Esther McNeil grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. She was the sixth of eight children.After going into nursing school, McNeil realized that she knew more about some things than many of the other girls around her.She went to work for the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania and had been there for about three years when the war began. She was one of the first to sign up with the hospital for service. The hospital sent out a navy unit and an army unit.She was rejected because of her eyes. That was a sad day for her because all of her friends went.About a year later McNeil got a letter from the army asking for her to volunteer for service.She went to an army air base in Tucson, Arizona then moved to an air base in Pueblo, Colorado. She was limited to stateside duty only because of her eyes.As the war continued on, the standards for service lapsed and McNeil was able to serve overseas. She was assigned to the 69th [Annotator's Note: 69th General Hospital].McNeil states that the longest battle fought in World War II was fought in Burma.She signed in at Ledo on the day they went into France [Annotator's Note: invasion on 6 June 1944]. A little over a year later her outfit deployed to take part in the invasion of Japan but the bomb was dropped while they were enroute. She ended up in Okinawa where she witnessed a typhoon.By the time she got back to the United States she had gone around the world.On her way home from being discharged she stopped off in Cleveland, Ohio to enroll in school. The classes were crowded with GIs. That first semester the GIs had a hard time.After school McNeil moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Health Department.Washington D.C. integrated while McNeil was there. She discusses the racial issues she dealt with while there.When the Korean War began McNeil joined the Reserves and was recalled to active duty.
McNeil reported to Fort Belvoir [Annotator's Note: Fort Belvoir, Virginia] but that was too close to Washington D.C. for her liking. A request went out for nurses in Texas so she volunteered and was sent to Fort Hood, Texas.McNeil met a girl at Fort Hood who wanted to go overseas. McNeil told her to go ahead and sign up and she ended up being called for overseas duty before her friend.McNeil was sent to France. After being there for a year she put in for a transfer to Germany. In Germany, she attended a field school for medics that was in a town halfway between Munich and Salzburg. They closed that school then moved to another location in Germany to open another school. After that she returned to the US.McNeil did a deployment to Korea after which she was assigned to a place in California which is now closed.McNeil was sent to Fort Polk [Annotator's Note: Fort Polk, Louisiana] as Chief Nurse. During her time in the service she had gotten her masters degree from a school in Minnesota. She went back to Germany as Chief Nurse to the Surgeon General's Office then retired.She had originally enlisted because it was the thing to do. All of the fellows were going to fight the big war and somebody had to go take care of them.At the time she was going with a guy who was a ship builder and had helped design the battleship Missouri. On the night Pearl Harbor was attacked [Annotator's Note: 7 December 1941], her boyfriend had her bring two friends along to join his two friends. The conversation was backwards with the girls talking about deploying and the men remaining to work on the home front.When McNeil was initially turned down for service it was the worst day of her life.McNeil attended the christening of a ship.When she first began nursing she was a scrub nurse.GIs were a lot easier to take care of than others.When she had received the letter from the army asking for her to enlist she was an operating room nurse.
McNeil went into the service on the 5th of February 1943. Her first posting was to Davis Martin Field and Air Force base.In India she was head nurse in the operating ward.When she went into the service she was not taught to march. One day a general visited the base she was at and none of the nurses knew how to march. After that they were taught to march. They also took an infiltration course.McNeil was stationed in Pueblo [Annotator's Note: Pueblo, Colorado] when her unit was activated at Camp Swift [Annotator's Note: Camp Swift, Texas]. Unlike other military units, McNeil was joining an army unit from the air corps.Before shipping out they were given leave to go home. They deployed through Norfolk, Virginia and steamed to the Mediterranean and landed in South Africa. The British troops in South Africa had a party for them. One of the places they went to was a restaurant in Cape Town.After landing in India she went by train to Ledo.When McNeil arrived in Ledo she encountered the unit from the University of Pennsylvania Hospital whose commanding officer asked if she would transfer over to them. She declined. She had gone over with the 69th [Annotator's Note: US Army's 69th General Hospital] and wanted to stay with them.She did get some TDY [Annotator's Note: TDY means temporary duty] at the 20th [Annotator's Note: 20th General Hospital] before heading out to set up her hospital.In India she was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Nurses had relative rank, not actual rank.When they arrived in India, they had British rations on the train, two meals worth per day. When she stopped in Ledo after about five days she was temporarily attached to the other unit until it was time to open the OR [Annotator's Note: operating room] in her own hospital.
In Ledo, McNeil saw every type of wound. She worked on GIs and on Chinese patients. She worked in the Chinese ward for about two weeks. When she told the Chinese patients that they had to get rid of the chicken they had tied to a bed, they took it outside and hung it up by the door. The Chinese ward didn't have as good of supplies as they had in American operating rooms.One patient that has stayed in McNeil's mind was a very tall patient who had to have a bilateral amputation. McNeil hated amputations. The man had gas gangrene from his battle wounds which McNeil had never seen. They did the amputation in a separate room at night and removed the leg very high up. They had at least one amputation a day.The patients were grateful for anything they did.McNeil never heard a shot when she was deployed.She was on leave when her unit received orders to move out. A friend of hers packed up their stuff. They then spent 73 days on a ship enroute to Okinawa. Aboard ship they played cards.When they got back to the United States all of the discharge centers were overcrowded. She was sent to a WAC [Annotators Note: Womens Army Corps] center in Indiana. They were sent on on TDY for 8 days then got discharged.McNeil went to Korea after the Korean War.She doesn't see any major differences between her service during World War II and after the war. They always had plenty of supplies during World War II.One of the surgeons she worked with had been in World War I.While working in the Chine ward they sharpened scalpel blades to reuse.
The patients McNeil treated were good and were grateful for every little thing the nurses did.The nurses would sit and talk with the patients. They also had the patients working making beds and mopping floors. The hospitals were usually set up in estate buildings.The wards each usually had 30 to 40 beds.In India, the wards all held about 30 patients each. The hospital buildings had been built by the army by the time McNeil got there and all had electricity.The men and women each had a community shower.They had to sleep under mosquito nets.They had wards full of malaria patients.They had penicillin but it was not easy to come by.They had a VD [Annotators Note: venereal disease] ward. They had a picture of all of the prostitutes. They didn't have any more VD patients than a civilian ward would.Overseas they treated a lot of injuries. They also did a lot of hernias. Back then they kept the patient in bed for 21 days and now it is done outpatient.They were well equipped overseas during World War II. Supplies were shipped in and flown to them.McNeil first became chief nurse at Fort Polk in the early 1960s. She got out in 1971. After Polk she had a tour in Europe for two years.The hardest year of McNeil's life was in France. They were very communistic down in southern France. They painted go home on their cars.There were only two ways out of Germany after World War II. The people had to evacuate when the Russians started acting up and were brought out through France.
McNeil doesn't think that her time in the army changed her life in any way. She was able to see the world.She feels that World War II should continue to be taught to future generations.The World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. is impressive. The fighting overseas now has gone on longer than World War II. McNeil never felt mistreated while she was in the service. The GIs she treated were the most grateful patients she ever took care of. They were good kids and had a lot of respect for the nurses. McNeil kept in touch with some of her friends after she left the service. She has gone to some of the reunions the nurses held.For one get-together they wanted to get Hot Lips [Annotator's Note: McNeil is referring to the actress Loretta Switt who played a character on the television show MASH named Major Margaret J. "Hot Lips" Houlihan] as a speaker but their leader wouldn't permit it.McNeil saw the Army Nurse Corps as one big family. They all loved each other and looked out for each other.They [Annotator's Note: Mcneil is referring to the US Army] were slow to give single people decent housing. They were eventually given a housing allowance and allowed to live off base. McNeil is happy she went in and had a good career.
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