Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken [Undated]

Kathryn M. Rasch:

This interview is of Ruth Anderson Aitken, born April 25th, 1920. She served in World War II in the Army Nurse Corps, reaching the rank of First Lieutenant. It is being recorded in Rockford, Illinois, on July 7th, 2008. My name is Kathryn Aitken Rasch, Ruth's daughter. Court reporter Terrie Wasilewski is also present. This interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Where and when were you born?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I was born in Rockford Illinois at Saint Anthony Hospital, April 25th, 1920.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

What were your parents' occupations?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

My mother was Jenny Johnson and she had worked in the family store; but at the time of my -- of meeting my father, she was working at a rooming house where he was -- had a room. My father was John Elof Anderson. He was an immigrant from Sweden. When he reached Ellis Island, he was told he should go by his middle name because there were too many John Andersons coming over from Sweden. My father was a furniture-maker. He made furniture for the Union Furniture Company and he did a lot of work in our home after they were married.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did you have any siblings?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I had three sisters and two brothers. I was the third pregnancy, but I was the only one -- only baby that my mother brought home from the hospital.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did your mother grow up -- did you grow up with your mother?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

My mother was the last -- with the last pregnancy my mother had a cesarean section. And when my father went to the hospital to bring her home, she threw an embolism and died when I was seven years old; so she and my brother that was born at that time were buried together.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Okay. Who raised you, just your father?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

My mother's sister, who had never married, was living with him at the time and she stayed and kept house for my father and I; so she was really like a mother to me.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

How did you decide to enter nurse's training?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I had always wanted to be a nurse. All my dolls had bandages and broken legs and arms; and my aunt had also wanted to be a nurse, so she encouraged it. When I was 14 after the Depression, my father had just gotten a job again. He died of an illness that was only ten days, but my aunt stayed with me and she and I lived together. When I was -- I graduated from Rockford High School in 1937. At the time I would have liked to started nurse's training, but I had to be 18. So I went to work at Burson Knitting Company in the office there. Their slack season was the summer. So the following spring when I was 18, I was laid off, everyone in the office. Only the old -- older employees were kept. Then my aunt encouraged me that I should go in nurse's training, but I had -- at 25 cents an hour, my wages at the knitting company, I hadn't saved enough to go in nurse's training; but my aunt said I should cash in the little life insurance policy I had. And from that I got either 90- or $100 and it paid my tuition fee at Saint Anthony Hospital and I entered nurse's training there in August of 1938. I loved nurse's training. I had two roommates from Michigan who became my friends and we were friends the rest of our lives. I was fortunate to be able to get a job at the hospital, even when I was in training at the laboratory, and became acquainted with a laboratory doctor there. When I graduated from nurse's training, he asked me if I would like to start a blood bank and I decided, yes, that would be something different; and I started the blood bank with Dr. Matthews at Saint Anthony Hospital. By this time World War II was on all our minds. The sisters at the hospital were originally from Germany and they were sending care packages to relatives and friends in Germany; and so we heard a lot about things that were going on over there, which we didn't understand at the time. Some of my classmates joined the Army immediately and came back with wonderful tales, of course. Also friends that we were with, their brothers and the fellows we were dating, were being called into the service. And the bug gradually bit my two roommates and I, and a recruiter came out from Chicago and we decided we would sign up. So we enlisted at Camp Grant in Rockford. We went through a whole day of examination and answering a lot of questions and signing a lot of papers. Then went home thinking we had all gotten in. But I got a phone call saying I had not made it because I was five pounds underweight. They wouldn't take anyone at my weight. But they said if I came out and signed a release paper that I would accept responsibility for this, they would accept that. So I got on a bus and went out and signed the papers and three of us waited for orders. It didn't take very long and we got orders to go together to Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Do you remember what date that was?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

It was in July of 1943. Percy Jones Hospital had been the Kellogg Sanitarium. It was a beautiful building, wonderful facilities, and we were very impressed when we got there. We were assigned rooms in the barracks. The three of us had decided we would sign to stay in the States at that time. You could sign for that. Well, when we got to the barracks they were having a party for the girls that were leaving to go overseas. And when we told them we weren't going overseas, we were laughed at; because they said when they call for certain number of nurses, you go. Well, we waited and waited and nothing happened, so we felt very secure. I was at Percy Jones Hospital for a year and a half. I was first assigned to an orthopedic ward and that was a shock to go into a ward of probably 100 to 150 men, all with amputations, one or two. It didn't take me long to realize that to them they were just glad to be back. They were willing to sacrifice their limbs and they made light of the whole thing, so I did, too. After a while I was assigned to a neuromuscular ward where there were spine injuries. That was difficult, fellows who would never walk again; but they were wonderful patients.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Can you tell about the people who came back from Africa?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Oh, yes. We had a lot of patients coming from Africa. That's where the campaign was really active at that time. And they brought trainloads of men from Africa, hundreds of them. They had been put in casts and bandages in Africa in the heat there. They came from on ships across the Atlantic. And when they got to us, we had to remove their casts; and they were absolutely all in such bad shape because of being in casts that length of time. But it was amazing how they recovered. Because of my experience in the laboratory and the blood bank at Saint Anthony, which was on my record, I was asked if I would like to work in penicillin research. Penicillin was the wonder drug of the time. We had a ward of probably 15 or 20 men. The worst infections in the hospital were all brought to one place. We measured all their food in and out. We measured every bit of sleep they had. We had very detailed records, and we had to give them injections of penicillin every two hours around-the-clock. We had to use small veins in their hands because the big veins were saved for the lab tests. It was very, very interesting and I saw some miraculous cures there. Time was going on and we realized there wasn't anyone older that had been there longer than we had and we were almost doomed to go overseas next, so we waited for the next list on the board. One of my roommates decided to take a course in anesthesia; but my friend Marge and I were on the list, and that was in the fall of 1944. We were given a 15-day leave and that was over Christmas. So I got to see my family and friends again and then we waited at Percy Jones for our orders. They came through in January, and she and I were both assigned to the 86th Field Hospital, which was going to form in Chicago, all meet in Chicago. We left Percy Jones, flew -- by train and flew from Chicago to Seattle, Washington.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

At first you thought you were going to go to Europe, though, right?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

That's right. We were given all kinds of warm clothes, flannel pajamas and long underwear, so we were sure we were going to Europe; but our plane didn't go east, it went west. And when we got to Seattle, we found that we were going to the Pacific; so we had to turn in all our warm clothes and exchange them for summer weights. Our medical records had gotten lost in the transfer, so we had all our shots over again in Seattle. And nobody got a reaction. Nobody seemed to worry about the fact we had had double shots. There we had shots for all the Pacific diseases.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

What special training did you have before you went out of Seattle?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Well, the strange part was when we entered the Army we had no basic training. We had had no basic training. We had some marching and, of course, we were told the rules and regulations of the hospital and regulations regarding enlisted men and officers and soluting, but we had never had any basic training. But when we got to Fort Lawton, we learned it in a hurry. We climbed the rope ladders, which we would have to use getting on and off a ship, and we crawled through the obstacle courses and did a lot of marching. While we were there, we met the officers and dentists and administration officers for the 86th Field Hospital. We did not meet the corpsmen that would be with us, just the officers. We had many enjoyment -- enjoying times in Seattle and waited for our orders to go further. Finally I believe it was in February, middle of February, we received our orders that we would be embarking the next day from Seattle. So we left Fort Lawton and went to the docks in Seattle. We hit the Pacific at a particularly rough time. The seas were very rough and most of the girls in our outfit were seasick. I happened to only have a headache, but I never was really seasick. After a few days, of course, the dining room filled up again and people began to enjoy the trip. The ocean calmed down as we neared Hawaii, and we landed in Oahu at Honolulu. We were based there at Koko Head, which was a medical training place in Hawaii. We had very comfortable tents and facilities. We dressed in fatigues and did many, many days of marching. We would take three- and five-mile hikes with full backpacks and pitched tents down on the shore of the island and then pack up again and go back the next day. We had courses in target practice, at which I was very poor, and also plane identification, which I knew then but could never tell you one now. We also were allowed tours of the island, so we did see quite a bit of Oahu. We also visited Pearl Harbor, while at the time was not as famous as it is now, and Hickam Field and all the big installations there. We were often invited to dinners and dances, and on the whole we had an enjoyable time at Hawaii. It was beautiful, not touristy at all. April 1st, 1945, was Easter Sunday. We were in chapel when we got -- they interrupted everything to tell us that Okinawa had been invaded that day. The men, of course, were very chagrined because it meant they would be leaving immediately. We waited for our orders, and they came about a week later when we were told we would be boarding ship to go to -- for Okinawa.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did the trip have to be done in a certain way? Did your ship travel differently than like straight, --

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Yes.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

-- like straight-on?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

We went in a zigzag pattern because of submarines in the area. There were many submarines near Hawaii at that time, and we also had accompanying gun ships to protect us. Our ship, by the way, was called the Florence Nightingale, which I thought was interesting. It was full of us and another -- two or three other groups of nurses that were going to be at Okinawa or an island they would be dropped on the way. The corpsmen were there, too.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did you make some stops on the way?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

We stopped at Ulithi and Kwajalein, two islands that we were allowed to get out and swim; and, of course, a couple people got sunburned and suffered a great deal from that. But the islands had been shelled, so there wasn't a standing palm tree. They were just devastated. But there were men stationed there, just as on both islands there were men stationed. They were beautiful sand beaches. The nights were getting cool, but the daytimes were very, very hot. At night we were in complete blackout and we could not sleep inside in our bunks, so we were allowed to sleep on deck because of the heat in the ship.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

What were you doing when you heard about the death of FDR?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Yes. It was announced over the loudspeaker that Roosevelt had died while we were on the ship going to Okinawa. There was a lot of speculation as to what this would do to the war, and we had never heard of Truman but he was now our president. Of course, there were rumors all the time about the war and the Japanese and Okinawa; and you just had to figure out what was true and what wasn't true. On the whole we had a nice trip. We played cards in the evening when it wasn't too hot and I read a lot of books. We had -- we had drilled on ship in case of having to abandon ship. We drilled almost every other day for that, how we would escape and which life boats would be ours, and -- but we never had any occasion to have to use any of it. Then about the 1st or the end of -- oh, yes. I must say I celebrated my 25th birthday on board ship on the way to Okinawa. I don't think I had a cake. About the 1st of May we began to hear faint sounds in the distance and they said we were nearing Okinawa. The sky was full of smoke and the rumble of guns was constant. And finally, I think it was, the 2nd or 3rd of May we sighted land that we knew was Okinawa. The Navy ships -- we saw all the Navy ships in the harbor there shelling the island and then, of course, the enemy was shooting back. We finally got to the beach where we were to land. The noise of the shelling was tremendous. You couldn't hear the person next to you. We got into landing gear and landing crafts and got to shore. Well, the officers that met us were chagrined because there were not supposed to be any nurses allowed until the island was secure. They anticipated a very short battle, but it turned out to be otherwise. We got onto trucks with our backpacks and were to be taken to the 76th Field Hospital, which would be our temporary location until our hospital had been set up. The driver got on a wrong road and the shelling and the fighting became louder and louder. Finally, an MP came riding up to us and said we were wrong and we'd better turn around because the enemy was within a block or two of us. So we turned around, and it was night before we got to the 76th Field Hospital. We were glad to get a cup of hot chocolate there; because the days may be a hundred degrees on Okinawa, but the nights, the winds came in from the ocean and the China Sea and were very cool. We were very happy with a wool Army blanket on us. We were so intrigued with the night sky. It was absolutely beautiful, better than any fireworks display I have ever seen. The ships and the tracer bullets and the enemy planes bombing, it was very spectacular. But suddenly the air raid went off and we were supposed to be in our air raid shelters, which were just foxholes dug into the ground. Well, we did go to them a few times, but not very often because they were not comfortable. The next day we were put to work immediately. Of course, they had been without nurses and the men were working all hours because the battles were very furious at that time. The island had been so decimated that we really couldn't tell where the people lived hardly. There was sort of a -- straw huts or grass huts. We'd see a few, but very few.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

What did you live in? Where were your tents? What were your tents like?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

We had small two-people -- two persons to a tent and it was in a sweet potato field. So we anticipated having wonderful sweet -- baked sweet potatoes maybe the next day. But we were told you don't eat anything on the island because the Okinawans use human excreta as fertilizer and nothing was safe to eat. There were also a lot of -- told there were a lot of snakes on the island, but we hadn't seen any. The next morning I went on duty, and what we were supposed to do was just go down through the tents and change bandages and do whatever we could do for the men that were there. And the first dressing I took off, I know I was startled and jumped back. There was a huge abdominal wound and it was crawling with maggots. Of course, the fellows laughed. They thought I was quite a -- quite a joke because I had never seen maggots in a wound, but they were wonderful scavengers and kept their wounds clean. We had to change maggots every so many hours because they would be full and quit eating. One night there was an air raid and I had been working many, many hours and I was just too tired to get up. But my tentmate said, "Well, we've got to go, Ruth." We always had to shake our shoes before we put them on -- of course, we were in full dress except for our shoes -- because the little hermit crabs would get into our shoes if we didn't watch it. Suddenly the other girl said to me, "Ruth, there's something under your cot." And I listened and I heard something swish-swish-swish. And we turned a flashlight on -- we had no electricity; we worked with candles and flashlights -- and I looked under there and there was a long snake. I would say it was probably five, six foot long. So neither one of us obeyed the air raid that night. We laid there frozen until morning and then the snake did crawl out of our tent. We reported it to the guard, and that next day a snake was shot in our area and we never saw another one. We were getting anxious to get to our own hospital. The men were there setting them up. And it was in a kind of depression in the area with like a -- oh, like what we call now a burn around it. And our nurses' outfit, our nurses' quarters were on one of the hills. We were four to a tent. They were very nice, large tents, and we made places to store our supplies. We also had our footlockers by that time; but, of course, it was still just a dirt floor. We had mosquito nets, which we used very religiously, because the rats would come at night and run over our mosquito nets looking for food. The Red Cross furnished us with tropical chocolate bars and they are very good when you don't have anything else; but if you leave one out, the rats would get it. As I said before, the nights were cool, the day- times were hot. We had used our helmets for bathing. We also used our helmets to wash clothes and to wash your hair, the same water sometimes because water was scarce. Our hospital finally was ready for us, and we were assigned tents. We were 19 nurses for I would say at least 500 people, patients. Some of the girls worked in surgery, so we were pretty shorthanded taking care of patients. We made many, many of our own decisions. The ambulances ran 24 hours a day while there was a campaign on; and it was mostly up to the nurses to decide blood supply, intravenous, plasma, dressings and so forth. I was very -- I am still amazed that all the blood we gave must have been O-positive blood, which is a universal donor, because we never had a reaction, we never did a cross-match, but we gave blood every day.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

You saw something there that you say that you -- was your first and only time, that you saw a case of gas gangrene. Can you talk about that?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Yes. We were told there was a patient here with gas gangrene. And the doctors were sure we had never seen any in civilian life, so they wanted us all to take time to go over and see this patient. They were going to operate on his shoulder. I can still hear the awful sound of that scalpel -- scalpel opening that shoulder. I'm sorry to say the patient died the next day. Now I know that they even have decompression oxygen chambers for this type of injury in the wars today, but we had nothing for them. We had to work part-time in the triage tent. There was usually a doctor there, but sometimes they were so busy we had to accept the responsibility of deciding who would stay at our hospital because they could go back on duty, who would stay at our hospital because they were too bad to transport immediately, and then another tent where the men were not going to make it. They were hard decisions. And when you went into the triage tent, you can't imagine the looks on their faces when they saw a white woman. They could not believe that there were nurses there during the battle. Because Okinawa was a small island, really, and one of our artillery groups was located on a hill on the north end of our hospital area; and those guns were firing across to the enemy practically day and night for a long time. And every time a missile went over, your slacks or whatever kind of pants you had on would blow in the wind, and the men would know that and always were afraid that one of them would not get across. Then we had a new thing happen, the torrential rains. I can't tell you -- you may have seen heavy rains, but the rains on Okinawa were absolutely the hardest I have ever seen. All our passageways between the tents became mud, between the cots became mud, the sheets fell into the mud. We were issued combat boots and we walked in mud. And it rained and rained and rained. It was unbelievable. And the ambulances would get mired down in the rain, and we'd have to -- the men would have to go and dig them out. It is hard to describe. But the sun finally came out and with the sun came mold. Everything we had was moldy from the extreme humidity there and the heat and then all the rain that had been there. A few days later a typhoon hit us and our tents went awry. Some of them collapsed completely, some of them partway. Everything we owned got wet again. By this time we were used to that. After a while the battle got farther and farther down toward the south end and two large cities, Shuri and Naha. I had occasion to ride down, and there were hardly two bricks on top of another in the whole large city. It's unbelievable, the devastation on that island. One day a pilot from a neighboring Air Force air- field came over and asked if a couple of us would like to see the front lines. Well, of course I said yes. He said, "Now, this is not exactly legal. You'll have to wear a pilot's uniform and you'll have to get in the plane with me -- it's just this Piper Cub -- and we'll fly over the firing lines." Well, I went along with it and I made a mistake when I got into the plane; I waved to the other girl that was going up with another pilot. That was very upsetting to my pilot, because no men wave at other men and we were supposed to be men. The front lines was a disappointment to me. It was just a lot of smoke, and it was pretty hard to tell who was shooting at who; and I was not impressed, did not impress me like I thought it would. So he said, "How would you like to see the north end of the island, the first part that was made secure? But it's got a lot of caves and it's sort of like their cemetery. They have big vessels full of bones in these caves." I said, "Yes, I'd like to see that." So we flew up to the north end of the island, and we walked around for probably half an hour to an hour looking in the caves; and he was describing what he had been doing during that period and we went back to the airfield. The next morning the pilot came over, found me, and he was distraught. He said, "Did you hear what happened at the north end of the island last night?" I said, "No." He said they went up there and rounded up about three to five hundred Japanese that were hiding in the caves. I can't believe that those Japanese didn't attack this pilot and I when we were looking around. It amazes me. But nothing happened.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Can you tell us about the mail you received from back home?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Oh, yes. The day we got to our own hospital, there were two or three huge bags of mail which had been waiting for us since we left Hawaii. Among them was a package for me. It was from a tech sergeant that I had met at Percy Jones in the fall before I left. We had seen each other at some parties for girls that were going overseas, and he had worked for this friend of mine and his home was in Battle Creek. So one day he brought me over, I met his mother, his aunt and uncle; and we managed to see each other quite often, although it was not allowed for an officer to be with an enlisted man. I didn't think -- not knowing what the future would bring, I didn't think we probably would see each other again, but I had continued to write to him; and here in the mail he sent me a diamond. It took me a few days before I wore that ring, because I just felt the future was too uncertain and he would certainly not be waiting for me because I expected to go on to Japan. Everything was getting calmed down; and then they heard they needed nurses on Ioshima, which was a very small island near Okinawa. We flew back and forth, giving them aid in a plane that had no doors on it; and we had to hang on tight so we wouldn't be sucked out. At that island was where Ernie Pyle, the famous journalist, was killed during that battle; and I saw his memorial there. It was moved later, I heard, either to a large cemetery on Hawaii or Arlington. I never did find out exactly which place. That was an interesting thing because I worked with some nurses there that were from the Philippines. They had been overseas for a couple of years and they had some interesting stories to tell. At the time of all this rain and everything, I developed a fungus infection in my ears. They drained continuously and the medication they used didn't seem to help at all. So when the battle was -- the island was secure, they decided to send me to Guam to where they had more specialists and a better hospital. But I left all my clothes and everything in Okinawa, because they then told us that we would be going to Korea; so all my things would be going to Korea and I would just go to Guam for a few days and come back and go with the girls.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Can we go back to Okinawa for just a second? I know you've talked about the natives there and apparently most of them were friendly, but you had a story about a lady and her son who came and were not so?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot about that. We had Okinawans do our laundry for us after -- after we got some washing machines from the Navy; and they were lovely women, they were so nice. One night during one of the battles, this elderly Okinawan came to our guard with her little boy and said he was sick; and he was suspicious because she looked so bundled up. So he made her take off her outer wrap and she had been wired and the little boy was wired, too; and if they had come any farther, they would have pulled some string and detonated and probably really killed people in our hospital. But they were the only Okinawans that we ever had trouble with. END OF TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE. START OF TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO.

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

However, after the island was secure, we had heard these stories -- the Japs occupied the island before we came and they threatened the Okinawans that when the Americans come they will rape your daughters, they will rape your women, they will kill you, they will do some very bad things. END OF TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

So there was a high cliff at the end of the island, and hundreds of women and children and men jumped off that cliff and committed suicide when the Americans first came to the island. It took a while before they learned to trust us.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did you have a church --

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Yes.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

-- on there?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

We had a church, always had a church. We had a chaplain and we always had a service on Sunday and there was never an empty pew at the church. They were just planks set across water cans, but it was always full. And the men were definitely thinking seriously before they went into battle.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Now you can go back to Guam.

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Okay. Guam was a beautiful island. I would have loved to have seen it again. It had been, of course, a battlefield earlier in the war; and they had very good equipment at the hospital and they got my ears cleaned up. But they hesitated about sending me back because the war was in -- oh, I forgot something.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

That's all right. Go back.

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I can't remember the date we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I was on Okinawa. And we were all just taken aback by that bomb. And I was with a group that were going over to the Japanese hospital. We were not allowed to take care of the Japanese, but I was going over there just to see where it was and especially interested because of this dropping this bomb on Hiroshima. And while there I met a lieutenant who was a graduate of Tokyo University, a very knowledgeable man, and he showed me a picture of his wife and child and his home in Hiromshima; and I felt so sorry for him and I told him I just don't understand that we can't solve this without this kind of damage. And he was very stoic and said it didn't make any difference to him because he would never go back to his people. He was a disgrace; he had been captured. He had been a pilot and his plane didn't explode and he was a disgrace to his family and he didn't care, it didn't make any difference to him. I have never seen anybody so cold in my life. Now I'm back on Guam. I went out to a -- I don't know. I don't remember how I met this group. I think they came in and asked if anybody wanted to come out for dinner. So always trying to get something good to eat, I went out to this group that had been in the battle and were still stationed on Guam. And the captain there took me around the island, and it is so beautiful. And I also got to go visit one of the families there. And she served me a real sweet concoction of bananas, papaya and coconut and all the fruits of the island; and I ate it, very hard to do. It was not good to me; it was too sweet. But the banana trees were plenteous there. Pretty soon I got a message that I would not go back to Okinawa because they had checked my records and I had enough points. The war was over. McArthur had signed the papers and the war was over, and anyone with a certain number of points would be sent back to the States. So I never got back to Okinawa. All my things went to Korea, and I had just a little suitcase of a few clothes that I had taken to Guam where I expected to stay for two days and I was there a week or ten days. I took off from Guam, I believe. I can't remember the name of the city. And our plane was to go to Oahu. But after we had been out for a few hours, one of our engines -- remember, this is not jet age; this is engines -- began to stream oil flowing out of it. The men -- the other men on the plane were all patients who had been through several campaigns, and they became very hysterical that they would not get back after all. But the pilot had to put another engine down because he was afraid that it would catch fire. So we flew as close to the ocean as he dared and we decided -- he decided that we should land at Johnson Island, which looked like a postage stamp from the air. It was just such a tiny thing. And they were told to prepare for a crash landing. The whole field was covered with a foam of some kind, and we landed in this foam but we didn't catch fire. So we were put up for the night in barracks on Johnson Island. I was the only nurse, and the others were all patients that were being sent back. The next morning we were told that that plane was going to go back. The pilot was going to try to get it back to Oahu, but no one had to fly on the plane if they didn't want to because it was not -- had not been repaired, it was not good; it would be flying on so many engines. And I didn't understand any of it anyhow; so I figured if the pilot was brave enough to fly it, I'd fly, too. So there were only three of us that dared go on the plane, the pilot and three of us. And we got to Hawaii. And when we got there hours later, the pilot came to me and he said, "That plane will never fly again." It's been -- it's not -- you're not able to repair it. But I got to Oahu and had a glass of cold milk, a real treat. I didn't stay on Oahu more than a day and they put me on a plane and I went back to San Francisco to Letterman Hospital. I was given a room there because I had to have another complete check of my ears and everything else. And all I had were these few clothes that I had taken to Guam, and I was told I could not eat in the dining room without full regulation uniform. So I had to go among the nurses there and find somebody whose outfit I could wear, which you can be sure did not fit at all; but that was the only way I could eat in the dining room. I was at Letterman two or three days and then I went on a train across the United States to a hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. It is no longer there, but it was a military hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. And from there I took the bus home and Dick was waiting for me in Rockford.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

This was the person who sent you the diamond, right?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Yes.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Did you have any trouble readjusting to civilian life?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I really can't say. At first I talked a lot in my sleep and woke up a lot thinking I heard air raids. But I was separated at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and got my discharge papers. And my official -- my official date of being finished with the Army was February 16th, 1946, and that day Dick and I were married. And so I went from being Lieutenant to Mrs. I never got back to Miss.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

How did you keep in contact with your fellow veterans through the years?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Although we were only 19 nurses, we had a wonderful chief nurse who kept track of everybody and we had reunions in Chicago annually for a few years. Then she died. But we had a couple reunions in Rockford at our home and we also had a reunion in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But gradually several would die each year; and there are now just three of us left, a friend in Michigan and another friend in a nursing home near Chicago. But all the others, as far as I know, have died.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

How do you feel your wartime experiences affected your life and what lessons you learned from your time in the service?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Well, I think you learn the strength of the human spirit is much stronger than you think. You're stronger than you think you are. You can do things that you never thought you could do. You see things that we'll never forget the rest of your life. It makes life more valuable. But when I first started working again, I had a hard time because our wounded men never complained. Our men that were recuperating were just so glad to be alive. And the patients I had worried about a wrinkled sheet or some other frivolous thing, and it took me a while to realize this was a different world.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Is there anything else you can think of you want to put down in this interview?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I thought of something and I can't remember what it was. I just know that I am proud of our flag. And my husband and I, having both been in the service, I think we appreciate the freedom that we have in the United States more than our children and grandchildren do. I don't know anything else. (Recess taken.) KATHRYN RASCH: This is Kathryn again. We took a short break and tried to remember a couple other points we wanted to include.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

So first we want to start back on your arrival at Okinawa. What date did you arrive and what happened when you got there?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

We arrived May 3rd. There was a heavy battle going on. We could hardly hear ourselves talk, but we got on the landing vessels and were picked up in a truck. At the time there were photographers there, but our chief nurse said no pictures today. Because we were the first nurses to arrive on Okinawa, they were there bright and early the next -- the photographers were there bright and early the next day. And our pictures were in the Chicago Tribune, I believe, within a day or two. So our families all knew by March 4th or 5th --

Kathryn M. Rasch:

May?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

-- where we were. May. Why did I say March? How did I get March in my head?

Kathryn M. Rasch:

And those pictures have been used other places, too?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Those pictures have been in several books that I have found and they are also in the Women's Memorial in Washington D.C.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Now, during the rainy season there was one other interesting side-effect that the men had trouble with their feet?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

I'm sorry. I forgot to mention that when the men came in in the ambulance and we took their shoes and socks off, they had been in the mud and wet for a couple of days; and their skin came right off with their socks and they had very open wounds on those feet we had to take care of. And they healed very slowly because of the heat on Okinawa. Nothing healed quickly.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

Despite all the serious things that went on, I know I've heard of a couple of pranks that the nurses played on each other to keep things a little lighter. Can you talk about them?

Ruth Lillian Anderson Aitken:

Oh, yes. We had to keep up our morale. I'll tell one that -- one night the guards decided they were going to shoot the rats around our tents and they started firing. Well, somehow a couple of Japs had gotten into it and it became quite a skirmish right around our tent. Marge and I hid behind the main tent pole, which was maybe five, six inches in diameter, no protection at all, but we laughed and had a good time avoiding any bullets. Then we went -- after the island was secure, we were allowed to go to Buckner Bay. General Buckner was killed on Okinawa and they named a bay after him. It was a nice swimming place and the sand was beautiful, and one day when I was there we picked up a skull. So I carefully took it back to the tent. Marge was off that night and I put it in her -- on her bed, on her pillow. She screamed, of course. And that skull, I don't know where it finally landed. She threw it. I also was not afraid of bugs like some of the girls were. So I would pick up walking sticks, which were very common there and very fascinating the way they walked, and praying mantis, and we'd catch them and then we'd put them on the girls' pillows, much to their chagrin. But we had a lot of laughs, too. We worked hard and we took our work seriously, but we also had time for fun.

Kathryn M. Rasch:

This is the end of the interview.

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us