News and Tribune

Lifestyles

June 17, 2014

BEAM: The women of World War II

New Albany resident recounts her time as a military nurse

NEW ALBANY — Sporting the field’s traditional rounded rectangular cap, Anne Ericson McCormick stands tall above the nurses in the old colorless photo her daughter shows me.

Names have been jotted on almost every one of the men and women, a reminder to Anne of those she worked with in General Hospital 38 during World War II. A sea of white uniforms outlines the faces of the female officers and makes their smiles and ’40s-style hairdos noticeable all the more. This was taken in Texas, before the long journey at sea took her to her three-year deployment in Egypt.

At 94, Anne still towers in so many ways. In her apartment at the Villages of Silvercrest, the New Albany resident fills the rooms with her humble yet strong presence. In what’s sadly becoming the norm nowadays, she’s one of the few remaining nurses from that photo.

Her closest friends from this time of her life are gone. But her memories, like the members of the Greatest Generation themselves, remain resilient.

You don’t hear much about the American nurses who served overseas during World War II. Yet, by wars end, 50,000 women volunteered for their country in this capacity. Quite a few were stationed among the front lines in makeshift field hospitals tending to injured soldiers, their efforts making a huge difference in survival rates.

According to the National World War II Museum, 201 Army nurses died during the war and more than 1,600 nurses were honored for bravery under fire and meritorious service.

“I don’t think much has been written about nurses who were in action,” Anne said. “They went through a lot. I don’t think they got the notoriety they earned.”

Notoriety was never something Anne desired. Growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the Depression to Swedish immigrants, she wanted nothing more than to do her job. The quest for this work happened to take her to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, one of the preeminent nursing schools in the nation, where she graduated in 1941.

Around the same time, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and America entered World War II. With only 1,000 enlisted nurses at the time of the raid, the government made it a priority to find more medical personnel. Just as in World War I, Jefferson Hospital mobilized a unit of approximately 120 nurses and 60 doctors to the battle zone, one of which was Anne.

In September 1942, after weeks of training in Texas, she boarded the repurposed Cunard Cruise Line luxury ship The Aquitania and jetted forth in one of the first waves of American nurses to be sent overseas.

For 44 days and 16,700 miles, Anne sailed without knowing her final destination. To avoid detection from the German U-boats, the Aquitania zigzagged and pitched down the Atlantic, first stopping at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, then in Capetown, South Africa, before continuing up through the Suez Canal to Egypt.

Soldiers were packed into every space possible on the ship — even sleeping on stacked bunks in drained swimming pools to accommodate the masses. Through her voyage, Anne shared a state room with 15 other female nurses.

While the journey was long and treacherous, something else happened to Anne on board the ship that would change her life.

Make that someone.

John “Mac” McCormick, a young Hoosier from Vincennes, also was going to war, with the 125th Ordnance Base Auto Battalion. A chance encounter of the two would have lasting consequences.

“About five of my friends and I were sitting on an ammunition box on the top deck. We went up to get some air,” Anne said. “Five of them moseyed up to us and introduced themselves. Mac came back and came back and came back.”

Before the end of the trip, Mac asked her to marry him. In no hurry to settle down, she advised him to wait a year until they were on dry land and ask again. During that time, Mac would walk miles from his camp in the desert to the Army hospital where Anne was stationed. One year later, they were married in Egypt wearing their Army uniforms.

Anne and Mac landed in Egypt around the same time as a crucial battle was being fought. The Desert Fox, Gen. Erwin Rommel, and his German troops were trekking across Northern Africa toward Cairo. For most of October and November 1942, British Lt.-Gen. Bernard Montgomery engaged Rommel in Egypt at the Battle of El Alamein and effectively stopped the Germans’ African advancement.

“The war switched after Rommel was defeated in North Africa,” Anne said. “When we went over, they were still fighting. But not long after, he was defeated. Business for the big base hospital kind of dried up, thank goodness.”

For 2 1/2 more years, Anne nursed soldiers from the Italian and Pacific fronts back to health in the orthopedic wing of the hospital. Eventually, Mac and his unit moved into Italy, where he continued to work on the supply end of the war effort. While she remained behind, Anne was able to visit him. During one of these trips, she became pregnant.

“Of course, they didn’t want to keep me forever with a baby, so they sent me home,” she said.

In May 1945, Anne returned to Pennsylvania, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl five months later. Two more children would follow through the years.

Around Thanksgiving, Mac rejoined his family. They’d settle in his home state of Indiana, where Anne continued to work as a nurse at Community Hospital in Indianapolis. In 2005, after 62 years of marriage, Mac departed this world still talking about his war experiences with the guys in the ambulance on the ride to the hospital.

While Mac always told stories, Anne never spoke much about her life in Egypt to her children, including her daughter Carol Hocker.

“Dad’s stories were all about camaraderie, about their getting married. It was mostly happy things that came out of war ... Some people took good things out of it too,” Carol said. “But mom, she’s been very quiet about the war. I had to think it was because she really saw war at its worst, not in combat, but she saw the results of war more than my Dad did.”

Despite this, Anne remains satisfied with her decision to enter the service.

“I never regretted it,” she said.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com

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