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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Blossom B. Ellis, 2007

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Object ID: WV0382.5.001

Description: Documents Blossom Ellis’s youth, education, active service with the Air Force Nurses from 1952 to 1957, and life as a military wife and nurse after the Korean War.

Summary:

Ellis discusses her family, nurse training and work at Maimonides Hospital, decision to join the air force, and her family’s reaction. She mentions basic training at Gunter Air Force Base and her other duty stations, focusing on social life at RAF Station Greenham Common in England and Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas.

Other topics include corpsmens' ambivalent attitude towards women in the air force, a fellow nurse committing suicide, meeting her husband, leaving active duty in part because he was enlisted and she was an officer, regretting not making the air force a career, living in Turkey while her husband was stationed there, frequent moves, and resuming her nursing career at several institutions in North Carolina following her husband's retirement.

Creator: Blossom Bernstein Ellis

Biographical Info: Blossom Bernstein Ellis (1929-2012) of Brooklyn, New York, served in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and Reserves from 1952 to 1962.

Collection: Blossom Ellis 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:

Kim Adkins:

It is Friday February 9, 2007, and this is Kim Adkins speaking. I'm in the home of Mrs. Blossom Ellis in Liberty, North Carolina, [to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veteran's Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro]. Thank you, Blossom, for agreeing to speak with me.

Blossom Ellis:

You're very welcome.

KA:

Please tell me about your life before you entered the military.

BE:

Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Went to public schools there until I went into nursing school, and not a whole lot to tell that I can think of. I worked in a hospital after I finis[hed]—graduated then worked for two years before I went into the air force. I really wanted to get my own apartment, leave home, and my mother was just beside herself about it, so I thought what could I do if—if they had—probably if they had had the visit the nursing programs like they have today with the travel programs, I might have done that, but I decided the military was the best thing to do. So I enlisted in the service, and my mother, we—there were five of us, I had two sisters, two brothers. When my sister—one sister got married in September, another in October and myself—I left in November the same year, so suddenly my mother had almost an empty nest [laughter]. But it was an uneventful childhood. My father died when I was sixteen. But I don't know what else to compare it to. And—and growing up in Brooklyn may be a little bit different than growing up in Liberty, North Carolina [laughter].

KA:

Well, where and when were you born?

BE:

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 25, 1929, at Greenpoint Hospital.

KA:

What were your parents' names?

BE:

My mother's name was Florence Metzger.

KA:

Could you spell that please?

BE:

M-e-t-z-g-e-r. And my father was Isadore, I-s-a-d-o-r-e, Bernstein, B-e-r-n-s-t-e-i-n. He came from Russia when he was eleven.

KA:

What were their jobs?

BE:

My mother was a housewife. My father was a store clerk. My mother went to work briefly after my father died, but not for very long. We saw to it that she didn't have to do that since she had never done it [laughter] before in her life.

KA:

You said you had siblings, what were their names?

BE:

The oldest was Stanley. [pause] Then there was—there is Gertrude, who was eighty-one this week, and then myself, in the middle, then Eugene. He was the next to the youngest and then my sister Gail, who is still living. My two brothers are no longer living.

KA:

Where did you graduate high school from?

BE:

Brooklyn High School for Homemaking. [pause] It was an all-girls high school.

KA:

Did you like school?

BE:

Yes and no. [laughter] I wasn't really crazy about school.

KA:

Did you have a favorite subject?

BE:

I liked science and math better than anything else. The school I went to had an academic program for those of us who wanted to go on to school afterwards, and then they had a lot of—oh, they had hairdressing and that sort of thing, you know, so that people could leave from there and go directly into the work force, and then there were those of us with the academic diplomas.

KA:

Did you attend college?

BE:

I went to nursing school. I went to a hospital nursing school, which was three full years around the clock—around the ye[ar]—not around the clock, around the year. We got a week off in the summer and a week at Christmas, but other than that we were at—in school.

KA:

What hospital did you train at?

BE:

Maimonides, M-a-i-m-o-n-i-d-e-s [now Maimonides Medical Center], in Brooklyn.

KA:

You said that you were working at a hospital before you entered the air force.

BE:

Yes.

KA:

Which hospital was that?

BE:

I worked at Maimonides.

KA:

What were you doing, like, what kind of nursing?

BE:

I was doing general floor duty. I was second—actually, the second shift nurse on a—on a research floor. I was the only nurse on the floor and—I had a practical nurse with me and an orderly, but I was the only RN [registered nurse] on the floor.

KA:

Why did you decide to join the air force?

BE:

I really wanted to leave my—leave home [laughter] and I thought it was a good way to do it. I had a lot of opposition from family and friends, you know; it was long before there were a lot of women in the military and they didn't think that nice girls went into service, but I proved them wrong [laughter].

KA:

But why particularly the air force?

BE:

I liked the uniforms, to be honest with you [laughter]. I thought they—I liked blue better than khaki. The air force sounded intriguing.

KA:

When did you enter the service?

BE:

In November of 1952.

KA:

When were you discharged?

BE:

September 1957 from active duty and then in June of 1962 from the reserves.

KA:

You said you had some opposition from your family about you joining, who?

BE:

Well, my mother didn't want me to leave home. My brother was just not too happy about it; he wasn't—didn't think I should—my older brother—and they were all kind of traditional. Women just didn't do that sort of thing, but there again I proved them wrong. [laughter]

KA:

Were your friends also opposed to you joining?

BE:

Some of them that I was dating couldn't understand why, and a couple other friends. No special reason. They just didn't think I should do it.

KA:

Did anyone support your decision?

BE:

Not a whole lot. I really—went anyway.

KA:

When you joined was this the first time you had been far from home for a long period of time?

BE:

Yes. Yes, it was.

KA:

Do you recall where you joined? Where you signed up?

BE:

In Times Square, New York, at the enlistment—there's an enlistment booth in Times Square that I believe is still there, and that's where I went.

KA:

What do you remember about the first day?

BE:

My first day in the military?

KA:

Yes.

BE:

[pause] I'm trying to think. I was in basic training at Gunter Air Force Base in [Montgomery] Alabama. At that time, there were no women in the air force except the nurses, and it was called the nur—U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps. I forgot the question. Sorry. I'm sorry.

KA:

What was your day—

BE:

My first day.

KA:

Yeah, your first day, what was it like?

BE:

Gee, kind of exciting, a little scary. I met a whole lot of new people. We had—no, we didn't—that was later on in flight school. It was just kind of scary a little bit and—but exciting.

KA:

Did your basic training take place at Fort Gunter?

BE:

Gunter Air Force Base.

KA:

Gunter Air Force Base. What was it like?

BE:

It was a small base—I think it's closed now—in Montgomery, Alabama. [pause] Right near—

KA:

What was your training like? What did you have to do?

BE:

We marched and we had—we had weapon training, just general indoctrination into military rules and regulations. We were—everyone in there were—had gone in with a direct commission, and they were a little softer on us than they were with the new, young troops.

KA:

Where were you stationed after basic training?

BE:

At Bergstrom Air Force Base.

KA:

Bergstrom?

BE:

B-e-r-g-s-t-r-o-m. In Austin, Texas.

KA:

[pause] Is that were you stayed throughout the duration of your—

BE:

No.

KA:

Where did you go after that?

BE:

I went to England. I went to RAF [Royal Air Force] Station Greenham Common [Berkshire, England] and I was there for two years. And then I went to—to Castle Air Force Base in [Atwater] California. During the time I was at Bergstrom, I went back to Gunter Air Force Base for six weeks of air force flight nurse school.

KA:

What was your job while in the service?

BE:

Nursing.

KA:

What was a typical day like?

BE:

Well, when I first—my first assignment at Bergstrom Air Force Base, one of the nurses was so happy to see me because it meant she got off the dependent floor, which was always given to the new nurse coming in. And you envision yourself going in and taking care of all these young soldiers or airmen, and there you were with the babies and the mommas and the [laughs]—but it was nice, I liked it.

KA:

Did you have a specialty, like administrative—administration, or the operating room, anesthetist—

BE:

No.

KA:

—psychiatric, general?

BE:

General duty nursing.

KA:

What was the highest rank you achieved?

BE:

First lieutenant on active duty and captain in the reserves.

KA:

[pause] Did you ever win any awards or commendations?

BE:

I've got one. [BE exits the room and returns] I've got very few things of my air force days, I'm afraid, but I know that answer. [clock chimes] I've just got a few. [sound of papers shuffling] Your question was—

KA:

Did you ever win any awards or commendations?

BE:

Yeah, that's this certificate here. Just [the] National Defense Service Medal.

KA:

[pause] Did you enjoy the work you did?

BE:

Yes, I did. I've always liked nursing wherever I've been.

KA:

Did you ever work with any men?

BE:

Worked with the men? We had the doctors and the corpsman, yeah.

KA:

Did you ever work with any male nurses?

BE:

No, not at that time.

KA:

Did the men that you did work with—the doctors—did they treat you like they treated other men?

BE:

No, they didn't. I think most of the doctors were used to nurses being women. And the corpsmen, now, were a different story. [laughs]

KA:

How did the corpsmen treat you?

BE:

They were very nice, but—well, I don't know exactly how to—they kind of didn't—weren't sure they liked women in the air force.

KA:

What was the hardest thing you had to do physically while in the service?

BE:

Physically? [pause] Really, I can't think of anything out of what I would do anywhere else, you know, in a normal day with a patient: pulling patients up in bed or helping put someone on a stretcher or something like that was probably the most physical thing.

KA:

How about emotionally? What was the hardest thing?

BE:

The hardest thing emotionally while—was one night I was waiting for my relief to come on in the morning and she didn't make it in, and I went into the emergency room to get a drink out of the machine or whatever and they had just brought her body in. She had committed suicide. And that was very difficult for me. She was a nurse I had worked with and that I liked and that I had no idea was in such pain.

KA:

Were you ever afraid or in personal danger?

BE:

No. I can't recall any time of that. Afterwards maybe when I lived in Turkey, but not while I was in the service.

KA:

What did you do for fun?

BE:

Oh, lots of things. When I was at Bergstrom Air Force Base, we were near—we had a great swimming place called Barton Springs, which I later saw on Channel 4 [on television] when they were showing swimming holes around the country, and of course in Texas, you'd go swimming every day. I thought the sun was never going to stop shining. And we had the Officer's Club, which I did go to, and we partied a lot, probably a little too much at times, but that was about it.

KA:

Did you attend dances?

BE:

Yeah, I guess at the club we had some dances.

KA:

Go to movies?

BE:

Once in a while. I'm not—I've never been real big on movies.

KA:

Did you ever go to a USO [United Service Organizations] show?

BE:

[pause] I think so. You got to remember, I'm seventy-seven and that—this was a few years ago [laughs].

KA:

Did you ever go out on dates?

BE:

Oh yes, frequently.

KA:

Did you think of making the air force a career?

BE:

At one time, I did, but then I met someone, got married, and at that time you couldn't stay in the service if you had children, and so—or I'm not sure if you were married, they would try to put you together, but it was a difficult situation, and the man I married was enlisted and I—you know, which would have made things more difficult so.

KA:

Were you encouraged to make the air force a career?

BE:

[pause] Yeah, by some of the superiors, you know, that they tried to talk you into staying, reenlisting, and—well, actually it wasn't a matter of reenlisting, it was—I was in indefinitely, and then I had to resign when I was ready.

KA:

What do you think the mood of the country was during the Korean War?

BE:

[sighs] Gee. [pause] I really don't—don't recall. I was in England—well, I was in Texas and then in England when it was mostly going on, and I really don't recall—I didn't have a lot of civilian connections to be honest with you. And so with the military, of course, everyone was concerned about whether or not they were going to be going over there and that sort of thing. But I don't—as far the general mood of the country, I really have no idea. I'm not much help. [laughs]

KA:

Who were your heroes or heroines of those days?

BE:

Well, General Curtis LeMay—I was in the Strategic Air Command and there were several of the—a lot of the nurses, there were only four or five out of all of us that were in the Strategic Air Command, the rest were in something else and—and I'd always greatly admired General Curtis LeMay, who was the commander of the Strategic Air Command. I can't recall any particular nurses or—there was a doctor or two I really admired and thought highly of, but that was about it.

KA:

Well, why did you look up to General LeMay so much?

BE:

I don't know, maybe it was just legend. I—[pause] his history.

KA:

Do you have any favorite songs from your time?

BE:

Oh, probably, if I can think of [laughs]—favorite songs—I liked the McGuire Sisters and their, you know—they did a lot of USO shows, so they did a lot of more memorable music that had to do with the military. [pause] Other than that, I can't recall any.

KA:

How about movies?

BE:

[sighs] [pause] Can't remember any of those either.

KA:

Did you feel like you had to return to a traditional female role after you left the military?

BE:

Yes, I did and I was sorry I did later. I mean, I returned to one and actually became less than what I was before. I was married to a good man, but he was very traditional in the roles and—I would say, yes.

KA:

Was readjusting to civilian life easy?

BE:

No.

KA:

Why?

BE:

[sighs] Maybe it was because my life had changed so drastically and I had gotten married and—I really don't know, but life was very different.

KA:

Do you consider yourself to be an independent person?

BE:

Absolutely, now, and for the last several years.

KA:

Did the military make you more independent?

BE:

It did while I was in there, but somehow or other, it didn't stick. I wish it had.

KA:

Many consider servicewomen of your day pioneers, is that how you feel?

BE:

Kind of. Since the only women in the service at that time—in the air force, there WACs [Women's Army Corps], but there were not the WAFs [Women in the Air Force] yet, and the only women in the air force were the nurses. And so I did—I do consider myself sort of a pioneer in that field, in that respect.

KA:

Do you think the servicewomen had any connection to the ideas of the women's liberation movement?

BE:

[sighs] Not back then, this was even before the women's liberation movement.

KA:

Right.

BE:

Yeah.

KA:

Do you think that they helped—

BE:

The fact that women were in the service? I think so.

KA:

What did you do after you left the military?

BE:

Got married and moved to Liberty, North Carolina, and have been here ever since. No, I have not been here ever since, I'm sorry. I came here when my husband retired. My husband stayed in the military and we didn't—we traveled. I had three children and—I have three children and we traveled. We were stationed in—he was stationed in Turkey, we lived there for two and half years, which was a little difficult with little children and the sanitary conditions—and then he went over to Southeast Asia and we stayed here with his mother for a while. And then we went up to New—New Jersey and stayed with my brother until he came home. Then we came here and made our permanent home here.

KA:

Did you work after you left the military?

BE:

Yes.

KA:

Where did you work?

BE:

I started working at—well, actually, when we left—when I left the military and he was in the service, no, I didn't work then because we were moving so much. I did work part of the time toward the end of his service. I did nursing at Santa Rosa Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, for a brief period, and it wasn't until after we moved here and settled down, then I went to work full time.

KA:

Where did you work when y'all moved here?

BE:

I worked at Randolph Hospital in Asheboro for a year on the third shift. Then I went to work as an industrial nurse in a manufacturing—hosiery manufacturing plant in Siler City, and I was at Kellwood was the name of the company, and I was there for eleven years. And when I left there I went to work at Clapps Nursing Home in Pleasant Garden, and I was there eleven years and would have been there longer, but I had an accident and about destroyed my left arm so it was a long recovery and I never did go back. By then I was sixty [pause] eight I think, so I decided that was long—that was enough.

KA:

How did you meet your husband?

BE:

The day that I went to England was the day that I—they introduced me to Sergeant [William] Ellis and said, “If you need anything, just ask Sergeant Ellis.” So that was how I met him, he was the first sergeant of the hospital.

KA:

What was his first name?

BE:

William—Bill, call—everybody called him Bill.

KA:

When did you marry?

BE:

We married in June—June sixteenth of 1957. I was still in service and stationed in California, and I went back out there and retired my commission. Actually, just went off active duty and stayed in the reserve.

KA:

What are your children's names?

BE:

My oldest is Barbara, then Frances with an “e” and she's the one that lives with me, and Irwin, I-r-w-i-n.

KA:

And you have grandchildren?

BE:

I have five grandchildren. One lives with me. The fourteen year old. Teenager.

KA:

What are your grandchildren's names?

BE:

Valerie lives here and my son has Robbie, Brianna, and twins, Cynthia Taylor and William Tyler.

KA:

[pause] Have any of your children been in the military?

BE:

No, they haven't.

KA:

Did you encourage them to join?

BE:

They never showed any interest. And I did ask one of them, when she graduated from high school and didn't want to go on any further, I asked her would she like—and they had no interest in joining the military. I think they had enough of the nomadic life. [laughs]

KA:

How do you feel about women in combat positions?

BE:

[sighs] If they're going to be in the service, then I think they should do it all. [pause] The nurses in Vietnam might has well as have been in combat. And incidentally, I understand that all the nurses that were in Vietnam are—left nursing when they got out of the service. I don't know how true that is, but I'd heard it from a couple of places. Just wondered.

KA:

How did your service affect your life?

BE:

Well. [pause] It effected my earlier life much more than now, because I had to travel with young children and make homes for them in places where the homes were not very—the best. And once my husband retired and my oldest child was—well, he retired in '74, and life settled down a whole lot more then. My children were teenagers and life settled down and the military part was sort of gone.

KA:

Is there anything you'd like to add about your service experience?

BE:

I can't think of anything special. I really had a great time in the service. My time in England—the two years I was in England, I was dating one of the pilots and we used to get—used to go over to Europe on two- and three- day trips, you know, and things like that. But other—I can't really think of—the whole thing was just kind of great. I really enjoyed it and would do it again if it were from the beginning, but this time I might stay in and retire.

KA:

Do you have any funny or interesting stories from your time in the service?

BE:

[pause] I'm afraid I'm very dull. [laughs] I really can't think of any specific incidents.

KA:

Well, can you tell me a little more about when you lived in Turkey?

BE:

Yes. My husband was at the hospital—working at the hospital, which was right near where we lived—we lived in a Turkish apartment house and [when] we had to travel to and from the commissary and any other places, we went by horse carriages. And I was always hoping that—you had to take the one in line, you know, and they were always right near the house.

My grand—my daughter's Easter basket was stolen on one Easter morning. We heard her screaming, we—my husband was on the balcony and I was downstairs and she—and somebody just came along and snatched it out of her hand, and she was crying, of course. But I never did feel like it was the safest place for myself, for my husband, or the children.

KA:

Well, where—of all the places that you've lived, where—which has been your favorite?

BE:

My favorite I believe was—well, I like California. I like California very much and I've spent a lot of time in California. When my brother was living, he lived there and I used to visit very—you know, as often as I could. At least once a year and after that, I guess England. England is very interesting.

KA:

Okay. Well thank you again for speaking with me.

BE:

Well, I hope I've been helpful. I'm sorry my memory is not what it used to be. [laughs] You're most welcome. Thank you.

[End of Interview]