Gallant Nurses in India

Ex-CBI Roundup
June 1954 Issue

An Interesting Story Of a Gallant Group Of Nurses in India

By Maj. Sylvia G. Johnson, ANC

Here's a history with a new flavor - a document written in diary form by an Army Nurse and directed to the CBI Theater Surgeon on July 31, 1945. This story, never intended for publication, is condensed slightly from the original form and submitted to Roundup by Maj. Nancti L. Huston, ANC.

IN THE SUMMER of 1942, Dr. Addison G. Brenizer of Charlotte, N. C., was granted permission of the War Department to organize a 1,000-bed General Hospital, which was known as the "Brenizer Unit." Dr. Brenizer, through the medical officers he had secured, formed his nursing personnel.

These officers, from the South, Ohio, New Jersey and Washington state, interviewed nurses with whom they had worked in local hospitals and signed them up for the Unit.

The nurses began to arrive at Lawson General Hospital, Atlanta, Ga., Nov. 15, 1942, the last arriving Jan. 3, 1943.

On Jan. 9, 1943, 2nd Lt. Sylvia G. Johnson was promoted to 1st Lt. and appointed Chief Nurse. Practicing how to render a snappy salute, trying to figure which hand to follow when the sergeant called out "column left," getting adjusted to the blue uniform off duty, and rapidly learning the Army way of running a hospital, created numerous problems for the girls, many of whom had, only a few months previous to taking their oaths of office, graduated from their training schools.

On January 19th, the unit's seventeen doctors having left for Camp Wheeler, Ga., a few weeks before, the War Department ordered "no further organization of the Brenizer Unit," and "the nurses to be divided between two Station Hospitals which were being activated." This was the first real headache for the Chief Nurse, selecting 54 nurses to go to Camp Wheeler.

The Commanding Officer of the lllth Station Hospital, Lt. Col. Bennet G. Owens of Valdosta, Ga., met the nurses at the Macon station. The first few days were spent in getting acquainted with the large camp and their new associates.

The nurses were shortly introduced to a program quite different from bedside care. There were various and many lectures, films, daily drills and calesthenics, weekly marches with the complete unit, and overnight bivouac; and, lest they forget that they joined the Unit to take care of sick soldiers, the nurses were assigned to TD with the Camp Wheeler Station Hospital.

The days passed quickly for the first few months. The nurses were now becoming acquainted with the rest of their unit, and they gained the admiration of all the officers and men with their fine spirit displayed on the inarches, rain or shine, and their ability to get the Marksmanship qualification on the range with the M-l.

On May 15th 2nd Lt. Marjorie Smail was promoted to 1st Lt., hers being the first promotion for the nurses at Camp Wheeler.

Social life off duty was very active for the nurses. Many friendships were formed among the officers of the Infantry Replacement Training Center at Camp Wheeler, and the Air Fields - Roberts and Smart - the air corps boys being frequent visitors to the new barracks.

At last the great day came. We were alerted. No more phone calls, no more letters, no one to leave the barracks. Nursing personnel now numbered 50, plus a Physical Therapist and a Hospital Dietician who joined the Unit two days prior to the alert.

Then came the memorable march to the Camp Wheeler Station from the barracks. With pistol belt, canteen, bulging musette bags, gas mask, helmet, and a few last-minute odds and ends, grabbed as they left the barracks, the nursing platoon marched off, not quite as snappy as they had appeared several times previously on the parade grounds. It was a unique sight indeed. Arriving at the train after the mile and a half hike, they found the rest of the unit. By this time, of course, everyone was accustomed to the Army way of doing things; therefore, confusion was practically nil and we boarded the assigned cars, making two full cars of nurses. As the train pulled slowly away from the station with the rain pouring from the Georgia sky, the Camp Wheeler band played bravely, "You Are My Sunshine."

After a five-day trip across the United States, the unit arrived at Camp Anza, Calif., on July 6th. The band there came out to greet us. However, a half hour later the sincerity of the greeting was questioned when they marched us to a large building and with both sleeves rolled up, a nurse on each side simultaneously jabbed us in each armour first "shots."

Again the nurses proved the versatility of the American girl. We were housed in what had formerly been a recreation building with double-decker beds, and the floor was soon covered with suitcases, foot lockers, bed rolls, gas masks, musette bags, etc., etc., etc. A few days later, the Commanding General of the 9th Service Command put his head in the door but beat a very hasty retreat. "This must be changed at once," were his orders! Twenty-five of the nurses were moved to a nearby ward of the Station Hospital. Then one could walk between foot lockers instead of on them.

After three false starts, the great day came and there were no more passes or phone calls. On August 2nd we marched up the road to the train, the band was there to serenade us, also many officers to wave goodby. A month had been ample time for many new friendships; in fact, one has resulted in an overseas marriage!

ON AUGUST 3, 1943, the U. S. Transport Uruguay pulled away from the dock at Wilmington, Calif. The next 39 days were happy for many; some were several days finding their sea-legs, for, to most, this was their maiden sea voyage. The time passed slowly, boat drills, a few movies, card games in the crowded lounge, sitting on the deck most of the day - no chairs, carrying Mae Wests around our necks from dawn until retiring. There were some hallucinations as to the enemy dangers, many scuttlebutt rumors, but no real enemy was sighted on the trip.

A very pleasant and never-to-be-forgotten break in the long trip came at Hobart, Tasmania. The unit had never before witnessed such wonderful hospitality. Many were invited to the homes of the Island people, many of whom used their precious petrol to drive us about the small city.

The Uruguay sailed all too soon, and there were many invitations for the next day that never materialized. The next stop was only long enough to exercise on the beach at Freemantle, Australia. Several days later, the first glimpse of India came as the Uruguay steamed into the harbor of Bombay.

During the voyage all of the nurses had served in the sick bay, and several operations were performed by our own staff. The Commander of Troops and the Captain of the Uruguay commended the conduct and services of the nurses.

INCLUDED IN THIS photo are all of the 234th female personnel except for ten who were returned to the U.S.
earlier and three American Red Cross Girls. Photo by Nancy Huston.

It was now September 10, 1943. The new land was really amazing. The nurses had never before looked upon such a country. After a night in the Bay, the Uruguay came alongside the docks and, after several hours, all were granted shore passes. What an eye-opener to the American nurses. The city was well gone over by nightfall. In the evening, the Taj Mahal Hotel dining' room was full to capacity and the Army Nurse Corps uniform was very much in evidence.

On September 13th we boarded His Majesty's Troopship, the Nevassa. The voyage of ten days to Calcutta via the Bay of Bengal and the Hooghly river will long be remembered. We were all too new in this old world to get acquainted with all the customs, and what we termed "queer ideas." The crew of the Nevassa was very congenial, the food we prefer not to remember, and the heat will never be forgotten.

Then came the city we had read about a few years ago, the dirtiest city in the world, and the second largest in the British Empire. This was viewed from the deck of our troopship for hours. At ten that evening we marched off the deck up the dark railroad tracks to the train, our first introduction to a foreign method of transportation. After fighting mosquitos for hours in the dark freight yards, and sitting in dark cars with huge cockroaches scuttling about, the train slowly pulled out. The next seven days were not unlike a story one might read sitting by the fireside, and when finished state: "It seems impossible!"

The girls discovered the Indians had built two widths of railroad tracks, and in the pouring rain at one station all had to cross over to the other side of the station to get aboard the "narrow gauge." We discovered what the British "in transit" ration consists of: Tea made with water drained from the engine and used to wash down hard tack and bully beef. The train invariably stopped at a station when it came time to pass out rations. The beggars, at first interesting, soon became nauseating.

The next adventure came in the form of a trip on an Indian river boat. Leaving the train and proceeding via truck to the small town of Dhubri, we were told that this was the port of embarkation for the Brahmaputra River trip. That evening in the rain, part of the nurses were moved from a sparsely furnished British Officers' Club to the river craft; the rest stayed in the Officers' Club. Neither group slept. The next day the unit started up the great river. The river boat Sikh was crowded far beyond capacity. There was standing room only for the enlisted men, and on the top deck, all the Medical officers and nurses were crowded into a small space. There were three rooms with iron beds in them which accommodated a few of the girls. They resembled owaffles the next morning after lying on the bare springs! The remainder bedded down on the deck. More bully beef, more hardtack with orange marmalade!

After two nights and a day we left the river. The trip had its interesting side, however, in the native life on the river banks, the new type of vegetation, the first live monkeys ever seen outside cages, the queer river boats that were passed during the day.

The port of debarkation was a town called Pandu. Here the nurses were loaded into trucks and taken to another town called Gauhati, where a Baptist Mission Hospital was located. So a group of dirty, tired nurses descended on the little mission hospital. After several days of no washing facilities, to find this oasis was wonderful! A clean white bed, a shower, good food, a chance to "wash a few things," in true feminine fashion, and life once more looked better.

After two nights and a day there, we were marched to the station. The girls had appreciated the kindness of the mission so much that they left a liberal contribution.

Seven long days and nights later - five aboard an Indian train riding 3rd class - we pulled into a dirty little station, Chabua on October 3rd.

WE WERE GREETED by the Chief Nurse of the 95th Station Hospital, loaded into trucks for the five-mile ride to our new home. The officers at the 95th, with very limited facilities had made it as comfortable as possible for the new group. In true American fashion, the girls were soon settled. They scurried about, found boxes for tables, the hammering could be heard for blocks, and in a few hours they were at home as the news had spread like a prairie fire to the surrounding installations that 55 new girls were in the section! Jeeps, command cars, weapons carriers, motorcycles, etc., came up in a cloud of dust!

By October 5th we had our own hospital, the lllth Station Hospital, Advance Section No. 2, CBI Theater.

The Air Corps gets around on terra firma as well as in the air. In a few days the nurses were taken for jeep rides and introduced to the surrounding country and towns (?). We found we were in the heart of the tea country, acres of green bushes, quite refreshing compared to Bombay and the towns along the railroad.

Our nurses went on duty October 7th, assuming the nursing care of 165 patients, and they were being assisted by 26 other nurses on TD with our unit, from the 95th Station Hospital and the 21st Field Hospital. A year later there were nearly 900 patients in the hospital, and the nurses had again been reduced to 50, their helpers having been transferred to China several months before.

SECTION OF THE 234th General Hospital, showing surgical wards,
laboratory and medical section No. 1.

The first winter was very cold; wt never dreamed that winter in India could be so cold. There was no heat in the hospital or our barracks. Hot water for the patients' baths had to be heated in the back yards of the wards in oil drums. The night nurses fared the worst. They could hardly chart at night, their fingers were so cold. Wool slacks were worn under coveralls, and wool-lined flyers' jackets were donned. Frequently at the desk they were found with the sheepskin-lined flying boots over their GI shoes. The day nurses found the barracks cold in the evening. Many secured five-gallon cans from the mess sergeant, pushed several holes around the bottom edge and made charcoal fires in them. They created a smoke screen for the first 20 minutes, then a cloud of white, fine ash followed and, after about half an hour of real heat, the process of building charcoal fires started all over. Even the famous Indian charpoy, a four-poster about four-feet high, interlaced with bamboo and an Indian-made mattress over this seemed very comfortable to crawl into when we were tired of trying to keep the charcoal fires going. Everyone ate all meals wearing field jackets, sweaters, and various types of coats.

In March 1944 the complete unit was alerted. There was great danger of the Japanese cutting the rail line west of our station. Nurses were given a half day off to pack their musette bags with the bare necessities. Foot lockers were packed and locked to leave behind, canteens were kept full at all times and the group was assigned to three leaders who would supervise the evacuation if the time came. We were already acquainted with wartime activities due to several previous air raid warnings, which necessitated jumping into muddy slit trenches, assisting in complete evacuation of several hundred patients from the hospital in less than eight minutes, and once hearing the hum of the Jap bombers when they dropped a few bombs on an airfield only ten miles away (Dinjan). But that "time" never came. After a few weeks the musette bags were unpacked and the tenseness wore off.

CHRISTMAS 1943 was the most difficult time. Our packages didn't come, there were few greeting cards, and Christmas day dawned cold and rainy. But we forgot our own troubles and attempted to keep the patients cheered. Many had helped the one Red Cross worker of our hospital prepare the well-known red gauze stockings and fill them with Red Cross gifts for the boys. Many helped in the Carol singing on Christmas Eve.

Late Spring brought an increase in patient census. Many of the famous Merrill's Marauders were admitted. These were the first real foot soldiers who had been in contact with the enemy whom the nurses had cared for. We were deeply impressed by the gratitude expressed by these soldiers for the care the nurses gave them. It was a real morale-builder for the complete unit to at least feel we had the opportunity, in a small way, to carry out the mission for which we had joined the Army.

Then came our Allies, the Chinese. So many of them. In fact, at one time, during the hottest and wettest weather, a tent hospital had to be set up to care for them. They had absolutely no knowledge of English, no conception of sanitation, half-starved and each with three or more diagnosed diseases. A challenge to the young American nurses.

The nurses in the Malaria wards also had their first introduction to the results of the bite of the Anopheles mosquito. These wards were crowded to capacity.

Nurses in the Dermatology wards were seeing skin diseases they never had heard of. Wards for the gastro-intestinal cases were full also. Many types of dysenteries were treated.

During the Battle of Myitkyina there were many battle casualties. There were always bad accident cases from the busy Assam Trunk Road. During bad weather, frequent nearby plane accidents brought many officers and enlisted men to the hospital. The operating room was always a busy place.

We all weathered the monsoon season and by November all the nurses had a leave of 20 days to Darjeeling, Shillong, Calcutta, or the sea shore and were then ready for the last lap of our foreign stay.

NURSES OF the 234th assist Col. Harold S. Clark,
Chief Surgeon (right) during an appendectomy.

At Christmas of 1944 the unit seemed entirely different from the one of 1943. Uncle Sam saw to it that the mails came through. There were packages by the dozens for everybody, hundreds of Christmas cards. Ward competition in decorating was very keen and an ice cream party for the wards that was given by the Red Cross. The hospital was like a different land. The wards were trimmed beautifully, local tea branches furnished the green, and cotton the white. The mess department produced one of the best dinners ever served abroad, for personnel and patients alike. The mess halls were trimmed and there were tablecloths. (We didn't even suggest they had a similarity to sheets!) Even a big Christmas tree from the Naga Hills. There were many parties off the post which the nurses attended.

In fact, the social life for the first fourteen months had been very pleasant. In October 1943 there was only one smali Officers' Club in the entire area. Now, there were numerous clubs. In fact, so numerous they had to agree on alternating their festivities so the nurses might attend and make the parties at all the various installations successful.

To reciprocate for the many parties the local officers gave, the nurses sponsored a dance on Valentine's Day of both 1943 and 1944. The first was held in the sorting shed of a nearby tea factory. The Railway Battalion furnished the music, and there were sandwiches and punch (the boys, of course, helped "fix" the punch). The 1944 Hearts Ball was almost "Stateside" in grandeur. The Air Corps lent red and white 'chutes to help cover the walls of the mess hall, and one of the detachment made many sketches to put up. Boric acid powder on the rough cement floor made it like the ballroom at home. The S.O.S. band furnished the music. Sandwiches and more "fixed" punch were plentiful. Over 200 officers and nurses attended and they termed it the best party in Assam!

TDY OCTOBER OF 1944 the lllth Station Hospital had outgrown its restless shell and now was large enough for Theater Headquarters to give us a new name - the 234th General Hospital.

By May 1945, all the nurses remaining had received promotions. The Principal Chief Nurse, Sylvia G. Johnson, had become a major in April 1945. Marjorie Small, 1st Lt. at Camp Wheeler, was now Major Small, Surgical Supervisor and Assistant Chief Nurse. Myrna Campbell, 2nd Lt. in Georgia, was Captain Campbell, Medical Supervisor; Lt. Esther Yoffa, now Captain Yoffa, Operating Room Supervisor; Lt. Mary E. Scott, Captain Scott, in charge of the very large and active Psychiatric Section of the hospital. The other 30 nurses of the original group are all 1st lieutenants.

During the 24 months of overseas service, the sickness rate had not been what the hospital would term high. Thirteen of the original group had returned to the States; two had transferred to other hospitals in CBI. Only four had contracted malaria during that period.

These 35 still to return to the "promised land" will go back to the States from which they came. They will have ever so many stories to tell the family about the jackals that gave that weird serenade every night, the three small cobras killed on the back porch of quarters, the monkeys that ran across the road, the ugly water buffalo, the thousands of cows that wander all over India, the neighboring Indians; then those beautiful skies, not to be surpassed anywhere in the world, those wonderful moonlight nights when it seemed as though we could reach up and shake hands with the old man up there; the beautiful orchids in the spring, hundreds of them, and they didn't cost a cent; the gardenias we could buy from the old wallah we called "Grandpa" for a rupee for two dozen.

We will remember India as a strange, interesting land, containing some of nature's most picturesque and beautiful handiwork, and also, some of her most miserable creatures.

THE 234th nurses challenged the boys at ASC to a baseball game.
Turnout of soldier spectators was "tremendous!"

July 31, 1945, will be only three days from that long-awaited date which indicates that two years of foreign service have been completed.

Our girls will tell the folks back home that they were happy, that they had an opportunity to nurse GI Joe in the CBI, and they won't regret that they had a chance to see the vast country - India. But the final statement may be: "Mom, it did look best from the stern of the ship when she headed out to sea!" -THE END.

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