In 1934 and 1935, the Past Presidents’ Parley of the American Legion Auxiliary Department of North Dakota identified and interviewed the state’s 271 women who served during the Great War. Of that number, 225 were nurses. Red Cross statistics show that 20 percent of all North Dakota registered nurses served in Europe – a greater percentage than any other state during the war.
In her book “North Dakota Nurses Over There 1917-1919,” Grace E.F. Holmes shares the accounts of these women, as collected by 52 American Legion Auxiliary units – when they enlisted, where they served and what their service meant to them. The following excerpts offer a glimpse into nurses’ varied experiences, whether fighting the deadly Spanish flu pandemic on the homefront or caring for combat-wounded troops fresh off the battlefields of France.
GENE MARIE GUNDERSON, Fargo Unit
After 15 years, France seems very far away.
Blue capes with scarlet linings, gray chambray uniforms, yellow shoes (often caked with mud), cold drafty barracks, the roll of drums, Old Glory whipping in the breeze, death always at one’s elbow, and the thousand and one annoyances incidental to living so unnatural an existence, blur into an unreal picture. It is all like a dream that has passed ....
On Sept. 14, 1918, we sailed on the Olympic. When we were but six hours out, I was put to
bed sick with the flu and remained there until I was carried off the boat when we docked in Southampton, England. I was not ever expected to reach England alive. My only food was champagne and cracked ice. We were held in quarantine for four days, then sent to Hursley Park, an English Rest Camp.
Five of our nurses died there. I saw my first military funeral. Being weak and ill, it impressed me more perhaps than it otherwise would. The soldiers could not bury our girls in the rough boxes given the men, and it was touching to see them line the crude interiors with cheese cloth ... They brought wild flowers and placed them in the dead hands that had meant to minister to them. Then covering each ugly box with the flag, they carried them to the newly made graves. As taps sounded it seemed the most melancholy but beautiful music I had ever heard ....
I was with Base Hospital No. 58. There were thousands of wounded, gassed, pneumonia, infectious and contagious cases. I was both day and night nurse. Here I contracted laryngitis with a touch of pleurisy and went about my work for four weeks unable to speak and with my side strapped. It was very cold in the barracks, and we crawled into our sleeping bags with our clothes on. We were so cold, tired, and half sick that we used to say that even an air raid could not get us up. We always talked this way on moonlight nights, for those were the times we feared bombing.
GERTRUDE HEALY, Grand Forks Unit
I was ordered to report to Camp Upton, Long Island, a huge evacuation camp with a large hospital, after sitting in suspense for weeks together with hundreds of other aides .... But our first assignment had nothing to do with physical treatment. We arrived the day before the New Year. That evening the Chief of Staff called me and said, “We have just received a bunch of mashed up aviators who are in a blue funk. They are New York men and counted on New York hospitalization. Won’t you aides go in that ward and try to cheer them up?” Trembling with uncertainty, we went to our first meeting with the badly wounded. My first patient looked like a mummy in a sarcophagus, completely encased in a plaster cast as he appeared to be. He turned out to be a nephew of former Gov. White of North Dakota. That was one of the hardest, and in a way, one of the grandest evenings I have ever spent.
JENNIE MAHONEY, Larimore, Langdon & Fargo Units
.... we nurses went by ambulance to Field Hospital No. 112, located in a shell-torn building
at Château-Thierry. Their commanding officer, Maj. Hazlett, said he knew God had sent us, they needed help so badly. We had gone about 50 miles over shell-torn roads, arriving there in the evening. We worked all night and the following day in a building with windows, doors, and shell holes covered with heavy dark blankets, lest the enemy see a glimmer of light from our candles, the noise of guns and exploding bombs striking terror to our hearts, our souls sick at the sight of our boys. From 7 o’clock that evening until 7 the next morning, one thousand wounded were brought in.
ITA ROSA McDONELL, Devils Lake Unit
What a shock it was when 25 of us found our names posted for duty at Camp Mills, Long Island. The influenza epidemic had started. We found the patients in hospital tents and in the State Fair buildings. After caring for patients in the horse barns for a few days, 12 of us were sent with some of the Regular Army nurses to open up the huge new camp laundry building as part of the hospital. As fast as the corps men set up the cots and brought in the straw-stuffed ticks, we nurses made up the beds. We had quantities of linen and a good supply of hospital utensils, but no chairs or tables. The cots were low. It still makes my back ache to think of it. I believe there were nearly 5,000 cots, row on row, head to foot, a very narrow space between rows. And soon those cots were all filled .... Then followed a nightmare period of nights and days filled with inadequacy in the face of the devastating disease. Sometimes I think that time and its events can’t be as I recall them, but the drone of a fleet of aeroplanes still brings it back with all its horror.
ANNIE M. MICKLESON, Fargo & Kindred Units
We left Fargo on Monday night and arrived at Tacoma, Wash., on Wednesday night. The next morning we took the bus to Camp Lewis ... Arriving in the morning, as they were doing their morning’s work, we went to call on one of our best nurse friends. She was giving a soldier a bath without a screen at the foot of the bed, so I said, “You must be short of screens.” She answered, “You have to get used to this. I think when I get back to Fargo I can give a bath on Broadway without blushing.”
DOROTHY AGNES BLODGETT, Minot Unit
I had not been in service many weeks when the Spanish flu epidemic started. It kept us all so busy that we were unable to think of anything but work. If I remember rightly, we had 80 nurses in the hospital when the epidemic started. In a short time we had 400 nurses and about 8,000 patients. Every available nurse was called into service, even student nurses from many training schools. We could not give the soldiers anywhere near the care they should have received for they came in so fast and many of them were so desperately sick. Every ward was filled to its capacity and the long corridors between were lined with cots on either side. Many of the patients lived only two or three days ... It was indeed a depressing sight to look out and see the stretchers going by from morning to night.
Since the Armistice was signed in less than three months after I entered service, I did not get overseas, but I think the nurses who worked through the epidemic in this country, and cared for the disabled veterans on their return home, did not miss many of the horrors of war.
JEAN FORREST BROWN, Fargo Unit
At Coëtquidan Camp Hospital No. 15 ... I was attached to surgery for 13 months, serving as first assistant to three different surgeons during this period. We operated on more than 1,500 major cases, and many more minor ones. Our record during this time was less than 1 percent mortality. Our part was very difficult at times; there were so many sights and heartaches. Our boys, blind, wounded, and maimed, brought to us begging to die for they did not wish to go home helpless and a burden to their families or their government. Trying to encourage and uplift their morale and keep up our own, under indescribable circumstances, was not an easy task.
JANET KIPPEN, Cavalier Unit
I was stationed at Camp Grant (Rockford, Ill.) for 13 months. The flu broke out shortly after I arrived. We didn’t have enough nurses. I was on night duty for six weeks in a barracks and, for a week, was alone with four corps boys to try and care for very sick men who were rushing in and falling on the floor and having to stay there until we could get to them. In six weeks, 1,100 men died in Camp Grant. The most that died in one night were 250. We also lost several nurses. When it was all over we had parties and we danced, but I really think everyone was too sad to enjoy anything very much.
SIGNE LEE, Fargo Unit
On Jan. 21, 1918, leaving Base Hospital No. 1, I was transferred to the base hospital at Camp McArthur, Waco, Texas. The country was a sandy plain and the wind blew most of the time, carrying dust through cracks and crevices into everything. In the cold weather the heat was almost non-existent. Suffering was very acute at times. The water supply was poor. The flu epidemic in the fall of 1918 can never be forgotten by any who survived. We were frequently on duty for 36 or 40 hours, if we did not drop before.
LILLIAN S. McKNIGHT, Langdon Unit
In the morning at break of day we went on deck ... the pier was crowded with crippled soldiers on crutches. I think that was one of the saddest mornings I spent while in the Army, to see so many husky boys without arms and legs who were there to welcome the Americans. Here we said “Goodbye and good luck” to the boys and officers we met on the way over, and many we knew would never return ....
Our hospital was outside the city and part of it was in an old French convent .... I was on night duty, surgical floor, and had 78 beds in my ward and one orderly to help me. During the thickest of the fight we had as many as five “go west” in a night and I always managed to be with each boy at the last. One thought that was always foremost in my mind was that there were mothers, wives, and sisters somewhere who would have sacrificed everything to have the privilege of being with their own boys at these times ....
Troops were going up the line by the thousands, and thousands were coming down wounded every day. We nurses would always try to get to the road and call, “Goodbye and good luck.” Their answer always was, “Goodbye, Sister, I’ll be back in a few days. Have a bed for me.” We hadn’t much time to give them, but tried to give each man his due. Such wonderful lads, who wouldn’t? .... I shall always feel I have to strive real hard to make my life as useful in the future as I did during those 19 months.
REGINA WAHL, Fargo Unit
Once when we were walking among rows of wooden crosses looking for names of someone we might know, we found the grave of Norah Emilie Anderson. I did not know her in North Dakota, but she was in Camp Custer when I was there ....
We now began to see what war had been like. All about was desolation. Not a tree remained nor any living thing. The ground was broken with shell holes and shell craters. The towns were great heaps of ruins. All that remained standing in them were high smoke stacks. Large piles of ammunition and machine guns, the trenches and the sandbags were in evidence.
LILLIAN JANE BLACKWELL, Cooperstown Unit
July 5, 1918: Sleep? Well, I better stuff my ears with cotton this a.m. Guns are booming in the distance. But it’s a sound we feel strangely lonesome without ....
July 16, 1918. What must God think when He looks down from His heaven upon this miserable struggle of mankind. Such horrible agony and suffering. Such heroism from the men!
July 28, 1918: Poor John! He was sent to help in Evacuation VII as stretcher bearer and discovered the dead patient he was about to carry out was his own brother.
July 29, 1918: Patients, patients – simply pouring in and lying all over the hillsides under the trees. They are so tired, many only slightly wounded, but how they sleep from sheer exhaustion ... roads are lined with trucks. We had over 8,000 in eight days for our 300-bed hospital, but 1,100 in one night!
LOUESE FREEMAN, Park River Unit
It is 4 a.m., and I am hurriedly called from the nurses’ quarters to the hospital, a short distance away. Sgt. Canary was dying and calling for me .... I stepped to his bed and he said, “Sunshine, take my hand and raise me up.” I did, and then with the last speck of energy he said. “I’ll answer roll call elsewhere in – the – morning.” That was all.
MABEL OLETTA OLSON, Fargo Unit
The memory of memorial services at Kerhoun, France, on May 30, 1919 still lingers with me .... As the line of marchers proceeded to the little village along winding and narrow roads, one could look back and see, first, the nurses, the officers and the “boys” – corpsmen and patients. Some were just appearing over the brow of the hill; a few patients were hobbling along on crutches; others had their heads or arms still bandaged, the ambulance bringing up the rear. As we passed one house
a pleasant sight greeted us. Out of one of the upstairs windows was flying our Stars and Stripes beside the French banner. At the cemetery were the people of the village to help us decorate the graves of our boys as well as their own.
JENNIE MAHONEY, Larimore, Langdon & Fargo Units
When we saw the Statue of Liberty and heard the strains of “Home, Sweet Home” from the band of the mayor’s welcoming committee, our hearts were tremulous and our eyes filled with tears and sadness for those left over there, and joy for our homeland, the very best on earth.
I feel I cannot close without a word of appreciation for the men of our Army, they were most manly, unselfish and patient. It was a real privilege to be there, for perhaps in no other way could we have learned what splendid characters our American men had.
Grace E.F. Holmes, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine emerita at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She is a member of Dwight Cowles American Legion Auxiliary Unit 370 of Overland Park, Kan.
To purchase a copy of “North Dakota Nurses Over There 1917-1919,” contact the American Legion Auxiliary Department of North Dakota at (701) 253-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org.