Working in a Louisville hospital during World War II
Constance Cline Phillips of North Carolina dropped out of college and signed up for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in February 1945. After attending six weeks of basic training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, she spent four months in X-ray technician school at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Then, she was stationed at Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky from August 1945 to March 1946 when it was closed.
Phillips (1924- ) gave an oral history interview along with her papers and documentation about this time period in her life to the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where she returned after the war to finish her education in what was then called the Woman’s College).
In her interview, Phillips talked about the Nichols General Hospital in Louisville where her work as an X-ray technician was part of medical experimentations using wounded veterans. She remembered Nichols General as a “nerve center” where soldiers whose injuries made them into paraplegics. Many of them, she said, had extremity nerve injuries – some had been wounded quite a long time before – and the surgeons were experimenting with ways to rejoin the nerves.
“…they used tantalum wire, is something I remember X-raying to see how close something was getting to something to rejoining. But I think that was where some of the first paraplegics were kept alive. I don’t believe they understood the technology to be able to do that. So that was very interesting. And of course, most of our patients were male. Very few females. Which, of course, at twenty I thought was cool.
Phillips remembered that the WACs had their own barracks at Nichols Hospital (“Well, see, we were peons and segregated”) – and the local nurses were in “another segregated area.” However, Phillips does not address this issue of segregation as one of race (though later in the interview she indicates that she was a white supremicist).
Oneida Miller Stuart who served as an US Army nurse there then remembers that there were about 30 African-American nurses and 100 White nurses attending approximately 500 veterans and prisoners of war (most from Germany and the Pacific front). She remembered the difficulties of working with Whites despite her professional status and experience: “We were called ‘nigger’ many a time… but you just kept on going.” (audio excerpt)
Phillips met her husband Mike at the Hospital in Louisville – he had been serving as a truck driver in an Army unit recently returned from Germany. “They didn’t know what to do with all these people at the end of the war, because they were overstaffed. So they put him on as a ward boy.” He later became a professional football player, but her first memory of him was seeing him in the hospital: “So here came this great big fellow, moving a patient on a stretcher very gingerly. It didn’t bounce him off the walls.”
This memory is explains also why the young Oneida Miller, in her early 20s similar to Phillips, chose not to move her patients herself anymore. She described her pace of work as progressively becoming “too slow” since she was often accosted by the American GIs who did not want an African-American nurse. The racism still an important component of the American day-to-day interactions allowed for her to rely on this future football player to serve as a “ward boy.”
Oral history interview with Constance Cline Phillips, 1999. WV0082.5.01. The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, University of North Carolina-Greensboro Libraries. Full text transcript available online: http://library.uncg.edu/dp/wv/results5.aspx?i=2015&s=5.
Listen also to the oral history interview with Oneida Miller Stuart, an African American servicewoman in the Army Nurse Corps who worked at the Nichols General Hospital in 1945 – Oneida Stuart Collection (AFC/2001/001/4850), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.04850/