Total Pageviews

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chapter 1. Off to War

Lady Be Good! suddenly streamed down from a band from up above our gangplank’s single line of olive drab female drudges—the 110 nurses and 5 Red Cross workers assigned to the 95th General Hospital embarking on the Aquitania in early January 1944.  To reach the port, from Camp Kilmer, NJ, on an old railroad track we had to march several blocks loaded with every item we possessed (excluding the footlocker that would be shipped).  We toted unbelievable weight:  we had to wear our warmest wool clothes, plus the GI wool-lined full length raincoat, heavy wool scarf and gloves, 4-buckle rubber galoshes over field boots, our heads topped off with steel helmets and liners, carrying the ditty bags loaded with our travel clothes and personal items on one shoulder and on the other our gas masks in their bags.
“Is this trip necessary?” I wondered for the first time on the adventure (but not the last).  Never, though, did I question my decision to join the war effort except for times of fatigue or extreme physical discomfort.  My Red Cross experience was the most fulfilling work experience of my life.
Volunteering for the Red Cross overseas I had left a well-paying, interesting job in Washington, DC, having advanced rapidly with a public administration MA beyond my BA in political science.  I was working in FPHA which was responsible for providing nationwide emergency housing for wartime workers.
Still in my early 20s I had loved Washington life.  Yet as my peers began signing up for the military I felt downright selfish and unpatriotic; I wanted to be in the middle of the action, not in some indirect effort like housing!  I was accepted as an Ensign in the Navy but learned I’d just work across the Potomac instead of in downtown DC, and for less than current pay.  Except for nurses and for a few women who delivered airplanes to troops, I had learned, only the Red Cross volunteers were allowed in overseas jobs.  At 24 I longed to see the world.  “Who cares about pay or benefits?”
Upon acceptance as a Red Cross worker I had to finish the special training set up at American University by the Red Cross.  There were three categories of Recreation Workers: setting up programs and working with hospital patients, setting up clubs and entertainment for military on leave, and going in “doughnut wagons” close to the actual fighting to provide a moment of “home” for the soldiers.  I chose hospital.
After training in Washington I was sent to an Army Hospital at Hempstead on Long Island for a brief on-the-job period.  And THEN I lolled around for two or three weeks back in Washington in a hotel before my assignment came through.  Maybe that inactivity accounted for my distress walking up that gangplank into the second largest cruise ship afloat at the time to cross the Atlantic alone, without convoy escort.

Chapter 2. North Atlantic

          With luxury long gone, traded for space by the Cunard Line, the Aquitania had been remodeled into a troop ship—and 4 of our 5 Red Cross cadre found ourselves assigned to a tiny space in the hold, with a common bathroom a short walk away.  Our windowless cubby hole of a cabin had an upper and a lower bunk built into each side leaving just enough space to allow one of us at a time to enter and head toward its wash basin.  (Verb chosen carefully because it was a rough winter crossing.)
We 4 were the Assistant Social Worker, 2 Recreation Workers and the Secretary.  Our supervisor, assigned to a different cabin, was the professional Social Worker. Our job would be to try to make life more livable for the GIs.  Red Cross would supply furnishings and equipment and supplies needed to outfit a recreational hall, and such other supplies as razors, soap, toothbrushes, cigarettes and tobacco shipped from the US, or possibly at times from English or French Red Cross headquarters.
We would be expected to facilitate solving any personal problems of the patients and to make life easier for them through setting up recreation facilities and providing recreation activities.  Typically in a General Hospital there would be half ambulatory and half ward-bound patients, 500 each.  We would set up a recreation hall and provide activities, taking supplies to and holding activities in the 10 wards of 100 beds each.  But this Atlantic crossing week, plus a few days, we just tried to keep on our own feet and cheer up each other.
At first we gave no thought to our own safety once landed in England because for some mysterious reason the Germans had not bombed the British Isles for almost a year before we sailed.  By mid-Atlantic, among the high waves, the radio waves brought the unwelcome news that regular bombing and a new buzz bombing had restarted with a vengeance.  There went my chance to see Scotland en route to London where we were to report to our supervising staff at the Red Cross of Great Britain.
We docked in Greenock, Scotland at twilight, gliding into its harbor crusted with sheets of revolting trash.  Overhead the garbage was flying piece by piece into the air in the beaks of thousands of seagulls.  Weighted again in battle dress we boarded the train for London.  In total pitch blackout we spent the crowded night.  Our one stop we mistook for arrival.  Instead we were ushered out into the night where suddenly someone thrust a hot mug of something into my hand.  One sip struck me as the most delicious taste in my life.  “What IS this?” I asked.  An older woman’s voice answered “Tea.”  That sip resulted in my lifetime drinking of teapot-brewed hot tea whitened with evaporated milk and sweetened with sugar.
Grateful for the gift of those older English volunteers to us Americans in the 3 a.m. frigid, damp weather, in the blackout we re-boarded and proceeded to London Town.

Chapter 3. To London

By break of dawn we had eaten breakfast—K Rations, of course.  Nutritious, compact:  crackers and canned meat (Spam), raisins—packed in a cardboard box about the size of the Episcopal Bible typically found in the church pew.  Then, we arrived at Victoria Station.
There we Red Cross Five separated from the military staff of our 95th General Hospital to taxi into the middle of London to Grosvenor Square and the famous old Grosvenor Hotel.  Delighted with our lodging 3 or the 5 of us sprang into action in our comfortable room, having longed for days to rinse the sea salt from our itching bodies and cardboard hair to launder our underwear.  Aah--
Where to hang the wet clothes?  We managed—travel pins and clotheslines in our ditty bags, as specified by the Washington Red Cross, but THEN, how to move around in the room?  Couldn’t.  Just sleep of course.
Startled by the phone call from the desk in early afternoon our lives plunged into disaster—we had to repack and appear at the lobby with all our belongings within minutes.  We had to move to different lodging.  MOVE?  It was the first we learned that in the European Theatre of Operations, the ETO, transient lodging had been set up for each class and rank of the military but none for Red Cross employees.  So we always had to chance having military personnel show up for whatever US-arranged room we might have been assigned, or had to book into a commercial hotel.  The entire Grosvenor Hotel was part of the pre-arranged military lodging.
SO in our action-ready dress as in our railroad walk to the Aquitania, complete with boots and gas masks and helmets over still wet hair, each of us somehow managed to clutch her heavy load of still wet laundry and appear at the Hotel entrance.  The military transport was not in front, so we had to walk a couple blocks, thus burdened, to find Jeeps in the back.  Off we went we knew not where, away across miles of London it seemed, until we found our next abode.
It was a 5-story oversized white shingled substantial but ancient “lodging and meals looking place.”  Our rooms were in the attic, 5 flights up the impressive old stairway.  Probably we hung our laundry up first, but before going to our rooms we were charged by the woman manager to remember exactly what to do if the bomb sirens went off.  “Descend immediately, warmly dressed; wait at the front door for the warden who will lead you to the shelter under the subway a block or so away.”
Our bedroom was spacious, but SO cold.  There was no hot water and no heat (or minimal heat) in our room.  The English gave up those comforts during the War, we found.  That night, without much discussion we each decided to sleep fully clothed—every outerwear garment we had with us over our outing flannel pjs—except for our shoes.
           Sure enough, off the sirens went in the middle of the night.  From the 5 floors of occupants, guess who was the first one to greet the warden at the door?  I was, 5 flights notwithstanding.  For the hour or two in the shelter we occupants found a space to rest our backs against a concrete wall as we tried to sleep sitting on the cold concrete.  In silence except for an occasional child’s lament that first night in England was the only time I went into a shelter.  Not the only time I was in the bombings though.

Chapter 4. London to Bristol

First night overseas survived!  Something I could write about in the “Red Cross Rover,” a column that The Lamar Daily News, my hometown paper had been publishing since I had joined the Red Cross.  The next day at my persuasion, Mary Kate, Master’s degree in social work and about my age, joined me in journeying by train up to Bristol so I could visit my brother, Dr. Neill McGrath.  Having just received his degree in Internal Medicine, he had been stationed in the Army General Hospital, which was staffed completely with medical personnel from his alma mater, the University of Michigan.  I think it was the 91st Army General Hospital.
They were beautifully organized and settled in, complete with medical and surgical services and their well-run Red Cross recreation program. 
After a most pleasant day or two we took the evening train back to London, taxied to our old “boarding house,” arriving about bedtime, very hungry.  Eating on the economy was to be avoided if possible because it took food from the mouths of the English.  No food was offered on a commuter train anyway.  But disaster was ahead.
When we opened the blacked out door we learned the shocking news that the boarding house no longer was our home.  The 3 others of our team had been kicked out, bag and OUR baggage and were miles away across London somewhere.  The landlady said she would start trying to get a taxi for us and offered us any food that we could find in the kitchen while we began the long wait for a taxi.  It was a pitch black night: again buzz bombing expected. In the kitchen there were cold boiled Brussels sprouts, some Brussels sprouts soup we might heat up and a small dish of Brussels sprouts salad.  Nothing else.  So we settled on Brussels sprouts.
Finally we heard a car.  It was a new experience to feel our way into a very small back seat of a miniature sedan with only a middle-aged sounding voice for a driver.  We never did see his face!  The tiny slits of the headlights gave so little light it seemed impossible to see the street.  Mary Kate and I gradually moved closer to each other; we went on and on, it seemed for hours.  Soon we picked up each other’s hands, squeezing tighter and tighter.  At one point we sensed rather than saw that we were driving crammed between two inky, blacker than black, walls barely squeezing through a narrow alley.  None of us made a sound. On and on we went.
Mary Kate and I just clung tighter and tighter to each other.  My mind raced to figure out what to do if I really was turned over to the white slave trade, or forced to spy for Germany, all sorts of horrible outcomes. I can’t recall our arrival.  Obviously we arrived safely, somewhere, unloaded and found our baggage and our buddies safe and sound―with blessed light, though low wattage, in a completely blackened out room with its opaque blackout curtains somewhere in London.
Our next stop was Tidworth, a military post south and west of London where we finally joined our hospital personnel and for the first time accompanied the 500 GIs, nurses, and doctors whose names had been drawn to put together the 1000 bed 95th General Hospital. 

Chapter 5. Final Stop Ringwood

Usual travel for 3 or 4 of us was by GI-driven Jeep; or if joining other riders we sat facing each other on the benches of an Armored Personnel Carrier, sometimes canvas covered, often open.  We drove south and west of London to a staging area about 130 miles, set up on the Salisbury Plain at Tidworth in Wiltshire County.  Unexpectedly my breath was just taken away.  On the roadsides. acres and acres were completely covered with rows of tanks, of Jeeps, of small planes and other olive drab wartime equipment shipped over from the US.  Thousands and thousands of them.
Once at Tidworth we met the General who was the Administrator of the 95th, and the Colonel, his assistant. We were introduced to the 60 doctors, with the Surgery Lt. Col. from Chicago General Hospital and the Medical Lt. Col. from Massachusetts General Hospital.  The Head Nurse of the 110 nurses was a Major.  The nurses came from many different hospitals from large and small cities in the US.  Our Red Cross team of 3 Recreation workers and Secretary was headed by an experienced social worker, Margaret Stewart, from New York City.
At one of our first huddles, she (and we) decided that we must abide by all rules made by the Head Nurse, even though she had no authority over us, and that we should mingle as much as possible with the nurses, and not nurture our own little clique.
In a few days the 95th Gen. got orders to move into its quarters in Ringwood, in Hampshire, about 12 miles north of Bournemouth, the resort city on the Southern Coast of England.  So off drove our long line of Jeeps, personnel carriers and ambulances across the Salisbury Plain and through the large city of Salisbury—with its famous and beautiful 13th century Gothic cathedral.  (I am delighted to recall my first view of Salisbury because I was to learn many years later two romantic bits of knowledge:  first, that the ancient natives chose the city’s location by shooting an arrow and watching where it landed on the Plain and second, that on my father’s side my earliest known English forbears came from Salisbury.)  But the greatest surprise came as our 95th convoy drove on south not far from the city.
What could that immense broken circle of monolithic stones be doing out in that field on the right side of the road?  Just standing there all alone?  I had never heard of Stonehenge.
Soon we started seeing farmlands with charming hedgerows for fences, and inviting little cottages with thatched roofs and then a storybook village, Ringwood, with lanes guided through rows of trees and possibly a pony cart or two.  A couple miles beyond we reached our new home:  a rundown old WWI Army post built of concrete rectangular buildings, turned into an ammunition dump in the decades between the wars.  All 115 women unloaded into our new hotel—one of the ward-sized rectangles, concrete floors, one separate room for the Major, and 114 army cots with their tumbles of bagged straw for mattresses marching down the length of the room in 4 lines.  Space between the cots was little more that the width of the cot itself.  There were a few windows here and there.  No plumbing.  Separately, about 20 feet away from one side of our “hotel” was our latrine with its line of wash bowls and several flush toilets.

Chapter 6. Ringwood Day by Day

“Home at last”—just a few miles from the south coast of England across from the Channel Isles and the French coast below Calais.  Home in Ringwood but—horrors!  No go.  As the GIs and medical staff worked day and night to gear up for patients, we Red Cross staff were grounded.  None of our Red Cross recreation and office furniture and supplies arrived with the 95th, supplies as expected.  The Army didn’t have a clue why, so the 3 of us in Recreation decided to write home for help.
How dreadful it would be if we had no personal items for the GI patients, especially at crisis times, like Christmas we speculated.  Soldier patients and the hospital, at such times used soap, toothbrushes, washcloth, shaving supplies and cigarettes, pipes, and tobacco, if possible, bagged in a small ditty bag from the Red Cross.  None had arrived, nor had games, books, craft shop tools, office materials and, worst of all, records and the combination radio and record player.
I wrote family and friends to plead for small boxes of personal items, playing cards, chips, to be mailed to me and the other two co-workers did the same.  My parents put the plea into the Lamar Daily News asking all the readers to send the items.  Our efforts made us feel better.  Later we learned that military rules forbade asking for packages because of limited mailing capacity.  Too late!  We didn’t know that.
We took the train to London to seek help from the British Red Cross.  The compassionate official listened and exclaimed “How LOVELY!”  No help there.  But we were furious at her unconcern.  Much later we learned that in England “How lovely!” is like we say “Damn, hell, spit!”
Finally everything arrived, we set up the recreation hall, complete with a wood and metal workshop, card tables, sofa, chairs, office needs, phonograph and radio combo with many current pop and country music records, and a fairly good selection of classical music too.  There were carrying baskets to take comic books, cards and personal items into the wards.  There were many craft shop supplies:  paints, wool for knitting, some leather, many tools and designs, instructions.
The local Red Cross provided an upright piano and two or three volunteers.  They let us know that they were there to help us any other ways they could.  One, a doctor’s wife from Ringwood, was invaluable in working with me to set up and run the workshop.  Together we learned lots from the GIs—we knew how to countersink screws and everything!
            Ordinarily we had two or three hundred guys in their striped cotton flannel army pajamas and long dark blue robes in the big concrete building at a time.  Probably half were NP patients—neuropsychiatric or now named traumatic distress disorder, TDD.  They were usually distant, hard to talk to, didn’t participate often.  Frequently chaplains from their outfits came by to visit, even one or two from their outfits, sometimes knowing something about a fellow that might suggest how we might draw him out.  Seldom did any of our three psychiatrists assist us—or the patients, as far as I could determine.
The rec. hall was open early in the morning until 9pm each night.  Card tables and small group arrangements were always available for their use and we scheduled large group events as often as possible.  We had sings, games—bingo several times a week at night as well as daytime. Occasionally party times were scheduled with group relays, games, talent programs if some of the GIs (or officers) had singing or other talents.  The loud country music almost never stopped from morning until night.  I’d almost never listened to it before so I found it tiring—so relentless—often the same two or three selections got played over and over again for 10 hours!
We worked literally day and night.  The routine was to have two days off after working 12-hour days for two weeks. Then at separate times each of us five took off separately for a couple days.  I usually stayed in a boarding house outside Salisbury Cathedral Close and spent the day visiting old book stores, antique shops and interesting park areas or just meditating, resting in the beautiful old 14th Century Gothic nave.  En route sometimes I got off the bus at Stonehenge and strolled over that ancient worship shrine, resting.  Once in a while I’d take a bus into Bournemouth and enjoy that sophisticated city—also staying in a boarding house.
After a few weeks I bought a used bike.  Then I could have a lunch packed and spend the vacation day biking all over the hedge-rowed farm country enjoying the quiet fresh air, often strolling into a tiny church with its Bibles chained to the pews, reading the cemetery carvings—and usually having lunch in the sun on top a stone vault.
Sometimes I drove by an all-Black American army post, a few miles from our outfit.  Several GIs always ran following me inside their fence wanting to chat with me.  Like the English girls I waved and greeted them—but couldn’t stop.  I didn’t dare say anything and give away my secret nationality.  What a treat it must have been for them to feel comfortable greeting a white girl their own ages! 

Chapter 7. Inside the 95th

Up early for breakfast—big, with dried eggs in the mess hall—we now could quickly splash ourselves with cold water nearby in our steel helmets and jump into our clothes.  Such a treat to have a little cold water nearby.  For the first weeks the head nurse had issued the order that day and night, even dashing to the latrine, we had to put on our steel helmets.  This meant that the liner had to be kept in the helmet at all times so we couldn’t wash ourselves or our clothes in the helmets.
Finally she admitted she had misunderstood and that the order held only during periods of air raid warnings.  “Head” was given to hearing things wrong from above.  Earlier she dunned each of us women $2 for a lunch which we could see was worth about 20 cents.  Seems she had thought “2 bits” was the same as “2 bucks.”  We always obeyed the Colonel, but remained “of little faith” whatever she pronounced for the duration.
Day after day we Red Cross workers wore our grey cotton seersucker long-sleeved dresses, tan cotton stockings and black old lady shoes to work.  I could vary the costume however by flaring one of several flowered handkerchiefs I’d brought in the right hand pocket.  Most of the time we used our army issue khaki overcoats, but we also had heavy wool dark grayish-blue winter suits and hats.  For summer we had light grey, light-weight wool suits with matching hats.  If we still had rayon stockings from home, we could wear those.  England had no “silk” stockings by 1944.
For meals we stood in line and ate with whichever doctors and nurses turned up in the officer’s mess. There the conversations helped us keep up with gossip, as did those in the barrack where each of us slept near different nurses.  Lots of battlefront happenings came from the GIs at the rec. hall and in the wards and from the weekly Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper.  The good old British Broadcasting Co. was probably the best source.  In the rec. hall we often all stood by for the latest information
Back to the mess hall, one of my most vivid memories of war days came from my first lunch in the mess hall.  Mary, the Red Cross secretary, and I sat down with two surgeons.  First thing, one said to the other, “We’ve got a PROBLEM! What are we going to DO with the leg we just cut off?”  Instantly, Mary stood up and screamed “You can’t talk like that!” and stomped out of the building sobbing.  It took just a day or two for the Red Cross to find a new location for Mary—in a recreation program in London where she wouldn’t run into things like this.  And we had been warned at Red Cross training that some of us would find unexpectedly that we would not be able to tolerate some aspect of conditions around us. They had promised trainees that changes were possible under those circumstances.  “How unfortunate that the military is not in a position to make such personnel adjustments,” I used to think as I was at a loss to know how to help the hundreds of NP cases we met.
Our visits to each of the 10 hospital wards were always far too few.  For the wards with l00 of the most recovered guys we often just picked up the games, comic books, puzzles used by GIs who had moved on, and left tobacco and personal supplies that the nurse in charge asked for before sneaking out because wards with the sicker GIs needed us more.
We carried our basket of “games and other goodies” and went from bed to bed in mid-recovery wards, often stopping to visit, leave some craft material or get someone started on a project, write a letter or spot someone needing social worker help.  Sometimes we would engage groups of patients in the ward in a group game—usually bingo!
The Recreation training in Washington had stressed that looking into the eyes of a disfigured or person disabled was absolutely essential.  “Just look straight into his eyes.  See nothing else.”  In the recovery wards they said to remember that the crying and screaming well might be from drugs not yet worn off.  These difficult to execute, but simple rules helped a lot.  So, as heart-breaking as it might be, I found rewarding the difficult ward visits even if it was just saying a “hello” with a smile, holding a hand, or asking a question.