Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2003
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
World War II nurse veteran shares memories of joy and sadness
BINGHAMTON –– When the students at St. Thomas Aquinas School began learning about Veterans Day, second-grader Hannah Truman went home and asked her parents if there were any veterans in their family that they wanted to remember at the upcoming Veterans Day Tribute. That’s when Hannah learned that her great-grandmother, 98-year-old Martha Williams-Chaddock, was a veteran of World War II.
Chaddock was one of 42 nurses and 36 doctors stationed with the 28th division, a mobile field hospital that moved with the troops. Chaddock spent years living and working in tents. “The operating tents were so crowded. At one time we had over 1000 wounded,” she said. “We had no water to bathe them, no towels or washcloths and no pajamas. We had no food or coffee for them.” The staff was only allowed to eat once in a 26-hour period. They patched up the wounded as best they could and sent them to other hospitals.
Chaddock recalled one Christmas while in France. “We were in a building for a change, instead of a tent. One of the boys brought us a tree and put it in the Catholic chapel. The boys strung it with tiny lights because we were in a blackout area. We hung blankets in the windows so that the lights wouldn’t shine out,” said Chaddock. “I was passing by the chapel one night and even though it was dark, I went in and started playing Christmas carols on the organ. The wounded boys in the ward next door began singing. We had our own concert,” she said.
Chaddock recalled other memories –– like the time a soldier brought a baby boy that had been found on the side of the road to the field hospital. “He wasn’t at all afraid of us,” said Chaddock. “We made pajamas for him out of old sheets. We even named him.” Chaddock said that the American military took the child away and they never heard what happened to him. “We had some fun but we also had some very serious moments,” said Chaddock. In addition to meager food rations and supplies, Chaddock once awoke after only one hour’s sleep covered in fleas. She had to take a Lysol bath to rid herself of them. “We also lost two nurses from our unit,” she said. “One was killed in a car accident. The other was shot in the head by the Germans when we were in Luxembourg.”
One special memory that Chaddock shared was the impromptu party that was given for the 28th division in an abandoned castle in France. “It was the party of all parties,” said Chaddock. “When we arrived, they had arranged one of the rooms upstairs, setting up cosmetics so that we could get ready. When we came out of the room to descend the grand staircase, there was a doctor standing on every stair to escort us down to the main room where the party was being held. They killed a cow and we had that for dinner,” said Chaddock. “It tasted mighty good. We had ice cream for dessert.” Chaddock said she was enjoying the party so much that she failed to fulfill her duty as chaperone. “We were supposed to be back to the field hospital by 11 p.m.,” she said. “I looked at my watch and it was 1 a.m. We ran upstairs to get our coats, but about eight of the nurses were missing. When we came back down the stairs, we found them holding hands in a circle around some general, singing, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.” Chaddock laughed and laughed at the memory. With that in mind, Chaddock was asked about General Patton. She laughed heartily at the question. “He was a man of two minds,” said Chaddock. “He would get very angry, but he could also be very gentle. He was wonderful to his girls.”
The most poignant memory Chaddock shared was of the last day of the war. “We were in Frankfurt at the Olympic Village,” she said. “Hitler wouldn’t allow anyone to use the arena. But we finally had showers, tables to sit at. We had music. We got the word at 6 p.m. that the treaty had been signed.” Despite Hitler’s directive, when word came that the war was over, neon lights went on all along the track –– a symbolic gesture that ended so many years of darkness. The next day, Chaddock and the other nurses thought they should have a prayer service. So they called in the 28th division along with the commanding generals. Tremendous tents were erected and tied together but couldn’t hold the crowds of military personnel that attended the service.
“I was playing the organ, so I was up front and could see several hundred boys out in the field with their helmets on and their guns on their shoulders,” said Chaddock. “The first song I played was the “Star Spangled Banner” and then hymns after that. Imagine all those boys out in that field, singing. They didn’t need me playing the organ. As time went on, fewer and fewer were singing. They were crying,” said Chaddock. “If you’ve never heard a large group of men sobbing, you should have been there. That was the end of the war,” she said.