WWII Recollections
by Alice Pitcher Dibble

Posted by Ludwik Kowalski.

I did not prepare anything for the next memoir-writing workshop. What follows are two excerpts written by a Vermont friend. Like my own memoir, they describe the WWII period, but from the US perspective. The excerpts are from a book, "Collected Memories," by Alice Pitcher Dibble, published by Shires Press in 2011. (Ludwik Kowalski, 4/23/2012)

Courier on Horseback 1945
Couriers for the Frontier Nursing Service in Kentucky's Appalachian mountains were volunteers from North American colleges. During May and June of 1946, I was one of them, along with two other students, Edo and Bobby from Vassar.

We were either on horseback, carrying messages and supplies in saddlebags between the six nursing centers and whitewashing stables, or keeping the main stable clean and our horses there brushed and healthy.

Trained as a nurse's aid in Charleston, West Virginia in 1942, I rode with Bertha, one of the nurses on horseback, along Beach Fork River up a mountain to patients in two-room gray board cabins. Bertha, off her horse, handed out both pink and blue aspirin pills, with friendly smiles to receptive hands of patients quickly relieved.

As we rode away from the little mountain settlement and rounded a corner of the narrow dirt road we passed a mother sitting cross-legged on the ground, nursing her three year-old son. Gaunt and thin, she was draped with her long stringy hair. Her boy in rumpled overalls was stretched across her lap, his bare feet dangling over the ground. At 19, I was shocked by that roadside scene. It was such an extreme contrast to my experience a year before at a small private maternity hospital in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. As a nurse's aide there, I cleaned up and carried freshly swaddled infants to their privileged well-groomed mothers who lay under clean white sheets in spotless private bedrooms.

The FNS was founded in 1925 by Mary Breckenridge. Its official headquarters was a modern two story log building in Wendover, Kentucky, on a steep wooded hillside overlooking Middle Fork, the headwaters of the Kentucky River. From there, Mary directed scattered nursing centers with nurse midwives in a five mile radius that covered 78 square miles in the Appalachian Mountain Range. Each center had a barn, cowshed, chicken house and gardens. Her nurses, clad in gray-blue riding uniforms and neckties, gave medical care to patients living in little homesteads along creeks and river branches, only accessible by horseback or mule. "Willy," the jeep, was rarely used. As one courier wrote, "This is a heavenly place--wind, pine, brooks, clean rain, log fires, and all around, the great quiet mountains, continually carrying your eyes up."

Children from the mountain homes were brought every year to a tonsil removal clinic. They filled the eighteen side-by-side cots on the first floor, in shifts, for a week. I was on all night duty there for several days in June. During the day I slept in a comfortable staff bedroom in the Big House at Wendover, separated from my cohorts in our Garden House bedroom. At the hospital, the docile children slept after surgery, uncomplaining.

Unlike the quiet recovery room downstairs, one night an earsplitting drama upstairs was in full force in the birthing room. A pregnant mountain woman had been brought in for a breach delivery. Her terrified screams were piercing. I stood rooted in the hall outside, her fear and pain shooting through me from head to toe, until her quiet relief came after the baby was born. This introduction to childbirth led me, thankfully, to Dr. Read's ground breaking book, “Childbirth without Fear,” when I became pregnant in 1950.

Cabin births had their own routine. When the mother's time was near, a nurse told her what to do when labor begins. On a big fire in her kitchen stove, the nurse boiled a kettle or bucketful of water. She dressed the mother in a clean gown or dress, covered the bed with newspaper padding, a clean sheet, and filled a kerosene lamp.

I travelled with Bertha up Thousand Sticks Mountain for a delivery in a two-room cabin. It jutted out from the mountainside, and was help up by stilts. We entered the toasty warm kitchen. Next to this, in a large square bedroom, on a patchwork quilt in a hand-hewn double bed, the woman lay, quietly in labor. Soon after our arrival, her newborn healthy baby gave its initial cry. Washed by the nurse from a tub of warm water, and wrapped in a towel, the baby was placed on my lap where I sat on the only chair in the room. Startled and immobilized, cradling this surprise, it was the newest life I had ever held.

Meanwhile, the mother's husband cooked a breakfast feast for us on the kitchen woodstove. The coffee, fried eggs, bacon and potatoes were a celebration that morning for a heavenly birth.

Back at the Wendover stable, Rex, the big brown horse I rode, was sick. I had to give him an enema, a large syringe?full of watered down laxative. He let me in without kicking and knocking the syringe out of my hands with his long black tail. It was a tall hands?on order that worked for the horse and me in the dark stable stall.

Home sick by Memorial Day, I wrote to my mother about how I missed being home with her to honor my brother Lynn, killed a year and a half earlier in eastern Germany. I also wrote that “Aggie” asked me if I wanted to come back next year. She surprised me, so I put my name down for a year from June. There's a long waiting list, but I was ready to leave. The following summer I was married instead. My husband-to-be was enthralled with my experience in Kentucky. He had been driving an ambulance in North Africa for the American Field Service from 1941 to 1944, a medic himself.

When I left Wendover that June I spent several hours in Lexington, Kentucky on my way home to Vermont. I gazed at old and elegant “War Admiral,” a famous prize winner in the Kentucky Derby, grazing in a grassy field near the lavish stable where he lived. Shiny brass horses' nameplates and latches decorated rows of immaculate brightly lit race horse stalls. The contrast with the FNS stables was extreme, one for champions and blue ribbons, the other for medical service only.

My time as a courier and aide at Wendover has enhanced my life. A major part of my college years, it opened my eyes to the value of one's social and economic privilege-where it can help others.

World War II

... My sweetheart, “Chunk,” who I met as a blind date at Exeter two years earlier, was at an army bootcamp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. My brothers Lynn, a Private First Class in the Army Engineer Corp. was in England, en route to the European war zone, and Jack in Officers' Training for the Navy at Columbia University.

Jack came weekends looking swarthy and official in his Navy officer uniform. We were good friends then, I no longer the little sister and “pain in the neck.” Wartime changed our relationship, all of us leveled in emotional ways to get through it. He, my friend Nancy and I enjoyed our long walks along country roads, relaxed, light_hearted and relieved.

When I travelled alone to Gettysburg by train some weekends, “Chunk” and I explored the bleak Civil War battlefield by day. At night we hung out at a bar, drinking beer and surrounded by restless soldiers in somber khaki uniforms. After sleeping by myself in a sparse boarding house room, I left him behind looking desperate and lonely, for the trip home Sunday mornings. When he came to visit me in Sewickley, the Spring of 1944, I wore my red velvet dress. When he asked me to marry him, myself barely 18, I was so aghast and confused by his proposal, I right away rejected and lost him forever. There were lots of war brides then, a close friend of mine included, but I wasn't ready for that, only feeling guilty later for hurting him. Instead, I enjoyed and took pride in my academic achievements, and as a trained nurses' aide, took care of infants on weekends at the small maternity hospital in Sewickley. ...

My brother Lynn went through The Battle of the Bulge as a runner and bazooka carrier for the US Army Infantry. Killed in February, 1945, he was upstairs on duty defending Infantry soldiers who were in a nearby room, in a building at Saarlautern, Germany.

When Tom and I visited his grave with its wooden cross the spring of 1949, I was comforted by the nearby woods with its ground so carefully cleared and tended.

His last visit with his family was in the fall of '42 in Baltimore, Maryland, on leave from "boot camp" at Fort Dix. Straight and serious in his khaki uniform, his dark eyebrows grew together, classic nose and full lips were distinctive below his First Class Private's cap.

Later, in a letter home, he expressed his love of nature when outside the army barracks in formation at dawn. "While you're on this barren post with its stark barracks stretching out on bare ground the sky seems enormous and you notice it so much more. Sometimes there are great stretches of EI Greco clouds."

Losing our brother Lynn made my older brother Jack and myself closer. An Ensign on a Navy Destroyer Escort in the Pacific, he brought a grass hula-hula skirt from Bora-Bora to me when the war there ended. ...

My husband Tom was an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Northern Africa 1942-44. His return to New York on a Merchant Marine ship contributed to his wish to go to sea again in his '50s. Turned down by the Merchant Marines, he built an Adirondack rowboat and rowed the Connecticut River in successive pieces and the Hudson River from Albany to Poughkeepsie.

A successful artist, Tom created landscape paintings, many including birds and other wildlife, in his studio from tiny sketches outdoors or his imagination, that reflected his personal vision of nature. Sometimes the painting included an empty wood chair in the foreground. His early post World War II paintings of the "Crucifixion" on a tree and "Deposition" were reminiscent of the tragedies of war.

After Lynn's death, the fall of my junior year at Vassar, I moved into a single room next to my former roommates. Tom visited me weekends from New York and when he left after hours allowed in the dormitory, he had to climb a college wall to go home. Other weekends when he and I visited my parents in their little Park Avenue apartment in New York, Tom slept in their bathtub when it was late at night. All those visits so full of mutual interests and attraction made me very happy in a time of grief about Lynn, and led to our marriage, August 29, 1947.