In November of 1940 when twenty-five-year-old
Ethel reported for her first duty as an Army Nurse at Letterman Hospital near San Francisco, most of the soldiers seen were going to or from active duty around the globe. Ethel noticed a sign-up sheet asking for nurses interested in going to the Philippines. A pencil on a string could be used to leave a name.
“I put my name on that list three times,” she told a fellow nurse. “And each time, the list goes down and they don’t get ahold of me.”
The next time a new sign-up sheet was posted, Ethel used a pen on the signup sheet, hoping she’d get noticed. Within a couple of days, Ethel was called into her supervisor’s office.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like in the Philippines?” Ms. Near asked. Ms. Near had been to the Philippines more than once herself.
“Well, no, I don’t really know,” she answered quietly.
“Honey, you’re going to have to work very hard if you go there.”
Ethel’s answer was swift. “Well,” she said, “has anyone ever told you that I’m lazy?”
“Oh, no,” Ms. Near replied. “But I just want to assure you it’s not going to be easy if you go over there.”
The morning fog was lifting across the San Francisco Bay as the troop ship left the marina and headed west towards the open Pacific Ocean. Ethel stood outdoors at the railing on the port side, not able to identify her mood, or moods. She was simultaneously feeling excited, scared, teary-eyed, slightly panicked, and a little bit crazy. It seemed like only yesterday she had graduated from her nursing program, and although she had confidence in her clinical training and experience, she still had a bit of that farm girl in her. She thought of her mother now, how hard her mother cried when her sisters helped her load her baggage onto the train in Missouri. How far from home California had seemed, and now…now she was taking a seventeen-day voyage to Manila, nearly seven thousand miles from San Francisco. Remembering Ms. Near’s inquisition of her— “You are going to have to work very hard if you go over there”— Ethel thought, Can it be harder than farm work? What if I can’t hold up?
The Presidio’s fortress stood sentinel, as it had since 1776, as if saluting the young Army nurse as she passed. The Golden Gate Bridge, built just eleven years before, shone in the morning sun like a steel rainbow in a sky of misty blue. The fog was almost gone by the time the ship passed under the bridge. A crew member used the massive horns to play a short tune, just showing off for the tourists driving over the bridge. And soon, the bridge, the Presidio, the Bay, and California were just a distant recollection.
Ethel soon met other nurses who were heading for Manila. She wondered if any of them had been grilled by Ms. Near, and if so, why they thought they were suited for the tough job ahead.
The troop ship stopped in Honolulu, and the nurses had a chance to try out their land legs again. People told them that the Philippines looked much like Hawaii: a group of islands with white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, abundant flowers, and lush, green forests. It was hard to get back on the ship after their brief stay in Honolulu, but they had more of an idea how beautiful the Philippine Islands would be.
And they would not be disappointed…
NEXT WEEK: LIFE IN PARADISE