Veteran’s Testimony – Lillian K. Swerdlow 297th General Hospital
The following Testimony has been taken from an Article submitted by Lillian Krell Swerdlow, RN, a 1943 graduate of the Mount Sinai Hospital School of Nursing, in New York City. It first appeared in the Mount Sinai Alumnae News bulletin, Spring 2008 with the title of “World War II Experiences”. It was obtained through Lois Montbertrand, who kindly obtained permission for the MRC Staff to reproduce it in this form; for which the authors are most truly grateful. Incidentally, Lois also graduated from the same Nursing School as Lillian, and so this should explain how the authors came to know about this Article.
Where to begin the saga of over fifty years? Life truly has a strange way of “setting the stage” for our future. In my case it was the onset of WW2. I joined the Army Nurse Corps as a “reservist” during my second year of nurse training at the Mount Sinai Hospital when Col. James Doolittle appeared at our Hospital’s School of Nursing in New York to recruit future nurses for the Army under the sponsorship of the American Red Cross.
Upon graduation in October 1943, I received my commission as a 2d Lieutenant and reported to “England General Hospital” (designated US Army General Hospital by WD GO 57 September 21, 1943), Atlantic City, N. J. for basic training on 1 February 1944. As I recall, I influenced my classmate to join the ANC with me and together, we would “hut, two, three, four” on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.
Our first experience in dealing with Army protocol occurred when we completed our four weeks of Basic Training and much to our disappointment, received separate nursing assignments. I was to report to “Tilton General Hospital” (designated US Army General Hospital by WD GO 64 November 24, 1942), Ft. Dix, N. J., while my friend and classmate would be going on to “Halloran General Hospital” (designated US Army General Hospital by WD GO 53 October 14, 1942), Staten Island, N. Y. Of course we reasoned, this had to be a “gross mistake.” After all, the Army had promised when we joined they would keep us together. Since we knew our rights (having just completed a course in “Army Grievance Procedures”) we wrote a letter, signed jointly, to the Nurse Corps Adjutant of the First Service Command for a hearing relating to our complaints. Apparently our letter did make some waves. We received a response to report immediately to New York at the offices of the First Service Command for a personal hearing with the Adjutant. In no uncertain terms we were informed that the Army orders were “sealed in cement” and not to be questioned. Our orders would stand as issued, and in a curt command we were harshly ordered to leave our name, rank and serial number on her desk. We left that office completely crushed to go on to our respective new assignments as ordered!
Assignment & Movement Overseas:
As we were just beginning to adjust to our new posts, the Adjutant must have had second thoughts about getting rid of the “two pains in the neck” because on April 1 1944 (my 22nd birthday) my friend and I received orders at our respective bases to join the 297th General Hospital (leaving for overseas duty.)
The 297th Gen Hosp was the famed “Chicago Cook County and Loyola University Hospital affiliated unit” (activated June 10, 1943) that had been stationed in the California Mojave Desert for two years preparing for the big assignment in the South Pacific. As per Army surprises, the entire unit had just received their tropical diseases vaccines when they were notified of their redeployment to Fort Dix, N. J. and on to the ETO in England! Apparently, two Nurses were needed in a hurry to bring the unit to T/O strength and my classmate and I happened to be the answer to the solution.
It seemed in no time at all after receiving our notification to join the 297th General Hospital that we found ourselves burdened with 40 pound field packs and struggling up the gang plank of the Queen Elizabeth on Memorial Day weekend of 1944 (date of embarkation, May 30, 1944). I would not describe this trip as exactly a pleasure cruise! We were packed in like sardines: 10,000 battle ready troops and 75 Nurses! Despite tight security in rerouting our troop transport train from New Jersey and boarding ship after midnight as a large security secret, we sailed from New York Harbor at high noon on Memorial Day 1944 with all New York standing dockside on the bright clear sunny day to wave “goodbye” to our troop laden ship (by now we were sure that all Germany knew we were on the way)!
Unfortunately, we hit stormy weather in the mid-Atlantic with gale winds as we neared the Irish Sea. It seemed like a sheer miracle when we safely arrived at Gourock, Scotland, hours before dawn broke through the mist on 6 June 1944. We waited on deck for hours in a cold light drizzle to be taken off the ship by tender and put ashore. We were all deeply grateful to the British Red Cross volunteers waiting for us dockside in the “wee” hours of the morning with sandwiches and hot coffee.
Soon after we disembarked, we boarded a train for our destination in Llandudno, North Wales where we would spend the next few days awaiting and assembling our medical supplies. It was at our Llandudno stop-off when we first learned of the Normandy invasion and [Operation Overlord]. Again, another long train ride across Wales and the cold grey English countryside to Stourbridge on the Severn River, our final destination in the midlands of England.
The British Army facility which we occupied in Stourbridge was typical of old Army barracks seen in movies of World War I; dust well entrenched since 1918! The first order of the day was to clean, sweep, scrub and whitewash all of the walls until some sense of order made it possible to set up hospital beds and unpack medical supplies. I remember our Nurses cutting up their cotton petticoats to provide much needed cleaning cloths.
We barely had time to organize and set up our Hospital when our first wounded patients arrived in convoy after convoy from the Normandy invasion combat area. In no time at all we were operating at full capacity and this did not let up until well after the Battle of the Bulge. Nurses worked 12-15 hour shifts and 24 hours around the clock whenever a new convoy of patients arrived. The 297th operated professionally as a team with great expertise. I felt truly fortunate to have been part of this dedicated team of Physicians, Nurses and Enlisted Aidmen, as well as an administrative staff that functioned so effectively, providing our wounded men with the best possible medical / surgical services and supplies. Thanks to the new wonder drug called Penicillin, complications from wound infections were minimal.
Our American Red Cross provided much needed lifesaving plasma. New surgical techniques of bone grafting, developed by our fine orthopedic surgical team, saved many lives and limbs. I must also give credit to the Army’s amazing transportation system that was so effective in transporting patients from the battlefield to Army Base Hospitals in England so quickly. This, above all, saved many lives. As new buildings were added to our hospital complex, I was given the position of Lead Nurse of the Orthopedic Surgical Unit. It was a privilege and responsibility I accepted with humble grace and professional commitment. I might add, that only the most severely wounded men in need of orthopedic surgical services were triaged to our unit. Because of that, the hospital patient stays were longer and in essence, this gave us “Teaching Hospital” status in the ETO.
Zone of Interior:
Following VE-Day, our Hospital was advised to evacuate all remaining patients to the ZI and prepare for a new assignment: service in the PTO! The 297th would be returning to the US for thirty days R&R and then move to its new combat zone in the Pacific. Again we boarded the Queen Elizabeth, this time from Southampton to New York. While enroute however, the war in Japan ended and unexpectedly ours had the distinct honor of being the first peacetime ship to arrive home from Europe. This occurred on Labor Day weekend, 1945. It was a homecoming celebration to be remembered forever. The ship entered New York harbor with all the fanfare trappings of a coronation! Fire boats streaming fountains of water came out to meet us. Tugs were whistling; sirens were blowing; people were lined up wall to wall from the battery to dockside waving and shouting. “Welcome Home” banners were everywhere as thousands of balloons festooned the sky!
I truly feel I had a destiny to fulfill in my life during WW2. Somehow, I have always felt that this destiny was tied up with the grievance letter I wrote so long ago to an unknown Adjutant, who issued my orders for overseas duty following Basic Training. However, it resulted in my story today, 50 years later as a WW2 ANC Veteran. In retrospect, I would like to feel that I served our wounded men and country and as women we played an important and needed role in the service of the Armed Forces.
On a personal basis, my destiny resulted in meeting, while overseas, one special Army Air Forces S/Sgt Len Swerdlow, my husband, who was with the 379th Bomb Group in England. Together, with three lovely children, five beautiful grandchildren and God’s will, our destiny would have gone full circle when we celebrated our 50th Golden Wedding Anniversary in June, 1996.
The following Testimony is courtesy of 2d Lt. Lillian Krell who served with the 279th General Hospital during WW2. It was kindly obtained with help of Lois Montbertrand who graduated from the same Nursing School in New York City (Mount Sinai).