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Women played vital WWII role _ and not just in nursing

August 3, 2019

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Lt. Lenora Critchfield contracted malaria during her time in Africa as she served in World War II. When she returned to Johnstown while on medical leave in 1943, she talked about receiving patients day and night during her time overseas.

“We often worked around the clock to take care of the wounded that came in,” she told the Johnstown Tribune. “Their spirit was wonderful, especially that of the boys who were more seriously wounded. Sleep meant nothing to us since our one and burning desire was to get those injured boys well again.”

Later in the war — when Critchfield got off duty — she hitched rides to the front line at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia when the Nazis broke through.

“I’ve heard bullets around, but it was lots of fun. The boys were always glad to see us and talk to us. The morale was wonderful in the front lines and still more wonderful when the wounded came back.”

Women played a vital role in the armed forces during World War II. Nursing wasn’t the only roles they filled within the military. At local recruiting offices, women worked at enlisting men in the Army, Marines and Navy. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was an organization many women joined during the war, and in Johnstown, the Marine Corps recruited women.

Kim Guise, assistant director for curatorial services at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, said there was an overall desire for many women to join and take active roles in the war effort.

“In the different branches, it was perceived in different ways,” Guise said. “Some were more reluctant, but I don’t think all of the branches were welcoming to women. There was some reluctance initially insofar as the women’s auxiliary branches. It was different in terms of nurses. There was a dire need.”

Early in 1942, the nation and greater Johnstown area experienced a shortage of nurses. Many of them had gone to serve the country overseas, much like the men they tended to once they were wounded or on death’s bed.

In August 1942, more than 20 women went to the local naval recruiting office in Johnstown to ask about joining the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, known as WAVES, which was the name given to the women’s naval force, according to reports done at the time. President Franklin Roosevelt had signed a bill to create the organization earlier in the year. The unit was to consist of 1,000 commissioned officers and 10,000 enlisted women.

Local nurses made their mark on the war effort. In June 1942, Southmont’s Anna Moore appeared in the New York Times in a photo that showed her picking out her Army wardrobe.

Irene Gabryjolek, of Johnstown, was one of the first nurses on New Guinea when the Marines began their island-hopping in the Pacific. Ligonier’s Gertrude Irwin was killed in action while serving as a nurse in Africa.

Westmont’s Anna Ferg, commissioned as a lieutenant, went to the combat zones in the Middle East.

“I shall never forget the beautiful sunsets and sunrises,” she wrote to her parents back home while she traveled there.

A January 1943 report that appeared in the Johnstown Tribune indicated that nurses who received their training at Memorial Hospital were serving across the world. Forty were in the military. In the South Pacific, they were living in tents and using kerosene lamps. In New Guinea, they moved to huts later on.

Lt. Odella Shawley wrote a letter home during that time from Africa.

“Please do not think of me as being noble or brave for being on foreign duty. I thoroughly enjoy it. However I hope next Christmas finds me back in Pennsylvania. The more I see of the world the more I realize what a privilege it is to be an American.”

The first women marines from the area were Dale’s Margaret Walters and Windber’s Pearl Probert. When the office opened, it was estimated that 100 women asked about serving.

Nursing wasn’t the only role that women filled in the military. Administrative positions were also given to them, as were those in the kitchen. Ida Wendell, of Altoona, was a cook after she enlisted in WAAC.

“My line of work is with the cooks and bakers, in other words the backbone of the Army and the most important branch” she wrote the Johnstown Tribune in February 1943. “I think cooking is an art and to be able to keep the soldiers and people of America healthy and well fed is one of the most worthwhile jobs one can do.”

The women saw the destruction and havoc wrought by war. When Windber’s Edna Gibson returned home, she told the newspaper about an 18-month-old child she administered first aid to for burned legs. Later on the mother of the child returned and asked that Gibson take care of her toddler.

Guise said some of the nurses could be in dangerous situations.

“There were instances where women serving overseas were subject to aerial bombardment, to being near danger of being captured. They also flew overseas in planes that weren’t bullet-proof. There were women killed in plane crashes. There were also nurses who were captured as (Prisoners of War) in the Philippines. Anyone in service was putting themselves in danger in some form. But women working in factories certainly were also oftentimes putting themselves at risk.”

That happened in New Guinea, when Gabryjolek was there, according to an Associated Press article at the time, and In January 1944, Nazi bombers sank a hospital ship near Italy. One of the nurses on board was Lt. Laura Ruth Hindman of Johnstown. Both survived.

Much like today, women then often got targeted with malicious gossip or misogyny because they led unconventional lives that stepped outside of the feminine roles, according to Guise.

“People who did something different or unexpected got that,” Guise said. “It sometimes stems from a feeling or fear of being threatened. But I think women, there were certain expectations of how a woman should behave or dress. Those were relaxed during war times. I think war also opened a lot of opportunities for women. Those were not always unchallenged by the American population in general, but also by other women and men.”

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Online:

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Information from: Daily American, http://www.dailyamerican.com

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