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“Our share in the war is no small one”: Virginia Women and World War I, Part I

This is the latest entry in a series of blog posts spotlighting stories and records of Virginia’s involvement in World War I. It is the first of a two-part blog post adapted from an article originally written for the Summer 2001 issue of Virginia Cavalcade. The second half will run next week.

Group of nurses at Base Hospital 45

As soon as the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917, Virginia women sprang into action at home and abroad. Some women worked in traditional ways, knitting socks for soldiers in their social clubs and conserving food at home. Others were employed in industry, laboring on assembly lines to put together shells and airplane motors and to apply camouflage paint. They were “the girls behind the men behind the guns,” noted the Ladies’ Home Journal. Other women faced the guns themselves, enlisting in the military to fill clerical roles and serve as nurses. They treated patients, took dictation, fried doughnuts, drove ambulances, and operated switchboards.

 

The need for military nurses was pressing. The federal government ran full-page advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal, calling on women between the ages of nineteen and thirty-five to enroll in the U.S. Student Nurse Reserve. When slots opened up, applicants attended one of the 1,579 training schools in the nation. Schools waived most expenses, including tuition and supplies. Graduates were eligible to enroll in the Red Cross, the Army Nurse Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps. The Student Nurse Reserve billed itself as “the equivalent for women of the great national army training camps for soldiers.” The country needed women to “fight disease at home, to care for those injured and disabled in our hazardous war industries, and to make themselves ready to serve when the time comes as fully trained nurses, either abroad or at home.”

In July 1917, Anna Elizabeth McFadden enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a nurse, leaving her job at Garfield Memorial Hospital, in Winchester, for service in France. Like McFadden, who said she was “ready and willing at all times” to serve her country, women across the commonwealth worked as nurses and clerks. Anne Virginia Bennett worked as a nurse and secretary for author Ellen Glasgow before she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps. Lucile Virginia Douglas left St. Vincent’s Hospital in Norfolk for Camp Lee, where Margaret Brand Cowling worked as head nurse before she embarked for service in France. “I felt that it was a privilege,” Hollins graduate Bettie Jane Wingfield wrote, “to help nurse our American boys.”

Verna Mae Smith, a native of Clifton Forge, discovered how enthusiastically “the American boys” greeted the nurses: “They gave one yell—AMERICAN GIRLS! and ran up and almost shook our hands off—we really thought we were going to get kissed and By george! We wouldn’t have cared.” Smith quickly learned how to use a gas mask, which she carried everywhere. Camilla Ruth Atkins, a nurse from Blackstone who spent the war at a hospital in France, found poor working conditions: broken windows, “lack of heat, water in buildings, no sewerage, so much rain and mud,” along with “poorly cooked food.”

Sallie Anna Johnson, a native of Charlottesville, graduated from St. Vincent’s school for nurses in 1916. Two years later, at age thirty-four, she left for France. Johnson was posted to Saint-Denis, where a monastery had been converted to a hospital. A hundred nurses struggled to care for three thousand patients. Johnson lamented the lack of physicians and nurses but praised the American soldiers. “A person’s heart fairly ached to see them coming to our unit,” she recalled. “They would come in great numbers, some of them without hands or feet, some of them totally blind and horribly wounded, but their joy over reaching us was as glorious as it was pathetic.” On one particularly harrowing evening in September 1918, with every bed full, German pilots buzzed the hospital all night.

Edna Breareley Bishop learned firsthand how important nurses were to the war effort. After graduating from the Medical College of Virginia’s nursing school in 1917, the Fredericksburg resident enlisted and embarked for France. She was assigned to U.S. Base Hospital No. 45, in Toul, a facility commanded by Virginian Stuart McGuire. It had 800 beds, three doctors, and thirty corpsmen—and only fifteen nurses when Bishop arrived. She then went to Base Hospital 87A, where most of the patients had been exposed to poisonous gas, which blinded many soldiers. Bishop and her colleagues saved the eyesight of more than 5,000 men. Supplies of food, medicine, and bandages were short. “We didn’t have time to stand by the dying,” Bishop explained bluntly, “or write all the mothers our hearts bled for.”

Not all Virginia women who joined the military trained as nurses. In April 1917, Kathleen Virginia Venable Michaux, of Richmond, became the first Virginia woman to enlist in the Naval Coast Defense Reserves, as a second-class yeoman. Helena Brennan and Bessie Lee Hays, both of Norfolk, left their civilian jobs as clerks and stenographers to enlist as yeomen in the U.S. Navy. By signing up for clerical positions in the reserves, women freed men for sea duty. The navy enrolled 1,071 Virginia women and paid them each a starting salary of $28.75 a month—the same as their male counterparts. They served as clerks, translators, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, and recruiting agents in the United States, while others worked overseas in France, Guam, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal Zone. Female yeomen also worked as radio operators and camouflage designers. To sign up, women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five filled out an application and completed an interview to identify their skills and ensure their suitable appearance and character. After passing a physical examination in the morning, many new recruits reported for duty in the afternoon.

Confusion existed over the title applied to the enlisted navy women. Since the beginning of the war, people inside and outside the navy had called them “yeomanettes” or “yoewomen” to distinguish them from the male yeomen. The brass frowned on these unofficial names, maintaining that the women were simply “yeomen (F)” – for “yeomen, female.” While people were often called enlisted men “gobs,” the nickname for women was even worse—“goblettes.” The Norfolk Ledger Dispatch implored the navy to “Give the Girl Navy Workers a Real Title,” but the official title stayed the same. Nicknames remained popular, much to the navy’s dismay. More than 300 women nationwide served in the Marine Corps during the war. Unofficially dubbed “marinettes” (but officially called Lady Marines), the women performed clerical tasks at headquarters and in recruiting offices, allowing men to go to France.

Women brought extensive experience to their new positions in the navy. Thelma Hieter Dawson worked as a stenographer and bookkeeper in Norfolk before joining the navy as a payroll accountant. Dorothy Winifred Ferrier, a stenographer and clerk at Richmond Cedar Works in Norfolk, rose in rank to chief yeoman while working in the offices of the naval reserve and the Department of Justice. Nineteen-year-old Sara Espley Clark graduated from high school and promptly traveled from Amelia County to Norfolk, where she clerked in the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Ralph Drumheller worked as a clerk at Kress and Company in Roanoke before she enlisted as a supply clerk at the yard. Bland Seldon Hobson, a native of Goochland County, worked as a stenographer at U.S. Base Hospital No. 45, just eight miles from the front.

Women joined the service for patriotic and personal reasons. Bessie Hays signed up as a yeoman to “release… men to do the things I could not do.” Sarah Ethel Hunter, a stenographer from Richmond, joined because her family “had no man in the war” and she felt “that our family must be represented by me.” Ruth Mildred Roland, a twenty-six-year-old housewife from Alexandria, enlisted when her husband signed up for military duty. “I thought I could serve my country,” she explained, “and also support myself.”

Approximately 80,000 Virginians served in the war, which ended on 11 November 1918. In 1919, the General Assembly established the Virginia War History Commission to collect information about the commonwealth’s participation in the conflict. The group prepared a separate two-page questionnaire for nurses, although some nurses filled out the more extensive four-page form designed for soldiers.

Nurse Verna Mae Smith replied from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. “You asked me to write you something of my experience over seas,” she began, “and I must admit it is a job, for so much happened it is hard to know just what to write.” Irma Fortune, a Schuyler native who nursed soldiers at Camp Lee and in France, endured a breakdown after she returned to the states. “I suffer a great deal from nervousness,” she wrote, “and am easily discouraged.” Despite these difficulties, which included lingering rheumatism, Fortune felt that her service in the war was important and worthwhile. “My experiences were most education,” she concluded, “and I will never regret them no matter how long the readjustment period lasts.”

Medical personnel often struggled with the physical and mental effects of overseas duty. Eleanor Coston was afflicted with influenza and asthma while on duty in France and was troubled by a persistent cough after the war. Lucy Adelaide West fell seriously ill with influenza in 1918, but recovered and reenlisted at the end of the war in the Navy Nurse Corps. Some nurses made the ultimate sacrifice for their country: Victoria Ruth Good, Clifton Forge; Felicita Wootlow Hecht, Pittsylvania County; Annie Dade Reveley, Orange County; and Cornelia Elizabeth Thornton, Gloucester County.

In February 1919, after a tour of duty in France, sixty-five Red Cross Nurses, including Sallie Johnson, returned to Hampton Roads, landing at the Soldiers’ Home with little fanfare. Two weeks later, the Norfolk Ledger Dispatch expressed dismay that these “real heroes” had not been greeted with more enthusiasm: “There were no parades nor feasts; no waving of flags nor bands playing patriotic music to welcome home these soldiers of mercy.” Despite this oversight, the writer continued, these women were “entitled to the unstinted respect, admiration and devotion of those who give welcome and sympathy to the returning boys.”

Although Sallie Johnson was fighting a bronchial infection, she remained anxious to serve. “Nurses have no business falling down on their jobs in any such manner,” she explained. “It is our duty to make other people well.” Johnson continued her convalescence in North Carolina. Later, when her questionnaire from the Virginia War History Commission arrived, Johnson returned it promptly, underlining proudly that she was “still in service” at U.S. Army Hospital No. 21 in Denver, Colorado. Ralph Drumheller reported that she “would like to be called back at any time that the U.S.A. needs me.” Bland Hobson felt that her experiences abroad served as a reminder of “the blessings of American citizenship.”

 

-Jennifer Davis McDaid, former archives research coordinator