May Greenfield Watson

May Greenfield Watson
WWI Nurse

Mrs. May Greenfield Watson was born in Kernersville and spent a large part of his life in this town. She received her nurse’s training in the old Twin-City Hospital in Winston-Salem and Newburg, New York. When the United States went to war in 1917 she volunteered for duty as an Army Nurse. She went overseas with the Base Hospital 65, a unit whose personnel was drawn largely from this part of North Carolina. After her death on January 22, 1958, an account of her overseas experiences was found among her prayers. Since November 11, 1958, is the 40 anniversary of Armistice Day of World War 1, it seems appropriate to print “Army Nurse” just as Mrs. Watson wrote it:

Army Nurse

The Army Nurses of the first World War were not commissioned officers, but it always seemed to me that we had a very warm and personnel relationship with both officers and men. Our own unit, Base Hospital 65, was made up almost entirely of North Carolinians, so we were especially close-knits.

Early in August of 1918 the hundred nurses of the unit gathered at the old Madison square hotel in New York. We had received preliminary trending and experienced at various army hospitals across the country, and now we were to be outfitted and whipped into shape for overseas duty, we were drilled in the old 71st armory-squads rights -‘bought free march, drilled also in singing the war songs-K-Katy, There’s a Long, Long Trail, The Yanks are Coming, and our states songs. Given what information and advice we would need in a foreign country; always wear your uniform and dog-tags, never drink water unless you know it’s safe.

One of the pleasantest last minute duties was to go to the basement of the New York Public Library, where thousands of books had been collected for soldiers’ libraries, and pick out all we could carry in our limited baggage. That way the books would be delivered, and shipped space conserved. I picked an armful of old favorites, but the only one I remember was Frank Stockton’s The Casting Away of Mrs. Locks and Mrs. Aleshine. I thought that would be useful in ease of submarine attack.

Then, early, one morning, dressed in our new uniforms, we went down to old St. Paul’s Capel, where out bright new flag was solemnly dedicated. George Washington worshipped there, and it has seen American history being made through the lifetime of the nation, after singing God Be With You Till We Meet Again, with tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats, we went out behind the Chapel, and there the official unit picture was made, with the gray walls behind us, and the grave stones, old as the nation, in front.

Next came the final orders: “Pack all civilian clothes, and address to your home. Put all the things that you will need for as much as a month in one suitcase that you can carry yourself. Everything else in one foot-locker and your blanket toll.”

We were in rather large convoy. Men were being rushed across as fast as possible. Our ship was the old battle, which had carried General Pershing across the summer before. The voyage was uneventful. Life-boat drill twice a day, dancing on deck with life preservers slung over our shoulders, walking the estimated mile around the deck.

When we neared England a swarm of vicious looking rusty black British destroyers came out to guard is into Liverpool. The buildings near the deck were flying American flags, and a small bend made up of men too old to fight, and boys too young, played The Star Spangled Banner to greet us. When the train left the dock we went through the book yard of the city, and everybody stopped work to wave a welcome. They were so pitiful glad to see us. One blacked-clad woman picked up a child at her knee and waved its hand. The Americans had come: now the war would end!

All my life I had been steeped in English history and books about and by English people—Jane Austen, the Hornets, Kipling, and now I knew they were all true, and I was seeing this country that meant so much to me and all Americans.

We went from Liverpool to Southampton, and crossed the channel to France in a small hospital ship. We people over to help win the war, sick or wounded back to brightly. All roads lead to Paris, and we reached there late at night, in the dark and the rain. We were met by American boys and American ambulances, and were carried to an excellent hotel. One nurse was sick, so the nurse in charge called an American doctor who recommended a hospital. So our ambulance driver took the patient, with two of us accompanying, to an American hospital, with nurses in gray uniforms like our own. Then we went back through the Champs Elysees, past the Arch of Triumph, the Place de la Concorde, through dark rain swept streets, with historic names.

Our own hospital at Kerhuon, near Brest, was planned as a last stop before shipping out, for patients returning from the battle fronts and interior hospitals. When we reaches the areas it was still in process of construction. When we left New York Influenza was the name of the not very serious illness. When we reached Brest in the middle of September the word carried a hint of dread. Soon we knew that this disease would rank in medical history with the Black Death of the middle Ages. Our hospital was opened two or three weeks early to take care of the patients who came in from the transports from the United States. Wards were put up in sections by day, and filled as fast as the beds were installed. I was on night duty, with forty patients head to foot, just room to pass between the beds. No lights except a flickering candle, and a lantern for outdoors. Out pf the ward was outdoors in the mud and rain. Later we had duck-boards, but then only the mud and the rain.

No sick boy was neglected. We put all our hearts and strength into what we did but we were so helpless. As we went about doing what we could, with our uniforms, covered with hospital gowns, and our faces covered with gauze masks, I wonder if they realized they were with their own folks who wanted to help them. They were so brave and so patient.

Thanks to cans we could give them the liquid diet they needed, our own food was adequate. There was one little problem of supply. There was nothing to serve food in. The nurse in charge of the kitchen solved that by requisitioning the mess kits of the soldiers who had died.

The epidemic reached its peak quickly, then died down and the convalescents were moved inland, where the sun sometimes shone.

As the wards emptied we began to receive the men on their way home. They were so happy, even though the shadow of what they had gone through would stay with them always. My roommate was in charge of an officers’ ward, and one day she said she had a boy from North Carolina and for me to come by and see him. I stopped, going off duty, and she introduced Lt. Laurence Stallings. He showed me the picture of his girl that he had carried through five hospitals, and told me of the running argument he had had with the doctors who wanted to of his leg. A few years later when I read Plumes and thrilled and wept through The Big Parade I understood the Source of the deep emption he has been able to express for us all.

Then, almost suddenly for us, the war was over. What we felt was deep thankfulness, rather than wild rejoining. Everyone who could went to Brest that afternoon of November Eleventh. The day comes back in a series of pictures. The people of the countryside pouring into town waving flags, flowers, branches of trees, samplings hung with vegetables. Small impromptu parades. The little boy flattering in sabots on cobblestones, singing lustily Hall, Hall, and the Gang’s All Here. They tired faces of an American Army unit as they paraded with their band down the Rue de Siam. Lowering the Stars and Striped at sundown in the Place du President Wilson. And at night the danced with every other number played Homeward Bound.

That Thanksgiving of 1918 was not celebrated by the army overseas with turkey and trimmings, but probably we ate our army “alum” with a greater sense of gratitude that we had ever felt before. Besides the war being over, and the influenza epidemic subsiding, our own unit has not lost any men or nurses by death, though a good many had been sick.

The arrival of Present Wilson at Brest, with his plan for Peace, was the next outstanding event. Everyone turned out to welcome him, the French peasants in their heirloom regional costumes, American flags everywhere.

Christmas came with its nine x five x three boxes from home. Then the rumors about our going home grew and grew.

In late February my turn came for leave in the south of France. Two other nurses and I went together. We were able to make a short stopover in Paris both going and coming, and spent the time sight-seeing in the rain, but our real leave area was nice. There we stayed in the resort hotel, with real bath tubs and hot water. The blue of the Mediterranean in front of us, and the snowcapped Maritime Alps to the northeast, and sunshine everywhere. The big Casino was headquarters for the Americans on leave, and there we went to dance, to see the professional entertainers and to start the side trips arranged for points of interest nearby.

On the trips to Monte Carlo we three nurses were in a bus filled with enlisted men. Of course the American was not only an introduction. It was a character reference, a help in time of trouble, and a meant pleasant, if fleeting, companionship. The trip was most interesting, along the coast road, and returning over the high mountains. Some of the boys told us of this frustrating experience. They had planned so long for this leave, and saved their money. They had sponged and pressed their old, uniforms so they would look their very best, and then after they were all dressed and ready they were told they had to go through the delousing station! Such is the army!

As spring came and the days grew longer and our work hours shorts, we explored the Brittany countryside. Our hospital was built on farm land, with built-up hedgerows still standing. It was so near the sea that at high tide we could hear the waves against the cliffs from some of the wards.

Most of that spring I worked on tuberculosis wards. The mortality was high, but as always, the patients were brave and cheerful, and happy to be going home.

Then near the end of May I was one of the small group of nurses sent off duty to await orders to go back to the States to be demobilized. Nurses had been going through out hospital for months on the way back, now it was our turn. Before I left I went back on the ward to say goodbye to my patients. I made them a little speech, and ended by saying “It will depend a lot on you, and how well you take the treatment, weather you get well or not.” There was a moment of silence, then brave boys has accepted the death sentence of tuberculosis as gallantly as they accepted everything else.

On the 50th of May we attended the Memorial Day service at the cemetery where so many of out patients were buried. It was high on a hill, overlooking the old gray oity, and there at the end we heard taps sounded, and the firing squad.

Next day our travel orders came, and on the first of June we boarded ship. The vessel was a small one taken over from the Germans, and used as a transport. There were just a handful of nurses, but it was packed and jammed with young officers. They slept in stacks, or bunks, or on the decks, outraised off with canvas and they added a great deal of interest, not to say hilarity, to the voyage.

Returning heroes were still being given a rousing welcome so when we came into New York harbor, and were greeting the Statue of Liberty, we were met by a boat carrying a brass band. And when we reached the dock the nurse were whisked up Fifth Avenue through the big white victory Arch.

Then, as quickly as possible, home to North Carolinas. It was all over. But as long as I live, when I see soldiers marching, I will remember the Kipling lines:

I have eaten your bread and salt
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives that ye led were mine.

May Greenfield Watson
308 S. Main Street
Kernersville, N.C.

Most inspiring and most heartening would it have been to me fifteen years ago could I have visualized this day and this moment a day of peace and a time at which I should be accorded recognition for service done in France. It would have betokened to me a rerun to peace and home and appreciative, sympathetic friends. Needless to say, there were moments when we were utterly bereft of courage, of hope and of visions of happy days in the future.

In the minds of many the notion of work done by nurses while in France is most distorted. The truth is no nurse was allowed on the firing line, her oldest position being with the Mobile Hospitals Units, or hospitals that moved with the attacking army. These were of course, sometimes bombed and evacuation necessarily followed thus exposing nurses to danger: but the wounded were brought from the field by ambulance and the romance of the nurse who picked up the dead in “No Man’s Land” is a myth. The romantically turned also picture us as having always dressed in spotless white uniforms. The putty of it to disillusion these by telling of our drab grey uniforms and sweaters, our high topped boots, and our rain hats! But we did wear white uniforms when expecting visits from dignitaries. Which recalls my experience when General Pershing visited our hospital.

I had been detailed to Red Cross duty in the Hut since their workers were scarce and nurses were plentiful just at that time. With two French maids I was making ready the Hut for tea that afternoon. Suddenly a messenger appeared to say that General Pershing was on his way to the Hut. Just when I thought I had recaptured the two doves that we had freed for experience, the door flew open. In came General Pershing. Out went the doves! After introducing about 250 nurses and aides the General said, “Miss Chambers, you have a good memory”. I couldn’t say. “But they are telling me their names”. Although I kept silent I sometimes feel that I should like even yet to tell him the truth.

I volunteered in July, 1917 and was called in March, 1918. We spent the spring in hospital work at New York City where I reported for duty, and in August: 1918, we were ordered to mobilize.

One night at nine we were told not to send messages nor to leave the hotel that night but to have out trunks in the hall at four in the morning. The next day we spent at Pier Number 59 watching the boats being loaded with a steady stream of men and listening to groups of Negro troops signing old southern plantation songs. The following morning thirteen camouflaged boats accompanied by submarine chasers and airplanes, quietly left harbor.

After a voyage of thirteen days with thirteen boats in the convoy we landed on Friday, the thirteenth! Docking in Liverpool we were met by an English band that played “The Star Spangled Banner” while our bands responded with “God Save the King!” Leaving by special train for Southampton and thence by hospital ship for Le Harve we traveled in a darkened train from there to Paris.

The next day a destination unknown to any of us. We reached Breast at midnight and without sleeping in clothes or lights we crawled into the first bed we could feel.

Long before it was daylight we were up following through the mud and a downpour of rain a nurse who carried a lantern to light us to breakfast. Passing a large building we saw long lines of stretchers which proved to be the lights dead and not wounded men as we had at first though. Soon we were transferred to Kerhoun, or “carry-on”, as the men called it, the destination of the U.S. Base 65, the only official N.C. Hospital Unit. While here we worked day and night trying to effect order of chaos. In the meantime our personnel was stricken with influenza making it necessary for the well to work both day and night. Going from ward to ward all night we gave cups of hot coffee to the sick men being carried from the arriving boats.

On “All-saints’ Day” – November 2nd, we were told that we were to go to the cemetery and take park in the official celebration. Although we had worked all night in howling gale that had blown the roofs from some of the wards and we were tired to the point of dropping, we went. Upon arriving we saw the open ditches with here and there a rude box showing. Trying, indeed, was the ordeal-strange people. Strange surroundings, a howling wind, a driving rain, and our dead lying there thousands of miles from home! Calling on God to help us bear it, our fears as copious as the falling rain dropped unnoticed as we bowed our heads to His Will.

And then – November 11: I was awakened by canon shots, whistles- everything that could make a noise! Soon the French children broke through the grounds shouting: “La guere c’est finis” “La guere c’est finis.” Sometimes even now I hear that cry and with it wells up in my heart the prayer that war might be finished forever.

After the Armistice the hospital trains of wounded were brought in often 4 or 500 with dressings that had not been changed for days. We worked in squads until the men were mad comfortable but often found that it was for or five in the morning before the work was done. Without the dressings put up by the noble women of the American Red Cross we could not have done the work at all.

Friday, December 13, brought orders to dress in strict regulation uniform and to the Brest to meet our beloved President. Lining up along the avenue we waited for the lighter which was the bring him from George Washington. Bands played nation airs of both counties. Just before the opening strains of the “Star Spangled Banner” a gang of little French children sand from a high wall “Hail! Hail, ze gang’s all here!”, having learned it in English from those who had arrived before.

As the joyous news of the Armistice became a reality our hearts sang with thanksgiving. “It is over over there”. In this connection the little poem, “The Union”. By George Mayo, which was published in “The Stars and Stripes” while we were over there, comes to me:

Here’s to the Blue of the wind swept in the North
When we meet on the fields of France:
May the spirit of Grand be with you all
As the sons of the North Advance.
And here’s to the Grey of the Sunkist South
When we meet on the fields of France;
May the Spirit of Lee be with you all
As the sons of the South Advance.
And here’s to the Blue and Grey as one
When we meet on the fields of France.
May the spirit of God be with you all
As the song of the Flag advance.

November 6th: Night found me in such pain it seemed to me that I could never go out into the cold rain again, but when I thought of those who were in the ranches in rain, mud and under shell-fire, I felt that it would be cowardly of me to give up if I could possibly remain on duty, especially as we were so very short of nurses. Often when a convoy came in and new wards were opened, many of the nurses who worked through the day were called back on duty until the patients were in bed, then night nurses had to be brought from wards where they could be spared to cars for the patients just brought in.

My memory of this time is of moonlight and brilliant starts one moment, torrents of rain the next: rainbows without color, but perfect bows: weather shore-line men: coughs, coughs, labored, breathing, mingled with the sound of footsteps sloshing in the mud over sunken duckboards; a French children shouting “Le gueaare c’est fini: La guerre c’est fini!” tears of joy that it’s “over over there”; thoughts of lives lost, and still begin sacrificed – 69 yesterday, 70 today, how many tomorrow! – an armistice could not stop this, at least not right away; chief nurse’s office moved a stove at last; hospital trains arriving, teams working continuously until all dressings are changed; all expecting passage home at once- then waiting, waiting for boats; boots worn out, hob-nails and puts instead; thanksgiving, pigs supplied by Jewish mess officer, in place of turkeys, which created quite a laugh; night duty at last; rheumatism so bad that had to report sick nights of pain, body so stiff could not turn in bed without help; on crutches at last; able to go to the Red Cross hut with its comfortable fireside: December 13th- great excitement over president Wilson’s landing at Brest – my good fortune to be there., crutches and all; before the lighter docks, which carries the president, a group of French boys high on a stone wall singings “Hail, Hail gang’s all here”; A dance given to the Presidential party, some of the nurses not allowed to enter because collars are turned down, listening to French birds – especially robin breasts: picking flowers – camellias, mimosas and primverts; then Christmas – asked to play “Papa Noel” (Santa Claus) for the French women and children working in the kitchen and laundry; tree decorated with popcorn dipped in red candy, strung with chewing gum still in the tinsel, and gifts of course; some forty or fifty invited, but many unexpected guest including grandmothers and French officers, and it seems, hundreds outside who can’t get in; costume – sabots, suit of red (white pajamas dipped in red ink) ermine trimmed (white cotton), wig with long white cotton curls, false face; Papa Noel distributing prepared gifts, then popcorn and chewing gum distributed among host of children waiting outside Papa Noel greatly disappointed over non-arrival of box from home.

January lists: Returned to duty, being assigned to the Red Cross hut.

One morning in January word came that Theodore Roosevelt had died, and that there was to be a memorial service with flag at mask and taps.

During the same month General Pershing came. Miss Griffin the Red Cross worker in charge, had gone to Brest and I was helping to get the hut in order for the day when one of the men from the Commander’s office came in to say that General Pershing was on his way to the hut and that all the nurses were coming too, as he wanted to meet them. We had a pair of doves given us by a French boy, which had been let loose to experience in the hut. I started to get them in their change when the hut door flew open, in came General Pershing and staff and – out went the doves. There were about 250 nurses to be presented. The General thanked all of us, saying that our work had been made victory possible, etc. He also thanked me personally, saying something about my “good memory” for names, but I could not say to him that the nurses were telling me their names as they came by me.

Also during the month of January Mrs. Josephus Daniels wife of the Secretary of the Navy, visited the hospital center. She had lunch with the officers of base 65, but did not visit the nurses, to their great disappointment.

Toward the last of the month I prepared, with three other nurses and two officers, for leaves of absence to be sent in Southern France.

After my return from the leave of absence, I was placed in the Casual Nurses’ office to assist Miss Rose, as the nurses who were being sent home from the hospitals that were closing nearer the front, came out to us while awaiting boat accommodations for their return home. Often they came by hundreds. It was a task to have the linen lying ready on the beds, to say nothing of having the beds actually made. There was much complaining among the nurses because the beds were not entirely ready for them.

These nurses had to answer roll call at 9 A.M. and again at 2 P.M., and were not supposed to leave the grounds without a pass. This regulation was absolutely necessary, as the sailing lists were sent to us, and we had to see that the nurse on each list were ready and at the docks on time. A dietician had come to us saying that she had pulled every wire in France and Washington in an effort to get home quickly and that she was very anxious to sail, but when the list came in with her name on it, she was not to be found – she had gone out without a pass. We searched every place in the ground where we thought she might be, but without avail. Several hours later she appeared, but too late to catch the boat. When she finally reached New York she gave to one of the newspapers a story of being “kept a prisoner at Kerhoun” and sent us a copy of the paper we gave to the Commander.

Sometime after this I was again taken ill and the hospital authorities thought it best to send me home. I sailed from Brest on the afternoon of March 26, on the S.S.Levianthan.

Memories of crossing: In dining-room United States officers would not read ship paper after some colored officers at the same table had it first:; spirted music of orchestra; young shed shocked officer who paced the decks for hours of silence, with a private soldier always near him; reaching New York saw this young officer waving frantically to someone on welcome boat. On docking saw him step up to the ropes and greet two people whom I judged to be his mother and father. Later the lady said, “Here’s Mary, John” and he replied,” Mary? Mary who?” The answer was, “Why your wife,” but he laughed in a strange way and said “Why, I haven’t any wife.” Have often wondered if he ever remember who Mary was.

Remained in a hospital in New York for only a few days, then was transferred to camp Wadsw3orth in South Carolina, where I remained until September, when I was given my discharge, to take effect November 3, 1919.

How It Ended

With the approval of the Secretary of War and by order of the Surgeon General dated September 16th, 1919 the nurse within named is honorably discharged from the Army Nurse Corp to take effect November 3rd, 1919.

Signed E.A. Noyes
Major, Medical Corp,
United States Army.

Compiled by: 
Phoebe Pollitt