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Interview with Muriel Phillips Engelman [4/28/2009]

Betty Hoffman:

Muriel, can you tell me your whole name and will you spell it please.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Muriel Phillips Engelman.

Betty Hoffman:

Can you briefly tell me who was in your family before the war, the end of the 1930s?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, my mother, father, sister and younger brother.

Betty Hoffman:

And what were their names?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Samuel Phillips, Marion Cohen Phillips, my sister was Ruth Phillips, my brother was Arthur Phillips, and we lived in Meriden, Connecticut.

Betty Hoffman:

What year were you born?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

1921

Betty Hoffman:

So, what were you doing at the end of the 1930s?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

In the 1930s I had just graduated Meriden High School and then I went on to Cambridge, Mass., where I went into nurse's training at Mount Auburn Hospital. Then, it was known as Cambridge Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.

Betty Hoffman:

Had you always wanted to be a nurse?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh yes, my mother said I was born to be a nurse. I brought home every stray dog and cat and bandaged them up and that was it.

Betty Hoffman:

What kind of training did they have at Cambridge Hospital?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Generalized nurse's training. It was a three year course and we went to the various departments and spent three months here and three months in surgery, three months there, and it was a general nursing course. At the end of the three years we took our State Boards and became Registered Nurses.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you have a favorite subject?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I loved them all, I did not like pediatrics because I couldn't stand the chief nurse, but I loved every phase of it. It was fascinating. I loved obstetrical nursing. It was almost like a miracle seeing the first baby born and I loved psychiatry. The whole thing was fascinating.

Betty Hoffman:

So, after your graduation from nursing school with your RN, where did you go from there?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, then I worked in New York for about six months while I had applied to the Army. I was going into the Army Nurse Corps. The war had broken out and about three quarters of my classmates had all enlisted in some branch of the armed forces and I did too.

Betty Hoffman:

So, what year was that?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

That was in 1943.

Betty Hoffman:

And when did you leave the Army Nursing Corps?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I was finally discharged in January of 1946.

Betty Hoffman:

What rank did you go in as?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I went in as a second lieutenant and came out as a first lieutenant.

Betty Hoffman:

Why the Army?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, so many people have asked me that, and I decided that they had told us "you know, you might be in danger at some time", and I thought that I'd rather get killed on land than on the water. You know, I didn't know, at that time, they had navy blue uniforms. We ended up with olive drab. I think I would have looked better in navy blue. But they didn't ask me.

Betty Hoffman:

Tell us about what happened when you decided to enlist? Did you go somewhere? What was it like?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, my first Army post was Fort Adams, Rhode Island and that was a beautiful Army post. It was like a country club and it was on the Narragansett Bay. It was a small Army post. They had about ten nurses there and the chief nurse was older than God. But it was a very warm affair. I don't remember how many beds the hospital had, maybe 70 or 80, I'm not sure. But it was ·a small hospital. But you know, we took care of measles cases, appendicitis cases, truck accidents. That wasn't what I joined the Army for-- I wanted to see real action. So, I applied for overseas duty and within 3 months they accepted my application and transferred me to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where I was in an outfit that was preparing to go overseas.

Betty Hoffman:

How did they train you for overseas?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We had basic training and all day long for months, you know you marched, you hiked, you had gas mask drill, you went on 15 mile hikes. We did the infiltration course, which was crawling on your belly under live ammunition. We had classes. We learned everything from yaws to tsutsugamushi fever. We didn't know what theater of operation we would be going to, so we had to learn all the tropical diseases. We had classes in every subject imaginable. I guess every phase that we could possibly undergo-we did. But we did have these long hikes and learning how to survive. We learned how to pitch a small tent made out of shelter halves, which we learned to wear around our shoulders.

Betty Hoffman:

What did your family think of all this, your parents?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, my father was dead, but my mother was proud. Of course, she was always concerned but she was proud of the fact that I was doing my bit. And we all wanted to do our bit. The whole country was united then behind President Roosevelt and everybody felt we wanted to do our thing for the war effort.

Betty Hoffman:

So, when were you sent overseas and where were you sent?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We left Boston Harbor the end of December, in 1943 and we were issued clothing for the tropical climate, so we were sure that we were going to go to the Pacific. But in mid-ocean, they took away the tropical clothing, which is typical of the Armed Forces, and then they gave us cold weather clothing. We ended up in Europe. We landed in Liverpool.

Betty Hoffman:

In England

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

In England, right. We were in a huge convoy of ships. There were perhaps 60 to 70 ships in this convoy. They were just spread out across the Atlantic as far as you could see and what should have been a five day trip, turned out to be a twelve day trip because we had to dodge German V-Boats and submarines and then there were huge winter storms that washed over the decks. There were all these galvanized garbage cans that were scattered allover the deck, so we made good use of them. But it was an experience.

Betty Hoffman:

Did the convoy lose any ships?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

No, not at the time. We had destroyers that were following us and watching us on all flanks. At one point in time I had sent a message to a boyfriend of mine who was on the ship in front of us, and I found out that it was his ship in front of us and the admiral of the fleet was on his ship and that message was delivered to him. I found out months later that he called this boyfriend of mine, who was a dentist on the Navy transport, and he blasted the life out of him and said "you know this is terrible, there are German submarines all over the place and how come you're getting a message?" and he convinced him that I was just a stupid nurse who didn't know any better and he said, "well make sure that it doesn't happen again." Of course, it happened again as soon as I landed and we were allowed to communicate. I knew where his ship was because his ship and our ship were the only two that landed in Liverpool. The rest of the convoy went on up to Glasgow and I knew where his ship was and after three days, I sent him a telegram and again the admiral got the message and so he was sure that we were both spies and we were going to be court-martialed and the works. But we lived through it and nothing happened.

Betty Hoffman:

Did the romance continue?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, I got this letter after six weeks, a very cold letter saying what in the world are you trying to do to me, I'm on the verge of being court-martialed and they think you're a Mata Hari, and so after that I sort of cooled off, but then he later apologized and he finally got to see us on our post. But by then., I had cooled off a little bit.

Betty Hoffman:

So what were your first impressions of England during the war?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

It was cold, it was damp. We had too much rain. We had too many brussel sprouts, and it was full of mud. But the English people were marvelous and I found these wonderful relatives over there and, of course, in England, the weather could also be very mild in the middle of winter. The grass was green., but you know we couldn't understand the people at first, especially the telephone operators. But England was lovely. They had been at war for so long and people were so apologetic about the conditions in the country. But they were lovely.

Betty Hoffman:

Did they like the Americans?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh, they loved us.

Betty Hoffman:

Did they like the guys, or did they just like the nurses?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

No, no, they liked the guys too. Of course, by the end of the war, it was the way it was in France. You know, what did they say, "The Americans were overpaid, over sexed and over here."

Betty Hoffman:

How long were you in England?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We were in England about 9 months.

Betty Hoffman:

And what did you do while you were there?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, the first few weeks we were waiting for our hospital. They were building a hospital for us in North Wales, so we were on detached service with another hospital. Of course, at first, the first few weeks we all came down with the English hack from the weather. You coughed and you coughed. I mean it was awful but some people had the English hack for the rest of the war. But when our hospital was complete in North Wales then we moved in and we started in operation and prepared for D Day that was coming up in several months.

Betty Hoffman:

You knew D Day was coming?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh yes, we knew it was coming. We didn't know when., but you know, we had to get all the equipment ready and we got our supplies ready in the operating room and there were plenty of everyday casualties again to take care of, appendicitis, and accidents and normal diseases that we took care of everyday.

Betty Hoffman:

Were you at that point seeing soldiers that were coming back from Europe or were you just waiting?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

No, well, we hadn't gotten any, you know they hadn't crossed the Channel yet, but there were enough casualties, because there were so many Americans over there. They said that they were going to sink the island, there were so many Americans in England at that time. You know, this many hundreds of thousands of service people there, there were bound to be illnesses and accidents.

Betty Hoffman:

So what were some of the lighter moments? What did you do in your free time?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, we bought bicycles. I remember we paid the equivalent of $38 for bicycles and we rode around the countryside and outside of our hut. You know the nurses lived in little huts, 8 nurses to a hut, and we had plots of ground behind our huts and around them and we bought seeds and planted gardens. We were having a great time in our spare time, watching the flowers grow, we said the radishes were radishing and the lettuce was lettucing. But we didn't stay there long enough to enjoy our harvest.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you go out with guys from the American military?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Of course, we had ten dates a night. There was no shortage of men and I know at one point I said, "Well, I'm through going with the medics, because the infantry was more exciting and then the Air Corps, they were even more fun". There were plenty of men. But, you know, in our own hospital outfit, there were fifty medical and dental officers, a hundred nurses and you'd go to the Officer's Club at night and they had a juke box and you're dancing, you're talking, you'd sing. We were like a family and it stayed that way for the whole three years we were together.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you make some good friends?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh yes. You mean in our hospital outfit?

Betty Hoffman:

Yes, among the either men or women.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Yeah, of course, the eight nurses in our hut, you know they assigned us alphabetically, however you were in the alphabet that's who you lived with. Like my initial was P, and everybody in our hut their initials were around P. Of course, I had one gal who was in the bed next to me and I couldn't shake her because of her initial and she was always near me. I had made a dressing table for myself from some orange crates and I wanted to sit down and brush my hair and there she would be sitting at my dressing table, combing her hair and I'd say, "Please let me sit down I want to comb my hair, " and she'd say, "For God's sakes, you'd think you had the crown jewels here." But I was never finished with her. She was always near me.

Betty Hoffman:

Do you still keep up with her?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

No, I don't know what happened to her.

Betty Hoffman:

Do you still keep up with any of the other nurses from that period?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Mostly just one. I don't know how many have died and we did have reunions of our outfit for many years, perhaps the first fifty years, and after the fiftieth reunion I think they sort of petered off

Betty Hoffman:

Well, you said earlier, when you were at Fort Devens they prepared you for wherever you might go, tropical fevers ... What was different about your preparation in Wales?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, first of all, we didn't have the tropical diseases, so we had more cold weather things, influenza, and you know the common cold, and any epidemic, scarlet fever. Of course, they didn't have too much of it at that point. But you know there are different diseases in the tropics.

Betty Hoffman:

Did they teach you how to manage in battle situations?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, it all depended where you worked. At first, I worked in the operating room and then when we were in Belgium I worked in the shock tent and then the surgical tents. So, then there were other nurses, even though you were together according to where you stood in the alphabet, but when it came to your professional ability or training, that's when you went in different areas and my special ability or training was in the operating room and surgery.

Betty Hoffman:

So that was training from before when you were in America in school?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I didn't get any special training, I mean I had my special months in the operating room in nurse's training, but then when I was in the Army I was taught to be an anesthesiologist, but I never finished up with that because before we went overseas, I had pneumonia, so I had to stop doing anesthesia.

Betty Hoffman:

You have some dog tags on the table there. What are dog tags? Would you like to pick them up?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Dog tags were what every service man and woman had to wear around their neck and you had to wear it at all times. It had imprinted on it your name, your hospital unit, your Army serial number and your religious affiliation, like mine was H for Hebrew, which we weren't very happy about when we were in danger of being captured by the Germans. These had to be with you at all times.

Betty Hoffman:

Did the non-Jews have a different designation on theirs?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh yes, Catholics had a C on their dog tags, the Protestants had a P, and this was so they would know how to bury you. They'd check your dog tags and if a rabbi was around he would perform the service, or a priest for a Catholic, and so forth.

Betty Hoffman:

Someone who was interviewed for this project had dog tags, but she didn't have an H on it. There was no designation. Was that possible?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I think in later wars they were allowed to designate whether they wanted it or not. But when I was in the service this was just part of it, it was automatic.

Betty Hoffman:

So you didn't have a lot of choice.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Right, right.

Betty Hoffman:

So after nine months in England came D Day, which was, what was the date?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

June 4th, 1944

Betty Hoffman:

And where did you go from there?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We stayed in our hospital taking caring of casualties for about one month, and then we received orders to get ready to pack up within two hours and get ready to cross the Channel and go to France, which we did. We left our bicycles, we packed our bedding rolls quick in a hurry and we took off We were loaded into trains and we rode all night long. After riding all night in these trains, we landed in Bridport, England. We were at the station just milling around, nobody was there to meet us. We didn't know where we were supposed to go, and then after a while, someone pointed us in the right direction and we marched to an old English castle that had been deserted for years. It was occupied by rats and bed bugs and that's where they housed the nurses, in a place called Down Hall, on the outskirts of the village. The male officers, they lived in another huge building nearby called Mountbank. Then we stayed, of course, but the way they had us rushing to pack and get out, we thought we'd be on the ship for France the next day. But we stayed there at Down Hall for over a month and it was the hottest summer in England, but we were only a mile from the beach so every day we would march to the beach and that beach was so rocky, but we'd spread blankets on the beach and it was a nice relaxing month. The water was very cold but it was relaxing and fun and we were glad to be there.

Betty Hoffman:

So then in July you were sent to France.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

The first week in August, we went there. The whole month of July, we were in Bridport, but then the first week of August, they piled us onto what was formerly a cruise ship, a luxury liner called The New Holland, and it had been converted to an Army transport, and what should have been a few hours trip to Normandy turned out three days.

Betty Hoffman:

Why?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, because there were so many sunken ships and planes in the Channel and the ships had to go slowly and then there were German planes still flying overhead and everything had to be a complete blackout. When we first boarded the ship, the male officers rushed down to get all the staterooms, but they weren't down there very long. They came back up real quickly and they said we've decided you nurses should have the staterooms. They were full of bed bugs, so we all slept up on deck for three nights.

Betty Hoffman:

Were you afraid to be crossing the Channel like this?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, you know, there was always a certain amount of fear but you were with hundreds of other people, so not really. 1 don't think we were afraid. 1 didn't feel that afraid the whole time, except during the buzz bombs, when that happened. But crossing the ChanneL I just felt that thousands of other Americans have crossed already, nobody's going to pick on me.

Betty Hoffman:

Were the buzz bombs in France?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

No, those were in Belgium.

Betty Hoffman:

You went fIrst to France, you said.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We went first to France and we had to climb overboard. We landed at Utah Beach, the first invasion landed at Omaha Beach, which was horrible, with all those high cliffs, with the Germans on top. 1 often wonder how any of them ever survived. But Utah Beach was level and we had to climb over the railing and down the rope ladder. We were just loaded down with all our gear and the rope ladder was swaying and the ship was swaying. But we didn't fall off We had practiced that in basic training anyway, so it wasn't too much of a surprise. Then they loaded us into these flat bottom boats and took us to within a couple of hundred yards from shore and then we just waded in the rest of the way. And then once we were on shore, they loaded us, the nurses, into trucks, and they were going to take us to our site. We were going to live in a cow pasture that had been cleared of mines until it was time for us to move up to Belgium. Well, we were going and going for hours. It got dark and as we went over the pot holed Normandy roads, with the smell of death and destruction, you know, at first we had been talking and singing the way we always did, when we were on our truck rides, then you sort of settled down and realized that there really was a war here just a couple of weeks ago and a lot of dead people. There were no buildings left standing and it got darker and we were driving in a complete blackout for hours and fInally the three trucks stopped and our truck driver got out and said, "All out lieutenants". He said, "I have news for you and the news is that we're lost, so you're going to have to stay here and we'll be back for you tomorrow morning." Well here, in the blackout was a cow pasture, still loaded with cows and, of course, we couldn't use our flashlights and so we were stumbling around in the cow pasture trying to find a level spot to lay down for the night. Of course, you could hear the shrieks of the nurses as they stepped in a cow flop. But we survived the night and the next morning the truck drivers showed up-they had the right directions and then they took us to this field behind the Normandy hedgerows where tents had been erected for us to stay.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you have a hospital there?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh no, we just stayed there waiting because we were going to our permanent destination, which was Liege, Belgium, and we had to stay there in this cow pasture for seven weeks before it was safe, before they had chased all the Germans out of Liege. So they had these huge tents, we had 30 nurses to a tent and we lived in the tents for 7 weeks.

Betty Hoffman:

What did you do for seven weeks?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Went nuts. Well, the first few weeks we couldn't do anything. We couldn't leave the cow pasture, because every road was mined, every town was mined. All the nearby towns, Isigny, St. La, Sainte Mere Eglise, they had all been bombed out, so we couldn't leave our cow pasture. So, we had fashion shows. We took our aluminum mess kits and put them on our heads and we draped ourselves with blankets and we had drilling every day in the hot sun, and we played baseball and softball. This one nurse, who always had my dressing table, she never drilled with us in the hot sun, she was busy playing poker with the medical officers. But you know, they weren't too strict at that point. They didn't take role call. We ate the green apples that were on the trees. You tried to stay clean. We were only allowed one canteen of water a day. The first few weeks the water truck would come by and it would fill this big lister bag, so you were able to have your one canteen for drinking, for washing yourself, and for washing clothes.

Betty Hoffman:

How big was the canteen?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I'd say it held about a pint.

Betty Hoffman:

How could you wash your clothes in a pint of water?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, you couldn't do an awful lot. The canteens weren't any larger than this and you couldn't do too much. We weren't too clean in those days.

Betty Hoffman:

So eventually they started to move you towards Belgium, or what happened?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Yeah, well then, it was safe. The Americans were making great inroads into Germany. They had swept through Brittany and they were doing well. Then they put us on trains to go to Paris and on our way to Liege, and then when we got to Paris, we still had to wait two weeks there. Liege still hadn't been cleaned out of the Germans, so the first night we were in this old French chateau and it had flush toilets, which was a treat. They had chrysanthemums painted on the inside of toilet and that was fun. Then, they sent us on detached service working in other hospitals in the Paris area for around a week and then, of course, we had been on the train for three days just to get to Paris, and you know, we sat upright in our seats with all of our shelter halves around our shoulders and our helmets and our gas masks, and you know you sat like this for three days, you couldn't lay down at night, there was no place. You could get up to use the bathroom and that was it. Anyhow, so we were glad to get to Paris and of course, everybody treated us as their liberators. They gave us flowers and bottles of wine and they hugged us and stuff It was great. But then after our one week on detached service, then we had to go back on the train to head for Liege, and again we were on the train for three days and three nights, and we had our K rations, our boxes of dried foods to eat, and then, of course, in those days the European trains, the windows went down, so we'd stand at the windows and every time the train stopped, the French people would be there and they'd have fresh vegetables, tomatoes and onions and lettuce and we'd give them a pack of cigarettes and we'd get their fresh vegetables. I had a bottle of mineral oil and we made salad in our mess kits. So, this is how we survived for three days and three nights until we got to Liege. The trains too, at that time, you just didn't get in the train and go straight ahead, you went ahead five miles, you backed up three miles and you know, you'd see these big bomb craters allover the place, so it wasn't a straight trip. By the time we got to Liege, we didn't smell very nice.

Betty Hoffman:

What was waiting for you in Liege?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

In Liege we were housed in a four-story building. We had the top two floors and there was a bank down below and they were constructing a tent hospital for us on the outskirts of Liege. Our hospital unit was a special experiment by the War Department. We were a general hospital and a general hospital has a thousand beds and a general hospital is usually a hundred miles or more behind the fighting lines. But this experiment, they wanted to put a tented general hospital as close to the front lines as possible, using the triage system. They never told us that at some point we were going to be ahead of the lines. So, they were constructing a tent hospital for us in an old apple orchard a few miles out of Liege, but until the hospital was ready, we stayed in this building right in the heart of Liege. The nurses had the top two floors. Then, there was an American hospital a few blocks away and then we were sent on detached service to work there. The battle for Aken, Germany--Aken was the nearest large German city and that was only about 18 miles away and the Americans were still fighting for Aken and I worked in the operating room there. Aken was terribly mined, very heavily mined and it seemed as though every other patient had some extremity amputated. That was a pretty bad battle.

Betty Hoffman:

So tell us about the Battle of the Bulge. What was that and what was your part in it?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, I don't know what to tell you first. Because first came the buzz bombs, while we were in Liege, and Liege was a huge, big city and it was a coal mining center. It was a music and religious center, but it also had this huge network of rail lines that went to all the surrounding countries, Germany, Holland, France, Luxembourg, so this rail line was important strategically for delivering supplies and Hitler wanted to destroy this rail line so he started sending buzz bombs into Liege for an Armistice Day gift for the Americans. These buzz bombs were also known as VI s, V2s, or robot bombs and you couldn't see them coming at first. You could just hear them put, put, puttering along in the sky. Then, you'd see this little black dot. Then it started to look like a flying cross. Then at night you could see a tongue of flame issuing from the end of this flying cross. Then as the bomb got closer you'd start to hold your breath as you mentally urged the motor of the bomb to keep going because if the motor shut offbefore the bomb was directly overhead, you were in trouble because that meant that the fuel was expended and the bomb would plunge to earth at a 45 degree angle, with a horrible whining whistle and it would destroy everything in its path for several hundred yards and th~ concussion could be felt miles away. So, these buzz bombs were coming over and if the motor of the bomb was still going by the time it passed overhead then it was time that you could start to breathe again, but then a little while later they came out with another bomb. You started breathing again as it passed overhead and then it made a u-turn and headed back in your direction. Then they started sending bombs that were coming from three different directions, all at the same time, and the bombs came every 15 minutes of the day and night, twenty-four hours a day, and they came for the next two months. Our hospital was hit three times by buzz bombs, killing and wounding patients and hospital personnel. The hospital that we were on detached service while in Liege, they were hit twice by buzz bombs and that hospital was in a huge Army-like building and the bodies were thrown 75 feet over the rafters and even though the people were still alive, by the time they extricated the bodies, they were gone. So, we couldn't wait to get into our tent hospital that was being built on the other side of the Meuse River, five miles out of Liege. But then the Americans started a big offensive against the Germans in the first part of November, and even though our hospital wasn't ready, we had to be ready to be open and receive casualties. So, they drove us across this pontoon bridge in trucks every night and I was always ... You know you took turns-you were on night duty two weeks and on day duty two weeks and they'd load you into the trucks, you know about 4:30,5:00 in the afternoon and then you'd come home 9:30, 10:00 the next morning. But before you crossed that pontoon bridge, the truck driver would always stop and he'd scan the sky to make sure that there were no buzz bombs coming. You just never wanted to get caught over the water when a bomb was coming. So, we would do this for a few weeks and finally, we had a meeting with our colonel and we said that the enlisted men and the officers were living in tents out at our hospital site, it was a little hamlet called Fait en Bois and we said that we didn't want to live in the city, buildings are collapsing all around us and we can't sleep when we come home and so he finally got us to live in tents out there. They had a 16th century chateau set aside for the nurses, just a few minutes walk from the hospital site. So, that's where they moved the nurses.

Betty Hoffman:

Were the buzz bombs the most frightening thing for you during that period?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Yes, they were horrible. Even though you lived through them, you worked, you slept, and you could hear them coming, the patients hated being in buzz bomb alley. That's what they called the Liege area. They always said that they'd rather be at the front lines where it was comparatively quiet, some of the time. But it's tough being hospitalized in a bed and you hear a bomb coming and you can't move. Well, we couldn't move either. We had to take care of the patients. But, you just never knew what was happening.

Betty Hoffman:

So how long were you at the hospital in Liege, the tent hospital?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We had our tent hospital, we opened in the first part of November and we were there until the middle of June '45.

Betty Hoffman:

So you spent the rest of the war in Liege.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, until after VE Day, then after VE Day, we went to France. We were there during the Battle of the Bulge, which started on December 16.

Betty Hoffman:

Do you have a map of the Battle of the Bulge?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Yes, I do. This is just a partial map of Belgium and all the territory to the right of this "black line is Germany. This is Belgium. Now, the Germans found two weak spots in the Allied lines-one here at Monschau and 80 miles down south here at Eckternot, down near the Luxembourg border. They pushed into Belgium simultaneously and ended up here near Dinant. They formed this bulge. Down here is a little town ofBastogne and it was here where Americans troops, most of the 10151 Airborne, were surrounded by Germans and they were given an ultimatum to surrender within the next two hours. Acting Commanding General McAuliffe gained lifetime fame with his one word reply to this ultimatum, "Nuts". The two German officers who had delivered this ultimatum said, they spoke English very well, and they said, "What is the meaning of this word, nuts?" and General McAuliffe's aide said it means go to hell. Up here, just 54 miles from Bastogne was Liege, where our tent hospital was and it was a German plan to come on up to Liege, cross the Meuse River and then they were heading on to Brussels, take Brussels, then on to Antwerp, and then they would move on and capture the Antwerp seaport and they would take over all shipping. The Allies could get nothing once they captured the seaport. Over here, a short distance, not too many miles from Liege, maybe 20 miles was Malmedy. Most people have heard of the horrible Malmedy Massacre, where approximately 140 American troops were surrounded by Germans and marched into a field, and though their arms were raised in the upright, surrender position, they were mowed down ruthlessly. They were clubbed to death. They were shot point blank into the head. They stole their rings and their watches, but they mostly wanted their warm winter gloves. The Germans did not have warm gloves that winter. The Americans did and it was one of the coldest winters on record. They said that in over 100 years, sometimes the temperatures were 30 below. But not all of the 140 Americans died. Some of them were still alive and under cover of darkness, the Belgians helped about 40 Americans to American hospitals.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you try to work with those fellows?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh, we had some of them in our hospital, yes. We knew, you know, when the Germans were ten miles from Liege by the day before Christmas, and we thought we were going to be captured. The nurses were told to pack their musette bags with the warmest clothing we had and any food supplies from home. Typically female, the first thing that went into those musette bags was the perfume we had all bought in Paris several months ago. We weren't going to let the Krauts get our French perfume and then we put in our liquor ration and then our cigarette ration, because a pack of cigarettes could go a long way for barter in those days, in war-tom Europe. But, we were scared, we really were, but my patients, they were so wonderful. They were so worried. They were angry that American nurses were so far up front and if we evacuated them, this was the day before Christmas, and we were evacuating them to hospitals in the rear, and they begged us to take their places in the trucks and the ambulances. One patient made a blackjack for me and you can see it dangling from my wrist on the cover of my book. I have a picture of it and this blackjack was a ten inch length of hose stuffed with lead sinkers and suspended from my wrist by a leather thong and he said if a Kraut comes near you, you just slam it across his eyes. Another patient gave me a spring-blade knife and that was also outlined in the cover picture in my left pocket. He said if a Kraut approaches, you plunge this knife into his belly, you tum it and you run like hell.

Betty Hoffman:

Did the Germans come all the way into Liege?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Yes, yeah, you know Liege was pretty much spread out and they were on the outskirts. They were 10 miles away and up until that point, the week before Christmas, there had been this dense fog that fell over all of Belgium. It was horrible and it was so thick, and it just created a gray, eerie silent landscape, and the only sound you could hear were the muffied sounds of buzz bombs falling. You couldn't see five feet in front of you. But the German tanks and the infantry could move forward on the ground. Here they are in Bastogne and we're here, and even in this heavy fog they could move forward, but our planes couldn't get off the ground to bomb them. So that's why a week later they were able to make it as far as ten miles from Liege. But then, by December 24th, the fog started lifting and as we were evacuating our patients, especially the sick ones, the real sick ones, the fog was lifting and by Christmas Eve, that night the fog had lifted completely and a full moon arose and this moon was so bright and so full, it made our hospital area look almost like daytime. The painted red crosses on our tents showed up so clearly in this almost daytime light. I was on night duty in the surgical tent and it was about 8:00 and I heard the sound of a plane overhead, and I knew from the sound of the motor it was not one of ours and I stepped outside to take a look and was greeted by the most beautiful sight. There seemed to be hundreds of red flares dropping through the night time sky and I just stood there mesmerized. It was so beautiful and it was like a Fourth of July display. While I watched, the plane that had dropped these flares started flying back and forth across our hospital tents, strafing the tents and dropping antiipersonnel bombs. I ran back into my tent, and my patients were already strapping on their steel helmets and I said, "Get under your beds". I found an empty bed. Fortunately, all my patients were ambulatory, because the sickest ones had been shipped out earlier that day. And I found an empty bed and I scrambled under it too and I let out a yell, and my ward man who was at the other end of the tent, yelled out, "Lieutenant, have you been hit?" And I yelled back, very disgustedly, "No, only by a loaded duck." In hospital lingo, a loaded duck was a full urinal. My patients laughed wildly at this and it was great because it helped dispel some of the fear and the tension that we had all felt a few minutes before. The anti-aircraft nest behind our hospital started shooting at this plane but they missed him, and we had more flak coming through our tents that we didn't need. This plane came back every hour on the hour, all night long. They finally shot him down a few miles away early the next morning. Many of our patients were killed and hospital staff were killed or injured that night and our entire day crew came back on duty to help out in the operating room and on the wards, wherever needed. It was a night we'll never forget. As a matter of fact, one of my patients, from Meriden, a Meriden boy, was killed that night and I had become very close to him. I used to go over to visit him all the time. That morning, when I went off duty with a couple of other nurses, we straggled down the path to the nurse's quarters and we were just too empty and too spent to even talk, as we silently relived the night before in our own minds. And a nurse coming on duty greeted us with a very muffied, "Merry Christmas". Merry Christmas, it sounded so incongruous to us after the night we had just had that it struck a funny bone and we stood there in the path and we howled. We laughed and we laughed hysterically for a few minutes, and it was great. It was a good catharsis for our very somber mood. Christmas Day dawned bright and clear. The sun was out for the first time in over a week, now that the fog had gone. Our planes were out for the first time in over a week and so were the German planes out for the first time. We watched as they engaged in dog fights over our hospital area while spent machine gun bullets fell around us. We saw flaming planes spiraling to the ground and we just prayed inwardly that they were German planes and not ours. Our anti-aircraft seemed to hit more of our planes than the German planes and we were very disappointed to see the German planes, seven of them, get away. Christmas week was a nightmare. German planes came over every night. We called them "Bedcheck Charlie" and they dropped paratroopers. Paratroopers were dressed in American uniforms. Wherever there was snow they always dropped other paratroopers draped in white sheets. These paratroopers in American uniforms, they spoke English perfectly. They had no trace of accent and they were well-versed in American slang. But the one thing they didn't know anything about was American sports. Whenever they tried to infiltrate an Army base, they were challenged by guards and they couldn't answer such questions as, "Who won the World Series?" or "Who's the pitcher for the Dodgers?" or "Who's the pitcher for the Yanks?" or "Where is the Golden Gate Bridge located?" Anyhow, it was a rough week. That same week, our prisoner of war compound was searched. We had a huge contingent of POW s who worked around the hospital. They did a lot of menial jobs but they were necessary jobs. They carried litters. They carried coal into the tent, and they shoveled snow and they cleaned the latrines. Up until the breakthrough they had been very subservient-happy to be there and happy to have a warm bed, and food and clothing and to be out of the fighting. But once the German breakthrough started they became very arrogant and this is what caused our officers to search their compound and they were found to have a huge supply of knives and guns that they had been planning to use against us. That week, as Christmas week went on, more of our planes were seen in the sky, and soon they outnumbered the German planes. The next two weeks there were huge waves of our planes by day and the RAF planes at night. It was the most thrilling, heart-warming sight and sound in the world, to see our planes and to hear them and to hear the RAF, as they flew on their missions to destroy the advancing German army. The Germans started surrendering. Many were captured. Thousands were captured and thousands surrendered, and then as our ground troops advanced into Germany, they mopped up pockets of resistance and they destroyed the buzz bomb nests. By December 28, The Battle of the Bulge was officially over. There were 19,000 Americans killed during this period, and approximately 47,000 wounded. Even though the battle for Germany continued for many months, and we were busy with casualties, life was a picnic now. We didn't have to worry about buzz bombs. We didn't have to worry about being captured and it was just fine. There was no patient on earth as wonderful as the American soldier. He never complained. He worried more about his buddy in the next bed. "Take care of him first" He was so grateful and it was really a privilege to take care of the American soldier.

Betty Hoffman:

How did you deal with the fear of these buzz bombs?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, you had no alternative. You knew you couldn't run away. We had patients to take care of They were scared silly and you just had to be there. You couldn't do anything. At night you didn't do much sleeping but you did your best. But during the day, when you were on duty you just did what you had to do.

Betty Hoffman:

Was there any leisure time?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh yes, we had leisure time. For the first few weeks we didn't because the first few weeks our tent hospital was open, and we didn't have any water, we didn't have any electricity, and it was mud. We had rain for several weeks and everything was a sea of mud. No cement floors in our tents and if you had to give a patient an injection somebody had to stand and hold a flashlight. The tents were dark. We used kerosene lanterns while we were waiting for electricity and so we had long days. We worked 12 hour shifts but then when things lightened up, then you'd have days off and you'd have hours off at night. Even if you worked a 12 hour day you were young then and you'd hop into a truck and go to an Officer's Club somewhere and you'd dance and you'd drink. We did a lot of drinking in those days-a lot, it helped. You could fall asleep at night or during the daytime. Two days before Christmas my roommate and 1 were so sure we were going to be captured by the Germans that we got off night duty and we said, well we may as well open our presents from home, our CARE packages, because either we'll be captured by the Germans ofwe'll be dead from the buzz bombs. We each had a bottle of champagne and at 8:00 in the morning we both drank that whole bottle of champagne and 1 said it was the best night's sleep we had had in weeks.

Betty Hoffman:

How important was mail, while you were in the Army?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Mail was a big morale raiser. It was wonderful. You waited for weeks. Sometimes mail got held up, but then when mailbags came in it was the greatest morale raiser in the world. Packages from home--I'm just embarrassed when 1 read my letters that 1 sent home that were saved by my mother. 1 was always saying Mom, please send me this, please send me that and she sent candy and cookies and hair nets and safety pins and 1 think back and wonder why did 1 need so many safety pins. But every package she sent, she was in the dress business, but she always sent safety pins and bobby pins and underwear and sometimes you didn't feel feminine at all and you'd say send me a slip with lace on it. Of course, we never got to wear slips, we were wearing combat pants and combat boots and stuff

Betty Hoffman:

You have in your book two pictures, in fact you have a chapter called "Two Photographs", so what were the two pictures. One was a glamour shot and one was not so glamorous. Why did you want a glamour shot and where was this?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

This was in Liege, Belgium and we had been there for several weeks. Of course, we had been living in these olive drab combat pants and olive drab combat liners and olive drab long underwear and everything olive drab and wearing helmets on your head and combat boots. You know, you felt grungy. You never felt feminine. So, at one point, 1 decided on my day off 1 went into this photographer in Liege and 1 had a beautiful lace snood that 1 had bought in Paris and 1 told the photographer (I spoke French very well then), and 1 said make me look feminine. 1 put this lace snood on my head and pulled down my olive drab little shirt and my olive drab shoulder straps and stuff and he draped me with a black lace drape and he posed me in front of the camera and I had the most gorgeous, glamorous looking photo. I came back a week later and it was so beautiful. I was so proud of myself. It made me look feminine and every so often I'd take the photo out and look at it. r d say, "Boy, that will be the day when I look like this". Then, the other picture was taken just six or seven weeks later after living under the buzz bombs for six weeks and I had lost weight and my cheek bones showed and you could see hollows under my eyes. That was the contrast between the two photos.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you know anything about collaborators?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh, yes.

Betty Hoffman:

Tell us about collaborators?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Gee, when I said that June 4th was D-Day, I think it was June 6th.

Betty Hoffman:

It was June 6th.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I think I said June 4th.

Betty Hoffman:

What can you tell us about collaborators and what is a collaborator?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Collaborators were people who became friendly with the Germans while they had occupied Belgium. There were many. First of all, the Belgian men had been conscripted by the Germans, so the Belgian women had no boyfriends. So, the German soldiers gave them food and all sorts oflittle goodies. They had been on war-time rations for so long and they had none of the luxuries of life. They were short of food, clothing. They had no stockings. You'd se the Belgian women, their legs were always purple in the wintertime. So, when we got to Liege there were many collaborators and we'd see them. We'd see the Belgians parading the collaborators through the streets. They'd shave their head and would put a swastika-in the shape of a swastika. Or, they'd strip them naked and they painted swastikas on their bodies and they paraded them through the streets that way.

Betty Hoffman:

What was the attitude towards Jews at this point? Were you aware of what was going on in Poland and in the camps?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Not really, no. It was just towards the end of the war, when we started hearing about the Jews in the concentration camps. We received American soldiers who had been POWs, but we did not get any of the Jews who had been in the concentration camps.

Betty Hoffman:

Did you have any fall-out from being Jewish? Was there any anti-Semitism or ignorance?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I didn't see too much. First of all, I would say half of the physicians and dentists in our outfit were Jewish. You don't bite the hand that feeds you. There were a hundred nurses, but there was one other Jewish nurse and myself But, I didn't see any overt anti-Semitism. Of course, my maiden name was Phillips, so every so often somebody would make a little remark because they didn't know that I was Jewish with a name like Phillips. And said something, "Oh, well you don't look it." But, during my years in the service I did not see too much antiiSemitism. After the war, I did.

Betty Hoffman:

Was your experience as a woman in the Army--do you think it was similar to the other medical staff, the male medical staff. Were there different issues confronting men and women?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I don't think so. Because you know, we were together for so many years. The hospital was activated at Fort Devens and we went through two years overseas. So, it was almost three years we were together. The doctors, most of them were married, and they would show us pictures of their wives and their kids. The physicians had their huts across the field from us and when they'd get a CARE package from home, they'd call us over to their hut and would share their goodies. Then they'd come over to our huts and, if somebody met a farmer who gave them eggs, we would scramble eggs on our potbellied stove. One of the physicians there, he was a tightwad. Every time he'd get a salami from home, we always said he'd cut his salami with a microtome, you know it slices it so thin you couldn't even see it, it was so thin. But we shared and shared alike. We were friends. Maybe I was more naive but there weren't too many affairs that I was aware of. There was one nurse who had an affair with one of the physicians who was married, but that was the only one that I knew about. But, you know, one dentist, he was great, he took care of my teeth all the time in the dental clinic and when he was away, he'd call me on the phone, when you could get phone calls. He would come over and polish my shoes and I would sew his insignia on for him. We would do things for each other-would dance with each other in the Club, and that was as far as it went. We got along fine. We respected them for what they were as physicians, having gone through training, where the physicians thought they were God, we treated them as gods and they really thought they were in training. But in the Army, I didn't find it that way.

Betty Hoffman:

Do you think that the Army itself treated men and women differently, or was that outside your experience because you were in this hospital?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

That I really can't answer. I know in our outfit everything was equal. The enlisted mennthat was different, they were below, you couldn't associate with enlisted men.

Betty Hoffman:

Because you were an officer?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Because I was an officer. I know when I first was at Fort Adams, one of the enlisted men was from New Britain and I used to go out with one of his boyfriends when I was in high school, and he was the sweetest guy and a marvelous pianist, and the chief nurse said, "No, you cannot see him", and I said, "Well, why not? We were friends. He was a friend of a guy I used to date." No, noway.

Betty Hoffman:

What did you feel at the end of the war?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

I was glad it was over and the killing was done.

Betty Hoffman:

How did you celebrate when you heard? Let's say VE Day.

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well, of course all the Belgians, they felt so close to us. Of course, when President Roosevelt died they came to our hospital. They cried, they wept, oh, it was horrible. But VE Day, there was such a sense of euphoria. We went into one of the Officer's Clubs in town and we all got drunk. We got drunk every night. You danced and you drank and we just had a ball. We knew it was coming, you know, the last couple of weeks we knew that the end was near. But then we all thought we were going to go to the Pacific.

Betty Hoffman:

So what happened after VE Day? Where did you go from there?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Well then, in June, the middle of June, they sent us back to France. We were in a little town called Chalons sur Marne, a little sleepy town of a dust bowl there, and we had a hospital in an old riding concern. And that's where I had hundreds ofPOWs for patients, because they thought I could speak Yiddish, and I couldn't. So I just learned to say, "Habben sie schmerzen?" and "Voe is die schmerzen?"

Betty Hoffman:

And what does that mean?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

It means "have you pain?" and "where is the pain?" They had these big SS troopers, these big, brave guys, they had POWs from the age of 14 through 67. These SS troopers weren't such big shots. I hated the idea that I would have to take care of them, the idea bothered me. We were the ones they wanted to exterminate, but they were human beings and I was a nurse and I had to take care of them, and that was it.

Betty Hoffman:

Is there anything we haven't asked you or anything you'd like to tell us about your experiences in the war? You know what I should ask you first-when did you go home?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We went home in November of '45.

Betty Hoffman:

And you were in France in that period?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

We were in France after we left Chalons sur Marne, where we ran our hospital for several months. Then the rumors started flying that we're going home. Then they shipped us from one staging area to another and you just sat around and twiddled your thumbs. You did absolutely nothing, just living on the rumor mill. Finally, we left in mid-November and we got home about the week before Thanksgiving. I brought home three bottles of French champagne. I carried it in my Val Pack and when I got out of the taxi at my mother's house, he plunked that Val Pack down and I could smell it, I could hear it. Two bottles broke, but we had one that we had on Thanksgiving Day.

Betty Hoffman:

Is there anything I didn't ask you that you'd like to tell us about?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

Oh, I'll probably think of it tomorrow morning or at 3 a.m. or something.

Betty Hoffman:

Well, thank you so much. Other voice: I have one question. This relates to your homecoming. You described taking a cab home. Can you describe further what that was like that day? Did your parents come out to meet you?

Muriel Phillips Engelman:

My father was dead. My mother was a widow. She had no car. I landed at Fort Dix. We were discharged from Fort Dix and this old boyfriend of mine, the Navy dentist came to Fort Dix to drive me to New York. He hadn't given up yet and then he left me in New York where I visited with my aunt for a couple of nights. I had a bath, in a bathtub, for the first time in months and months. So then, I took the train from New York to Meriden and because we had no car and my mother wasn't sure when I was arriving home, I had to take a taxi home. But I must say, you know people said when you were so worried about the buzz bombs and the Germans did you cry. We didn't cry. You didn't cry at all over there. But the day we sailed past that Statue of Liberty, there wasn't a dry eye on that ship. It was the most beautiful sight in the world-coming home.

Betty Hoffman:

Thank you.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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