2nd Lieutenant Alice E. Griffin, a nurse from Boston, Massachusetts (specifically, the Dorchester neighborhood), was one of a group of 25 nurses working at Lovell General Hospital at Fort Devens who was assigned to the 32nd Station Hospital in November 1942 and joined the unit the following month.
Griffin’s letters home represent one of the best sources of information about the 32nd Station Hospital’s first year in operation overseas that have come to light thus far. Although Griffin’s correspondence to her family back in Dorchester was prolific, it appears that only letters written between March and December 1943 have survived. It is likely that additional letters were lost in transit or in subsequent years.
The letters were most often addressed to Alice’s mother, Margaret I. Griffin (1878–1963, usually referred to as Muth). Even when addressed to her, the intended audience typically included not only her mother, but also her sisters and brother-in-law, who all lived together at 14 Lonsdale Street during the war. Occasionally, Alice wrote a letter specifically intended for her sister, Catherine (1909–1975, usually referred to as Cath); other letters were written to her sister, Margaret (1911–1997, usually referred to as Marg or Margie) and Margaret’s husband, John (1911–1979). Griffin frequently asked or commented about Margaret and John’s young son, Peter.
The collection includes at least 93 letters (numbering approximately 361 pages) and 83 V-mails written by Griffin. The collection also includes a handful of letters written by nurses who were friends of Griffin, some of whom were members of the unit. Although the letters often mention enclosed photographs, only a fraction of those have survived. Finally, the collection includes miscellaneous items such as an English-language guidebook about Tlemcen, various cards and postcards, and two menus from the unit’s transatlantic voyage to Algeria. Griffin’s daughter generously loaned me the entire collection so I could digitize them and publish excerpts on this site.
The 32nd Station Hospital’s personnel records are far from complete, especially prior to 1944. Griffin’s letters include many details that help date when various members of the unit arrived and departed, although sometimes Griffin did not specifically list names beyond describing someone as a doctor, nurse, chaplain, or dietician. The letters typically focused more on Griffin’s travel experiences, food, and friendships rather than her work as a nurse. Although service in a station hospital was considerably more comfortable than a field or evacuation hospital, Griffin’s letters described long hours, the scarcity of everyday items, and sorrow at missing seeing the growth of a beloved nephew.
Griffin was particularly close friends with a group of seven nurses who first served together at Fort Devens before joining the 32nd Station Hospital. These nurses were frequently mentioned frequently in her letters:
- Wanda Dabrowski
- Ruth Donovan
- Kathleen Donahue (usually referred to as Katie or K Donahue)
- Virginia Donehue (often referred to as V Donahue [sic])
- Ella James (usually referred to as Jimmie)
- Claire LaBonne
- Dorothea LeCain (usually referred to as Dot)
Griffin often referred to the nurses in her unit as “the kids.” In addition to her friends within the unit, the letters also document relationships with several other people that Griffin met in Algeria. Notably, Griffin befriended two French girls who lived nearby, Nicole Messiah and Janine Ganascia. I was also able to identify (with varying degrees of confidence) a number of servicemen from outside the unit who she mentioned in letters, including a U.S. Army Air Forces officer, an officer in the Military Police, a patient, and a visiting doctor (all of them from Boston). Starting around May 1943, Griffin socialized regularly with an officer from a Tank Destroyer unit stationed nearby, referred to only as Jack. Although searching for a man with such a common nickname and an unknown unit at first seemed like a Sisyphean task, based on clues in the letters, I was eventually able to identify his unit and with that information, his name. (This mystery will be discussed in a future article in greater detail.)
Due to the size of the collection, I have split excerpts from the letters into five separate articles (two months per article). These excerpts are particularly interesting from a historical or storytelling perspective (though some complete letters are noted). Omissions are indicated by […]. All letters were written by Alice E. Griffin unless specifically noted. For clarity, my contextual notes attached to the letters are bolded and italicized, while the letters themselves are within blockquotes. (Depending on the viewing format, this may cause them to display indented, or italicized with a bar on the left side.)
Transferring a handwritten letter to type can present some issues. I have added certain punctuation, as Griffin often omitted apostrophes or periods when writing in cursive. I have used my best judgement in translating the length of various dashes to type. Griffin also used a medical abbreviation in her correspondence, a c with a diacritic mark over it, which I have transcribed as “[with].” It should also be understood that some aspects of the letters such as paragraph display also do not translate well to display on the web (the originals are indented with no spaces between paragraphs). Links to other letters mentioned in the explanatory text are included in some cases; letters highlighted in red have not been published yet.
Below is a letter that is included in this introductory article because it predates the other extant letters in the collection by several months. It also serves to introduce both Alice Griffin and her good friend Ruth Donovan from the perspective of another U.S. Army nurse.
Undated Mary W. O’Dowd Letter (Probably December 29, 1942)
This letter was written to Griffin’s mother by a nurse who was not a member of the 32nd Station Hospital, Mary Whitty O’Dowd (c. 1908–1992). Her obituary in the Boston Globe described her as a U.S. Army nurse who reached the rank of captain during service in World War II and Korea. It is likely but not confirmed that O’Dowd was a nurse at Cambridge City Hospital during Griffin’s training there before the war.
The letter, presented in its entirety, was most likely written on December 29, 1942. I believe it describes the departure of the group of nurses (including Ruth Donovan and Alice Griffin) who were being transferred from Fort Devens, Massachusetts to join the 32nd Station Hospital at Camp Kilmer.
The letter also mentioned Major Joseph Nash, U.S. Army Medical Corps, who held the position of Assistant Chief of Surgical Service at Lovell General Hospital at Fort Devens in 1942.
My very dear Friend,–
Your Alice was an outstanding credit to you, her friends and the Army last nite! We had breakfast with her and shopped yesterday morning and then we got to the station last nite about a half hour before they arrived. Seven Red Cross Ambulances brought them and Alice & Ruth Donovan were in the sixth. They arrived singling and much [unclear: “beladened”]! Griffie’s Gas Mask and [Field?] Kit and helmit [sic] were all tangled up so with much adjusting and pulling and the help of Major Nash we got her fixed and comfortable. She had everything she wanted, she said, in her small bag and was carrying gum, candy, magazines and sandwiches for the trip. The train pulled in on time and they took ten minutes to load the trunks and bed rolls so we walked down the yard and boarded it. It was a nice, clean, air-conditioned day coach done in light blue [with] adjustable seats. Griffie got her pick a third of the way up the car two seats facing each other and got her pack, helmit, gas mask and bag parked over head and her overcoat off when we pulled into the station for the rest of the nurses then there was a scramble and when the last nurse got up the steps the train pulled out and the men were dropping off both ends for the next 200 feet! Griffie was happy, poised and wide awake. Miss Donovan was with her and they were surely outstanding and representative! You would have liked to have been an onlooker if you could have parked your heart for the night. There was nothing lonesome or depressing about it. They were women with a big job to do and perfectly equipted [sic] to do it! It’s a waste of words to say we would have like to have stayed on the train! We were all so pleased to have our Christmas party together Monday nite and now we have our plans for the future to look forward to thru the coming months.
Wanted to call you tonite but I thot you’d prefer a note. We’ll see you soon and we’ll write to Catherine and Margt. Callahan this week.
Be brave and proud!
God bless you!
Affectionately and ever gratefully yours,
The Alice Griffin Collection
Introduction to the Alice Griffin Collection
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: Part I (March & April 1943)
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: Part II (May & June 1943)
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: Part III (July & August 1943)
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: Part IV (September & October 1943)
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: Part V (November & December 1943)
Letters from the Alice Griffin Collection: The Search for Jack
Last updated January 18, 2020