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Being a WWII Army nurse was tough, but critical

Hazel Murphy looks through old photos of her from World War II when she was a nurse stationed in the Pacific theater.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Hazel Murphy looks through old photos of her from World War II when she was a nurse stationed in the Pacific theater.

At night they watched the rats and crabs climb across the wires holding the mosquito netting above their cots. ¶ By day they worked in mud that oozed over the top of their boots while easing the suffering of thousands of American soldiers.

Being a member of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II was as challenging as it was rewarding, said Hazel Murphy, former 1st Lt., USANC, now 88.

"I was so tired at night I would just crawl into my bunk and go to sleep," Murphy recalled.

Murphy's memories from her time in the war were captured in Answering The Call: Nurses of Post 122 authored by St. Petersburg resident Theodora Aggeles.

The title refers to American Legion Post 122 of Madeira Beach. Founded in 1939 by a WWI nurse, Post 122 was the only all-nurses post in Florida before disbanding several years ago. Aggeles attended the group's meetings and spent years gathering the nurses' stories.

Aggeles, Murphy and several other nurses chronicled in the book will be at Heritage Village's annual WWII & the Swinging Forties celebration Saturday to chat about the wartime nursing experience.

Murphy, a St. Petersburg resident whose maiden name was Stickney, always wanted to be a nurse but never intended to join the service. An exhausting night shift in a Boston hospital left the then 22-year-old vulnerable to the coaxing of friends.

"It was soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor," Murphy said. "My friends were asking me to join the Army with them. I made excuses, but when I got off duty in the morning they had my clothes laid out on the bed. By 9 a.m., I had joined the Army."

Murphy's unit was sent to the South Pacific. In Australia, they were transported in boxcars with no windows to set up a hospital in a former convent near Brisbane.

"We were set up for 1,000 patients," said Murphy. "After the Coral Sea battle we had close to 2,000 patients."

In spite of difficult, crowded conditions and long working hours, the nurses found their jobs satisfying.

"As nurses, we knew the reason we were there," Murphy said. "We didn't think about ourselves. We were there to help the soldiers."

After two years in Australia, the unit was sent to Milne Bay on the eastern tip of New Guinea.

The jungles of New Guinea were hot, humid, rainy and full of tropical diseases. As a former stronghold of the Japanese army, the threat of attack loomed.

"There were still Japanese in the caves on that island," Murphy said. "That's what we had to be concerned about at night."

Working at the hospital could be heartbreaking. Murphy saw many boys who lied about their ages to join the war. She recalled one 16-year-old she treated who was sent back to battle.

"He sent me a package with a grass skirt," she said. "I later heard he was killed. I can close my eyes and still see his face."

In the midst of turmoil, Murphy found love. Robert Murphy was the unit's quartermaster. She made him work for two years before agreeing to a date.

"He was well-liked by everyone but me. I couldn't stand him," laughed Murphy. "Everyone tried to help him get to me. He really was a terrific guy."

The couple was married for 41 years.

In 1945, Murphy contracted dengue fever and was sent home. Her time in the service was difficult, but she said she wouldn't trade her experience for anything.

"All those young men loved us," Murphy said. "It is important when you are appreciated and you are told you're appreciated."

>>If you go

World War II & the Swinging Forties

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Heritage Village, 11909 125th St. N

Admission is free but donations are welcome. Free parking and a shuttle to the event is available on 119th Street, between Ulmerton and Walsingham roads.

For more information, call (727) 582-2123.

Being a WWII Army nurse was tough, but critical 04/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 7:58pm]
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