Like all rear echelon units, the 32nd Station Hospital’s personnel enjoyed far more comfortable lives than the combat personnel that they supported in the Mediterranean Theatre. This article contains glimpses into various experiences members of the unit had during their time overseas.
Recreation in Algeria
After the 32nd Station Hospital settled in at Tlemcen, Algeria early in 1943, its staff often worked long hours, at least when the patient load was heavy. There were several opportunities for recreation, however. The 32nd’s Chief Nurse, 1st Lieutenant Helen W. Brammer covered nurses’ recreation in detail in her 1943 annual report:
Movies were shown in our dining room at least once a week, more often when the films were available. Dances were frequent, some times with an orchestra, but more often with the records we had harried with us from the States. Once a month, a formal dance was given and it was with rising morale that we put aside our uniforms and stepped into our evening clothes on these occasions. Sight-seeing and shopping tours were always popular among the Nurses. We were received by the French and Arabs of the town and entertained as lavishly as their meager rations allowed.
There may have been a darker side to the parties the nurses attended, at least those that were held outside the unit. Willard Havemeier wrote decades later that, circa April 1943, a nurse he was seeing named Sara Riley explained the issues she faced at them:
Sara talked about her work, and the difficulties the nurses had with the combat troops coming back from Tunisia to be reassigned, who were always asking for dates. The nurses were invited to their unit parties that turned out to be disasters. When the women objected to going the commanding officer issued an order that they were to attend. The nurses only felt safe with the men of the hospital unit.
(“Sara Riley” is a pseudonym. This may be an attempt to protect her privacy since Havemeier discussed their relationship in detail.)
Nurses were able to explore the Tlemcen area on bicycle or sometimes on horseback thanks to the Spahis (Algerian cavalry serving with the French army). Brammer reported that during the hot Algerian summer, nurses found some relief in the Red Cross swimming pool in Tlemcen, and leaves in the restort towns of Béni Saf and Ain el-Turck.
Nurses visited a rest camp at Ain el-Turck, on the Mediterranean coast. Personnel from the 46th General Hospital temporarily covered the 32nd Station Hospital for part of August and September, allowing groups of twenty nurses to spend a week at the rest camp. Nurses got two additional three-day leaves at other times. In December 1943 the 32nd’s female personnel returned to Ain el-Turck, which served as their staging area before they shipped out to Italy.
Lieutenant Colonel Goss covered R&R briefly in his 1943 annual report, writing: “Recreation for Officer Personnel has been left largely in their own hands except for moving pictures which were shown as they came in for the patients and Enlisted Men.” Both officers and enlisted personnel had two weeks of leave at the coast. Patients were out of luck however. Goss wrote: “Recreation for patients was minimal largely due to lack of facilities, and space.”
Willard Havemeier told of an incident while he and a group of enlisted men on leave at the coast west of Béni Saf inadvertently blundered across the border into the Spanish protectorate in Morocco. Havemeier and four of his friends were detained by Spanish soldiers. Havemeier reported: “Our captors made us walk to their headquarters where we were questioned and held for over six hours.” There was a real risk that they’d end up interned by the Spanish. Havemeier credited a young Arab boy with interceding with the Spanish soldiers and convincing them to release their American detainees.
Havemeier mentions that some men also enjoyed hiking in the hills outside Tlemcen. 8 mm footage in the Robert Silverman Collection suggests my grandfather did this at least once.
Al Jolson performed at the hospital while it was in Tlemcen. Captain Lowell E. Vinsant wrote in his journal on August 25, 1943:
Al Jolson was here today, giving a performance for the hospital. He had supper with us and seems to be a swell person[.] Told of many interesting experiences. He left a hospital in Oran, [unclear] and rode 90 miles to give the performance, returning to the hospital afterward.
Dwight McNelly recalled in his manuscript that before the performance he didn’t think much of Jolson and went swimming instead. As it turned out, he still made part of the show because the entertainers had arrived at the hospital late. McNelly wrote in his unpublished manuscript:
In the upper courtyard of the Surgical part of our hospital, we found Al Jolson in among the semi-ambulatory patients singing “On a Wing and a Prayer” and the place was jammed. We were all glad that we did get to see him perform.
In a letter home to her family, Alice Griffin also recalled Jolson’s visit. She wrote that after visiting the beach with friends earlier in the day,
back we came here – only to have roast beef for supper. You see Al Jolson was visiting – and eating mess with us – then he gave a show for the boys which was swell. It’s the first movie star we’ve had here because we are too far from Oran – it’s not too much in mileage but the roads are very winding & bad.
Baseball in Italy
There were greater opportunities for recreation once the unit moved to Caserta than there had been in Tlemcen. In Algeria, the hospital had been in the heart of a city; in Caserta, there was far more space. A large field adjacent to the complex was used for sports. The most popular were baseball and softball, though Goss reported that British troops “played several games of field hockey” there in November 1944 which “were enjoyed by both patients and personnel.”
The 32nd Station Hospital fielded a baseball team known as the Red Sox as well as a softball team, the Psychosis Kids. Their exploits were chronicled in the company newspaper, The Weakly Reaction. During the summer of 1944, the Red Sox racked up an impressive 14 consecutive victories and claimed the Caserta Eastern League Championship.
Like their namesake team (at least until the 21st century), the 32nd’s Red Sox went down in defeat once they reached the playoffs. Although they won the first game they played in Peninsular Base Section championship (apparently a tournament), they were dropped from the competition after losing games to the 19th Replacement Battalion and the 17th General Hospital. Nonetheless, Colonel Goss celebrated the successful season by giving the entire team four days of R&R in Rome.
McNelly (who was an outfielder for the Psychosis Kids) wrote:
Time passed with ballgames, both hard and soft, on our diamond behind us. It served as our drill field and place to gather. How excited we got at times and the patients enjoyed and rooted for us. We had a very good baseball team, with a fellow who was our catcher and he held the team together. He had played on a Buffalo minor team.
A roster of the 32nd Station Hospital’s players that a relative of Dr. Irving Weiner sent me after this article was first published revealed that the catcher in question was Johnny Pollock, who was also listed as team captain. According to an article on the website Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice, after being wounded while serving in the 36th Infantry Divison, Pollock “spent eight months at the 32nd Station Hospital, near Naples, and was named athletic director at [the] hospital during that time.”
The baseballs themselves were somewhat hazardous towards the 32nd Station Hospital’s mission. McNelly wrote that on one occasion a foul ball sent a spectator “reeling.” Not only that, but in “more than one inning, a homerun was hit and the ball broke a window in the wards near 3rd. base.”
Colonel Goss’s August 1944 report mentions that:
A team of WAC [Women’s Army Corps] soft ball players visited the Hospital and beat a team composed of Hospital Detachment members. It was a most interesting game, with the audience, to the man, rooting for the WAC team.
Given the new material coming in from relatives of 32nd Station Hospital members, I anticipate being able to release a full length article specifically about the hospital baseball team. In the meantime, a contemporary roster of the championship 1944 team can be viewed here (Courtesy of the Knitter Family).
Clubs and Recreation Rooms in Italy
An Officers and Nurses Club was opened on August 9, 1944 (apparently replacing an officers’ recreation room that sometimes had to double as the officers’ mess). There was a separate Enlisted Men’s Day Room, which by August 1944 had a bar and more importantly, cold beer! Both clubs hosted dances, though according to Willard Havemeier only the officers’ clubs hosted bands.
The Red Cross operated a recreation room for patients and even threw a Halloween party in the fall of 1944. Hospital personnel could also take classes at a nearby Red Cross building.
By mid-1944, films were being screened to both patients and hospital staff three to five times per week.
The 32nd Station Hospital opened a post chapel which hosted Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish services. During 1944, weddings occurred at the hospital chapel on a regular basis, typically followed by a reception in one of the clubs. Eight nurses were married during 1944 alone. (This was mentioned in the 1944 annual nursing report. I don’t have figures for officer or enlisted men weddings, though officers are sometimes listed in monthly reports beginning in May 1944.)
Candy for Children
The American G.I.’s compassion for children (usually in the form of sharing the candy from their rations with local kids) is the stuff of legends. One of my grandfather’s postcards to his in-laws sent from Algeria in 1943 depicts a G.I. being mobbed by children asking for candy. On the back he wrote:
This is only one of the few things we had to overcome when first arriving here. The password seemed to be – “Chewing gum, bon-bon, cigarette for my fazur [sic]”. Now the kids are getting tired of asking fom all these things because their novelty has worn off and the soldiers don’t pass out things too generously now
Although the usual image is smiles all around, a more haunting example is found in McNelly’s photos from Italy.
McNelly wrote of the girl:
She never smiled, we only gave her candy for immediate consumption for the older ones would take it from her when we left[.] We more or less sought her out in the compound.
Cultural Opportunities in Italy
Hospital personnel also had the opportunity to visit places like Pompeii and the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. The San Carlo Opera Company also performed at the nearby Royal Palace of Caserta. Although the Fifth Army headquarters (later Allied Force Headquarters, beginning in July 1944) occupied the palace, personnel were allowed to visit the extensive grounds.
Mt. Vesuvius (which erupted in March 1944) was also a nearby attraction. Even a year after the eruption, the lava still had yet to fully cool. On February 10, 1945, Dwight McNelly and some friends braved the residual heat and noxious vapors and climbed the mountain led by a local guide. In perhaps the funniest picture in the McNelly collection, one of McNelly’s compatriots sets his walking stick on fire upon getting back to the bottom of the mountain!
Enlisted men received four and five-day passes for places like Rome. Officers, including nurses, also had somewhat more deluxe trip opportunities, getting R&R for five days at hotels in places like Sorrento, Ischia, Capri, and even Egypt and Palestine. My grandfather visited the Grand Hotel Vittoria in Sorrento at least once; it’s still in operation as the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria.
Joe Louis Visit
In September 1944, the legendary heavyweight boxer Staff Sergeant Joe Louis visited the hospital on tour. McNelly recalled in his manuscript:
He came on a very nice sunny day. After signing autographs for the patients and some of us, he left for the palace grounds. His shy and quiet manner was very noticeable. It brought back memories of sitting on the grass and listening to his fights back in Illinois in the late thirties. Again, I have some snapshots of his short visit, as he stood between the ward building[s] with the trees on the road as a backdrop.
Brammer, Helen W. “Report of Nursing Activities – 1943.” Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Brammer, Helen W. “Report of Nursing Activities – 1944.” Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Goss, Harold L. “Historical Report of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 1 May 1944.” Report for the Surgeon, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, U.S. Army, May 1, 1944. (Also monthly historical reports from May 1944 through May 1945 which would be too numerous to list.) Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Goss, Harold L. “Medical History of the Thirty Second Station Hospital.” Report for the Surgeon General, December 31, 1943. Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Goss, Harold L. “Medical History of the Thirty-Second Station Hospital 1 January 1944 to 31 December 1944 incl.” Report for the Surgeon, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, U.S. Army, December 31, 1944. Held by the National Archives in College Park.
Griffin, Alice E. Unpublished collection of letters, March–December 1943
Havemeier, Willard O. “Africa to Italy with the 32nd Station Hospital World War II.” Last modified 2009. https://www.catherinegibsonart.com/blog/havemeier/
McNelly, Dwight A. “Italy.” Unpublished manuscript, circa 1987, located in Box 1, Folder 6 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. “Italy Binder Photos #2.” Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 3 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
McNelly, Dwight A. Collection of photos, located in Box 3, Folder 6 as well as Box 4, Folders 4, 6, and 10 of the Dwight McNelly and Dorothy Eggers Collection at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, Chicago. Finding aid: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/files/5515/2147/7518/McNelly__Eggers_Finding_Aid_March_2018.pdf
Silverman, Robert. Unpublished collection including scrapbook (compiled at an unknown date with materials 1942-1944), photos (1942-1945), 8 mm film (1942-1945), and papers (1942-1945).
Vinsant, Lowell Eugene. Unpublished journal
Request for Materials
I can use your help expanding this site and adding to knowledge about the 32nd Station Hospital in general. If you have photos, documents, oral histories, or anything else involving the hospital or its members, I would love to know about them! Since there is no known roster of the 32nd Station Hospital’s enlisted personnel, even a name might help me to better piece together its story.
Last updated June 26, 2020