another who’s service was equally as important and heroic, that of my mother-in-law.  I thought this year, I’d salute her.

Looking every bit fresh off the farm, Elaine was only in her early 20s when she signed up to go overseas with the Army Nursing Corps during World War II.

Elaine signed up after graduating from nursing school in Kansas.  She had grown up on a small farm in the western part of the state and as far as I know, hadn’t been that far from home except perhaps for a visit or two to family living in Topeka.  But upon finishing her nurse’s training, she joined others in her 36th General Hospital unit and the troops bound for Africa and the War aboard the U.S.S. Harry Lee, a converted banana freighter (thanks to my brother Brad for this detail).  Also on that very ship was my own father, was a 22-year-old farm boy from the opposite side of the state.  Their oceanic crossing was in the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic.

My mother-in-law and my father never met on that journey. In fact, they didn’t discover that they had  both served in the 5th Army until after my husband and I were married.  The two traded ‘war’ stories one afternoon while sitting at the kitchen table in my mother-in-law’s Arizona home.

The troops disembark from the ship.

As they talked, they were surprised to learn that not only had they shipped out together, but that they virtually followed one another throughout the Italian campaign.  Of course, my father’s chemical battalion was at the very front of fighting, laying down mortar shell cover so that the infantry could advance.  Elaine, on the other hand, was at the rear, in the field hospital, assisting in surgeries and tending those who had been injured in battle.  My father once told me he was certain that some of those from his ‘outfit’, who came down with malaria, had turned up in her hospital.

Like many veterans from World War II, Elaine didn’t talk about her war experiences, at least not when I was around. I regret that I didn’t ask her more about it before she died 22 years ago. I know that she was a Lieutenant in rank. All the women nurses were officers primarily so that the enlisted men couldn’t ‘fraternize’ with them.  As such, they had access to the ‘officers’ club and enjoyed other privileges that came with the rank.  Those small ‘perks’ were not many and offered little in exchange for the endless and tireless work that they did to try to save the lives of those who arrived daily from the front lines.

Her hospital unit trailed my own father’s route, starting in Africa, then up to Sicily, the southern coast of Italy to the interior until they finally liberated Rome.  She, like my Dad, was also in France for a while but never entered Germany as he did.  I wish now that I knew more.

My mother-in-law was one of the nurses for the 36th Division General Hospital during World War II. Don’t know the location of this photo.

I have learned a little from a file in the 36th General Hospital collection at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. “…After first being shipped to Algeria, the 36th was ordered to Caserta, Italy in October of 1943. Established in the rear of the Fifth Army, the hospital had an average daily census of 1,800 patients. In June of 1944 a Texas hospital unit was added to the 36th to make it a 2,000 bed facility. The
hospital followed the allied invasion forces north into France and was located successively at Aix-en-Province, Dijon, and Garches. The unit was deactivated at Baston in November of 1945. During its 3 1/2 years of service the 36th had treated over 45,000 sick and wounded and received two decorations.”

Unfortunately, my husband and I never heard stories from her about the War and I wasn’t quick enough to take notes the day she and my Dad were exchanging memories.

Elaine was invited by a friend from ‘back home’ to take a plane ride during her wartime tour.

I recall her telling about the time that a pilot whom she knew from Kansas, invited her for a ride in the plane to which he was assigned.  He was flying to pick up some supplies and asked Elaine, who had the day off or requested it, if she’d like to go along.  It was ‘loud,’ she said about her seat in the bombardier window of the aircraft.  The photo of her taken on that day shows her wearing big lace-up boots obviously too large for her feet, a military overcoat and gloves and a tentative smile.  Whether this picture was taken before or after the trip I don’t know.  Despite what must have been a cold, loud and probably bumpy flight, she said had had a good time.  I can imagine that any break from a day of hospital duty would have been welcome.

Her other photos show places where she visited or was stationed.  The cathedral at Rheims in France seems to have made a huge impression on this Catholic-raised young woman from the central U.S. as several photos are from her visit there. In southern Italy, she saw the isle of Capri which also enchanted her. Like so many of the soldiers and service personnel at that time, seeing places that one had only read about in books must have seemed like a  dream.  Sadly, the circumstances under which they found themselves made it much more like a nightmare.

Elaine, on the far left end, and others from her hospital unit at the cathedral in Rheims, France.

Upon returning to the States, Elaine stayed in nursing working for the hospitals of the Veteran’s Administration in Arizona until finally retiring.  I never ‘thanked’ her for her service and am sure that few did.  She was an excellent nurse, precise, kind, caring and thorough.  She was just the sort of person you’d want tending to your wounds.  No doubt  those war years left her with many memories that she preferred to forget.  She did what she felt she had to do for her country and those fighting for it. Her skills and knowledge were essential at a time when nurses were rarely respected or acknowledged. I am grateful for what she did.

This Veteran’s Day I want to posthumously recognize her, along with all the other nurses who like her served our country, for the sacrifices they made and hardships they endured, to provide medical care to the troops. Without them, far fewer would have returned home to be honored later on Veteran’s Day.

An ‘official photo’ of Elaine’s Army Nursing Corps in a Victory Parade. The location isn’t identified on her photo but an arrow indicates where Elaine is in the group.

 

Autumn Shows Off University Sculpture Garden

The crisp, clear autumn days of the Pacific Northwest draw you outdoors to garden, hike or just take a walk, as I did one recent Sunday.  I borrowed my neighbor’s dog, Tuppie, and together we strolled down the hill and onto the campus of Western Washington University (WWU).  WWU is a beautiful setting this time of year for a leisurely walk.  It’s a long campus that stretches across 220 acres and backs up against the 620-foot hill of Sehome Arboretum this time of year, the deciduous trees of the arboretum turn a golden yellow and are stunning against the deep color of the towering evergreens.

The campus is full of color too as the trees there, set against the red brick and brown stone buildings, are vibrant reds, oranges and yellows and shed their leaves to carpet the walkways through the commons.

“The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty” by Richard Beyer overlooks the commons at Western Washington University with the Old Main Administration building in the background.

I’m fortunate to live close to campus so that on weekends, when the campus is quiet and crowd free, I can take a relaxing walk through it.  The university is home to one of the finest college contemporary outdoor sculpture collections in the United States.  Founded in 1960, the collection has grown to include at least 37 public sculptures in large part due to funding from the state’s one percent for art program the National Endowment for the Arts and through the generosity of the Virginia Wright Fund.

Richard Serra’s massive iron sculpure Wright’s Triangle frames a golden tree on WWU’s campus.

Scattered throughout the campus are monumental works by such renown sculptors as Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Beverly Pepper, Nancy Holt and Tom Otterness. It’s amazing to be able to amble through at one’s leisure, stopping along the way to study and view these public art pieces.  Autumn is an especially wonderful time to admire and photograph them because the rich colors of the season seemed to bring out the weathered patinas of the works.

On this particular autumn day, I decided to photograph some of them even though I had only the camera on phone with which to do it. (Poor planning on my part.) Seeing them against the autumn palette of the campus trees and vegetation painted vivid images. Tuppie, my black and white canine companion on this day, was patient as I squatted, knelt down, backed up and moved in and out searching for the best angle that would convey what I was seeing.  Fortunately, she was happy enough to sniff out the surrounding territory as I was angling about.

One of the charming figures from Tom Otterness’ sculpture, “Feats of Strength,” found in Western Washington University’s outdor sculpture collection.

I have personal favorites in the collection:  Tom Otterness’ goonie-like figures of his “Feats of Strength,” Nancy Holt’s  beautiful Celtic-like brown stone “Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings,” Richard Serra’s massive iron wedges of his “Wright’s Triangle,” and Alice Aycock‘s archeological influenced “The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling.”  But the one I go back to time and again is unquestionably Noguchi’s “Skyviewing Sculpture” that’s prominently positioned in the northeastern corner of what is known as “Red Square” on campus.

Noguchi’s “Skyviewing Scultpure” is one of my favorite pieces in the WWU outdoor sculpture collection.

Red Square is an expansive red brick plaza surrounded on three sides by classroom buildings on three sides and the university’s library on one.  Near the center is a big circular pool with a fountain that sprays jets of water high overhead. Noguchi’s big iron block sculpture sits diagonally from the fountain.  It’s balanced on three corners with huge holes punched through its three upward-facing sides so that when standing beneath it your gaze is directed skyward. There’s something very hopeful to me about this sculpture because it raises you up, just by unconsciously forcing you to look upward.  I love standing inside, watching the clouds above shift and change.  And when you’re within the sculpture, it’s as if you’re observing everything outside of it unseen as people pass by.

“For Handel” by Mark di Suvero sits on the plaza in front of the university’s fine arts building.

The newest addition to the collection is a split boulder, polished on its two faces and dotted with subtle pastel dots that remind me of the colors I saw at Arizona’s Grand Canyon.  “Split Stone, Northwest,” by Sarah Sze was installed in May, 2019.  It sits on the grassy lawn with the university’s Old Main Administration building rising in the background. At one time, another sculpture, Donald Judd‘s “Untitled” stood near here but was removed five years ago to be restored after the welded seams that held together the structure’s steel slabs began to deteriorate. The sculpture has just recently been resited on campus, on the grassy area next to the university’s Flag Plaza at the south end of the campus. I have yet to see it in its new spot as this autumn walk took place before the piece was replaced.

The burning orange leaves of the tree as seen through Lloyd Hamrol’s “Log Ramps” looked to me like a campfire.

One hour after I had set out with Tuppie for a 30-minute dog walk, I was back home, refreshed by having taken the time to not only stop at some of the sculptures but to capture them in the morning autumn light and color.  Even though I have taken that same path many times over, today’s was like a new adventure.  It’s the impact that public art, like this university’s incredible collection, can have on a person.

Alice Aycock’s sculpture “The Islands of the Rose Apple Tree is Surrounded by the Oceans of the World for You, Oh My Darling” is tucked on the lawn beside the Science, Math and Technology Education building.