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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Agnes Cantwell, 1999

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Object ID: WV0086.5.001

Description:

Interview includes discussion of Agnes Cantwell’s early nursing studies; service during World War II in the Pacific Theater; postwar enrollment at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina; and work with cancer hospitals.

Summary:

Cantwell discusses her childhood and nursing education, recalling working odd jobs while attending night school; living in the nurses’ residence at St. John’s Hospital; working long hours; training in all fields of nursing; and having a boyfriend stationed in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Cantwell also describes her service with the Army Nurse Corps from 1945 to 1946. She recalls the details of her enlistment, as well as her first duty station at Mason General Hospital on Long Island. Topics include the atmosphere of this psychiatric facility; stories of the men returning from overseas service; and the sadness of seeing the disturbed men. Cantwell remembers preparing for overseas service and her journey to the Pacific. Topics pertaining to her tenure in the Philippines include the monsoon season; working and living in tents; Filipino girls; mail delays; and contracting jungle rot on her scalp. Topics related to her service in Japan include staying in the old Belgian Embassy; the hospital in an old department store; being frightened of the Japanese men; being caught in a storm on the trip back to the U.S.; and contracting scabies.

Cantwell’s discussion of her post-war life includes her education at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Topics include a friend of Dean Harriet Elliott recommending she attend Women’s College; enrolling in the two-year program with other military nurses; working at Wesley Long Hospital through school; adjusting to the strict rules of the college; and earning her bachelor of science in nursing.

Other topics include Cantwell’s work Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; meeting her husband; relocating to Washington, D.C.; working and traveling with the National Cancer Institute (NCI); retiring from the NCI and working with her husband; permanently retiring in 1992; and raising her two sons.

Creator: Agnes E Cantwell

Biographical Info: Agnes E. Cantwell (b. 1921) of New York City, a career nurse, also served in the Army Nurse Corps from March 1945 to July 1946.

Collection: Agnes Cantwell Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

ERIC ELLIOTT:

Well, my name is Eric Elliott and I am here today in what's said to be Fairfax, Virginia, though at the moment it looks like the woods near Fairfax, Virginia, truth in advertising be told here. I'm at the home of Agnes Cantwell. I want to say thank you for letting us come up here today.

This is going to be an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro [UNCG]. Again, my name is Eric. Today's May the 27th, 1999, a beautiful Thursday afternoon.

The questions I've got, Ms. Cantwell, are hopefully not too challenging. The first one shouldn't be, anyway. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

AGNES CANTWELL:

I was born in the Bronx, New York, and I went to Brooklyn, and then ended up on Long Island—Flushing, Long Island.

EE:

So all around the city growing up?

AC:

Yes.

EE:

You graduated from high school up in that area, too?

AC:

I graduated in Bayside, Long Island.

EE:

Do you have any brothers and sisters?

AC:

I have one brother.

EE:

Older or younger?

AC:

He was seven years younger than I was.

EE:

What did your folks do?

AC:

My father was a painter and decorator. My parents were born in Germany and came here when they were very young, in fact, right at the time of the First World War, I guess.

EE:

So did they have any relatives or anything when they came over here?

AC:

They just had a few cousins and distant relatives. They were kind of amazing in that they didn't speak any English and they got along.

EE:

That's great. Your mom, did she work outside the home or did she stay home with you?

AC:

She studied as a beautician, and she worked as a beautician for a while.

EE:

You graduated from Bayside, you say?

AC:

Bayside High School.

EE:

Are you somebody who liked school?

AC:

Was I someone who liked it?

EE:

Yes.

AC:

Oh, yes, I liked school very much. My parents, not having had a great deal of education, were always emphasizing education to my brother and me, so we were very anxious to go to school.

EE:

What was your favorite subject?

AC:

Well, let's see. I didn't like arithmetic too much, I know that. [chuckles] I guess I liked English a lot and history. I think those were my favorite subjects.

EE:

When did you graduate from high school?

AC:

I graduated in 1939.

EE:

In New York state, at that time—I know in North Carolina we were rather slow to get to the twelfth year for graduation—was it eleven or twelve-year high school in New York?

AC:

Well, we went right through the eighth grade and then four years [of high school].

EE:

What did you plan on doing after you graduated from high school?

AC:

Well, these were rather difficult times. In fact, it was right in the middle of the Depression, so one had to be sort of practical about what you were going to do. I always wanted to be an actress but I knew that wasn't very practical. So the other thing was I wanted to be a nurse.

EE:

What was your maiden name?

AC:

Knull, K-n-u-l-l.

EE:

So did you go get a job—or what did you do right after high school?

AC:

I had studied secretarial training in high school, as well as academic subjects, but I needed some additional courses when I applied for nursing school. I had to have chemistry and algebra, which I hadn't taken in high school. So my first year after high school, I went to night school. I had a job in the daytime in a little department store and I also took care of children, and I went to night school and got my requirements. Then the following year I went into training.

EE:

Nurse's training for most folks, I guess, at that time went through a local teaching hospital.

AC:

Yes. I went to St. John's Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, which was an Episcopal Hospital connected with the Long Island-Brooklyn diocese. That was a three-year program for nurses.

EE:

Did you stay there to complete that whole three-year program?

AC:

Oh, yes.

EE:

So you were there through—

AC:

1944.

EE:

Were you living at home at that time?

AC:

Oh, no, no. We all lived at the hospital. It was very strict. We worked twelve hours every day. If we worked night duty we had to get up for classes in the daytime.

EE:

Did you have to work weekends, too?

AC:

Oh, yes, we worked weekends. You had certain days off. We had a different day off each week. We lived in the nurses' residence. It was a very interesting experience, to say the least. We still get together with classmates. Those nurses from my original nurse's training at St. John's have gotten together for our fiftieth anniversary.

EE:

That's great.

AC:

I had a class of about twenty-four at that time, and I guess there are probably, oh, maybe about fifteen or so left. I don't know. Quite a few have died.

EE:

So your folks were supportive of your decision to go into nursing?

AC:

Oh, yes.

EE:

They thought it was a great idea?

AC:

Oh, yes. Well, my mother thought it was a little hard as a job and so on, but they would not want me not to go.

EE:

Did you all specialize in a type of nursing or like one month you would do emergency, one month you would do surgery?

AC:

You had to cover all the fields of medicine including psychiatry. We went away to Brooklyn State Hospital for three months. That was a psychiatric affiliation. And we had visiting nursing and we had surgical, medical, pediatrics. We had to cover every phase of nursing in that three year period.

EE:

Were you paid a salary while you were working there?

AC:

No.

EE:

You worked as part of your training?

AC:

We were paid no salary. That was our education. In fact, we had to pay something. It wasn't very much; I think it was $800 originally, if I remember, as an entrance fee. I'm not sure whether we got our uniforms or we had to pay for our uniforms. I don't remember now what it was.

EE:

But then you basically worked for your schooling?

AC:

That's right. Of course, you got your room and board, I suppose. You would have to consider that, such as it was.

EE:

Did you work during the summers as well? Was this year-round for three years?

AC:

Oh, yes, we went right through the three years. We did get three weeks off, I think, vacation—or maybe a month vacation. You took that at different times during the year. You worked holidays, you worked weekends, you worked right through the year.

EE:

But you were close enough where you could go home and see the folks?

AC:

Yes. But we had a ten o'clock curfew and you got a one late leave once a month, until 12:30. Pretty strict.

EE:

Pretty strict. One of the things that's happening to you, in addition to learning a career, is that—you're probably reading the newspaper, or hearing from folks who were experiencing it—[in] 1939 Hitler starts a war right when you're just finishing with high school.

AC:

Right.

EE:

I'm sure the talk is how long before we're having to get involved with it. Then Pearl Harbor happens. Do you remember where you were on Pearl Harbor Day?

AC:

Let's see. Well, I had to be—

EE:

Were you working that day?

AC:

Yes. I had to be in the hospital.

EE:

Did you have any idea of what that meant that day?

AC:

Well, I did, because I had a boyfriend who was in the service already—and he was in Hawaii, as a matter of fact. So I thought a lot about it.

EE:

Did you find out first-hand about him pretty soon?

AC:

Yes. He got in touch with his family and so forth and so that we knew that he was all right.

EE:

So immediately you were concerned because you had somebody you cared about who was being affected at the time.

AC:

Yes. Then by this time all my young friends at home were in the service. The boys that I knew from my neighborhood, they were all going into the service.

EE:

Did they have anybody come to your school talking about the cadet nurse program?

AC:

No, that wasn't yet in effect. That didn't come into effect until a little bit later, I think. I think just after I finished. See, I finished in '44, and I think just about that time they were talking about conscripting nurses, and that was sort of one of the reasons that my friends—two of my friends and I decided we might as well join the army.

EE:

Go and join, see, where you have a little more control over there where you went.

AC:

Well, that's what we thought. [chuckles]

EE:

[chuckles] Like many misguided souls. Join the military and tell the military what you want to do.

AC:

That's right. We joined together, and that was in hopes that we would stay together. Of course, my last name began with a “K” and my two friends were “B” and a “C.” So they went together, but I went elsewhere.

EE:

You say you made a decision. Did your folks have any concern about you joining the service?

AC:

Well, I didn't tell anybody anything. I just went and joined and then I came home and told my parents. Of course, my mother was anxious and so forth, but my parents were always very accepting of the things that I decided. They didn't fuss too much.

EE:

Did you go directly from finishing nursing training into the service, or what did you do?

AC:

I finished in October of '44. Then I worked in the hospital where I trained as a registered nurse until we left in March of '45 to go into the service.

EE:

Were you a floor nurse?

AC:

I was working the operating room. I was a surgical operating room nurse.

EE:

April of '45 you go—

AC:

Well, I guess I went in March, actually. Yes, I went in March. And in March I went to Fort Dix at Trenton, New Jersey, for basic training.

EE:

So you did have to go through some sort of basic?

AC:

Oh, yes, we had to go to basic training—Gas masks and all that stuff.

EE:

Did they tell you that you were likely to be sent overseas, or what did they tell you, anything at all?

AC:

No, not really. We didn't know. I guess there were some nurses already who were in Italy in the campaign up through North Africa and everything. My guess—you know how when you're a young person you don't think too far ahead. My husband wanted to join the paratroopers. You didn't worry about whether you were going overseas or not.

However, my first assignment after I finished basic training was at Mason General Hospital on Long Island, which was a debarkation point for all the psychiatric patients that came back from overseas. And that was kind of an awakening. There were a lot of young officers—enlisted men from the East Coast.

EE:

What do you call it, battle fatigue?

AC:

There were a lot of ward boys that had been through the Italian battles, and we had Italian prisoners there at the hospital who were psychiatric patients. Of course, these boys didn't have much use for these prisoners so they treated them pretty badly. They liked to scare the devil out of the nurses about what happened to you in the foxholes overseas. So that was one of the worst times for me. I was very, very lonely, because I was on night duty and in the morning when you came off duty—it just wasn't a friendly place.

EE:

How long were you in training before you were put into that situation? Was it just a month or so?

AC:

I think basic was a month or so.

EE:

It wasn't very long.

AC:

No. It might have been about six weeks, I'm not sure. I can't remember now. You know, that's a long time ago.

EE:

Right.

AC:

We went in in March, and probably by—let's see. No, it had to be about a month afterward, because at the end of April I was already at Indiantown Gap. From Mason General on Long Island, I went to Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, where we were then being prepared to go overseas. That was the preparation there.

EE:

Had [Franklin D.] Roosevelt already passed away by the time you—

AC:

Yes. Then I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. We were getting ready to go overseas, and we had a complete winter issue, and this was in June.

EE:

So you were there at Fort Jackson. It sounds like all these stops were just brief stops.

AC:

Getting ready. [In] Indiantown Gap, we did a lot of hiking. We had a lot of gas mask drills. We got our issue, our winter issue to go to Europe. We were scheduled for Europe. Then from there, as I say, I went to Columbia, Fort Jackson. After VE Day we turned in our winter clothes and got our summer clothes for the Pacific, our tropical issue. [chuckles]

EE:

Kind of a strange moment in history where you could flip-flop an entire hemisphere for your career.

AC:

That's right, exactly.

EE:

I guess you're there because you all don't know about the atomic bomb and everybody assumes that we're going to have to invade Japan like we did in Europe.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

That's going to be a long time.

AC:

That's right. Then we knew we would have to go to the Pacific. My friend was back from Hawaii by this time, and so—I guess I shouldn't tell this story. I was anxious to get home. So I went to the—I can't believe I did it—went to the commanding officer and told him that a friend had come back and that I wanted to get married, so he let me go. So I went home, but I didn't have any intentions of getting married. But his sister was getting married and it was a big whole family affair, and I wanted so bad to be there. So he let me go.

The trains were horrible. We traveled those trains. They were sooty. They were those steam trains, and with your uniform it was hot. They were packed with service people. It was awful. But I got home and came back.

EE:

Did everybody ask, “Where's the ring?”

AC:

No. I just said, “Well, it didn't work.” That was the end of that. But we were still friends for a long time. He didn't know, of course, what I had done—all this story. So then I came back, and then we were ready to go. We came back up to Camp Kilmer.

EE:

Where is Camp Kilmer?

AC:

It's in Staten Island, I think. Then we went through the Panama Canal. It was a hospital ship, the Stafford, it was called. It had about 400 nurses, over 400 nurses, and the same number of dentists, around 400 dentists. It was all nurses and dentists on the hospital ship. We went through the Panama Canal and down past Southern California, where we had a big storm. We stopped at Hawaii, and they let us off the ship at Waikiki Beach for a little holiday, and Pearl Harbor. That was really beautiful. I mean the boats where we came in. Then we went on. I landed in Manila, the Philippines on September 8.

On the way over, of course, was VJ Day. I guess I left here on August 1—we were thirty-nine days going across. Thirty-nine days. I met a dentist on the ship who had been in my neighborhood also. Anyway, it was very interesting.

So when we came to Manila, I stayed there. Then we were shifted to various groups, to different field hospitals.

EE:

All throughout the Philippines?

AC:

All throughout the Philippines. I went to Japan later. It was a little different field hospitals. A big hospital was the 80th General, I think. That was actually a pretty good building. And there were still Japanese prisoners. Trucks would go by with Japanese prisoners. It was pretty exciting on board ship when we heard about VJ Day.

EE:

The way it ended with the bomb.

AC:

Well, first, we'd get information that the Japanese would not agree to a surrender. We heard that. I remember writing in my diary how disappointed everybody was.

But anyway, then, as I say, we came into Manila, and it was pretty scary because we were in these tents, just tents, and in the Philippines it rains so hard. We just had these boardwalks to the latrines.

EE:

Are you in monsoon season? I don't know my tropical geography. That's monsoon season, summertime.

AC:

Yes. There were rats, you know, and everything. It was pretty scary for young women at that time.

EE:

You were at a field hospital?

AC:

Yes.

EE:

So that means that you—

AC:

The tent hospitals.

EE:

You lived in a tent?

AC:

Yes, right. That's what I say; all of our quarters were just tents. That was true much of the time I was in the Philippines. Later we had some barracks.

EE:

How long did you stay in the Philippines?

AC:

Well, I got there in September—

EE:

It would have been August.

AC:

The end of August, right after VJ Day. I stayed there until December, I guess, the end of December. In early January we started for Japan, to be with the army of occupation, the Eighth Army. I was in about three or four different field hospitals in the Philippines. First they were here, and then they sent us there and so on.

EE:

What was the kind of work you were doing? Were you a surgical nurse there or what kind of nurse work were you doing?

AC:

I was just doing general duty there, mainly.

EE:

I know back in the States, the army was sort of like a triage thing. You'd have a burn hospital; you'd have an amputee hospital. You're used to dealing with all kinds of patients.

AC:

Yes, right, could be anything.

EE:

Could be battlefield injuries, could be malaria, could be—

AC:

Could be an appendix. We had all kinds. Then we had a lot of jungle rot. In fact, I got the jungle rot myself. When it wasn't raining, it was very dry and dusty and it was hot. When you rode in the car, jeeps or whatever, around, was so much dust. So we were showering all the time. That was probably the wrong thing to do, in a way. I think it took all the natural oils from our bodies, and I got a terrible infection on my head. I thought I was going to lose all my hair. I had these big sores. Part of it was, too, because all these patients slept in cots with nets, mosquito nets over their beds. So every time you went in to give a penicillin shot, your cap or your hair might brush against the net, because you had to lift up the net. I think there was so much mildew and fungus. We had a lot of trouble with fungus, with skin conditions. So that was really a terrible thing for me. I couldn't wait to get out of there.

I didn't want to go to the sick bay because I didn't want to become a patient, because these guys could not get over this. It was terrible. Because of the humidity and so on, it was so hard to get over these skin conditions. So I just went to a medical officer that I knew, a friend of mine, and he gave me some medication and I just took care of it. He and I took care of it. I never went to the sick bay, because I knew that once I got into cool weather I'd be all right.

So as soon as I got on the ship to go to Japan, I went right to the sick bay and they said that I had some infected teeth, because I was getting sores all over. I had it under my arms and in my hair, everywhere. I was a mess. So the ship is going crazy, rough weather, and I'm having my teeth pulled. I had to have two teeth pulled.

So anyway, we stopped in Korea on the way. We went to Inchon. For a day or so, we landed in LSTs [landing ship tanks]. That was kind of exciting for us, the nurses. Then we stayed in Korea for just a couple of days, and then we went on to Japan. I remember going by Okinawa and seeing the land, going through the China Sea there and so on. Then we went to Japan. We landed in Yokohama, and we nurses were stationed in what had been the Belgian Embassy. It was a small, little house outside of Yokohama.

The hospital was a three-story, four-story, had been a department store. That's where we were. That was a building standing by itself among just excavations all around. I was on night duty. I would look out in the morning, out of the window, and see all these little Japanese people crawling out of the holes. But it was a very interesting experience.

We had some young Japanese boys working as ward boys on the wards, and also in our quarters there were young women, and they were very young, young teenagers, mostly. They were very—so humble, kind of, very helpful. So it was a very interesting experience.

EE:

Were most of the nurses that you were working with about your age?

AC:

Yes, I think so. The captain of our unit was a little older. Some of them were older. Most of them, I think, were about my age.

EE:

Did they transfer you to these stations sort of in lots? It sounds like when you went through training, like from the beginning, that you may have been moved as a group of nurses to go to Indiantown Gap and then Fort Jackson. You were as a group?

AC:

Yes. We usually were.

EE:

Company or whatever it was.

AC:

Yes. As I say, my first assignment where I went to Mason General Hospital, that was a psychiatric hospital. That was another reason, I guess, I went with just a very small group there, and there weren't many that I knew or anything. But after a while, when we got back to Indiantown Gap, there was a whole big bunch of us there.

EE:

So you all went over there together?

AC:

There were a lot of them that went over on the boat together. Several of my best friends went also to the same hospitals in the Philippines. I did have the one friend who was older, and before we went to Japan, she was over thirty-five and she was sent home. But at that time, at thirty-five and over you were sent back home. So she went. She left. I was very disappointed because we were real good friends.

EE:

When you were in the Philippines, you're what, four to a tent or something? How was your housing?

AC:

Yes, we were just in tents like that. It was sort of more of a longer tent-type. I mean, maybe there were ten, twelve, that sort of thing.

EE:

You were working seven-day shifts?

AC:

Well, actually in the Philippines we worked tropical hours. We only worked half days. You worked a morning shift or an afternoon shift. Because, see, we're in the tropics and those were tropical hours. You just worked a half a day. You probably worked from seven to one, and one to seven, and seven to one, and so on during the night.

EE:

So you'd alter those.

AC:

Yes. Sometimes you worked days. Some days you worked in the morning, some days you worked in the afternoon, and so on.

EE:

Did you have any opportunity to travel or to have any free time when you were in the Philippines?

AC:

We did take a few trips. Of course, you made friends. We had some male officer friends. I had a lot of friends in the engineers and they could get a jeep once in a while and we'd go on a little trip. We went to Batangas and Bagulo. We also were downtown Manila where the main boulevard was—what was that name? Dewey Boulevard? I can't remember.

EE:

Could be. Dewey would have been right there.

AC:

Dewey Boulevard, I think. There were a few nice little places, restaurants and so on. I get mixed up. In the Philippines, the Filipino girls, some of the girls worked in the nurses' barracks, but there was a lot of stealing. They used to steal our clothes off the line.

EE:

Who [is] the “they”?

AC:

The Filipinos. They stole a lot of things. I remember I was reading a diary before, earlier today, and I wrote in my diary that our escorts had to carry a gun. I had forgotten all about that. But if we traveled from one village to another they had to carry a gun.

EE:

Well, it's not that long after the war is over.

AC:

That's right.

EE:

I guess it was in a secured compound with wire around it.

AC:

As I say, the girls—years after, I received letters from the little Filipino girls who worked in our barracks, after I was home, back in the States. They had to assist and help the guerilla fighters and so on.

EE:

All the nurses were women. You were working under army doctors. You were probably treated very professionally, my guess is, on the job. You didn't have problems being a woman? This traditionally was the role of a woman.

AC:

Oh, no. I also wrote one time in my diary that somebody, an officer or somebody said he didn't think—I guess it was a really bad time, and he said he didn't think that women should be in the army. I wrote in my diary that I agreed with him. So it must have been a time when it wasn't—

EE:

It must have been a bad time.

AC:

That's right. I do remember also, we did go to Mindoro once on a trip. I also remember in the Philippines that when we arrived, a whole large number of nurses came up from New Guinea and from Corregidor, Guadalcanal, all those, and they were getting ready to go home. They were so sad-looking; they were so thin and yellow from the malaria. I felt so sorry for them. They were on their way home. We were coming in and they were going. But I remember how awful they looked. They'd really had been through it. My job was a picnic compared to what they had been through.

EE:

How were you treated by the patients, by the enlisted folks?

AC:

The patients, they liked us a lot. We were nurses, so all the patients were—

EE:

Did you all have Red Cross folks assigned to work with you as well?

AC:

There were a few. The Red Cross workers mostly worked in the—

EE:

The general hospital?

AC:

—the PX [post exchange]. The PXs and the quartermaster, you know, places like that, the clubs and so on. There weren't too many that worked with us on the wards. We just had nurses working on the wards, and we had medics, ward boys that used to help us.

EE:

Your first Christmas away from home, then?

AC:

Well, that was funny in the Philippines. Then there were some times when we didn't get any mail for a long time. I remember I wrote down, “Gee whiz, are we ever going to get some mail?” Then it would come all of a sudden in a big bunch, you'd get a whole bunch at once. We'd write home for things every now and then. For a period they had no soap, and so I wrote home for soap. Then, of course, we got soap, and my mother sent a whole bunch of soap, so pretty soon I had lots of soap, you know things like that.

The food was the same way. They'd get big shipments of canned peaches until you thought if you saw another canned peach you were going to throw it. That's the way it went. They had grapefruit juice which tasted like battery acid. We used to call it battery acid. We had our metal canteens that we drank out of, so you can imagine grapefruit juice in a metal canteen. So those were just some of the things. The eggs were awful. They used those powdered dehydrated eggs.

EE:

Did you have some fruit you had never had before? Lot of papayas and mangoes?

AC:

Oh, yes. But we got those when we'd go to the beach, and we'd get those from the local people. Yes, that was wonderful.

EE:

Did you find yourself with a map in your pocket? This is a new part of the world for you, I guess, isn't it?

AC:

Yes, you did. You found out about certain places to go and so on. Mostly, as I say, we made friends with different officers.

EE:

Some of the Filipinos spoke English?

AC:

Oh, yes. Yes. Most of them spoke pretty well. A lot of them spoke well.

EE:

When you go to Japan, that's a different situation.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

Tell me about your Japan experience.

AC:

Well, as I told you about the young people, they impressed me very much. They would take anything that was left on the trays that came back from the patients. They would take because they had nothing. Japan at that time was very rural. They just had wagons, just wooden wagons. But they were very industrious. In the spring, every inch of ground was cultivated. They were very industrious.

We took a trip. We would ride from Yokohama to Tokyo and go to the Imperial Hotel. I remember there was a dance there one night, and there were a whole bunch of Russians there. That was kind of new. So this Russian gentleman asked me to dance, and we exchanged no words. But we'd heard plenty about the Russians, so I was a little leery about the Russians. But they were there in Tokyo also.

EE:

Don't ask them to share a vodka with you. They'll drink you under the table. [chuckles]

AC:

Right. So let's see, what else about Japan?

EE:

The hospital that you said you worked in, you said it was an old department store.

AC:

Had been a department store, yes.

EE:

Was it a general hospital, as well?

AC:

Yes. It was called a station hospital, actually, and I don't know why. I guess there was probably another big hospital in Tokyo.

EE:

About how many beds were in this hospital?

AC:

I don't remember if there were five floors then or three floors. I can't remember. So each floor had at least eighty patients we had on the ward. It was a pretty big place. We had a lot of responsibility there. The particular captain that we had, he gave the nurses a lot of responsibility.

I remember one time, a funny story, a soldier had gotten into a fight and the other guy bit his ear off. So they sewed it back on, but it wasn't doing very well. This captain assigned me to take out the sutures. Of course, it was not very good. The thing had really just kind of shriveled. It just wasn't very good. So I had a lot of responsibilities there.

EE:

You were doing floor nurse surgical?

AC:

Yes. Mostly I was doing floor nurse. But you had to dress wounds and start infusions and blood transfusions, etc.

EE:

Unlike some of the other people I've talked with in the military, you don't really have—your CO [commanding officer] is the doctor that you're working with?

AC:

Yes.

EE:

You don't have a separate nurse command structure. There's not a leader or a first lieutenant who comes in and says, “Here's what we're going to do.”

AC:

No. The command officer was the more—we were directly under him more. We did have nurses who were in charge of assignments—but we hardly saw them, I guess. I don't even remember much relationship with the nurses. I remember the commanding officer.

EE:

Did you stay at the one place in Yokohama throughout your time in Japan?

AC:

Yes, at the Belgian Embassy.

EE:

It was all of '46 to the very end, then?

AC:

Yes, at the Belgian Embassy.

EE:

You came back because they were demobilizing and bringing people back home?

AC:

I guess so. I guess we got our orders to go home then after we were there for a certain period of time.

EE:

What was the toughest thing that you had to do during your time in service, either physically or emotionally?

AC:

Well, as I said, that first experience with the psychiatric patients was really very difficult. I was very depressed, and I wasn't far from home. When I had a day off I could go home, because this was on Long Island. I could take the train and go home, and I did. But I didn't have much time to do that. I think I was there about a month before I was transferred on further—but that was very bad—overseas, of course.

Then working in the tent hospitals in the Philippines was hard because the weather was so hot and sticky and rainy. As I say, we had to go out at night to the latrine and we walked across these boards, and there would be rats running around. All those things were pretty shocking, I guess.

EE:

Did you ever feel in physical danger during your work?

AC:

Not really, just when I was very unhappy with my condition in the Philippines when I had that jungle rot. I didn't like that too much. But physically it was kind of scary when we first came and saw all these truckloads of Japanese going by, but the war was over. Sometimes when we travel, as I say, when we traveled in the Philippines, when we went across a large area where there weren't many people or something, it was a little scary if you were just with one other guy.

EE:

But you never traveled by yourself?

AC:

No, no.

EE:

Did you ever think about making the military a career?

AC:

Well, when we came back they were very anxious to have us join the reserves and so on, but we heard that you might get assigned to Corpus Christi in Texas, taking care of officers' wives, and that didn't appeal to us. Maternity, we weren't interested. I wanted to go to school, so I decided to leave.

I came back on a Victory ship [WWII cargo ship] from Yokohama. It was twelve days coming back. We came back to Seattle. It was a very, very rough trip. There were only about twenty-four nurses on that ship, and it was extremely rough. We went through a storm the whole way and the ship would list fifteen feet and then go over twenty feet. It was very rough. We were in very close quarters. By the time I got home I had scabies. So I had to stay in the hospital in—

EE:

Seattle?

AC:

No, I came back here. Where was I? I didn't go to Fort Dix. I don't where I—

EE:

You weren't treated at—

[Begin Tape 1, Side 2]

EE:

This was?

AC:

1946.

EE:

This was right at the end of the year? This was before Christmas?

AC:

No, it was around July. Yes, because I got out at the end of July. I stayed in the hospital for about five weeks or so. I think I was somewhere on the East Coast.

EE:

This is where your buddies talked you into applying to a place called Women's College [now UNCG]?

AC:

Yes. Yes. My friend said—

EE:

She knew Dean [Harriet] Elliott.

AC:

She knew Dean Elliott and so we quickly applied.

EE:

Harriet Elliott was working in Washington at that time.

AC:

Yes. Well, she was in Washington at that time, yes. She was a good friend of Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt.

EE:

Had you heard anything at all about Women's College before this?

AC:

No, no, nothing. I was a New Yorker. I grew up in New York. I didn't know anything about North Carolina.

EE:

At least you know it's a state. That's good for some folks from New York.

AC:

It was sort of interesting to me, though. I was interested in going because it was the South, and I hadn't been in the South ever. And I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was for many reasons. First of all, the majority of the students were young girls from high school, and here we were, and we were again subjected to very strict rules. You had to be in at ten o'clock. You had no leave and all this kind of thing—the honor system. It was very interesting.

EE:

Were they still serving the meals where you were table served, they did table service for you?

AC:

That's right. Yes.

EE:

Were you mixed into the dorm with other—

AC:

Yes, women.

EE:

So what dorm were you assigned to?

AC:

It began with an “H.” Hinshaw? Gee, I have to do a lot of remembering here.

EE:

I'm testing your memory here. Did you come in and get credits for your earlier training in nurse's training—

AC:

Yes.

EE:

—or with your other schools?

AC:

We got credits. This was a two-year program.

EE:

So you came in basically as a junior, like a junior college transfer.

AC:

Well, we started as freshmen, though. I mean, we had to take freshmen English and all the freshmen courses. It was very hard. We'd been out of school now for a while, and to sit down and have to study—I remember getting a terrible headache trying to do sociology.

EE:

I got a headache the first time around. [chuckles]

AC:

The language of sociology, it was very hard. It was hard for us. Then a lot of us nurses went to work at the local hospital.

EE:

Moses Cone, or—

AC:

Wesley Long [Community Hospital]. We would work weekends. So we worked very hard. I mean, it was difficult for many reasons—for the fact that we had been on our own for a long time. We still had a lot of freedom in the army about our hours and about where we went. It was different. Then suddenly we were in school again with very strict rules.

One of my friends stayed out a little bit late, a little over ten o'clock one night, and she had to go before the student board. That was terrible, because she was older than all these young girls who were questioning her. It was very hard for us in that respect.

EE:

Sure, because as you get older, four years doesn't make a big difference, but at college-age that's a huge difference.

AC:

That's right. We had already been through training. We had already had a lot of responsibility as individuals, where these girls were just out of high school.

EE:

“Why are you questioning us?”

AC:

Wet behind the ears, as they say. So it was hard for us in many ways.

EE:

Were you all taking regular nursing courses?

AC:

We were taking mostly liberal arts courses. We had our nursing, you see.

EE:

Because the goal was to get a B.S. [bachelor of science] and the B.S. would be in nursing. Basically all your nurse's training was basically experience and your previous experience.

AC:

Yes. Yes, it was a B.S. in nursing. We took all liberal arts courses. It was wonderful. I just loved it. We took philosophy, we took political science, we took history, we took English, we took musical—

EE:

Musical appreciation?

AC:

Musical appreciation. Psychology.

EE:

Did you go hear the [unclear]?

AC:

Oh, loved it. Loved it. Oh, I loved it. It was wonderful.

EE:

Did you do much in the way of social? It sounds like you were working too much to have much of a social life.

AC:

Social was nil, absolutely nil. That was the worst part. We had no social life, because we had no way of meeting any men at all. We had no time, and the time that we did have off, we worked at Wesley Long. So it was very hard. Those two years were very, very hard. But at the same time I loved it because I appreciated the opportunity to get an education.

EE:

Did Dean Elliott come back to the school?

AC:

No, I don't think so.

EE:

Do you remember any teachers or administrators or folks you remember from those days?

AC:

Oh, yes. I remember lots of them. Ms. [Jane] Summerell was our English professor. What was the other English teacher? I remember their faces and their bodies now. Oh, who was that one in history that I just loved so much? I can't think of it now. England? Was it Ms. England? She taught speech. There was a Ms. [Kathryn] England who taught speech. There was another history teacher. I can't remember them now. That's terrible.

EE:

You finished in '48?

AC:

Yes.

EE:

Where did you go after that?

AC:

I went back to New York, and I went to work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the cancer hospital in New York City.

EE:

That was a fairly new facility then, wasn't it?

AC:

No, it had been around quite a while. They had been at another location. Now they were on East 68th Street. The original hospital was up around 70th, somewhere on the West Side. Then they built this new hospital here. I stayed there for seven years. I went from a staff nurse to a clinical supervisor.

I met my husband there. He came from Washington. He was born in North Carolina, which is funny, and I always used to stop in Washington going back and forth from school because I thought Washington was so interesting. So we'd get off the train and go do the museums when we had time between semesters or whenever we had time. So anyway, he was doing a dental residency at Memorial and we met there. I was there from '48 till '55, and we got married in '55 and came back to Washington.

EE:

So he set up private practice here?

AC:

Yes.

EE:

What about you? Did you continue with nursing?

AC:

I worked with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda [Maryland].

EE:

Did they have a hospital there?

AC:

There was a hospital, a national cancer hospital. I mean, they had patients there, of course. These were patients who were sort of research, because National Cancer Institute is research. I worked there with patients for a little while, and then I worked with a nursing research unit. That's Public Health Service, of course, and I used to go out and do seminars and so forth with nurses.

EE:

Special needs among oncology patients, that type of thing?

AC:

Yes. Teaching oncology. Clinical nursing.

EE:

That would be very rewarding.

AC:

It was. I found it very interesting. I had an interesting experience. I went out to Nebraska. When my father first came to this country, that's where he went. We had some distant relatives there, and so when I went out there with the—well, actually I went there from Memorial, from the Cancer Society. I guess I went with the Cancer Society. I don't know, because I also went on some trips when I was at Memorial.

When I was at Memorial, the director of nurses sent me and another nurse to Washington, because Frances Bolton in the House of Representatives was trying to fight a battle for nurses and to upgrade the status of nurses and salaries and so on. So I came and visited her office here in Washington. Then, I guess, later, I guess I went from the National Cancer Institute—I can't remember which—but I did traveling with both Memorial and National Cancer Institute, at different times.

EE:

So you retired from the National Cancer Institute?

AC:

Yes. Then I had two little boys, and so I stayed home and took care of them. Then later on I went to work and managed my husband's office.

EE:

You still came home and could have a conversation? [chuckles]

AC:

That's right. We did pretty well. So I worked there for ten years or so in his office. We just retired in 1992, so we've been retired for a few years, having a good time.

EE:

I was going to say, it's good to get to this point where you all could just spend some nice time together.

AC:

Yes, we have a good time. He's writing a book on chess, and I play tennis, and we play golf, and we have a good time—travel.

EE:

Well, I'll have to challenge him to a match then.

AC:

Are you a chess player?

EE:

I used to be, but don't tell him that. I used to be when I had, I guess, academic pretenses in high school thinking it was the key to higher brain power.

AC:

Yes. That's right.

EE:

When you think back about the time, you've been in a number of environments. I think anytime—my mother's a nurse—

AC:

Is that right?

EE:

—so I have empathy for nurses.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

Outside of the professional things I'm doing today. I know nurses get the chance to witness acts of heroism, people doing above and beyond the call efforts all the time. But when you think about your time in the service, and even before—think about World War II, that era—were there heroes or heroines in your mind that stand out?

AC:

You mean on a personal basis?

EE:

Either personally that you experienced, or just folks that you admired for what they did.

AC:

Well, let's see.

EE:

When you mentioned Frances Bolton, she was obviously a strong advocate that you admired.

AC:

Well of course, not only in the service, you mean other times. Well, of course, when I was at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, I suppose that's the most significant time of my life working with cancer patients there, the doctors and everything there. Everybody worked together very well, the nurses and the doctors. There has been a great change in nursing and in the medical field, when I talk to nurses today and so forth. There was a great deal—we thought we were going to find the answer to cancer within the next few years. It was research and that was—

EE:

It's a big push. Lots of federal dollars come into that.

AC:

Yes. So I think that was probably the—working with those doctors, they did a lot of surgery and the residents had to work very hard. The nurses, we had to work very hard there. Everything was sort of critical. You had this very extensive surgery. At that time surgery was the big thing when I was there. Of course, they've gone away from that now, and the answer is more radiation and chemotherapy. But at that time they thought they could—they used to do the most radical breast surgery and that sort of thing.

So I think that time was a most significant time for me in my life. But in the army, of course, by the time I got there it was—it was a lot of—the psychiatric experience made such a great impression on me. Because at that time there were so many, there were two kinds of patients there besides the Italian prisoners.

The young boys that—this was the debarkation point for everybody on the East Coast, all those coming back on the East Coast. So there were a lot of young boys from Tennessee, from Kentucky. These were young fellows that didn't have much education, came from families that were—there was a lot of intermarriage and so on. Those kids were the ones that ended up in the psychiatric ward, as well as the officers, the young officers, who had been through so much in the African campaign and coming up. And so you had those two types. It was very sad to see—and these are all young men. I don't know if you have ever been in a psychiatric hospital, but it was very sad.

EE:

We didn't have the drugs for controlling behaviors that we do now.

AC:

That's right. We had a lot of patients.

EE:

Did you witness electroshock therapy?

AC:

Oh, sure. Well, I had that in my training as well. When I had my psychiatric affiliation, we did that, yes.

EE:

That was sort of one of the preferred treatments for battle fatigue, wasn't it?

AC:

Yes, right. Yes.

EE:

Everybody in there meets characters.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

You don't know much about them, but there are personalities that make a memory for you. Are there some characters in your—

AC:

Well, different doctors. Some doctors were very strict and that sort of thing—but mostly dealing with people that you worked with, some in training. Some of our supervisors, when I was in training, were very severe. Some doctors were. I remember a left-handed doctor when I was doing surgery and he always had to have everything backwards and you were so used to doing it for the right hand. I handed him the needle backwards. Things like that you remember, I guess.

EE:

You mean there are some serious people, and then there are some people who are team-builders.

AC:

There was a ward boy who was—when I was in North Carolina, and he was obviously not very bright, almost seemed retarded. Maybe he wasn't retarded, but he used to come around and do things for us in the barracks and so on. I can still see him, picture him, and we sort of chuckled along with him, but I suppose that he was a character.

But some of the nurses were characters, too. There was one girl who had had a very strict upbringing and Catholic schools and so on. When she got liberty, she went wild. She was a character. We used to wonder how she was going to end up. Different things, I guess, like that.

EE:

The very first job you had out of nurse's training in New York was in the military.

AC:

That's right. Well, actually, I worked at the hospital. I don't know if you recall, but it was the same hospital, I just stayed there and worked as a graduate nurse.

EE:

That was the military job took you away from New York.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

Took you away from home.

AC:

Right.

EE:

Put you around people from all over the world.

AC:

Yes, that's right.

EE:

Did the military experience make you more independent than you would have been otherwise, or do you think it simply reinforced something in you?

AC:

It was a very enlightening experience for me, and I guess you might say I really savored every bit of it. Some of the other nurses that I met were very interesting and, of course, we exchanged our own backgrounds. We all came from different backgrounds and had different experiences. So meeting these people was certainly a special adventure. Then traveling thirty-nine days across, through some bad storms and through the Panama Canal and all that, that was—

EE:

Did you get one of those certificates for crossing the equator?

AC:

We did. I have it still. I have it still. Yes. I remember the sharks, seeing the sharks.

EE:

Did you dive any while you were out there? Did you go diving or explore the—

AC:

Well, we swam at Waikiki Beach. We swam the beaches in the Philippines, too.

EE:

You said that one day that doctor—we discussed that women ought not to be in the army, and you agreed in your diary.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

This last December the U.S. Government sent a woman into combat as a fighter pilot for the first time.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

What do you think about that? Do you think there are some places in the military that women shouldn't be?

AC:

Well, it's sort of amazing to me. You see pictures like Saving Private Ryan. Well, you just can't imagine women in that particular situation.

EE:

That kind of combat.

AC:

That's right.

EE:

Infantry.

AC:

Yes. I couldn't imagine myself in that kind of situation. I liked my job very much. I loved taking care of people as a nurse, but I wouldn't like to be out with a gun in combat.

EE:

Based on your own experience. You say you had two boys.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

Did they serve in the military?

AC:

No. I didn't get married—

EE:

Even both of you were in the—

AC:

Yes, we were both in the military. He was in military. We got married in '55 and so my children were—

EE:

Just a little young.

AC:

—too young. But my son went to Greensboro after it became coed. He went to school there. He was graduated summa cum laude and all that stuff, too.

EE:

What's his name?

AC:

Jeffrey Cantwell. Jeffrey Richard Cantwell.

EE:

Well, I know some of my buddies up there. I played soccer.

AC:

Where were you in this setup here?

EE:

I'm research associate for the university. So I'm brought in to do these interviews. My graduate degree is from the University of Pennsylvania in history—actually, history and science. I've worked with the program up there. We were doing interviews with chemists. They called me up to help do this, to do an exhibit, and they said, “Would you like to do some interviews?” and I said yes, because it really is a good chance to talk with you folks. Experiences have been just so wonderfully wide-range and for you to stick it out. I'm just trying to imagine thirty-nine days, and then you're in the jungle.

AC:

That's right.

EE:

How can you watch M*A*S*H and not feel—[chuckles]

AC:

Oh, I used to love it.

EE:

I'm sure that for ten years you got to flashback and compare, contrast your four months and say, oh, my goodness.

AC:

Oh, we used to, I always got the biggest kick out of M*A*S*H, that's true.

EE:

Well, actually, M*A*S*H, then probably ER, and probably you see these medical shows on TV. My mom, who was a floor nurse for about six years, and most of her career she spent in public health, which I think, judging from the stories I've heard, that somebody needs to do a show on public health, because that would be a hoot.

AC:

She wasn't in the service, was she?

EE:

No, she was not in the service. My dad was a paratrooper, although he only did that for a few months, and then decided he'd rather teach WACs [Women's Army Corps] how to type. [chuckles]

AC:

Yes. Well, that's what happened to my husband. He wanted in the paratroopers, and they found out he could type, so they sent him to New Mexico.

EE:

Well, my dad was at Fort Knox during the Korean Conflict and making friends with women across Kentucky, I think, is what it amounted to. [chuckles]

I certainly appreciate you sitting down and sharing with us today. When you think about some music, some songs, some movies, that when you see them, take you back to that time in the Second World War? What is it for you?

AC:

Well, I didn't want to even see Saving Private Ryan. I just thought it was going to be too much. But some friends went to see it, so we went to see it, and that was really—well, the movie itself was very emotional. There's no question about that. I remember lots of songs and some movies that we saw. I saw one movie, Weekend At The Waldorf or something. I think I saw that about five times.

EE:

When a new one hasn't come in yet, they keep showing the same one over and over.

AC:

We went to church every Sunday. They'd have a little service of some sort or another. When I was in the Philippines they had—I took a music course, I think, and a literature course at the University of the Philippines. I think we went to the Tokyo Symphony. There were different things that you could get into. I remember that.

EE:

[Douglas] MacArthur was in charge of Japan when you were there.

AC:

That is right.

EE:

Well, I think he was in charge of the occupying force in Japan.

AC:

Yes.

EE:

You all could not fraternize, probably, with the Japanese, could you?

AC:

No. No. We didn't have much occasion to do anything like that except for the ward boys that were on the hospital wards and the girls that worked in the barracks.

EE:

Did you get to see Fiji when you were there? Mt. Fiji? Did you go?

AC:

Not up close. I mean, I took a picture of it with my little camera.

EE:

Japanese camera?

AC:

Yes, right. I know it was a little Kodak box camera.

EE:

Little Brownie. Well, we've gone through a lot of things here, and is there anything else about that time and those places, that I haven't asked you about that you want to share with us?

AC:

There was something I was thinking about. We came back on the ship. Then we came across the country by train from Seattle.

EE:

You said you were treated for scabies when you got back. Was it in Seattle or was it on the East Coast?

AC:

I think it was the East Coast. I seem to remember the East, being on the East Coast. For the life of me I can't remember where—

EE:

You were discharged from where?

AC:

It might have been Fort Dix.

EE:

I've heard of it. Boy, it's a real place.

AC:

I seem to remember Tilten General Hospital, Fort Dix, New Jersey.

EE:

Is that where you were discharged?

AC:

I think so. I'd have to—

EE:

What was your rank?

AC:

I was a second lieutenant.

EE:

One of the things I'm talking with people who entered the military basically as a professional, be it nurse, physical therapist, dietitian, is that—they got a rank and didn't have to do maybe as much basic as some of the other folks or special military—you got a rank—and basically they stayed at that rank.

AC:

Yes, that's true.

EE:

You basically got the military status, but you weren't going to go anywhere in the military.

AC:

No. I don't know if I had been in longer or something, but most of us have stayed as second lieutenants.

EE:

Well, I've exhausted my questions.

AC:

Okay.

[End of interview]