THE STORY OF A NURSE OF THE 117TH US GENERAL HOSPITAL.
In November 2004 I was sent photocopies of pages from a book called 'Texas Women in World War II' (ISBN 1-55622-948-8). One chapter was written by Ruth Prengle, a nurse who had been at Frenchay from 1944-45. The pages came from Robert Day, the 'little boy' mentioned at the end of this text. They met up for the first time since 1944 at the 1992 reunion at Frenchay. At that time there had been much local publicity about the 'return of the Yanks'. Robert got to know of me; he made contact and said that he'd been trying for years to locate a nurse and doctor who had looked after him when he was a boy. The US authorities resolutely refused to reveal any details. Did I have the names and addresses of any doctors or nurses? I said that I had only one of each. These two turned out to be the very ones Robert had been searching for over the years!
Ruth Hamilton Prengle
Army Nurse Corps, 193rd General Hospital, Malvern, England; 117th General Hospital, Bristol, England
"We saved arms and legs that would have been amputated in World War I"
Ruth Hamilton Prengle looked at the soldier who had just made a 'fresh' remark to her. Staring at the soldier in disgust, she turned her lapel. On the underside she'd pinned a picture of Bill, her husband. "I'm a married woman," she said simply. The young man said no more.
Ruth's husband initially disapproved of her joining the military but quickly warmed to the fact, realizing she would want to do her part in the war effort just he did. Bill Prengle then sent instructions to her that sounded more like that of a superior officer than a spouse. He reminded Ruth of her duty to God and country, to herself, and to her subordinates. Above all else, he said, she was to remember that she was an officer and a lady. Indeed, Ruth remained a lady while in the service, a trait that endures today.
When she was five years old, Ruth Hamilton dreamed of being a nurse. "My mother had a friend named Binty who was a nurse and she told me interesting stories;" she says. "Binty took care of Ann Harding, a famous movie star of that era. I thought that sounded pretty exciting." Ruth didn't get to care for a movie star but served her country in the oldest, and perhaps noblest, branch of the women's military, the Army Nurse Corps.
At a general hospital in England she assisted plastic surgeon Dr. Clifford L. Kiehn. Through special techniques that Dr. Kiehn developed, combined with Ruth's nursing skills, arms and legs were saved that would have been amputated in WWI. Ruth tells her story with modesty and pride.
Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Ruth graduated from the University of Michigan School of Nursing in 1941. She worked in Grand Rapids until she heard that she had passed the licensing exams. Afterward, she moved back to her hometown and started to work at the local hospital.
In the meantime, her future husband had graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and had accepted a position in Buffalo, New York. "The plan was that I would go to Buffalo and work at Millard Fillmore Hospital," Ruth says. "Toward the end of the year we would be situated so that we could get married. We set December 27, 1941, as the date to get married in Pennsylvania." Her fiancÚ, William "Bill" Prengle was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Thanksgiving week, he received orders to report on December 8, 1941, for one year of active duty. Efforts to get him deferred failed.
Hurriedly, Ruth and Bill married on December 6, 1941, so Ruth could go with him. "Well, Sunday the seventh of December was our famous Pearl Harbor Day," she says. "Bill reported for active duty Monday morning. The army told to him forget that one year because the United States was revving up for big things." Bill was stationed at Langley Field, Virginia, before going overseas in July 1942.
Although Ruth considered enlisting at the time, the Army Nurse Corps policy was to not accept married nurses. "Nurses were marrying like mad because they had boy friends going overseas," Ruth says, "then they were discharged with no replacements. I thought how foolish! There were a lot of nurses like myself who had no children. There was no reason we couldn't be army nurses." In late 1943, the army announced that it would enlist married nurses.
"I didn't tell anybody I was going to do this," Ruth says, "I enlisted, signed the papers, got my orders notarized, and was sworn in, then I told my family. No one objected, or they kept their objections to themselves. They couldn't object, but they didn't faint either." Ruth reported for duty in January 1944.
Basic training at Fort Mead, Maryland, was a rigorous six weeks. "We had to learn all about hospital regulations and the paperwork that we would have to do", Ruth recalls. "This was when you just sat down and did your paperwork with a pencil and made five copies of everything." The nurses also learned how to be a soldier. "We marched and drilled. They taught us how to put on a gas mask and we went through the gas chamber. This was real. We climbed up the webbing they have on the sides of ships. There was a whole course like that." At the end of the six weeks, the nurses were allowed to choose their assignments. "I found out there were several General Hospitals getting complements to go overseas," Ruth says. "I checked the uniforms they were taking. Bill had taken only winter uniforms and ended up in England, so that's what I checked for. I could've ended up in Newfoundland or Greenland but fortunately I ended up in England, too." Ruth signed with the 193rd General Hospital established at the University of Michigan and set sail late in February 1944. For nine days, the ship journeyed across the north Atlantic unaccompanied. They ate two meals a day. A few days into the voyage, she assisted a surgeon to perform emergency surgery. Passengers that worked in the hospital got three meals a day, so Ruth worked her way across the Atlantic. "Not that I was a chow hound," she says, "but I would eat a bit at every meal." The ship landed in north Scotland where they boarded trains headed south. "Nobody ever told you anything, you just did as you were told," Ruth says. Night had fallen by the time the one hundred nurses reached their destination for the day. "I found out we were in Colwyn Bay in North Wales. My roommate and I were billeted in a private home. It was bitter cold."
Next morning, Ruth traveled into England. Once they were settled, a staff nurse already serving in the United Kingdom called on the new recruits. She told them what to expect and announced that the chief nurse of the United Kingdom, a Colonel Schaefer, would visit them. "The nurse warned us," Ruth laughs. "She told us to polish our shoes that night and not forget the heels because Colonel Schaefer was very particular. We were scared to death of this Colonel Schaefer." She turned out to be a pleasant surprise for Ruth.
"The next morning, we were spit and polished and called to attention," Ruth says, "and here came Colonel Schaefer. I was sitting in the front row and Colonel Schaefer looked at me and smiled. I smiled back. My gosh, It was my operating room supervisor at the University of Michigan when I was a student. I hadn't seen her since I left." Col. Margaret Schaefer's assistant returned to inform Ruth that the colonel wanted to see her. "We had a real good time catching up on one another. I thought it was really nice that I ran into her. I always liked her. She was my favorite instructor." During her tour of duty, Ruth considered Colonel Schaefer her guardian angel. She felt the colonel was responsible for her assignment on the plastic surgery ward with Dr. Clifford L. Kiehn, also from the University of Michigan. Ruth believes Colonel Schaefer arranged meetings just to see how she was faring. One day, Dr. Kiehn asked Ruth to accompany him to his headquarters. On the way, they stopped and had tea and biscuits with the colonel. "It was just the three of us," Ruth remembers. "We had a good time talking about Michigan and a little bit about what we did." Other times, Colonel Schaefer called Ruth to ask her to make an appointment with a dentist who was on staff. She told Ruth not to let the head nurse know, because she didn't want the red carpet treatment. "She'd say, 'I just want to sneak in and sneak out' and I'd agree. Maggie was keeping tabs on me. I really appreciated it, and I think she appreciated the time we had. I never had time to piece it together until I got home." For six weeks, Ruth worked at a station hospital in Ireland in the operating room. She then returned to England to the 193rd, which had moved into a tent, before being transferred to the 117th General Hospital in Frenchay Park near Bristol, England. "Bristol was a seaport town, so hospital ships could come in. We could put patients on them to be sent back to the United States." At this time, the hospitals seemed to be preparing for some big event.
At the 117th, Ruth worked in the plastic surgery ward. "A few were on the ward when I arrived," she says. "Then the war got more intense. One night, I received fourteen patients in one fell swoop. We worked the rest of the night, then all the next day getting them situated and removing their dressings to determine the extent of their injuries." Because the wounds were fresh, Ruth and her staff had to set up a burn procedure. "It was a real learning process as we went along. To remove the dressings, the patients had to bathe to soak the dressings off. With only three tubs for this part of the process, removing the bandages from all the patients took days.
We were working fourteen-hour days. That was about all you could put up with without taking a break." One Tuesday, Ruth was unable to accommodate a colonel's weekly inspection. When pressed for an explanation, Ruth gave him a tour of the ward and what she and her staff were up against. "We had two nurses and three corpsmen, but there wasn't much patient care I could do because of my duties to run the ward," Ruth says. "Five people and we had to take care of eighteen patients twenty-four hours a day. It was just too much." The colonel must have agreed, because Ruth received several nurses to get the situation under control. "I don't know where they came from or where they went, I was just glad to see them.
"Sometimes following surgery," she continues, "these patients had to have casts on to stay immobile for three weeks. It was pretty hard for those guys, because it was really uncomfortable. We had some excellent results, though. We were able to save arms and legs that would have been amputated in WW I because this procedure didn't exist. It was a real thrill to see a badly damaged leg or arm covered with pink flesh. I only lost three patients during my tour of duty." Ruth served eighteen months overseas.
Ruth remembers a special patient in the fall of 1944. Dr. Kiehn notified her that she would receive a five-year-old British boy on her ward. An American army truck had struck the boy in Bristol. One of his legs was injured so badly that the English doctors considered amputation but decided to consult Dr. Kiehn first. He determined the leg could be saved and requested the boy be sent to the 117th where he would arrange the surgery.
After the surgery, Ruth put the boy in a private room next to her office so she could keep her eye on him. His name was Robert Day; they called him Little Robbie. "The ambulatory patients on the ward would stop in and visit with him. I got some children's books from somewhere. The soldiers read to him and gave him gum and stuff like that, spoiling him rotten." Ruth and her staff cared for Little Robbie and got him through his next round of surgery, and then he left the hospital. "I never did hear how he fared after that. I arranged for Dr. Kiehn to see him one more time, but I didn't get to see him at that time."
Before Ruth arrived in England, Bill Prengle had been an aviation engineer there building airstrips for B-24 bombers. Ruth was able to contact Bill and saw him a few times before he was moved to a staging area to train as a soldier again. They were supposed to meet one night. "Bill and I had a pact," she says, "that if he called me and said, 'I can't make it tonight,' I'd know they were going." This coincided with the preparations at the hospital. Ruth didn't know what was going to happen, just that it was something important. "Well, I got the call. I knew he was gone. I didn't sleep very well that night.
"One morning," Ruth says, "I got up early and rode my bicycle to Central Supply to roll bandages or something. I had turned on the radio to listen to some news when I heard General Eisenhower's message that the invasion, later called D-Day, had started. I was on pins and needles for a while." Mid afternoon the first day of that invasion, Ruth's hospital received patients wounded in combat.
"A day or so later, some enlisted men from the post office came over to Central Supply," Ruth says. "They said to me, 'Hey Lieutenant, is your husband Captain Prengle?'" Ruth responded that he was and asked why they wanted to know. "The men said that they'd heard on the radio that Bill captured five Germans and took them prisoner. I thought they were just pulling my leg but found out later they were telling the truth." After a while, Ruth received airmail from Bill. "It was just a couple of words to let me know he was still around," she says.
Ruth remained in Bristol until July 1945, when she was moved to a staging area to be sent home for a month's leave for rest and relaxation.
Afterward, the nurses were to regroup for shipment to Japan. "On the boat home, we got the news the first bomb was dropped, and then the second bomb was dropped." Ruth was in Times Square on August 14, 1945, when V-J, Victory in Japan, Day was declared. "I wasn't the nurse that got kissed, though," Ruth laughs, referring to the now famous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse. "None of us could believe the war was really over," Ruth says. "We wondered when the next shoe was going to drop. We wondered if we could really celebrate."
They docked in New York on a hot and muggy day. Still in their wool uniforms and carrying gear, the nurses sweltered in the heat. "We had to bring all this stuff back with us," Ruth says. "I had half a tent, a heavy coat with wool lining, a gas mask, and mess gear. We stood on the boat a long time before we could get off." As they disembarked, the Red Cross gave the nurses some cold milk to drink. "Oh, that was wonderful," Ruth remembers, "because we weren't allowed to drink milk in England. Their cows weren't tested for tuberculosis. That cold milk on such a hot day was just wonderful." The nurses boarded buses for Fort Dix, New Jersey, where they turned in their gear before receiving orders for leave. "We had to go here and turn that in and go there and turn this in."
Afterward, Ruth went home and rested. "I just laid around and began to feel more like a human being again," she says. "I needed that month off. I don't think I would have survived if I had stayed." After a month, Ruth received orders to report back to Fort Dix.
"We were put on troop trains at Ft. Dix and sent to Gaston, Alabama. If you don't think that wasn't a fiasco," she says. "It was hot and humid, and of course there was no air conditioning. The nurses kept their pyjamas on the whole time. The food was terrible. We were crammed in, and our train was often sidetracked to let a faster train through. It took us three days to travel from New Jersey to Alabama." Once in Alabama, "we had to sit and wait until they decided what was going to happen to us," Ruth says. "Of course we knew we weren't going to Japan, which was really a relief Finally, we got orders to report to Battey General Hospital in Rome, Georgia, for tests and so forth. They gave us physicals exams and checked us out really well. Then I got my discharge papers and went back home." When Bill was discharged, he returned to college, eventually earning his Ph.D. They moved to Houston in 1947 where he taught chemical engineering at the University of Houston. They have a daughter and a son.
One day in 1992, Ruth received a letter that began with these words, "I don't know if you remember me or not, but. . . ." Ruth knew immediately who it was from. "I thought, 'oh my gosh! It's from Little Robbie.'" The letter was indeed from Little Robbie. Later that year, Ruth attended a reunion in England of another General Hospital out of Michigan University to celebrate the arrival of the hospital there in WWII. "Little Robbie and his mother came to the banquet that night," she says. "He had one little spot on his leg that didn't heal well, but he played Soccer growing up," she says proudly. Ruth and Big Robbie have stayed in contact ever since.
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