No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II

No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II

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by Diane Burke Fessler

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No Time for Fear summons the voices of more than 100 women who served as nurses overseas during World War II, letting them tell their story as no one else can. Fessler has meticulously compiled and transcribed more than 200 interviews with American military nurses of the Army, Army Air Force, and Navy who were present in all theaters of WWII. Their stories


No Time for Fear summons the voices of more than 100 women who served as nurses overseas during World War II, letting them tell their story as no one else can. Fessler has meticulously compiled and transcribed more than 200 interviews with American military nurses of the Army, Army Air Force, and Navy who were present in all theaters of WWII. Their stories bring to life horrific tales of illness and hardship, blinding blizzards, and near starvation—all faced with courage, tenacity, and even good humor. This unique oral-history collection makes available to readers an important counterpoint to the seemingly endless discussions of strategy, planning, and troop movement that often characterize discussions of the Second World War.

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Michigan State University Press
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New Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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No Time For Fear

Voices of American Military Nurses In World War II

By Diane Burke Fessler

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1996 Diane Burke Fessler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-254-4



"Like rats in a trap"

Agnes Shurr U.S. Navy

USS Solace

A native of North Dakota, Agnes joined the navy in the 1930s; it was the pay and the chance to see the world which attracted her She retired thirty years later.

Before the war, we nurses were often invited to dinner on other ships in Pearl Harbor, and I remember one of the captains asking me something that I have remembered often over the years. He said, "What do you folks think of the situation? Do you think there is going to be a war?" He must have thought we had information he didn't.

I was asleep that Sunday morning on the hospital ship Solace out in the middle of Pearl Harbor, "in the stream," as we say. "COMMAND BATTLE STATIONS!" was the first thing I heard. Our sailors were in their dress whites waiting to go ashore on liberty, but when the explosions started, they went around in the liberty boats, picking up injured and wounded out of the water. We received casualties almost immediately. Our ship was painted white, had a red cross on each side, and must have stood out among the other ships in the harbor. But it was never hit. Later that morning the ship moved to a more secluded area in the harbor.

We worked all through the day without stopping. Late at night, I was sitting at the dinner table with other nurses when the executive officer came and talked to us for awhile. "Well," he said, "we don't know what's going to happen next. But we're all still here, kind of like rats in a trap! We're going to carry on the best we can." Because we were so busy, I hadn't been aware really of the seriousness of our own situation. I could see the ships in the water and the smoke rolling up and hear the sounds of ships firing at aircraft. But around the table, it began to dawn on me that we were really in a precarious and dangerous position in the harbor.

A few days later we were allowed to go ashore for the day, and the air raid siren sounded, so we had to return to the ship. Somehow that was more frightening to me because I didn't know if we would be able to get back on the ship or be stranded. The ship was my safe haven. In Honolulu one day, I was carrying a lot of art supplies and dropped them as I was crossing the street. A young American-Japanese boy stopped and picked them up for me. I remember thinking, "These are the people who just bombed us." Of course, he was probably a good American, but I couldn't help thinking that.

After all these years, I still recall one boy who was very badly burned. His mother wrote him a letter that I'm sure she meant to be encouraging, that said, "When you think your troubles are terrible, you need to put on a tight pair of shoes, and you'll forget about your other troubles." All I could think was that he couldn't even get shoes on. Of course, she didn't know how bad he was, but he did kind of smile.

Valera Vaubel Wiskerson U.S. Navy

Navy Hospital, Pearl Harbor

Val left a position with a Chicago hospital to join up in 1937. After a tour in San Diego, she arrived for duty in Hawaii in 1940

I'd just served breakfast to the patients who couldn't go to the mess hall and was going across to get some food for myself, when I heard a horrible explosion. I looked across the water at the hangar on Ford Island. It looked like it was picked up into the air and dropped down—PLUNK! There was nothing but smoke where there had been that great big airplane hangar with all the planes sitting in a row.

A plane with a huge red circle came close enough to tell it was Japanese. It dived over the hospital, and if I'd had a gun I could have killed him. I was a sharpshooter at the time, because a fellow had been taking me with him to practice shooting.

They started bringing men in with burns and fractures by whatever means they could get there in. Patients had tags on them telling how much morphine or whatever had been done for them. Doctors decided who went to which ward or what treatment they needed. I was an acting dietitian but also worked in other wards for the next several days. The diets were mostly liquids because of so many burn cases.

Patients who'd been there before the bombing left to return to duty and didn't take their records with them, so we never knew what happened to them.

An experience I can't forget to this day was a patient who was in shock. When I went to get him a blanket, none were there, so I went upstairs to get one. A doctor called me over to help lift a patient in the burn ward. We'd lift a patient up and draw the sheet from underneath, and because the burned skin came off, fresh oil was put on the sheet. I was holding under the patients' thigh and lower leg to raise him when his leg separated from the knee in my hands. I turned white as the sheet, and the doctor looked at my face. I took deep breaths to keep from fainting. After the patient was put on the sheet, I found a blanket and took it downstairs. The patient who needed the blanket had died, and a new one was in his place, so I covered him with the blanket.

I remember the burn cases where eyelids and lashes were burned, and you couldn't see the nose. Burns smell horrible. Our chief nurse kept a perfumed handkerchief in her pocket, and while she was feeding a burn patient, she would sniff it. Once a patient asked if he could sniff it too, because he couldn't stand the smell. She thinks it saved his life because he ate better then.

Volunteers came to the hospital to help, such as service wives and friends. Prostitutes from Honolulu came too, but they weren't all helpful, because some tried to get a little business, and we had to throw them out.

Soon after the "blitz" I was assigned to the shipyard dispensary. Everyone on the base had to be given tetanus and other shots, and we were just changing needles and giving shots to civilians as well as military families by the hundreds. Then I set up a dispensary at the main gate so the families wouldn't have to go into the shipyard.

Phyllis Dana U.S. Navy

Navy Hospital, Pearl Harbor

Phyl had been at Pearl Harbor for six months; she was twenty-four years old when the war began.

Burn patients were the biggest challenge. We had eight wards for burn victims because men on the ships were thrown or jumped into the water where oil was burning. We used sulfa powder and mineral oil in treating them; today that is a really bad treatment as it isn't sterile. We relieved the pain with morphine and phenobarbital. The rate of survival was surprisingly good, considering what we can do now for burn victims.

The nurses slept in the wards so I wasn't aware of what was going on, even in the rest of the hospital, for several days. I can still hear the sounds of those men moaning. For the rest of my life I was aware that I could survive and function in emergencies and for the long term.

Lenore Terrell Rickert U.S. Navy

Navy Hospital, Pearl Harbor

Lenore became a Navy Nurse in 1939 and had just begun her second year at Hospital Point.

Everybody wants to know if we were afraid. Fear never entered into it. Most everyone who was there says the same thing. We never even gave it a thought, never worried about our personal safety.

I was making rounds with the Medical Officer of the Day at the Pearl Harbor naval hospital when we heard a plane right overhead. Because of the patients, our aircraft never flew over the hospital. Even though navy planes were right there at Ford Island, and Hickam Field was on the other side of us, it just never happened. We ran to look and the plane was coming in between the two wards. We knew right away what was happening.

I ran to the nurses' quarters to sound the alert, and that's when the actual bombing started. Then I could hear the bombing. I saw the planes up above, and I could see the bombs coming out six in a row. The first Japanese plane that was shot down crashed in the hospital yard, but there were only some minor fires from that.

The ambulatory patients immediately left the hospital to get back to their ships. One patient, whose eyes were both bandaged, got out of bed, crawled underneath, and pulled a blanket down to lie on, so we could use the bed for the wounded. Everyone was worrying about the others and not themselves.

The hospital really surprised me, everything went so smoothly. Up until that time, if you sent your weekly supply request on Friday, you were lucky if you received fifty percent of it the next week. On that day you scribbled what you needed on a piece of paper and someone ran over to the supply room and brought it right back. It was unbelievable, the way the whole hospital was that day. The corpsmen were spectacular during it all.

Helen Entrikin U.S. Navy

Navy Hospital, Pearl Harbor

Helen, a 1936 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, joined the navy because the pay was better than civilian nursing. In 1941 she was in Hawaii with her sister, Sara, who was in the army nurse detachment.

My twin sister was a U.S. Army nurse stationed in Hawaii and urged me to transfer there because it was so nice. Sara was at the hospital at Hickam Field, right across the fence from our navy base. We were both on duty that morning.

When the planes dropped their bombs, then strafed as they came back, I ran inside the hospital and gathered up the narcotics and everything we would need. A little dressing room became a mini-operating theater, because the regular operating rooms were so backlogged. The patients were scared, and when they died we received others right away in their place. We put mattresses on the hallway floor to rest a little at a time.

My sister and I were both worrying about each other, because we heard that each place was being bombed and leveled. A patient who had a leg cast stayed at the desk and tried to get on the phone to Hickam. The lines were down, but about 10:30 that night, Sara got through to tell me she was all right. Four days later I was able to send a telegram to our mother, who had the two of us to worry about. I finally saw my sister about two weeks after the raid.

Sara Entrikin U.S. Army

Hickam Field

"Sally" had applied to the two services but the army responded first. She had worked at Schofield Barracks first and then transferred to the army air base.

Hearing the explosions, I ran outside and saw the red sun on a plane that was coming in so close that I could see the faces of the pilots. One of them looked at us and smiled. I rushed to the hospital. Casualties were coming in fast and furious because the barracks were right along the runway and that's where the bombs hit first. Our hospital was close to the runway also, and we had a lot of noise and smoke from shells ricocheting over to it.

There were only seven of us nurses, and we couldn't possibly begin to take care of all the wounded and dying men. The decision was made to treat patients with first-aid-type care and send them to Tripler General Hospital in ambulances. Soon there weren't enough ambulances, so the local people drove patients in their cars.

Not too far from the hospital there was an American flag flying, and after the Japs dropped their bombs, one plane came back and circled, shooting until the flag was torn to shreds. That night we put up blackout window covers; we were told that if captured, to only give our name, rank, and serial number. Hearing that was kind of scary.

I didn't know if Helen was dead or alive, everything was so hectic. My sister and I tried to call each other but couldn't get through. An ambulatory patient sat at the desk, trying to reach her all day, and finally did about 10:30 that night.

Mildred Irene Clark Woodman U.S. Army

Schofield Barracks

Irene had studied at Mayo Clinic at the army's request and became a pioneer in the application of intravenous (IV) anesthesia.

Loud explosions awakened me and I heard planes overhead. I opened the door and saw planes coming through the pass in the mountains between Honolulu and Schofield. The large bright insignia of the rising sun was boldly on the side of each plane. They flew so close I could hear the radio communications between the pilots. In one minute I dressed and ran to the hospital.

The hospital was hit, even though the hospital building had a large red cross painted on the roof, according to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Casualties were arriving on stretchers as I reported to the operating room, with ambulance sirens wailing in the background. In a short time, the nine operating rooms were extremely busy, while patients waited for care in the corridor. I kept hearing planes overhead, but we were too busy to be afraid or to ask what was happening. All day and into the evening I went from one patient to the next without sitting down or having a cup of coffee. Someone brought fried chicken in but few of us felt hungry, as we had seen too much death and were involved with the most serious wounds and bravest of men. Patients had arms and legs amputated, severe chest and spinal wounds, abdominal and cranial wounds. Many wanted to go out and fight back. Some wanted a prayer said or to hear the 23rd Psalm, and we obliged them along with the surgical procedures.

Two anesthetists slept in the hospital for over two weeks following the attack. Operating rooms and patient areas were blacked out with dark army blankets; it was like a steambath at night when we had to operate. Later, black paint was used on the windows.

Sometime near early morning following the attack, several of us had the opportunity for a quiet moment to talk to each other and exchange our limited knowledge of what happened. We talked quietly since there was a rumor that the Japanese had eighty transports off Diamond Head and were landing parachute troops in the nearby cane fields. The subject of being captured and becoming prisoners of war came up and each voiced her plan. Two indicated they would walk into the sea, others would hide in caves, some would go with their friends to prison, while others of us would fight to the death and never be captured alive.

The Prayer of an Army Nurse
by Mildred Irene Clark

Hear my prayer in silence before Thee
as I ask for courage each day.
Grant that I may be worthy of the sacred
pledge of my profession
and the lives of those entrusted to my care.
Help me to offer hope and cheer in the
hearts of men and my country.
For their faith inspires me to give the world
and nursing my best.
Instill in me the understanding and compassion
of those who led the way.
For I am thankful to You for giving me
this life to live.

Gelane Matthews Barron U.S. Army

Tripler Hospital

Having exchanged orders with a friend bound for the Philippines, "Jerry" felt safe for the moment; her friend became a prisoner of war.

The morning of December 7, 1941, I was on duty in the Emergency Room at Tripler Hospital and met the chief nurse walking up the ramp. She had a blank stare on her face, and I said a cheery, "Good morning," and got no response. Farther on up the ramp I met a corpsman who was covered with blood. I asked him what happened and he responded, "The Japs shot me." I'd heard shelling but thought the navy was practicing. It was just before 8:00 A.M.

I went to my duty station and saw all these litters in the hallway. "Where does one start?" I thought. But I guess God gives nurses strength to do what has to be done, although most nurses who have worked ER seem to have it in triplicate. Nurses and corpsmen, in teams, gave tetanus and morphine to the patients, marking T and M on foreheads because there wasn't time for paperwork. The least injured went back to duty. Then we evaluated those who needed surgery, sending them to the operating room, and those with no recovery possibility, or DOA, to the makeshift morgue. With less than sterile techniques, somehow we had no infection or gangrene among our patients, though many of the wounds were from shrapnel. There was a constant stream of injured being brought in, and we were still working the next morning. About 5:00 A.M., we all sat on the floor and cried.

Women and children patients in the hospital were sent across the street to a storage tunnel at Fort Shafter to be safe. Working everywhere I was needed, I wound up delivering two babies in the tunnel. Fortunately, the American Medical Association was holding a convention in Honolulu, and many of the doctors went to hospitals in the area to help. Inactive nurses showed up. Some prostitutes thought the hospital was a safe place, and we put them to work making bandages, and other supplies. They were a great help, but after a couple of days, they tried to make some money and we had to get rid of them.

Doris Francis Backinger U.S. Army

Tripler Hospital

"Fran" graduated from the University of Kansas Medical Center and joined up in 1940; she had been at Pearl for one month.


Excerpted from No Time For Fear by Diane Burke Fessler. Copyright © 1996 Diane Burke Fessler. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diane Burke Fessler is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, Tempe. She is Senior Editor at Primer Publishers.

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No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nurses who joined the military before and during WWII never knew where their assignments took them, and these oral histories tell a great variety of experiences while overseas. Included are the first army and navy flight nurses, African-American nurses in a segregated army, nurses in the jungles of the Pacific, and those who were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in the Phillipines. Brave women who told their stories often for the first time. Very inspirational.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book contains first-person oral histories of more than 100 army and navy nurses, including the very first flight nurses, African-American nurses who served in a segregated army, prisoners of war in Japanese camps in the Philippines, and nurses on hospital ships in every theater of war.