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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.