April 2007

The story of Elaine Burnham, WWII Nurse

The following article comes from interviews with residents at the Concord Deaconess and put into a book titled “Memories of World War II."

I served as an Army Nurse in the South Pacific. We were all young girls, recently graduated from Mount Auburn Hospital School of Nursing. We joined the Army Nurse Corp. right after Pearl Harbor. My girlfriend and I joined together, and we thought we’d serve together — but in six weeks she was assigned to the European Theater and I subsequently went to the Pacific.

We went to Fort Devens and Fort Edwards and then took railroads across the country. I had never been out of Massachusetts before. We had our meals on the train and were 2 to a bed in the sleeper cars. When we arrived in San Francisco, we still had on civilian clothes. I had on a powder blue suit with alligator sandals. So we got our Army uniforms and they were really big.

We headed out on a great big ship, an ocean liner which was being used for troop transport. There were 50 ships in the convoy and our ship was full of doctors and nurses. Ours was very fast, we got way out in front. About halfway over, we were told we were going to Australia. Everyone had joined up — tinkers, tailors. 1 man who was a tailor took pity on us with our gigantic uniforms and by the time we arrived at our destination, our uniforms fit.

One day, someone held up a newspaper and the headline said “Supply Ship Sunk in Sydney Harbor.” It was our supply ship and arrived just ahead of us — we lost many of our supplies.

We did not have a hospital, so we just took over an old army barracks. We had 22 people in our barracks, which had an open roof — it was pretty primitive. There was one bathroom and shower, which did not often have hot water. It went fast, if you were lucky, you might get some warm water.

We had trunks with blankets and things, and we had to wear our helmets and pistol belts — we were really a mess going up those gangplanks. What was most important? Never forget your lipstick! Even on ship, there were movie stars traveling with us.

When we got to Australia, none of us knew how to cook or where to get food. So a married nurse said — “I can cook.” Nothing was planned.

The Salvation Army had a hospitality tent called the Red Shield Hut and they helped us to get supplies. Their record player only had a few tunes so we heard them over and over. The Red Shield Hut got us sewing machines and we started making operating room supplies. So we set up a hospital with just the infantry there and started getting patients. We used cotton thread to sew wounds. Then we started getting wounded from bombings in North Australia. There was a lot of action in the Pacific, and doctors and nurses were dispersed everywhere.

We were dispatched to Brisbane, which was very busy. By that time, MacArthur was in the Philippines and we saw injuries that ranged from the ordinary to servicemen from ships that had been bombed. The Navy was very generous with us. Their corpsmen had very good training which strengthened our team.
Later, in a big hospital, we got men from Guadalcanal. It was very sad. You would see your high school and college classmates and brothers of friends come through with injuries. I saw Ralph, the brother of a friend, and he stared right through me like I was glass. He was in the jungle, a very scary guerilla war, and he never recovered. There were many more mental cases due to stress among the people fighting in the guerilla war with an unseen enemy. We were all so young, how do you know when you are young how you will react or handle such intense stress? The president of my high school class was a dashing figure. When we all came home, he went to the reservoir and committed suicide.

I learned that you can’t take care (of people) if you can’t get through. Before I went over, I was privileged to have worked at a cancer research hospital. I learned what it meant to have hope. Like X-ray machines were developed and new ways of treating cancer. So I felt I could make a difference and I wanted to be there. I compared my experience with my girlfriend who ended up in Europe — she was in combat situations. She left nursing after the war — had enough and became a stewardess. My first husband, a major in the infantry, died as a result of service related disabilities. I met my second husband, Bob, in 1962 — it was amazing because he was the love of my life. He had been in the same convoy on the Pacific and we did not know it. So we really shared things, because we had the same experience.
Bob graduated from Harvard in June, 1940, (in John F. Kennedy’s class) and was in the Army 1 month later. You could join the Army for a year and were supposed to then be discharged — we called them 90 day wonders. But my husband was in four 4 years and 9 months.

My husband was the real hero, fighting in Luzon, Saipan, the Villa Verde Trail. He landed with MacArthur in the Philippines. We nurses were supposed to go to New Guinea, but the leaders did not want women there.

I injured my back in the war so I can’t lift now. We had fields of soldiers on low cots, hundreds of them. Sometimes we would try to give medications, and they would be missing. They would disappear, hoping to the village to get a drink or meet a girl.

As Army Nurses, we did more than nursing — we wrote letters, counseled the men, listened to them. We could not go home if a parent died or there was an emergency – you were there for the duration.
I eventually went back to school and became a guidance counselor because of my back injury. My husband’s sister had Down’s syndrome, so I have been very active in human rights for the mentally retarded — I wanted to work for changes.

The G.I. Bill was the best thing that ever happened to this country. People who were high school drop-outs got the resources to go to college. I got to go to college and for my master’s degree.

For more information contact Dick Krug, director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, and is located at 105 Everett Street. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.