Colonel Strohm's Nurses

The winds of war were gathering strength over Europe in the 30's and 40's. Adopting a program of preparedness, Surgeon General, Major James C. Magee, requested the University of Oregon Medical School to prepare for reactivation. They were to recruit and train sufficient staff capable of caring for 1,500 battle casualties at any one time. It was to be known as the 46th General Hospital. Its predecessor was Base Hospital No. 46. The silken flag, which Base Hospital 46 carried to France in 1918, was going to war again.

In June of 1940, Richard B. Dillehunt, M.D., then acting Dean of the medical school, received authorization to form an affiliated unit of the Medical Department of the U.S. Army. Dr. Dillehunt appointed Dr. J. Guy Strohm, one of Portland's practicing urologists and Colonel in the Army Medical Corps Reserve, as chairman of a committee to organize the unit's reserve hospital. Colonel Strohm was assigned as its director and Commanding Officer in the event of mobilization. At a symbolic and somber ceremony, Dr. Thomas J. Joyce, one time C. O. of Base Hospital 46, presented the flag of Base Hospital 46 to Colonel Strohm.

Faculty members responded generously when Colonel Strohm appealed for volunteers to fill quotas of 105 registered nurses, three dieticians, two physical therapists and five hundred enlisted men. Doctors and administrative staff brought the total of volunteers to 700.

In June 1942, thirty nurses received orders to report for duty at Barnes Army Hospital, Vancouver, Washington. When the Japanese invaded, war casualties were being flown in from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. With a very full schedule, Kay Fisher, a member of Good Samaritan Hospital, anesthesia staff, called to say she just couldn't go. Colonel Strohm answered, "Lady, this is the Army, you will report!" and she did.

On July 15, 1942, Union Station was packed with wives, sweethearts, family members and friends, as the unit left for Ft. Riley, Kansas. Though days were filled with routine, on-the-job training, fox-holes, gas chambers, day and night marches and retreat parades, memories include, visits from Red Skelton and his wife and Gene Tierney, "hedge hopping" with the Air Force, brilliant sunsets and sunrises, sunflowers, dainty prairie flowers and acres of cactus.

On August 11, 1943 it was time to move out. Loaded down with gas masks, helmets, pistol belts and heavily loaded musette bags, they marched in formation to board a train on its way to Camp Shanks, New York. Cameras and civilian clothes were sent home. All they were allowed to carry were "A" bag and "B" bag and a bedroll. The nurse's blue and white uniforms were replaced with the Official Dress Uniform, fatigues, leggings, field shoes and seersucker duty uniforms. After an exhausting week they were ready to leave American soil.

The liberty troop ship the Geo. W. Goethals carried the nurses out to sea. Thirteen days later, escorted by a British aircraft carrier, they sailed into the Mediterranean Sea. The ship landed in Oran, near the western border of Algeria and Morocco, North Africa, where a field hospital was constructed from scratch. The staging area, situated on a cliff overlooking the sea, provided field cooked meals served in individual mess kits. The nurses' helmets became washbasin, laundry tub, footbath, and place to wash their hair. The daily routine included calisthenics, drilling and lectures.

In November, the hospital was ready. The fall rains had started and snow was on the distant hills. There were no heating facilities in the living quarters, which housed four to five nurses in each tent. Electricity was rationed, so one low voltage lamp hung in the center of the tent. The day's fashion show included wool underwear worn under their fatigues, heavy lined jackets, field shoes with wool socks, and wool caps and gloves. By Christmas, 2,000 patients were under their care. By summer, most patients were gone, so once again it was time to move on.

After the invasion of Normandy, the nurses moved to St. Maxine, France, then on to Besancon, near the western front combat lines. Arriving with enough supplies to care for 250 patients, the 46th General Hospital set up in a former French infantry barracks located on a bluff over looking the beautiful old city. Trains, each carrying 300-500 wounded, began arriving. Within two weeks the 1500 bed-facility had overflowed its capacity with 3,000 patients. Surgery and nursing personnel worked around the clock. It was a bitterly cold winter but they barely had time to notice. "Never did we hear a single person complain ours was the easiest role to play in the gruesome business of war."

In spring, when the front line moved east and schedules eased, Colonel Strohm released the nurses for a little rest and relaxation. The nurses received passes to Paris, Switzerland, the French Riviera and the British Isles. VJ Day came on the 14th of August 1945 and by November 10, 1945, after 27 long months, the nurses set foot once again on American soil.

Colonel Strohm's Nurses have met every fall, some traveling long distances for the reunions. And many have made trips back to Besancon to renew friendships.

Those who are still with us are scattered to the four winds, but the closeness remains, for memories lie cradled in our hearts.

We have changed over the years, but somehow we still remain the same, for memories of our time together are frozen like snapshots in our minds.

- Ruby Hills

The exhibit consists of historical images, newspaper clippings, artifacts, an official dress uniform, fatigues and memorabilia. The exhibit will remain on display until January, 2004.