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Interview with Isabelle Cook [Undated]

Isabelle Cook:

My name is Isabelle Cook and I'm a World War II veteran. I was a young graduate in New York City and just had graduated from Mount Sinai Hospital School of Nursing when war was declared in Europe and pretty soon we were in the thick of it. And the Army asked Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to form a thousand-bed hospital for overseas service. They asked for volunteers and since I was a young -- unattached young lady, I felt that it was my duty to join the Army and to go to help soldiers overseas when they needed care.

I didn't tell my family. I had my -- I had a mother that was a widow with five children and I didn't tell her. I didn't ask her permission, I just signed right up. And then waited impatient -- impatiently for them to call me for the Service. Finally, in September of 1942, I got the call, proceed immediately to Camp Rucker, Alabama. Now, you can imagine the culture shock going from Manhattan down to Camp Rucker, Alabama in Ozark. And it was a tiny town of about 500 people, real southerners, and here are these northern Yankees that came to invade the area. And we had our basic training there and you could imagine civilians undergoing this basic training when we marched and had backpacks and everything else and all the soldiers in the camp lined up to see the nurses marching by and mismarching, most of the time.

But we made it through basic training. It was about six months. And then we got the orders to go overseas. And we ended back up in New York at the port of embarcation and we stayed there, processed, we were given all the clothes that we needed for overseas service.

We were given permission to actually go home for one day to see the family. Mother was in shock when she knew that I was going overseas, but I had to make her understand that I felt it was my duty to be part of the Army. My brother was drafted and he was in the Army at the time. He went to Officer's Training School and he became an officer. He went -- we went on a troop ship that was SS Louis Pasteur. Originally, it was a French Army overseas for a luxury liner and they converted it into a troop ship and it was manned by British soldiers to transport American troops. Since it was a very fast ship, we just zigzagged right across the Atlantic. We didn't go in a convoy. We didn't know what our final destination -- we didn't know our final destination. This is in May 5th, 1943, but we ended up in Casablanca.

We spent about three months in Casablanca because of the fact that the Germans were still fighting in Tunisia and our hospital, the thousand-bed general hospital was supposed to be set up in Mateur. That was just outside of Tunis. When the Germans were defeated in North Africa, then we got our orders to proceed to Mateur in Tunisia. I was one of the ten nurses that was chosen to go on the advance party. We traveled 1500 miles across country, across North Africa in a two and a half-ton truck, an open truck and the heat was -- in May was unbearable. But we managed to go across. We slept in pup tents at night. We had the K-rations for food, but one night we actually spent in the -- the French Foreign Legion. We spent one night with them and we got a real hot meal and a bed to sleep in which was just wonderful.

And we -- one night, we were able to go to a -- they had a portable shower unit for the soldiers, for the combat soldiers, and they stopped the soldiers from going in to allow the ten nurses to take a shower, which was wonderful after two days being on the road. And, of course, we had the soldiers all lined up ready to wash our backs and do everything else. They were very helpful but, of course, I do think there might have been a hole in the tent but we never did find out for sure whether there was one or not.

We finally arrived in Mateur. It had been bombed out and people were living in caves. And I asked the charge nurse, what was my duties as one of the ten people for setting up the hospital in -- in Mateur and she said you'll be the housekeeper. Here I am about 22 years old, never took care of a house in my life and suddenly I'm the housekeeper. She said you'll be in charge of the laundry and the housekeeping duties. Well, I thought I don't know anything about it, but like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll worry about it when the time comes. But she said well, you can probably get the townspeople to do the laundry. Well, there was no town. It had all been bombed out and people were living in caves. So we took over the French Army barracks that were used as a hospital by the Germans.

In fact, there was still German prisoners -- well, they were German soldiers that were so severely wounded they could not be evacuated. They left one German doctor to care for them. So they immediately became prisoners of war. So we took care of them. There were German signs all over the place. Well, the rest of our -- our unit arrived about several days later. They had had a terrible experience going cross-country in a -- in cattle cars and even one of our nurses had died as a result of heat -- the heat was so terrible.

Well, we set up our entire hospital in about eight days, 800 tons of equipment, generators, we had our own portable generators and the whole hospital was set up and the nurses and the nursing personnel had tents. There were five of us in each tent and outside latrines and outside wash stations and things like that. The heat -- the -- we were getting the winds, the "taraka" winds from the Sahara and living in the tents, it was pretty bad. But we were taking care of the casualties from Sicily. The Sicilian campaign had started and within about five days after we set up the hospital, we started receiving patients.

They were evacuated by air and we acted as an evacuation hospital instead of a general hospital which takes care of the more severely wounded and those that needed to stay much longer. But we received about 2,000 patients. And as a result, we had to open another thousand-bed hospital on -- in the field in tents and those that were convalescent moved into the tent area and the more seriously injured were in the building. We all did double shifts because we had to care for all these patients. And the heat was so unbearable and for the patients in the tents that they -- we did have Italian prisoners of war and they set it up so that they there was -- they put an extra top over the tent and then run cold water over it in order for -- to get it cool. This we -- we stayed in North Africa for one year and we took care of about 5,000 patients during that time.

Bob Hope came to entertain the troops, came to see troops, "This Is the Army," all the shows came. Of course, our social life was wonderful. With a hundred nurses and about a hundred thousand soldiers -- men in the area, we had a wonderful social life. The question was would the Air Force fly us to a dance nearby or the Signal Corps would give us the little meals that they used for their wire for a bedside table for the tents. We had about six nurses that married doctors from the outfit and they set up individual tents for each married couple and that was called Honeymoon Lane. And it was wonderful.

They got -- their tents were also with improvised furniture, but the -- we're -- most of the fighting was over in Sicily and they were -- there was an invasion of -- of Italy. And we followed Marquardt -- General Marquardt's Fifth Army and we went up and we were supposed to be sent to Rome, but since the fighting was still going on in Anzio, Rome had not been captured at the time and so we were set up in orange grove outside of Naples near the king's palace.

And there we took care of originally French colonial troops and this was in -- we had no interpreters or anything, so we were taking care of Arabs and Senegalese and it was quite an experience taking care of these -- their sanitary habits were not the -- the best. And you'd see somebody missing from their bed after surgery and wonder where they were and they're outside using the outside tent as a urinal. So it was quite an experience. But following that, we did get American soldiers wounded from the Anzio beachhead and Casino, the Battle of Casino.

We stayed in Italy about nine months. We were able to get leave now and then. We went to the Isle of Capri, that was quite an experience. And visited there and various places in Italy and it was very interesting. When we left Italy, then we were transported to France after the invasion of France, and went through the port -- the Southern France through the Port of Marseilles and then on to a Aix-en-Provence.

All this time we had been living in tents and when we arrived in Aix-en-Provence, to our great delight, they took over a resort hotel and we lived in this resort hotel and they even checked all the staff so that we had a French chef. And it would be amazing -- it was amazing to know what they could do with dried powdered eggs and different Army food. When we were in Aix-en-Provence, at May 7th, 1945, I believe, that's when VE Day and we were taking part of the VE Day parade. They invited all of the troops, foreign troops, American, British, French troops to march in the VE Day parade. As -- of course, we were in our full uniform marching down the street and all of a sudden I looked up at one of the lamp posts and hanging from the lamp post was a man with a big sign across his chest saying "Collaborator." They had hung the collaborators. And, of course, it was a horrifying sight to see him swinging from the lamp post. There were several of them.

At the end of the parade, they had all the women who had consorted with the Germans, head shaved and made them march at the end of the parade to the -- the people watching the parade throwing rocks and stones at them. It was quite an experience to be in that parade. Since there was not very much action after VE Day, I do believe that they wanted to give the front line -- I forgot to mention that we were so short -- I worked in the orthopedic section taking care of orthopedic patients, but in Italy, they were so short of nurse anesthetists that they decided to train two nurses to become anesthetists, you know, just on-the-job training.

We had a major who was an anesthesiologist and he decided -- he took over the job of teaching us anesthesia. So they chose myself and one other, you know, another friend of mine, to become nurse anesthetists. We -- we were doing that for the last year and a half that I was in the Service. I was a nurse administered ether and mostly Pentothal, Sodium Pentothal. And then after that, they -- since, as I said, there were very little action, there were just people evacuated or hurt in automobile accidents, Jeep accidents, something like that.

So they decided those anesthetists were on the front line, you know, in the evac hospitals and the first aid stations and all those should get a break. So they said -- they -- these people could go to Paris for a training course. They suggested that one nurse anesthetist be sent from each hospital in the area. Well, my friend were -- one friend was getting married, one of the nurse anesthetists, the other friend was having a big romance at the time and so they pleaded with me to go to Paris. And, of course, it was such a hardship for me to go to Paris and spend six weeks there that I reluctantly agreed. They -- I was sent to a station hospital there and the duty was in the morning from 9:00 to 11:00, we either had one lecture for an hour and then we observed the anesthetist there for the other hour. Then we were free. We had the rest of the day to explore Paris.

So for six weeks I -- we would leave in the morning about 12:00 noon and then take the subway the -- in Paris and go to the heart of the city. And then just wander. I had a wonderful time just wandering through and not as a tourist, but just to see Paris and you should see it. At the end of this time when I got back to my hospital in Aix-en-Provence, then I became -- we -- we got our orders in August and I think it was August 27th of 1945 to close our hospital. And we transported and sent any patients that we had to other hospitals. In September, we got our orders. We were overseas 28 months and we got our orders to go home. And this was really a wonderful experience.

So in September, we went -- went on the transport ship the "General Steward," and came home. The best sight we ever had was that Statue of Liberty and we were home and were able to go to visit our family once more. And then we got our final -- I think we were discharged from the Army in December of 1945.

And, you know, I keep thinking about the children that will pretty soon only know World War II as a chapter in a history book and I wanted very much to share my experiences with them. So I decided to write a book and I called it "In Times of War" because in times of war, things are very different than they are at other times. Relationships don't last very long because one day there's a soldier here and the next day -- in combat and sometimes he's gone with them for several weeks or months and then suddenly they -- you never hear from them again. And you don't know whether they were killed in action, whether they were wounded or what happened to them. So you're always left with that feeling what -- what could have been but wasn't. We had a -- one of our nurses got married in Paris. She was the first nurse to be married in the synagogue, the great synagogue in Paris that had been closed during the occupation and I was a bridesmaid for her and it was a wonderful experience.

I joined the Third General Hospital World War II Association. We've met every two years for reunion. They always had this -- it was a newsletter, but it was full of pictures and everyone contributed their stories about what their experience was (indicating). I've got many of these that I have kept and so I have them all. This was the parade on VE Day (indicating) as we're marching down the street in Aix-en-Provence. There are several pictures of that parade. And I also have a photo album with the Third General Hospital, all the members of the hospital, the nurses and the doctors (indicating). There were approximately 50 doctors, 100 nurses and 500 enlisted men, Red Cross workers. We even had dietitians, physiotherapists and an administrative staff. Now, I am a charter member of the Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. That is my picture in uniform (indicating). And I have been going to some schools to talk to the children about what it was like to be a nurse during those times.

Jeffery M. Beers:

Certainly sounds like you were in the thick of things. I imagine the hospital you were talking about was set up similar to what now they call MASH, a hospital unit out in the field?

Isabelle Cook:

Yes, you see, but there's quite a difference between MASH unit and a general hospital. A MASH unit is like a evacuation hospital and they do only emergency surgery and so forth. General Hospital has the top specialists that are there that are very experienced. Our -- our men -- our doctors were world renowned as surgeons, as medical men, psychiatrists. We had the top doctors in -- in the country there. And we did major surgery. We also if -- this is the last hospital they went to if they couldn't couldn't be treated, if their injuries, amputations or something like that, then they were sent back to the United States. So this was a last resort. So this was a much more stable unit that was supposed to be the farthest back. But as I said, during the Sicilian campaign, we were the closest. So we acted as an evacuation hospital. So we did see very, very serious injuries and it -- it was -- we had a good time, but we also suffered quite a bit. And we were very concerned about these young, young soldiers that lost their lives or triple amp -- double amputees or paralyzed or whatever. So it -- it was very difficult to watch.

Jeffery M. Beers:

I know hundreds and hundreds of military men that was in that -- in that war --

Isabelle Cook:

Yes.

Jeffery M. Beers:

-- and everyone I ever talked with that got wounded, anything, has nothing but high praises for the nurses. They were top -- at the top of the list.

Isabelle Cook:

Yes.

Jeffery M. Beers:

So I spent a career in the Navy (unintelligible) but the nurses were top rated because all the military men I know are grateful --

Isabelle Cook:

Well --

Jeffery M. Beers:

We appreciate your service.

Isabelle Cook:

Yeah, we tried to act as the -- well, sisters or mothers. Some of these were so young, 17 years old, and you just had to comfort them and be there to hold their hand.

Jeffery M. Beers:

Well, thank you very much. It was a very interesting -- a very interesting talk that you gave to us and I hung on every word of it. I was just enthralled with the experiences you had there -- with the fighting -- A Yes.

Jeffery M. Beers:

-- (unintelligible) and thank you very much.

Isabelle Cook:

Well, you're welcome.

Jeffery M. Beers:

Appreciate it.

Isabelle Cook:

Well, I'm hoping -- (end of interview)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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