GENEVA — Like most students, the eighth-graders at St. Francis-St. Stephen School had Nov. 12 off in honor of Veterans’ Day. This year, the holiday held more significance for them, thanks to Elizabeth Mull.
Mull, whose son, Father Thomas Mull, is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, visited the school Nov. 7 to talk about her experiences as a nurse serving in the United States Army in Europe during World War II.
Religion and social-studies teacher Mary Ann Bender asked Mull to talk to her students about her experiences so that Veterans’ Day would be more than just a day off from school for them, she said.
“Unless they’ve got a parent or a brother or sister in the service, it’s not real for them,” Bender observed.
Bender said she encouraged her students to learn more about veterans and history by participating in an extra-credit project in which they interviewed veterans. About half of Bender’s seventh- and eighth-grade students participated in the project, interviewing veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the current war in Iraq, Bender said.
Bender said she also hoped Mull’s visit would help her students learn about veterans’ roles in American history.
“The eighth-graders will be studying World War II, but not until the spring,” she said.
They got a jump-start on their World War II unit when Mull shared her experiences with them. Mull became an Army nurse in 1944 and was first sent to England, where she spent a month in training. She was then sent to the 197th General Hospital in Saint-Quentin, France, which would be her home base until the war ended in Europe in the spring of 1945.
There were several different military hospitals used in Europe during World War II, Mull told the students. Field hospitals were located right along the front lines of battles. At these hospitals, male soldiers — recognizable by the red crosses on their helmets — would attend to the sick and wounded. They provided emergency care and medications to try to ease wounded soldiers’ pain, Mull said.
Wounded soldiers were then sent on to station hospitals, which were sort of like the hospitals shown in the 1970s television show “M*A*S*H,” she said. These were larger hospitals with surgical floors and wards for people suffering from mental-health problems.
At these hospitals, patients would be sorted into two groups, Mull said. Soldiers who’s been blinded, lost limbs or were so severely injured that they would never return to battle were sent to hospitals in London or the United States. Patients who would eventually recover enough to return to the front lines were sent to station hospitals, like the 197th General Hospital, she said.
“There were 80 nurses in the hospital and over 200 GIs and 80 doctors,” she said. “We would get trainloads of patients at one time, so it was really busy when you got those trainloads. We were busy quite a lot.”
The building that housed the 197th General Hospital had originally been a French orphanage, and had separate floors and wards for people with surgical needs, skin problems, gunshot wounds and mental-health problems.
“We had all types of injuries. We did have trench foot and frostbite,” Mull said.
She then explained trench foot to the students, who’d never heard of the affliction before. After soldiers stood in trenches or cold and damp conditions for long periods of time, their feet often would become numb, turn red or blue, swell, and get blisters, open sores and fungal infections.
“Now the GIs were supposed to carry extra socks with them and keep changing their socks, but if you’re in the middle of a battle you’re not going to have time to change your socks. (Trench foot is) kind of like rot, from being wet so long,” Mull said.
The hospital also contained a special ward for German prisoners of war. In general most of the patients, both German and American, were optimistic and glad to be alive, Mull said. Some, however, had trouble dealing with the trauma of war.
“They couldn’t seem to accept the reality that their friends had died and their friends had been injured,” Mull said. “It was quite a thing to stand next to one of your friends and see that happen.”
Whenever there was a lull at the 197th General Hospital, Mull said she and the other women in her unit went to the nearby city of Reims, France, to help out at the hospital there.
“Reims had a larger hospital than we did and they did get strafed (with bullets) once. The German that did it, he only hit the ramp between the two buildings so no one was hurt, and of course they captured him right away,” Mull said.
The people living in Saint-Quentin were very poor, and often used to stand outside the hospital and wait for the nurses to put out their leftover food, Mull recalled. They would even take the hospital’s used coffee grounds and make their own weak coffee, she said
“And chocolate, oh, they loved chocolate. They’d come in and do your laundry for a couple of chocolate bars,” Mull said.
After the war in Europe ended, the women in Mull’s unit were told they’d be sent to the Pacific theater.
“Our unit was all ready to go, and then the war ended and we got to go home,” Mull said.
After Mull finished describing her experiences and answering students’ questions, the students presented her with flowers before heading off to their next class. They probably won’t think of Veterans’ Day as just a break from school anymore, Bender said.
“She really made it come alive,” Bender said.