United States Naval Reserve Nurse Corps
The United States Navy Nurse Corps was established by Public Law No. 115, H.R. 20471, on May 13, 1908. The following is an excerpt from the section on the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, providing the partial text of the portion relating to women.
“The nurse corps (female) of the United States Navy is hereby established, and shall consist of one superintendent, to be appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, who shall be a graduate of a hospital training school having a course of instruction of not less than two years, whose term of office may be terminated at his discretion, and of as many chief nurses, nurses, and reserve nurses as may be needed. Provided, that all nurses in the nurse corps …. and reserve nurses shall be subject to an examination as to their professional, moral, mental, and physical fitness, and that they shall be eligible for duty at naval hospitals and on board of hospital and ambulance ships and for such special duty as may be deemed necessary by the Surgeon-General of the Navy…..”
Mary Louise Whittington had never heard of Public Law No.115 when she joined the Navy Nurse Corps in 1942. It made no difference though as it was wartime. She felt that she had to do her part, and she was determined to join the Navy. She never seriously considered any other branch of the military.
She was the oldest of five children, aged five to ten years, when Mary Louise’s mother suddenly died of pneumonia in Durham, North Carolina. The family had recently relocated there from Baltimore, Maryland when both parents contracted pneumonia. Her father, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, recovered and moved to the hot and drier air of Texas in an attempt to regain his health. Meanwhile Mary Louise, her sisters, Sally and Margie, and her brothers, Charles and John, returned to Baltimore where they were raised by her grandparents with the assistance of two aunts. In spite of the loss of her mother, Mary Louise recalls a happy childhood nourished by the love of her relatives.
After high school she completed three years of nurses training at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital. She reported for duty on May 18, 1943. Shortly thereafter received her orders to report to the US Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland and then to the hospital ship Refuge (AH-11) in March of 1944.
The ship was built in 1921 by New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, N.J., as SS President Madison for American President Lines. She was acquired by the Navy from the War Shipping Administration on April 11, 1942 for conversion to a troop transport; she was named Kenmore (AP-62), and commissioned at Baltimore, Maryland, on August 5, 1942. Two years later, she was renamed Refuge and redesignated AH-11. The ship was re-commissioned at Baltimore on February 24, 1944.
It was here that the wartime service of Mary Louise, 25 other nurses, and the Refuge (AH-11) converged. Assigned to the Service Force, Atlantic, she commenced assisting in the transport of casualties from the war zones to the United States. As a nurse Mary Louise loved the operating room and surgical nursing. However due to logic understood only by the military mind, she was assigned to the psychiatric ward. She did not complain though as someone had to do it.
Personal tragedy was not far off. Her brother Charles, who had joined the Navy’s aviation program after two years of college, was killed off the coast of San Francisco while piloting a fighter aircraft. His plane took off from the deck of an aircraft carrier on a training flight and crashed into the sea. No trace of the plane or Charles was ever found.
What follows is a description of Mary Louise’s wartime travels on the Refuge. Mary Louise wanted to travel, but little did she realize how much travel and how much of the world she was going to see.
Departing Hampton Roads on April 20, 1944 Refuge embarked patients at Oran, Algeria on May 6-8, and returned to Charleston, South Carolina on May 24. From June 1 through July 29, 1944, she made two voyages to the British Isles, embarking patients at Belfast, Northern Ireland; Liverpool, England; and Milford Haven, Wales. These patients were returned to Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia.
Sailing again for the Mediterranean on August 2, she arrived at Oran, Algeria on the 17th, and proceeded to the southern coast of France for operations between St. Tropez Bay and Naples, Italy. She departed Naples on September 16 with embarked patients, took on additional patients at Oran, and steamed for New York, arriving there on October 6.
After a brief ship overhaul period at New York, during which Mary Louise enjoyed a two week leave in Baltimore, Refuge departed November 1, 1944 for South Pacific duty with the Service Force, 7th Fleet. Touching at Humboldt Bay, Dutch New Guinea, on December 16, she departed three days later for the Philippines. The ship arrived at San Pedro Bay, Leyte, and on Christmas Eve they commenced receiving patients from small landing craft. By June 30, she had made six voyages from that area to deliver her casualties to Hollandia, New Guinea, or Seeadler Harbor, Manus, the Admiralties. She departed Seeadler Harbor on July 1 for Manila, where she received patients from various fleet units through the end of August 1945.
Fortunately for Mary Louise, she was not prone to seasickness. The ship had a maximum speed of 11.5 knots, so water skiing was out of the question, but there were plenty of good times. She describes her service on the Refuge as “a wonderful experience …never in danger, I got to see the world.”
All was not enjoyable travel. Many of the Refuge’s patients were horribly wounded. She vividly recalls receiving severely burned patients from the USS Franklin (CV-13).
Before dawn on March 19, 1945 Franklin, which had maneuvered closer to the Japanese mainland than had any other U.S. carrier during the war, launched a fighter sweep against Honshu and later a strike against shipping in Kobe Harbor. Suddenly a single enemy plane pierced the cloud cover and made a low level run on the gallant ship to drop two semi-armor piercing bombs. One struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating to the hangar deck, causing destruction and igniting fires through the second and third decks. The second hit aft, tearing through two decks and fanning fires which triggered ammunition, bombs and rockets.
Franklin, within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland, lay dead in the water, took a 13° starboard list, lost all radio communications, and broiled under the heat from enveloping fires. Many of the crew were blown overboard, driven off by fire, killed or wounded, but the 106 officers and 604 enlisted who voluntarily remained saved their ship through sheer valor and tenacity. The casualties totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, and would have far exceeded this number except for the heroic work of many survivors.
Many of the severely wounded Franklin crewmembers died of their injuries aboard the Refuge. Given the ships slow speed and limited morgue capacity, most were simply buried at sea and Mary Louise recalls the sadness that enveloped the ship after the burials.
She recalls picking up wounded German prisoners of war in France following the D-Day invasion. “Most were polite, but one officer was rude and obnoxious and they were glad to unload the whole group in New York.”
She and her crewmates managed to get ashore and see many of the places the ship visited with the exception of the Normandy, France area. One highlight of her travels was the opportunity, while docked in Naples, to have an audience with Pope Pius XII and to shake his hand. He was interested in the fact that she was from Baltimore because he had visited there prior to becoming Pope.
She fondly recalls a visit to Northern Ireland and the warmth of the Irish people. She managed to travel extensively in Ireland and returned to visit it again with family members in 2001.
Mary Louise and nine other nurses were detached from the Refuge in August 1944 and were ordered home. They boarded the Dutch ship Bloomfontaine for passage back to the United States. However, the Dutch captain was not comfortable with women being on his ship and
“dumped” them in Honolulu, Hawaii immediately after V-J Day. After pestering the port director, they were able to hitch a ride to San Francisco on a military transport plane. She found the city in the midst of a raucous victory celebration. She described Market Street as “one big party from end to end”.
She traveled by train from San Francisco to Baltimore where she was assigned to a convalescent hospital in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Mary Louise was in the Navy Reserve. She could not get into the regular Navy when she enlisted because she was too thin at the time. However, being in the Naval Reserve and having accumulated enough points, she was discharged in December 1945 and returned to work in the operating room unit of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. She was recalled by the Navy at the start of the Korean conflict but was expecting the birth of her daughter, Peggy, at the time and was released from her reserve obligation.
Mary Louise has a niece who is a student at James Madison University and a member of the Army ROTC program who has “done everything that men do including jump out of an airplane”. Reflecting on her Navy service, she says that “She would gladly do it again but doubts that she would ever jump out of an airplane.” The fact that her niece has “done everything that men do” is testimony to the expanding role of women in today’s military.
Mary Louise holds the American Campaign Medal, The Asiatic, Pacific and Philippine Liberation and Victory Ribbons.
~ GEORGE REISWIG