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Transcript of Martha Pegram Mitchell's Speech
Note: Martha Pegram Mitchell gave a speech at a public program sponsored by the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County at the Great Aunt Stella Center in Charlotte, NC on March 23, 2000. Due to technical difficulties, the streaming audio differs slightly from the original performance, and therefore does not match the transcript below.
I hope y’all won’t mind if a little old lady just sits here. (Audience laughs.)
Our role in the 38th Evac Hospital was to determine the severity of the soldiers, the wounds and their illnesses and to take care of them as skillfully and swiftly as possible. We had an area called the shock ward and now you call that a triage area. The wounded were assessed and quickly attended to as indicated. Those with illnesses such as malaria or mumps or measles or throat infections and such as those things were taken care of at a slower pace.
A little of our history. As the European war was escalating and our entry into it seemed imminent, the doctors around Charlotte feared they were going to be drafted and so they were very interested in getting together and organizing a hospital.
In the fall of 1940, General George Marshall was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and he came to Charlotte with Mrs. Marshall to attend a football game between Davidson and VMI, which Davidson won, I do believe. Anyway, General Marshall had gone to VMI - that was his alma mater! After the game, his folks, the relatives they were visiting, had a lawn party in their honor. And Dr. Paul Sanger was there, and began chatting with General Marshall and suggested that a number of local doctors were very eager to make a contribution via an Evac hospital. And General Marshall agreed to take this into consideration.
Many communiqués were exchanged between the Chief of Staff at Charlotte Memorial (Hospital) and Washington and finally… because Charlotte Memorial was going to sponsor us. Most often all these hospitals were from a teaching hospital such as Duke and so forth. After they talked back and forth, in January of 1941, we were officially approved by the War Department and were then called into action, sort of.
They hoped to have a whole complete unit from right here in Charlotte. The administrative people, the doctors, the nurses, and everybody, except our enlisted personnel, would be from here. After we heard from the War Department, we went out to Morris Field and we were examined out there and sworn in, if we passed our physical, and we all did.
Then in April of 1942, we had orders to report to Fort Bragg. Those people down there made a heroic effort to teach us something about the military and protocol. We had to go drill every day. Calisthenics every morning. Had to go through the gas chamber with our masks. Learn to identify our planes and their planes. Take hikes on backpacks and do all those things that military people do.
Pretty soon after that we went to a staging area and then on to New York. We picked up 22 nurses there, we had 30 from Charlotte and our T.O. called for 52 so we picked up 22 there. And we got aboard our ship there. We were on the “Andes” and … we had six of us, I think, in a so-called stateroom. In peacetime it was a nice stateroom, probably. We all got aboard. We had tankers, communications people, everybody on board this ship.
And we put in at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and there we merged into one of the largest convoys ever to cross the Atlantic, up to that time. Everywhere you could see, as far as you could see anywhere, were cruisers and destroyers and troop ships and a battleship, everywhere! So there we went.
And we landed in England, at night in a blackout, which none of us knew anything about. But we made it. And we were put on buses and taken to little staging areas. The men I think went to a different area than us girls. We went to Salisbury. We stayed there for I think about six weeks or so and endeavored to learn more and more about how the military expected us to function as a hospital. Then we were taken to Bristol in England, and we got on board another ship, and we of course did not know where we were going. And we went, zigzagged along, and finally wound up at Oran in North Africa.
We knew that when we went through the Straits of Gibraltar that we were certainly going to be in some sort of place such as that. At that same time that our task force had landed at Oran, another landed at Casablanca, and a British task force landed in Algeria.
November the 8th was D-Day at Oran. And on the 9th we went over the side on these rope ladders and got into these little old ships, launches rather, and they took us to the shore. And there we got out and marched up to a little area that the infantry had already taken. And so we went into this dirty, dirty, dirty little building there and unrolled our bedrolls and immediately walked outside and dealt out a little deck of cards. We were going to play a little bit of bridge. (Audience laughs). But immediately we heard sniper fire, therefore we dove back inside that building to safety, dirty as it was.
A little bit later, a few days later, some of the men in our organization went out and found a spot a few miles up the road in a wheat field and there we set up our tents. Our tent detail sets them up: however, they were very inexperienced. And that night we had a terrific windstorm, so everything blew down. And the next day they got up early and got everything organized and that day we admitted about 7 or 8 patients. Within a week we had admitted 300 patients, so we were pretty busy there.
We had a nurse in charge of each ward. We were in tents. We were a tent hospital. Dirt floors, tent walls, and we had army cots along each side and in the center was a packing box which was the nurses station in which we kept our medicines and our dressings and our wash basins and so forth. And believe me when the soldiers were admitted to our wards, they certainly were delighted to see us. We cleaned them up and took care of them, fed them. They were happy to see us. We had a little pot-bellied stove at the end of each ward. And we got one scuttle of coal each day to take the chill off. And of course to bathe our patients we had cold water. We did have some basins. And we had cloths and towels and so forth. We were able to keep ‘em pretty good and clean.
And as they were received, as they had come in through the field, corpsmen had put a tag on them if they had had medicine or whatever their injury was. And we checked that out and to see what they’d had done for them. And then we went from there. Most of our patients did not stay with us for very long. An Evac hospital is just that. We took them and stabilized them to the point that they could be sent to the rear to a field or station hospital or a general hospital, which was further back, to do whatever was necessary there.
Actually we had everything that Charlotte Memorial had. We had a laboratory, x-ray, pharmacy, surgery. We had dentists. We had a good mess hall. We were able to keep our dressings and all these sorts of things sterilized with the autoclave in our surgery. Surgical tents had sheets draped up on top of them so that the lights then would shine down on them as the surgeons were operating on them and it allowed them to see a little bit more clearly what they were doing.
The engineers did, pretty soon after we got there, hook us up to some local electricity, so we could see, and we did have some power.
In our mess tent, we had a really good lady who was in charge there. All the food was prepared there and put in trays, wheeled up to the tents, and then our boys - we served them on metal plates. And thankfully those who were walking wounded helped those who were confined to their beds, so that helped us out a lot too.
Also while we were there the doctors realized that these guys needed blood transfusions. So they emptied out saline bottles, and carefully reversed the pipette, which would create suction. And so all those who were able to donated blood…so we had our own little blood bank there…we were able to do that.
Let’s see here. As the infantry would gain ground, and of course that was their job, we would strike our tents and move forward and set up another thing, another hospital. And we had to roll up our bedrolls, fold up those cots, and load ‘em up on trucks, get aboard the trucks, go up the road, undo it, and set it back up again. And we did this many, many times.
One of the people who came to us, liked us a whole lot, was Ernie Pyle. My mother cut out every article that he wrote, and he wrote many, many, many in The (Charlotte) Observer in those days, and she cut those out and saved them for us.
I guess along about the … we went then from Oran - we went all the way up from Oran to Tunis. And we spent a summer in Tunisia for about 2 months. Then we got on a cattle car I think it was and went back to Oran where we got on board ship and went to Naples. And in that summer that we were up in Tunisia, we had more medical patients than we had anything else. We had many malaria patients and these boys were so sick. It was hot as could be. We could not sleep at night, and I was on night duty. Couldn’t sleep in the daytime. But at any rate, we took good care of these guys.
Then the 38th Evac moved on up to Rome. I did not go there. On the 23rd of December (19)43 I got orders that I could come home, rotate home. I was one of the first nurses rotated home. And so I came back, and then received orders to go to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam (Houston, TX), and I stayed there awhile. Meanwhile I had come back to Charlotte and gotten married, and my husband went to England. I liked the Air Force guys. (Audience laughs) He flew a P51 and accompanied you. He was shot down in late September.
At this time I had the opportunity to go to a POW camp in New Mexico, so I stayed there for 3 or 4 months. And we took care of German prisoners. We had … 3 or 4 of those people were our corpsmen, and helped us out and took care of them. Then I went to Beaumont and El Paso for awhile…then to Dallas, went on recruiting all up and down the Texas valley, and I did that awhile.
The war was over and I knew Jack was coming home so I went back to Fort Sam (Houston). And then by that fall, I was mustered out, and there ended my Army career!