Nellie Marsch graduated from Greene-Dreher High School in 1939. As a student she excelled in science and chemistry, served as President of the Library Club, and listed her favorite hobby as playing the piano. In her senior year she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” After spending the summer helping her parents at their boardinghouse, Marsch Villa, Nellie enrolled at the Dixon School of Nursing at Abington Memorial Hospital near Philadelphia, graduating in June 1942 with a Diploma in Registered Nursing. She continued her education on the West Coast while working at Seattle General, Swedish Hospital and Harborview Hospital in downtown Seattle, all of which had schools of nursing. A short time later Nellie was recruited by the Red Cross and inducted in the Army Nurse Corps on May 4, 1943. She received her basic training at Fort Lawton, Washington, and was then transferred to the station hospital at Camp Adair, Oregon. Nellie’s 1989 memoir, based on her diaries, picks up from that point:
By Lt. Col. Nellie Marsch, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, Ret.
One afternoon the chief woke me and told me I was leaving that night. I had only been there a short time and I was to hustle to Quartermaster to get a foot locker and GI issue. I left with another nurse on a blacked-out troop train to board a ship, or so I thought. We sang all night and knew we were near water as we could hear foghorns. When daylight came we were at the docks. But instead of getting on a ship we marched in class A uniform with helmet, pistol belt, and musette bag to Camp Stoneman, California. This was a big place with miles of two-story barracks, and here the training was more serious. I was assigned to the 658th Medical Hospital Ship as part of a platoon of five nurses, a handful of corpsmen, a doctor and a dentist. We spent a couple of weeks with time on our hands, and I met Helen Duffy, a nurse from Paupack. We came all the way across the United States and met in a barracks at Stoneman. I never saw her again.
Finally, in mid-September 1943 our day came. We marched a mile or so to the dock and boarded the troopship USS Wharton. The ship carried 10,000 troops, 200 of whom were nurses. Excitement and rumors as to our destination were running wild. Patriotic music over the PA system was interrupted by the captain saying, “Cast off all lines.” We felt the vibration of the ship’s motors. The big ship carrying 10,000 souls slipped gently out to sea. As we passed under the Golden Gate bridge and the shoreline of the United States faded, we each had our own nostalgic thoughts. Mine was one of mixed emotions, thoughts of family and a touch of homesickness, and a great sense of pride for our country. Someone had a record player and kept playing “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
The groundswells were making the ship pitch a little, and I had a slight headache but didn’t get seasick. There were six of us to a stateroom, and we had a Marine Guard outside the door. When we reached Honolulu we were allowed to send a postcard of Hawaii, c/o Fleet Post Office, San Francisco, and that was all. All mail was censored. Officers were allowed ashore, so we went sightseeing and had a few drinks and ate at Trader Vic’s. Then, back to the ship. As we left the harbor the band was playing and girls were throwing leis on the water. We saw many reminders of the December 7th bombing by the Japanese and it added a somber note, making us realize the war wasn’t too far off. As we crossed the equator we were told that under normal conditions we pollywogs would be initiated by Davy Jones and his Royal Court and become shellbacks. But there were too many people aboard so we were given our Ancient Order of the Deep certificates without fanfare. I was grateful for that on my next trip across the Equator on the USS Hope.
One late afternoon we were having dinner and a general quarters alarm came over the PA system, “Man your battle stations.” Everyone hurried to comply. I was assigned to No. 8 lifeboat, along with a lot of others. Some of the men would have stepped on us or knocked us down to get in the boat first but fortunately, the “all clear” came and we nurses went to the wardroom to set up for the next setting. In my scrapbook is a memo from the captain thanking us and saying they had picked up submarine contact and telling us to keep our life jackets with us at all times. The smoking lamp was out at night. We had a very impressive church service on the deck that Sunday. The church flag was raised and at the end of the sermon, just before the benediction, we sang “God Bless America.” 10,000 voices echoed out across the ocean, and it was very moving.
We sailed on and on, wondering where we would finally land. After twenty-one days at sea we disembarked in Noumea, New Caledonia. Ship platoons were assigned to various hospitals TDY [Temporary Duty]. Many troops were replacements for units on Guadalcanal. I was assigned to the 27th Station Hospital, a tent hospital on the beach under palm trees. I had a tent of malaria and jungle rot patients. Atabrine was given for malaria, and we took it ourselves as a prophylactic measure. It turned your skin a terrible yellow color. For jungle rot, we used Gentian Violet one week and Castelane paint the next. One was red and the other purple and that was about the extent of its therapeutic value. Mrs. Roosevelt came in one day and shook everyone’s hand. I really admired her. After she left someone asked why they didn’t send Rita Hayworth.
I wasn’t there long before two of us were sent to the 8th General Hospital inland, not a very nice spot. We reported to Captain Saylor, the chief nurse, for assignments—she was from the old school and strictly GI. She took one look at Annabelle and me and asked us where we thought we were going. “Go back to your quarters and get your hair up off of your collar and put on white hose.” I put on a hairnet and yanked my hair above my ears and went back to Captain Saylor. She liked my hairdo. We wore blue seersucker dresses, white cap and shoes, and now white stockings. The warehouse where we were housed with 50 or so other nurses was surrounded by brush and weeds up to our waist, tough on the white stockings.
Not being part of the Station Complement, the chief nurse gave us the worst assignments. I had five tents of psychiatric patients and men suffering from battle fatigue. There was no desk so the patients got a few slivers of wood and made me a desk. They found a piece of canvas and one patient painted Japanese peeking out around palm trees, a souvenir I still keep in my trunk. I had a stint at night duty on the prison wards, too. I had two MP guards and was dressed with a steel pot helmet with netting and looked like I came from outer space. Many of the American prisoners were homosexual or bisexual, and I learned much from talking with them. I also had a Japanese prison ward, but they were taken care of by Japanese personnel. The food at this place was terrible. Green liver, mutton from New Zealand, butter that stuck to the roof of your mouth, all served family style and never enough to go around. Once I paid $1.00 for a fresh egg.
One fine day we were told to move out of the warehouse, into tents. I waited until I went off duty to pick up my gear, and it was gone! All items were hard or impossible to come by, so all I had were the clothes on my back. The next day a patient came up with my Class A jacket with no buttons. He had found it under a building. The chief nurse and MPs got all the patients together and told them to find my things and put them on the desk. They came with pants, bras, everything—embarrassing, but I was thankful to get them back. They were going to give them to the French girls. I got most of my things back, but the chief nurse had to give me an overseas cap because I left shortly thereafter. One more incident I forgot to mention: when I moved to a tent I had the first cot inside the flap. I slept with a flashlight and knife under the blanket I used for a pillow. There was supposed to be a guard outside, but one night I was awakened by someone pulling on my mosquito bar and I came up swinging my knife and yelling. It was a patient, and I cut him across the hand. Captain Saylor seemed a bit more friendly when I left, but I am sure she was happy to see me go and the feeling was mutual.
I went by jeep to the dock where I boarded another ship for the Fiji Islands. We went ashore on pontoons, and on New Year’s Eve I reported to the 18th General Hospital in Suva. I was separated from the nurses I traveled with and found myself alone in a small thatched hut called a bure. I decided to take a shower and wash my hair and go to bed. There was a boardwalk downhill to the latrine and showers. The water was cold so I thought I would rinse my hair with some “battery acid,” which is what we called our powdered lemon crystals. I dried my hair with a towel, crawled in the cot, and pulled the mosquito bar around me. A big old frog hopped into the room and, feeling lonely, I cried. Sometime in the wee hours I woke up and was alive with big black ants that were having a feast on me. I screamed and jumped up, and my roommates took me to the showers and washed, combed and brushed the critters out of my hair. Those black ants ate the leather binding around my suitcase. It was a buggy place.
Fiji was a British territory, and the hospital was located on the grounds of the former Queen Victoria School. At first the hospital wards were tents, until they built permanent buildings. It served as a station hospital for troops in the Islands, and we had a lot of Dengue fever and Malaria Shistosomyisis. One time a group of us were invited to a Kanack village, and every one of the Native women touched my blonde hair and made a big deal of it. We sat around a grass mat, and I sat by the chief, who spoke English. He had a big pot and dipper in front of him. It was Kava, their native drink. He took a drink and passed it to me to sip and pass on. It looked like coffee with a drop of milk but was very bitter.
The time came to leave this island paradise and the 658th boarded an old liberty ship, the SS Henry Bergh, with 1000 patients, mostly malaria and psychiatric patients, and headed for home. The ship’s boilers blew up at sea and we sat like ducks on the water for two days. We ran low on food and had only rice and stew twice a day. We drank black coffee, no milk. I lost ten pounds. It was beastly hot in the holds, and we had to bring the patients on deck at times with only a handful of corpsmen to help watch them. We all did our best, but three patients jumped overboard in despair and were lost. Another patient ripped the plumbing out of the wall and water was running everywhere. It was a bummer of a trip. But the next trip this ship made in May 1944 was worse! It got on a wrong course and ran aground on rocks and cracked up off the coast of California. Fortunately, all of the patients and crew members were saved.
Happy to be back in the USA, I came home on leave. Margaret Hazelton who lived with us and had taken such good care of my sister, Doris, and me as children had become blind and was in poor health. We had a nice visit, and she died a short time later. Mother said she had waited for me to come home.
When I returned to Camp Stoneman I was in a medical personnel pool and was selected to join the 215th Hospital Ship Complement assigned to the USS Hope, a Navy hospital ship. While the ship was in San Pedro Harbor being made ready, we were sent to Camp Anza for basic training and then to Torrance Station Hospital at the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation for more intensive training. I had one platoon, and an OR nurse from Chicago had the other. We did it all in the orange groves of Southern California—marching, drilling, debarkation, deck obstacle course, etc. We also went swimming in Mary Pickford’s pool, but we didn’t see Mary.
After weeks of toughening, we boarded the USS Hope in August for the commissioning ceremonies. We lived on the ship and took a boat to go ashore. We enjoyed an active social life in the evenings with the Navy. We were soon going on shakedown cruises, but never knew when we would be leaving for the war. On September 23, 1944, we slipped away and once again I watched the shoreline recede from view. A Navy crew manned the ship, and they were busy indoctrinating the Army hospital staff to the Navy lingo —bulkheads, ladders, port, starboard, stern. I had three roommates, two NP [Nurse Practitioner] nurses from Philadelphia General and one from New Hampshire. Our quarters were on the top deck, and we all got along well together. They were older than I and had been supervisors.
Five days after setting sail we saw the blue peaks of Diamond Head on the horizon. We arrived at Pearl Harbor for a short stay on our way to the war. The ship was bulging with supplies, and we finished getting our hospital in order and ready to accept patients. The bed capacity was 702 and we had 37 nurses. I don’t know the number of doctors and corpsmen. We had some corpsmen who were not trained, and we had to teach them, including starting I.V.s and after piercing a plastic arm, they stuck our veins. They got to be quite proficient, thank heavens.
We departed Pearl Harbor on the morning of October 5, 1944, and journeyed southwestward toward the Equator and King Neptune’s domain. Since I had my Shellback Certificate I became a member of the Court. We had a few days of initiation when all those who hadn’t yet crossed the Dateline were subject to many indignities. On the day devoted to the ceremony, the Jolly Rodger was hoisted and costumes were donned. We had fire hoses, molasses, catsup, belt lines, a royal barber, a royal dentist, and dunkings in the water tank built on the fantail for that purpose. Our CO was Inspector of the Meads [toilets] and wore rolls of toilet paper on a rope around his shoulders and carried a toilet plunger. The nurses had to roll up their slacks, put their blouses on backwards and do their hair in pigtails. One nurse had to wear a tight red nightgown over a bathing suit and offer the ship’s captain a bedpan every hour on the hour. King Neptune and his Court proceeded to make Shellbacks out of all the Pollywogs.
A week later we dropped anchor at Manus Island in the Admiralty Group, stayed a day and were off to Kossal Roads [a USN resupply and repair base –ed.] north of the Palaus to stand by for the invasion of the Phillipines. We arrived on October 21st, a day behind our sister ship, USS Bountiful, and began treating patients from the base who had been in need of a doctor or dentist. There was no liberty as the only land in sight was Babelthaup, eight miles away and still held by the Japanese. The ships were in total blackout. Over the next two weeks most of the battle casualties, many with severe burns, were taken to the Bountiful.
On November 5th we finally got underway for the Phillipines and our first mission. We were assigned to the 3rd and 7th Fleet. In preparation, many of us donated blood so we would have enough plasma. On the 7th of November we pulled into Leyte Gulf, receiving 440 patients in a little over two hours under fire. Our chief nurse, Captain Soppe, assigned me to ward 01-2, (abdominal surgery). Dottie Lynch from Connecticut and I (both second lieutenants) were assigned day duty, and we had the most severely injured as we were next to surgery.
Our ward officer was chief of surgery, and when we loaded patients we didn’t see him until surgery was completed. We were on our own starting IVs, plasma, giving sedation, picking out superficial shrapnel, changing dressings, etc. When patients came on board their clothes were filthy, torn, and full of lice. We removed the clothes and autoclaved them before sending them to the laundry. We sprayed our bunks and ourselves with DDT each day so we wouldn’t pick up lice from patients.
I remember one young soldier admitted on the 9th by the name of Dunn. His left upper arm was shattered and the injury was a couple of days old. I decided he needed a shot of gas gangrene antitoxin, along with the blood transfusion and plasma. It was a big syringe and a big needle, and when he saw me coming he called me names and I had to get two corpsmen to hold him down. His temperature shot up to 105 and we sponged him and I don’t think I have ever been more frightened. When the doctor arrived, he said I did right but the infection had progressed too far and the boy lost his arm. He was tough as nails.
Penicillin in aqueous form was new and we had to mix it ourselves and give injections every three hours. In addition to abdominal wounds—and the odor from them—we also had many complete body burns. In those days they were debrided and wrapped like mummies. Each morning we got the patients up and sat them in chairs to redress bandages that were falling off and wet with drainage. We gave them a shot of whiskey, and usually they did not need sedation as they were second- or third-degree burns. The smell of the drainage and the odor of penicillin in the salt air was indescribable. A Los Angeles Times correspondent who was on the ship doing a story came to my ward and said, “Let’s pass this ward; the smell is too bad.”
Over the next several weeks we made eight runs from the Phillipines to Hollandia, Finchhaven and Manus, taking on and unloading casualties, getting needed supplies—penicillin, Vaseline for the burn patients, hospital pajamas. We ran out of plasma but had many volunteers to donate blood. We had to conserve water and were told to lather once and rinse off. No luxurious showers, though occasionally we did have salt water showers. We sometimes had movies on the fantail when we were in a harbor. I sat through The Great Train Robbery three times. We sat there in the rain many times, too. One Sunday afternoon when the ship was on its way from Hollandia to Leyte, a jam session was going on the fantail. Suddenly out of the sun a Japanese plane appeared and launched an aerial torpedo at the Hope. The torpedo passed about 75 yards aft of the ship, and they did not close in for a second attack.
When not on duty we folded dressings, played cards, knitted, and sat on afghans on the deck and looked at the blue ocean. We wrote letters, wondering when they would be mailed, and how much the censors would delete. We also had to censor the enlisted men’s mail from time to time. Mail call was erratic. We would go several weeks with none and when it finally caught up to us we were swamped. I remember getting Christmas packages in July, and some of the packages were in bad shape, moldy and wet.
The Hope celebrated Christmas 1944 in a special way. Early Christmas morning the ship picked up an SOS signal from survivors adrift on the vast Pacific Ocean. The ship’s captain altered course slightly to follow the signals all day. They became weaker and weaker, and finally died. The four airmen sending the SOS had been shot down and were adrift on two life rafts in the middle of the ocean. They were hungry, dehydrated, and seasick. During the night, they saw our light on the horizon. They couldn’t imagine any ship sailing in that area with lights on but as we drew near, the men saw the big red cross and knew they were going to be saved. It was 0200 hours on the morning of December 26th. The Hope had brought its own Christmas present to four fliers whose plane had crashed into the ocean. Their lives were given back to them! After 47 years, one of those rescued airmen came to the USS Hope reunion in Colorado Springs in September 1991. He met up with the man who had carried him aboard, and what an emotional reunion they had. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. For those of us who were there and shared in that dramatic moment in the middle of the ocean, Christmas will always have a special meaning to us as well.
The following excerpt from the Journal of Colonel Thomas B. Protzman, MC, Commanding Officer, 215th Medical Hospital Ship Complement, USS Hope, describes the wedding of Lt. Nellie Marsch to Sgt. Franklin Burke in 1945.
24 January 1945: Leyte Island, Philippines. One of our Nurses, Second Lieutenant Nellie G. Marsch, ANC, has discovered that her fiancé is somewhere on the beach near Dulag, so with 15 Nurses, 5 of my Officers, and a few Navy Officers we took off in a DUKW for the search. They’re wonderful vehicles as they can go anywhere on land, sea, and swamps without problems. After having covered almost a hundred miles, we discovered his camp, only to find out that the man had gone to a ship in search of his girl. Lieutenant Marsch and Sergeant Burke (USAAF) have been engaged for several years, but never could arrange for some time off. They missed each other when stationed in California; the ship the Sergeant was on sailed from Manus Island just a few days before our arrival. Long after dark we returned to the 104th Engineers Headquarters and just as we were about to leave, the ‘missing’ NCO appeared and I let them have about an hour together on the way back to the Hope.
25 January 1945: Leyte Island, Philippines. I spent the day ashore with Miss Nellie Marsch and 5 other nurses trying to find the proper way and authority to issue them a marriage license. I sent Sgt. Burke to Major Ralph Specht to ask what he can do to help.
26 January 1945: Leyte Island, Philippines. Yesterday we moved down the beach near Tacloban, where we hope to find a local official for the wedding. We finally got in touch with the Mayor of Tacloban and he made out a marriage permit. It was quite a lengthy document and as there were no available printed certificates and no paper on which to type a new one, the back of revenue blank forms were used instead. We arranged for a party when a troop convoy arrived into the harbor and the wedding ceremony and party were postponed for another day. I sincerely hope nothing happens to stop it now. A Japanese bomber was shot down over us last night.
27 January 1945: Leyte Island, Philippines. The wedding party left our ship in the afternoon aboard a PT boat for Tacloban and when we were about halfway we were all caught in a terrible tropical rain drenching most of the party to the skin. From the dock we continued wading through mud to the Court House and had to wait as the Mayor’s siesta wasn’t quite over. The Mayor was proud of having the honor of uniting the first ‘white’ couple on the island. He spoke excellent English, and since the real official was in jail for collaborating with the enemy, he was the acting Mayor. A lot more papers had to be made out on the backs of old documents, and then we discovered that the couple couldn’t be married in the Catholic Cathedral because they were Protestant! I finally found a temporary Army Chapel near the Headquarters and a few weapon carriers hauled the party several miles through the mud and rain for the ceremony. Lieutenant Marsch and Sergeant Burke were finally married by our own Chaplain, First Lieutenant M. E. Taylor. The girls on the ship had prepared paper confetti and the boys had bought rice. After the ceremony, the Filipinos picked up the rice and probably thought we were nuts for wasting the food. After returning the same way, through mud and rain, the nurses had prepared a reception for the couple in one of the ship’s mess halls. Captain Leona A. Soppe, my Chief Nurse, gave the couple her cabin for the night, as Sgt. Burke had to leave in the morning. What a strange world, these people may never see each other again, and barely had a few short hours of happiness.
In February 1945 the Hope was the first hospital ship into Luzon where we took on supplies but no patients. Four days later we were the first at Subic Bay on Corregidor D-Day and picked up paratrooper casualties from the invasion. We then went north to Lingayen Gulf and evacuated the wounded from Subic, Corregidor and Lingayan, to Hollandia, New Guinea. We took on wounded until we had no more room left. The nurses who had been prisoners on Luzon moved their beds out to the deck and, though weak and undernourished, helped prepare the wards for more wounded to come. When we got to Hollandia we loaded medical supplies all night.
By mid-March 1945 we received orders for a new destination, new missions and new scenery. On the 20th of March we dropped anchor at the fleet anchorage in Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands. There, again, we waited. Mogmog island had an officers’ club called the “Black Widow” that we could visit in the afternoons.
On the 9th of April we were off once again, this time to the battle for Okinawa in the Ryukyus where American troops had landed on the first of April. We had picked up the 54th portable surgical hospital with four surgeons and twenty-seven enlisted men to assist our staff. The ship dropped anchor off this former Japanese territory on April 13th, D plus 13, and made three trips from Okinawa, two to Saipan and one to Guam. There were long nights under a brilliant bomber’s moon in the harbor where we were surrounded by battlewagons, cruisers, and carriers. All ships were at general quarters, and “the smoking lamp was out” on the Hope. Quite often the ships laid down a smoke screen—it was eerie. Now and then a Japanese bogey would get through and make things a little too unpleasant. The familiar riveting of ack-ack fire, shrapnel raining on the deck and underwater concussions lasted what seemed like an eternity until the “All Clear.” I always felt safer on deck with my steel pot [helmet] and life jacket. On occasion, my teeth chattered like crazy.
The Japanese were becoming more desperate and more daring. We saw many dog fights at night when cross searchlights would trap a plane in the sky and shoot it down. We watched B29 planes take off on a bombing mission and counted them when they left and when they came back. On April 29th, our sister ship, USS Comfort, was hit by a Japanese suicide plane just 60 miles from Okinawa where we were anchored. I lost a friend who had gone overseas with me on the Wharton.
My most frightening experiences were the typhoons, and we survived three of them, two on Humbolt Bay off Okinawa and one off Japan. No one was allowed on deck and through the porthole you could look up at a wall of water as high as you could see and you just knew the wave would swallow the ship. The next minute you were on top of the wave looking down into a well of water. Across the storm-swept sea you could hear sirens, and see search lights looking for someone who had been swept overboard. It was hard to take care of the patients as it was hard to stand up. Not too many of us went to chow, many were seasick. The ship creaked and groaned and sometimes the screw came out of the water and the ship shuddered. It was more frightening than being under fire.
When we were in Guam some officers from LST 1000 invited five of the Hope nurses on a picnic. The chief nurse recruited me as I hadn’t been off the ship for a while. Two of my roommates also went. They picked us up in an LVP [Landing Vehicle, Personnel]. As always, the navy had plenty of food and drink, so en route we had some drinks. I thought it would be a dull picnic when all of a sudden the motor conked out and we sat there in the water. The captain said we would have to wait until night and send up some flares. They sent out messages in Morse code before dark but got no response. In the meantime, we had drifted out beyond the sub nets. Some got drunk and crawled under canvas and went to sleep. The coxswain and I sat in the gun tub all night. I don’t even remember his name but I bet he has told the story many times of spending the night in a gun tub with an army nurse stranded in the middle of the Pacific. It was about 0500 when we saw a dark hulk coming toward us at a fast speed. I thought it was the end for all of us. Then sirens sounded and spotlights went on and someone said “My God, there are women on the boat!” They yelled, “This is the Coast Guard,” and proceeded to haul us aboard and take us back to our ship. The Hope had already pulled up the gang plank so we had to crawl up the Jacob’s ladder. Our Captain, CO, and chief nurse were waiting on the quarter deck and hauled us aboard like sacks of potatoes. Our shipmates were hanging over the rails and making wisecracks. I received a message later from the coxswain that the captain didn’t blame him but told him he’d better not mention it to anyone.
The eventful days of Okinawa ended May 16 when the Hope unloaded its last load of patients on Guam, and we were sent back to the Philippines. A little more monotonous but a little more healthy. We carried patients from Manila to the quiet little island of Biak, so-called the “healthiest island in the Pacific.” Then we were loaned to the British and took a trip to Tarakan, off the coast of Borneo. The Hope stood by for the invasion of Balikpapan, located down the coast of Borneo. While waiting, we visited an Australian tent hospital. The nurses were very friendly and we had “a spot of tea” with them. They had nothing much to work with, syringes and needles were like gold to them and all supplies were at a great premium. We were not needed for the invasion and returned to the Philippines, with a stay at Marotai. Then to Leyte again.
We went on liberty with one of our male officers armed with a.45 pistol at his side. Instead of purses we carried ditty bags with a couple of bars of soap, a few packs of moldy cigarettes, and sometimes tropical chocolate provided by the Red Cross. We used these items for barter. After years of occupation, the Filipinos were very poor and lived in squalid conditions. Chickens and pigs ran through their huts, and the flies and smells were unbelievable. Sometimes they would come out to our ship in their “bum boats” with a chicken perched on the bow try to barter with us with their trinkets and shells.
After three weeks of sitting around and listening to all the scuttlebutt, we picked up medical personnel and transported them to Lingayan Gulf. We immediately left for Manila, passing the familiar peaks of Bataan and the rock of Corregidor. On one of our trips we carried POWs from Santo Tomas, some of whom were nurses. They didn’t complain and were grateful to be free. Their eyes and emaciated bodies told the story they hoped to forget but would forever be a nightmare to them.
On our trips back from the front with patients, we had several deaths en route. A burial at sea is, to me, a beautiful and impressive farewell to life. Every military honor and dignity is given during these brief ceremonies. When the words, “All hands, bury the dead” are heard over the speaker, the ship slows to a stop and drifts quietly on the sea. All personnel and patients who can gather on the fantail for the service. The body is laid on a mahogany burial skid, sewn into a spotless white canvas. An American flag is draped over the bier and the field of stars covers the dead soldier’s or sailor’s heart. Three sailors in white uniforms stand at attention on each side of the bier, and one at the head. Lines of Navy and Army officers wait at ease, and behind them the patients, some on crutches or with arms in slings, also wait at ease. The chaplain, speaking through a microphone, reads the service, concluding with the words, “and we commit his body to the deep.” The sailors gently lift the burial skid, and the sailor at the head holds the ends of the flag. The board tilts over the railing and there is a flash of white as the body slips into the sea. Everyone snaps to attention and salutes, and “Taps” is played on a bugle. At the last note, everyone completes the salute and the service is ended. The engines turn again and the ship moves on. We leave the dead behind, and yet we do not. Where are the graves of all who have slipped into the sea? They are marked by the whitecaps, and the whitecaps are everywhere—they are the crosses of the sea. I have written these things as they come to me and as I remember them.
One time when we were in Leyte Gulf a general quarters was sounded. The siren of the command ship was wailing away, and on ships all around us men were rushing to their battle stations. Over the Hope speakers came the word, “Sweepers, man your brooms. Clean sweep down fore and aft.” The Hope rocked and rolled at the underwater concussions, and shrapnel rained down on the decks. We were all glad when the “All clear” finally sounded.
Almost forgot to mention our mascots, a dog and a monkey. The dog, Dutchess of Leyte, was cute but I didn’t think much of the monkey. He did manage to pick a few fleas off the dog, when one of the nurses wasn’t carrying him around like a baby.
With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we knew the war was coming to an end. We thought about the real world again, and home, and civilian life. We waited and wondered about these things as we left the red clay hills of Okinawa. We finally got underway north to Japan. We went in with the fleet to Wakeyama, Japan. It was a beautiful sight. Ships of all sizes huddled together in close formation, all blowing foghorns, and shooting fountains of water from their water hoses. The war was over! It was a great celebration!
We got to go ashore to sight see and barter or buy souvenirs. As always, we had an armed escort. On one of our trips on shore a bad storm came up and we waited on the dock for our whale boat to pick us up. Finally, a captain from an LCI [Landing Craft Infantry] said he would take us back to our ship. When they asked permission to come alongside the Hope, our captain refused as the waves were high and he was afraid both ships might be damaged. The captain of the LCI said he didn’t have quarters for women, and our captain said, “You have them, you keep them.” The LCI captain said, “OK, I’m going to a sheltered cove. See you after the storm.”
We had a great time on this small ship. We had the run of the ship and the captain relinquished his quarters to us. We played cards with the enlisted men and cooked in the galley. Sometime in the night one of the girls put her foot on the deck and something moved. She let out a muffled yipe, and we discovered the men had blown up some condoms like balloons and put them through the porthole. We disposed of them and in the morning we came out and tried to look nonchalant. It was a cute joke and broke up the monotony for them. They were wonderful to us, and this brief encounter was enjoyed by all without a thought of rank or status.
Finally, the word that we all had been waiting for: we were going stateside. As the ship left the harbor after thirteen months overseas, the other ships in the harbor saluted us with sirens, fog horns, and water from their fire hoses. We had a homeward bound pennant flying from the mast. Also, a foot of bunting for each person on board. The trip home was uneventful. We had mixed emotions about the past year and leaving our shipmates who were family to us. I could not describe the feelings I had as the shoreline of the United States appeared and we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. You had to say, “It’s great to be home!” The band was playing as we tied up to the dock, and would you believe, it was Sentimental Journey!
Lt. Col. Nellie Marsch (1920–2005) remained in the military until her retirement in 1972, having served during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. She earned the American Theater Ribbon; Asiatic Pacific Commendation Medal; Philippine Liberation Medal; WWII Victory medal; Occupation of Japan Medal; National Defense Medal with oak leaf cluster; Korean Conflict Medal; and the Vietnam Service Medal. In Vietnam she served as Chief Army Nurse and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal. In 1970 the 229th Helicopter Assault Battalion awarded her “The Order of Winged Assault” for her meritorious service to the Battalion. At retirement Lt. Col. Marsch was one of the most highly decorated women in the military with two Bronze Stars and multiple Army Commendations. –Ed.