This is the first installment of five articles featuring excerpts from the letters written by a 32nd Station Hospital nurse, 2nd Lieutenant Alice E. Griffin, home to her family in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston during 1943. For more information about Griffin, her family, and details of the transcription process, please see Introduction to the Alice Griffin Collection.
To recap briefly, these are excerpts I found particularly interesting from a historical or storytelling perspective (though some complete letters are noted). Omissions are indicated by […]. Due to web formatting issues, paragraph indentations are omitted and gaps between paragraphs may appear wider than in the original letters. 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.) Links to other letters mentioned in the explanatory text are included in some cases.
March 4, 1943 Postcards
These two postcards, with photos “Rue longeant la Mosquée” (“Street along the Mosque”) and “La Cascade de Négrier” (literally “Slave Waterfall”—but Négrier is also a French last name) were probably written on March 4, 1943, the date written on one of them. Both are postmarked March 5, 1943, which would make them the earliest extant items that Griffin mailed home from Algeria. The censor scratched out references to Tlemcen on the cards. The back of the cards read “Edité spécialment pour les Hôtels ‘Transatlantique'” or “Specially published for ‘Transatlantic’ Hotels” suggesting that, even after the Hotel Transatlantique was requisitioned to become the 32nd Station Hospital officers’ quarters in February 1943, the hotel gift shop may have remained in operation!
Hi Cath –
How would you like to live in a town like this?– -with beautiful mts – etc in the background. New flowers are starting to bloom now and everything is very pretty. Will write
Hello There –
How do you like this scene. Have not been there yet but will soon. I’m doing O.K. in regards to seeing the country.
Love to all
March 15, 1943
This letter to Griffin’s sister Catherine is the earliest extant letter sent by Griffin from overseas. Although Griffin mentioned that she had mailed previous letters written as early as the transatlantic crossing in January 1943, none of the letters from that period of time have survived. This letter was written about a month after the 32nd Station Hospital set up operations in Tlemcen, Algeria. R.C. stands for Red Cross, which had stations set up that provided soldiers with refreshment, entertainment, and education. The letter also mentions Alice’s friendship with two local French-Jewish schoolgirls, Janine Ganascia and Nicole Messiah (probably 1928–2002), as well as the newly opened post exchange (P.X.). The photo and caricature mentioned in the letter do not survive.
Hi Cath –
Just dropping a short line to see if it’s possible for you to get something, and if you have to go to any bother, forget it because it’s just an experiment anyhow. We want to plant some corn and they don’t have it here – – the soil is wonderful. I thought if maybe you could send some seeds we could at least try to grow some- – not a lot just a little but. We can’t eat the fresh vegetables here because they are not supposed to be sanitary (but you know us). Anyhow they have everything but corn. We got hold of some asparagus and cooked it today – it was wonderful but it’s very thin–like [pieces] of twine. So if you can do this O.K. and if not – OK too.
This is my day off. I got up at 9, hung around in my room until 11, got dressed, went to the R.C. for coffee and here I am in the lobby writing. Jeanne [sic] & Nicole are coming after school at 3 and we are going for a walk. I am sending a picture I took of them- – they are the nicest kids and they love to talk in English because they take it in school and it helps them a lot. I forget their last names but I will try again to remember them.
We had our caricatures framed so I will send mine home when I get some padding. They are crazy but we got an awful kick out of them and so did everyone else.
Oh boy – the px just opened and I got just about everything I needed – – even cheese niblets – – a new convoy must have come in. I got a comb, sun-glasses, powder & rouge (which I haven’t used since I hit N.A. – – too healthy looking) lipstick – 2 nestles – 1 necco wafers – gum – 7 packs of cigs – toothpaste – we can buy one of most of the things – a week and this is the first time they have had much of anything. [Unclear] I’ll go right in my room, sit down – eat all the candy and the box of cheese niblets. The boy said we’d be able to have these things from now on. I do need stockings though-I’ve run three pair in two weeks. If my box hasn’t been sent guess I’d better have cotton & not silk. If you’ve already got the silk send them & I’ll get cotton later. We do need films badly and I do hope you can get them. I also got a writing pad & envelopes today and tho funny thing is I am using about the last of my paper & envelopes today.
About half of the last two pages of the letter are missing. The reason is unclear, as no other letters in the collection display such damage. Despite her concerns about censoring, mentioned in the excerpt below, it seems unlikely that the damage is the result of censoring. None of her other letters show any sign of words being removed by the base censor prior to July 1943. When this censoring did occur, only individual words and sentences were cut out (or blackened in the case of V-mails), not whole sections.
A.P.O. stands for Army Post Office; C.Y.O. stands for Catholic Youth Organization.
Let me know if my letters look like paper dolls when you get them.–I don’t think I’m writing anything I shouldn’t. Also let me know if any of the kids I know are over here & if so what their A.P.O. is and I can write to them from here without having all the letters go back. I have to know the division too. I don’t know many of the kids from the C.Y.O. but I thought possibly one of the Thorntons may be here or someone I know.
Due to the missing portions of the letter, it’s not clear what Griffin is talking about, but it may pertain to her postwar plans. The talk of “socialized medicine” is interesting; Captain Lowell Vinsant‘s journal also recorded that being under discussion during the war.
like it is now – it will be like doing general duty in a regular hospital. Well you talk it over and let me know what Muth, Marg & you think of it? If you don’t want me to O.K. and if you think it’s the wisest thing O.K. – – it’s up to you guys. I’ll be happy any place. So I’ll be waiting to hear the verdict. I was thinking of it before I left but then I thought I’d wait a while and see what the situation would be after the war – – we don’t hear anything that’s going on so we don’t know whether they’re still thinking of socialized medicine or what the story is.
March 16, 1943
The 32nd Station Hospital’s facilities in Tlemcen were located right in the heart of the city, sometimes leading to commotion.
They are fixing some artillery trucks outside the window[,] a rooster is crowing and some damn Arab is chasing a lamb or something around the street– the Arab is yelling and the animal is baaing or whatever they do. And here I am trying to write a letter in a supposedly quiet area– – I don’t know who’ll win out but I think the rooster because he’s been going all day & night for days – – guess he must be blind or else someone is putting all the eggs in one basket.
After a break, Griffin continued writing in the same letter at 10:30 p.m. The nurses mentioned in the following passage are Griffin’s good friends Ruth Donovan, Dorothea LeCain, and Virginia Donehue. Based on the exchange rate mentioned in a later letter, the puppies would have cost about $1 each. The excerpt also mentions her almost one-year-old nephew, Peter.
Wait until I tell you what Ruth & I did tonight – — sshh — we bought two little white puppies from an Arab for 50 francs each. Dot & Virginia are having the fluffy one & Ruth and I the other. I know I can’t keep him when I get home and Dot won’t be able to so we’re sharing them. No one knows we have them – – wait until the boss finds out. There isn’t any dog pound here so we’ll have to keep them. I’ll tell you later what their names will be.
I’m sending a few more coins for souvenirs for Pete. Notice the difference in weight in the 1921 & ’41 coins – guess there’s a war.
It’s not clear if the misspelling below was a simple mistake or an example of inter-service rivalry. The hotel mentioned was presumably the 32nd Station Hospital’s officer billet, the Hotel Transatlantique. It is unknown who exactly Henry refers to.
Tomorrow is St. Pat’s day and you should see the bright green ribbon we got down in the Arab market. We’re all going to wear it. Saturday the air chore is giving a dance for us. They have an o[r]chestra but no girls to dance with & no place to hold it – – we have the girls and a hotel lobby so we got together. It will be our first dance and we can stay up until midnight-imagine that! I suppose there will be wine galore– – we only see the real stuff once in a great while– – just once for me. Anyhow the dance is so near St Pat’s day we are giving it in honor of him. We’re all going to wear green ribbon. Tell Henry we are taking good care of the air chore. The sons of guns all have the same story. They’ve been up to the front & haven’t seen an American girl for so long etc etc – – bull as far as the American girl part goes – but regardless we have a swell time.
March 18, 1943
This excerpt mentioned one of Griffin’s close friends, Claire LaBonne. Since she was of French-Canadian descent, the local civilians expressed surprise that she participated in St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
This is the last letter to mention the two puppies; it seems likely that they were discovered and the nurses forced to give them up, but if that happened, Alice either withheld the sad news or the letter containing word of it was subsequently lost.
Yesterday everyone had green ribbons on for St Pat’s day. The French people wanted to know why Claire was wearing one (after we explained to them what the green was for) and she had to tell them that she roomed with me and the air would be blue if she didn’t. We had a celebration last night in the dining room – –I had green ribbon on everyone. We danced & sang until the curfew rank at 11 —
Our puppies are coming along fine. We named them Pat & Mike. Pat belongs to Ruth & I and Mike to Dot & Virginia. This is my off duty time & I just finished filling a dirt box for them. They are the cutest things. We’ll take a picture of them when the sun comes out & send it home. I remarked to Ruth that on my off duty time at home I used to take care of Peter and now here I am with two puppies to take care of. We’re really having a hard time training them– the tinkers.
A common theme in Griffin’s letters is missing her young nephew, Peter. The following excerpt also mentions her young cousin, Neil Callahan (1942–2019).
I’m dying to get Peter’s picture – I’ll bet it’s cute. Do you suppose anyone could get a snap of he & Neil together – just a camera snap – or are they both too lively.
It’s unclear if Wing is the patient’s last name; if so, I have been unable to identify him. No letters with dates from the 32nd’s Atlantic crossing (or about two months afterward) survive; it’s unknown if the letters were lost in transit or subsequently.
I have a Wing boy from Augusta Maine who knows of Caroline’s family – he knows the Goodspeeds. He’s about ready to go back on duty again. He’s the first one I’ve met that knew anyone I knew with the exception of the boys on the ship.
By the way, did you get any of the letters I wrote on the ships– – they should be to to you by now.
Well, I have to run in & get ready for lunch now– we have quite a walk to work – – Jimmie & I are up at the other building which opened yesterday. Per usual — I’m starved – wait until Jimmie discovers I ate part of her chocolate ration. She always says she’s going to tell you when I do things like that.
I’ll write again soon. By the way you & Mrs D[onovan] & Mrs LeC[ain] have to go in town some day & get two collars & two leashes for our puppies. They have to be extra special ones – we’re going to make nice dogs out of those puppies and their [sic] going to understand English & not French or Arabic. None of the dogs here can understand English.
March 19, 1943
This letter, addressed to Griffin’s mother, is presented in its entirety. The newspaper article referenced was by Associated Press war correspondent Ruth Cowan and appeared in at least three different forms in papers across the country on January 30, 1943. The article mentioned five 32nd Station Hospital nurses, focusing on Dorothea LeCain in particular. The article implied that the nurses were somehow unhappy about treating members of the Women Army Auxiliary Corps (for seasickness during the unit’s transatlantic crossing) when they’d signed up to help care for U.S. servicemen. The version of the article published in The Boston Daily Globe stated: “‘We came to work, all right,’ said pretty blue-eyed nurse Dorothea Lecain, 25, of Cambridge, Mass., ‘but I must say we didn’t expect to be nursing women.'”
The “other place” Griffin referred to was probably Bouisseville, near Oran, where the 32nd Station Hospital was in staging prior to setting up operations in Tlemcen. The article mentioned their hospital was going to be 200 miles (322 km) from the front lines, but in reality the distance to the front in Tunisia was more like 500 miles (805 km).
March 19, 1943 was Mawlid, an Islamic holiday celebrating Mohammed’s birth.
Friday – March 19.
Am having this mailed in N.Y- thus the stamp.
Jimmie and I went out to eat again last night with two captains and three other couple. [sic] We had fried chicken – F.F. potatoes – fresh peas and we even had a Tom Collins – – in Africa. They are getting ready to go back to tech – – they’ve been overseas a long while– so they will take this with them. I thought it might make you feel good if you got a letter with a stamp.
I sent a lot of letters from the ship – – did you ever get them? Someone was going to mail them for me.
Today is Mohamed’s birthday or some crazy thing and those damn Arabs have been shooting fire crackers– beating drums and celebrating all night long.
Muth with all this fighting you still don’t have to worry about us. This won’t be censored so I can write what I want. We haven’t heard a gun fired and we never have air-raids. One night way back when we were in the other place we had one little alert and nothing happened – – we were disappointed. Since we moved up here, we have nothing at all. We are not 200 miles behind the lines as the paper said – that article was crazy and an insult. Le Cain and the others were tearing because the Waacs were darn sick and they were glad to take care of them – – these newspapers.
We are in a very lovely town in the mountains –in fact it is so far away from the front lines that they take the boys here by plane. It is really a beautiful place and I can just gaze out the window now and see two honest-to-goodness storks standing on a chimney. They came there about two weeks ago.
Griffin’s daughter told me it was difficult to read what her mother wrote about Tlemcen’s local Arab population, which was at odds with the tolerance Griffin imparted when raising her children. We discussed whether to include the passage when I published the excerpts and she agreed that it could be included.
The letter captured the attitude of a young American nurse who had never been overseas before and, not unexpectedly, identified far more with Tlemcen’s French residents than the population of a completely different culture. With no correspondence preserved after 1943, we can only imagine Griffin’s subsequent personal growth. Griffin’s daughter told me:
I was always so proud that my mother and father taught me All people are Gods children no matter what religion or color of skin. My mother suggested I go to Cardinal Cushing High rather than the local High School with my friends. She said I’d meet girls from all over the City of Boston… Chinese, Italian, Africans, Portuguese and I did. I’m glad I listened to her suggestion. It expanded my interest in all cultures[…] if my mother were here she would say….Be honest & open.
Griffin may have meant to write typhoid instead of typhus in the excerpt, since it’s typhoid that would be preventable with a vaccination.
The Arabs are very dirty people but the French here are very nice. We keep clear of the Arabs because of them & typhus – – they bury a couple every day but by the looks of the women around here – ten are born every day.
This war I guess is kind of progressing. We hear the news now over the radio and can follow it that way. The boys explain it to us — they’ve been up the front. They are a happy-go-lucky bunch and all want to get better & back to work.
Well Muth they are waiting for me to finish so I’ll have to close.
Loads of love to you & all – Take care.
March 25, 1943
V-mail (Victory Mail) was a process in which a specially designed sheet was written on and transferred to microfilm. Large numbers of microfilmed letters could be transported to distant destinations, enlarged, and delivered.
Do they make you people write on V mail now – some is and some isn’t. We don’t like the V mail as well because we just get started reading them and they are ended.
Ruth Donovan and Ella “Jimmie” James were probably Alice Griffin’s closest two friends in the unit. James, ten years her senior, was one of her roommates at the Hotel Transatlantique and was facetiously described in this letter as a sort of surrogate mother.
The “kid sister” mentioned is Winnifred James (Hammond). Like Ella, Winnifred (1914–2005) was born in Ontario, emigrated from Canada to the United States, and became a nurse. According to her obituary, published in The Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), Winnifred “married John Hammond in Baltimore on May 15, 1942.” The couple raised a daughter and a son in Westfield, Massachusetts.
I read all Ruth’s mail & she reads all mine. When Dot’s mail was coming thru we read hers too. Can’t even write a letter with my gang around without them reading here & there – what a gang. Jimmie is going to write home & blast you people out. She says I’m the most spoiled individual that she’s ever met – – outside of her kid sister who is my age. She’s always after me to pick this or that up – – checks up to see that I keep my clothe[s] washed etc and says I’m just a spoiled brat. Then comes night & I crowd her right into the wall – – she gives me a pinch every so often –I don’t feel it but she says I pull my can over. You’ll have to write her a line Muth & tell her how we used to put the pillow.
The letter mentioned in the next excerpt is not in the collection and probably never have left Algeria. A program in the collection of Frances Rubin (Mann) indicates it was probably performed by the Spahis on March 19, 1943.
The reference to paper implies that the nurses would have to supply their own photo paper, not simply pay a lab for processing and printing.
I wrote a letter home Sat while at the hairdressers and I don’t ever remember mailing it & I’ll be darned if I can find it. Nothing special in it – just telling about an Algerian & French [Cavalry] exhibition we went to – – they have it once a year on Mohomed’s birthday. Polo – hurdle jumping – exhibitions of shooting while riding etc. Very good – we took pictures & they are being developed now (Claire got some paper — connections).
It’s not exactly clear who Paul was, but it seems he was either a serviceman stationed nearby or a crew member of a ship that regularly ended up in Oran.
I’m so glad you people heard from Paul. Were you talking to him or what. He was in again but I couldn’t get to see him – no day off. If he comes again, send something with him him, I’ll get it somehow. We had heard rumors that the ship went down and now I know it isn’t true – – gosh the rumors that come around this joint.
The following passage includes the full names of the French girls that Griffin befriended. Note that Janine’s first name is recorded differently than March 15, 1943 letter. The photo mentioned is most likely lost to history.
The end of the excerpt alludes to one of the challenges for the 32nd Station Hospital while operating in Tlemcen: Operations were dispersed in several requisitioned or constructed buildings (not to mention two hotels used as quarters) in different locations within the city. This was a great deal more difficult than the way operations were later run in Caserta, with a single hospital compound.
Claire LaBonne was the child of French-Canadian immigrants and apparently was fluent in French, as a November letter mentioned to she was an interpreter at a medical conference nearby.
Went up to Nicole’s house yesterday after a walk with Janine & Nicole. (finally found the name is Janine Ganascia & Nicole Messiah – – stick it on the back of the picture – huh.
Another Arab funeral just going by – – anywhere from 6 – 12 a day Typhus. I thank goodness we have inoculations. Janine says this is low – –wait until later.
Jimmie hired a cab – horse drawn — to come to dinner in this noon. It’s a fifteen minute walk from our hospital to here and it’s raining cats & dogs – some style. I can hear Claire jabbering away to someone in French – she is a riot – uses her hands & all just like a Frenchie.
March 28, 1943
A French chef is referred to several times in the letters and seems to be a bit of a character. Very little is said about him, but it may be that he worked in the kitchen of the Hotel Transatlantique or another mess facility nearby; the 32nd Station Hospital’s own mess personnel were stretched thin due to having to operate in four different facilities scattered across Tlemcen.
Claire, Jimmie and I have just finished having coffee and toast in the kitchen with French Chef.
I did not get to church today, because Mass is @ 700 and lasts an hour – I’m a working girl so “no go.”
We had a very nice evening last night. The boy I was with at the air corp dance last week came over again and brought three of his pals with him. A group of French troupers were putting on an entertainment for the Americans at the town hall so Jimmie & I and two other girls went over with the four boys. It was swell and I know Cath would have enjoyed it immensely. There were three girls and five men and they were excellent.
We came back to the hotel then and danced to the phonograph until 12. The boys had no place to sleep and no transportation back so we gave them a couple of GI blankets and comforters and they slept on the floor in an empty room – – very well too – so they said. They had breakfast with us this a.m. and then they went to church and we to work. We have a half day on Sunday so they had brunch with us and then we danced some more. They had to leave at four p.m. and here I am writing after a nice lunch. It’s nice having Claire work in the kitchen – we can get a bunch when we’re hungry.
The next excerpt seemed odd from a modern perspective. As it turns out, cleaning clothes with gasoline was a common (if hazardous) practice. The chaplain referred to is probably William V. O’Connor, who left the unit to join the 26th Infantry Regiment but subsequently returned around June 1943.
I got hold of some gas the other day and gave my skirt and G.I. blouse (coat) a darn good dipping. It looks swell, but it’s been airing for three days and along with the pouring rain – [unclear, looks like oiy or aiy]. I’m going to dip my overcoat next. My friend from the A.C. is going to get me a rain-coat– – much needed – I couldn’t get one. They are really a swell bunch- – if they were only a little older.
April 3, 1943
The speed at which Griffin received mail from home seemed to vary wildly throughout her service in Algeria, from a week to months.
We haven’t received any mail for almost two weeks so I can’t answer any of the letters – –I answered all of the last batch.
I almost had chance to go horse back riding this morning, but the horses they brought down were too frisky for me because I don’t know how to ride. Next time they are going to bring a nice tame horse. The French soldiers bring them down for us to ride and they are beauts – – I’ll know how to ride by the time I get home, I think.
The next excerpt mentioned that Dorothea LeCain had spent $50 on a black market dress. Although the historical inflation calculators available online seem to vary wildly in their estimates, it seems that $50 in 1943 money would be equivalent to over $700 today. I’m not entirely sure how much the nurses were paid per month; one site I found indicated a U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant with under three years’ military experience would have earned $150 a month. Whether that’s accurate or not, the dress would definitely would have been a sizable percentage of Dorothea LeCain’s monthly pay.
We are having another dance Sat. night and before the dance fourteen of us are invited to a turkey dinner given in honor of some Col from ordinance. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let us take our evening gowns at Devens but anyhow we didn’t. Ruth & Claire & Jimmie were able to borrow one, Dot is having one made (Black market) She is paying 50 bucks but she said for Heavens sake not to tell her mother what she paid or she’d kill her. It’s going to be awfully cute but I’ll be darned if I’ll pay that much –
The clean uniform Griffin mentioned was cleaned with gasoline!
We are going to have corsages tomorrow night too – they’ll look nice on my nice clean uniform, and regardless of rules I’m going to wear a flower in my hair. Hope I have as good a time as I had at last dance.
April 4, 1943
April 4 – 2 am.
Hi Muth & All,
I have just had another wonderful time and I even had an evening gown. It was black jersey and I had some silver Arab ribbon in my hair and a silver brooch in the front of my dress.
First we went to a dinner with the officers from the ordinance from a town quite a distance from here. It was a real dinner and they had planned it for weeks. There were 14 of us & 14 of them. They hired the dining room of a villa & we had it there – –flowers on the table & each of us had a name card & a compact by their place. We each had a corsage of white flowers with a red rose in the center. We had lettuce – tomato juice & then turkey [with] vegetables. Then the surprise – chocolate pie and coffee – mmhh
Then we came back here to the hotel & the air corp. were here with an ochestra. [sic] The boy I was with two weeks ago was here and we had a swell time. Dance 6 steps and someone would cut in – – all night long. They even let us dance until 12.30. Gee what a wonderful time, but it’s too early to go to bed darnit – –I could have danced all night– –imagine me dancing so much.
It was the best time & was enjoyed by all- Jimmie borrowed a black & blue gown – Claire a blue jersey – Ruth looked adorable in a white taffeta (borrowed) gown and Dot had her new black & pink lace. Everyone looked tops and the boys were all thrilled to see American girls in evening gowns. Claire & Jimmie say hello but they also have ordered me to bed so I’ll continue tomorrow.
The outfits were climaxed by all sorts of shoes & bed-slippers. Half of the kids had 2 gowns with them but only one pair of shoes. I had Jimmie’s black shoes on (too big, but I managed) Ruth had her duty shoes and Dot – bed slippers. All looked fine, though.
I identified the officer mentioned in the following excerpt as Captain Lawrence H.J. Valade (1917–2002), who had lived at 29 Alaska Street in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston not far from Griffin’s home in Dorchester. After leaving Algeria, Captain Valade was stationed in a B-26 Marauder unit on Sardinia. He was mentioned in a tongue-in-cheek article by Kenneth L. Dixon of the Associated Press printed in newspapers across the country on March 25, 1944. Dixon reported: “Captain Valade, who had but four hours of marital bliss before the martial bugles bustled him off” and two other officers, all of whom “had been overseas some 18 months” requested leave from their superiors and were dismissively told to talk to their chaplain. Chaplain Conrad Baldwin, however, did find support for their request in Deuteronomy 24:5, though it seems he didn’t convince the men’s superiors. One of the Valades’ sons confirmed that his father had asked his mother to come to New Jersey, where they wed just prior to him leaving overseas.
After the war, Valade became an educator in Michigan, working his way up from teacher to principal. His son told me that Valade “went on to earn a doctorate in education administration.” According to Dr. Valade’s obituary in The Detroit News, he “later served for nearly two decades as superintendent of Lamphere schools before retiring in the mid-1980s.” He also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve for 26 years, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Dr. Valade and his wife Helen (1919–2010) raised two sons and two daughters. He died in Macomb Township, Michigan, aged 85.
This morning I was leaving for high Mass and a Captain from the Air – Corp asked me if I were going to Mass & if so, would I show him where to go. He is Capt Valade from Alaska St – near Grove Hall in Roxbury. His wife lives in Brighton. I had a long talk with him – anyone living that near Dor. is practically a next-door neighbor here.
April 12, 1943
The chef is presumably the same one mentioned in the March 28 letter.
Jimmie & I had a long day Saturday and went to Oran – we don’t think we’ll go again though because we’ve seen the country between our place & there and it’s a long ride. Now if we can get transportation – Dot Ruth Jimmie & I are going to start on other towns.
Jimmie, Claire & I are going to the Chef’s house tonight for dinner – he says he’s going to outdo all the dinners we’ve ever had here – hope he’s right. He is the funniest man – we just laugh at him all the time.
April 17, 1943
This is the earliest V-mail in the collection. This letter includes the first mention of a man named Jeffries, described in later letters as a wardman in the hospital. The visit of his mother and father suggests that his family lived near the Griffins. I have been unable to find a record of any member of the 32nd Station Hospital with the name of Jeffries. However, there are no extant rosters for the unit’s enlisted personnel, so all names must come from other sources. These sources include the list compiled for the 1982 reunion (which omitted numerous members of the unit), documents collected from the families of unit members, and newspaper articles.
There was a Roy Jeffrey (probably 1921–1963) from Quincy, Massachusetts who was a member of the 32nd Station Hospital. If it is him, it might seem puzzling that Griffin would repeatedly misspell his name, although it might be because Jeffries would ordinarily have been a far more common last name than Jeffrey. Minor spelling errors in names (i.e. referring to Virginia Donehue as Donahue) were not uncommon in Griffin’s letters.
This is also the first letter to mention the Bucket of Blood, presumably a local restaurant. It may be a nickname given by the members of the unit in lieu of a more complex French name; it seems Bucket of Blood was (and still is) a fairly common name for a bar. It was also mentioned in Dwight McNelly’s unpublished manuscript; he described it as a “small café, a ratskeller across the large plaza in town.” He recalled that it was “over-priced” and the “food was lousy”. He recalled that some of the enlisted men decided to have an outing there. McNelly wrote:
The table was in the shape of a horseshoe; the open end by a stairs that let [sic] up to a closed-off room..[.]for some officers. Bottles of red wine were at the settings. We kept raising our glasses to everything we could think of: our health, our loved ones back home, the fighting front, and soon to view dancing girl…
Given the imbalance in the ratio of military men to women in Algeria, the 32nd Station Hospital’s nurses found themselves constantly invited to social events by units stationed nearby, but, as this letter indicated, sometimes they needed a break.
The letter also mentioned a change in policy about packages; before it was instituted, the members of the unit required a slip with permission from their commanding office in order to have family send a package. Griffin’s first request was for a picture of her young nephew.
Hi Muth & All
Believe this is photographed V Mail now so I don’t know how large or small to write – – can’t write the big long letters now but will write often. Sent the letter Cath wrote over to Jeffries – thought he’d enjoy seeing in writing that his M & F were visiting our place. Ruth, Dot, Claire, Jimmie, Wanda & the Donahues gave me a party at the Bucket of Blood last night. We wanted a night to ourselves without male company so they decided to give me a party. We sure had one fine time – – I’m sending my slip with a m.o. for $40 this week for an evening gown. I hope the other slips arrive. Never mind sending food – – we do all right for ourselves. Did you know you can send packages – as many as you want now – so long as they are under 8 oz? That means Peter’s picture can come– – I haven’t received the snaps as yet but mail is coming along fine. Next time I’ll write the other way – more room. I’m glad you waited for the new uniforms –
Loads of love
April 18, 1943
Peter’s Easter card was so cute – I have it on the door.
The hospital’s patient loads varied with the progress of the Tunisian (and later Sicily and Italian) campaigns. It’s not really clear in the letters what the nurses’ exact schedules were, though they seemed to change quite a bit.
We’re working longer hours now and we have the one day a month off so the letter-writing has suffered.
Bought some cute silver rings last week that I’m saving – I also have more brooches so if the others get lost I’ll still have more.
Throughout most of the year, the letters indicated the belief that the war would be over within a year. There’s no indication that Griffin’s New York fantasy came to pass, but at least several of the group of eight reunited at Fort Devens at the end of hostilities. The A.P.O. referred to stands for Army Post Office; the 32nd’s changed several times during the war.
Despite the prohibition against using military vehicles for personal use, it was not long before the nurses managed to befriend members of local units who either were not subject to (or did not obey) this order. It’s not clear if Griffin was being facetious when she wrote that the nurses were considering buying a French car; if a black market dress cost $50, one can only imagine how much a car (and fuel) would have cost!
I still have about $13 in American money that I’m saving for when we go home. We’re all going to fly home – land in N.Y. and have one big splurge. Heaven help the restaurant we go to with the seven of us on a spree.
Ruth & Dot still write home as little as ever but you should see them struggling over letters. Ruth will sit down for hours trying to get even a page written and I think she’s [sic] does darn good writing as much as she does. I’m the only one in the crowd that writes a lot of letters and now even I have slipped.
Tell Cath I don’t know any of those boys she wrote about. You see A.P.O. 700 spreads over a very vast amount of territory and we are not near anyone from Boston or vicinity – I’ve asked. We [sic] so far away from everyone and thing that our patients are flown here. Forty miles here is like 100 or 200 miles at home, because the roads twist & wind so that you can’t go fast. A new order came out that jeeps & all army cars can only be used for official business so we won’t be able to get around very much– – we were seriously thinking of buying a French car but then we decided against it.
Guess I’d better close now and get to work, and then supper. We think we’re having hamburg [sic] – anyhow we’ve been planning on it so I hope it’s true. Boy just let anyone mention spam, hash, or beans to us when we get home and you won’t be able to see them for dust. Ruth, Dot, Jimmie & I will sit & crab about the food and while we crab we’re eating like hogs – honestly you can never stop nurses from griping – we really enjoy it.
April 20, 1943
This V-mail, addressed to Griffin’s mother, indicated that a letter arrived in ten days, a speed only occasionally repeated for the rest of the year. One wonders if Griffie picked up the phrase “eh” from her Canadian-born roommate, Ella “Jimmie” James.
Hi Muth –
Just took about 10 days for your last letter to come – not bad eh? Keep writing on the thin paper because it gets here quickly and contains a lot.
Ruth, Virginia D, and I had just returned from a French show last night when we got the letters. The pictures here start at 9, and I’ll never go to another one – – I couldn’t understand a word. It was Mr. Deeds goes to town, with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur- – it sounded so funny to hear them speaking French (they weren’t doing the talking, though because I know her voice). The three of us scratched all during the show and far into the night. Guess I’ll just go to the one we have Friday night after this.
Undated Letter (Probably April 20, 1943)
This letter is presented in its entirety. Dated only Tuesday, it was probably written April 20, 1943, based on the reference to Palm Sunday. Griffin mentioned that the unit lacked a Catholic chaplain, indicating it was written after the first departure of Chaplain William V. O’Connor, but before the arrival of Chaplain Fabian Flynn.
C.C.H. is probably Cambridge City Hospital, where Griffin attended nursing school and worked before the war. Less likely, C.C.H. could also refer to Cape Cod Hospital, which Ruth Donovan and Dorothea LeCain were affiliated with.
Tuesday – 10.30 pm
Dot, Ruth, & I have just finished a nice brunch – – Ruth is writing – Dot washing so I thought I’d drop you another line. I stole a can of tuna fish today & we saved some bread from supper – – the boys in the kitchen heated a pan of water for me – – we borrowed some of Claire’s nes-cafe and what a nice brunch we had.
Ruth & I went up to Church @ 8 pm & said a few prayers – it was too dark to say the stations & they were just going to close up. I’m ashamed of myself because I really haven’t done a thing for lent – – it doesn’t seem like lent somehow or other. I have a p.m. Sunday & there are no early Masses so I’m just going to walk off the ward Sunday & go to 9 30 Mass. I do wish we had a Catholic Chaplain – maybe we’ll get one sooner or later. You should really attend one of the Masses here – they sit when we stand & stand when we kneel – everything is so different. A couple of times Ruth & I have just laughed in the middle of Mass. People are walking in & out at all times & the chairs are always scraping. The high Mass is really beautiful though. By the way, we didn’t get palm last Sunday but everyone was walking around with branches that looked like bayberry leaves. The younger children had all kinds of trink[e]ts and sweets hanging from theirs & the nicer the child was dressed, the better looking the decorations. Cath, maybe with all your reading you can tell me what the branches were. Seeing as all my young friends are French-Jews, I didn’t suppose they’d know.
Janine & Nicole called for me when I got off at 4 30 and we took a walk & then went to Janine’s house. They both have very nice homes & I guess are quite well-to do. They are just starting back to public school. You see when the Germans had this town they wouldn’t let the Jews attend school. The two kids finish high school in a few years and then go to the university. After that they want to go to France, England, Scotland & America. I asked them if they weren’t going to work & they said the French girls didn’t work – just the very poor ones. They start telling me something & then they have to sort of piece the story together – – one will get stuck on an English word & the other will know it so I usually get the drift of the story. They are both going to Nicole’s father’s farm tomorrow for six days.
My C.O. order is going through channels now & when it is signed I’ll send it on. Could you get a couple of pairs of ankle socks size 9 and throw them in. I haven’t [sic] been up to visit the kids’ houses so much that I’d love to give them something. Muth, I still have tea bags here & we never touch them so if you’re short on tea will you let me know. Also could you send me those pictures taken at C.C.H. – I’ll hold onto them & bring them back with me.
Well the kids want to go to bed and I am parked in the middle of their bed so I guess I’ll close. Jimmie will be in soon & she’ll get in our bed & warm it up. Jimmie is a riot – as Ruth says she’s just like a mother hen taking care of a chick. She’s always picking up after me, telling me not to stay out too late (she’s the one that keeps the late hours) and she always lets me plauk [sic] my feet on her. Ruth & she both take money away from me when I get paid so I’ll have enough to last the month – guess I’ll never learn.
Well toodleooh all. I’ll write again soon.
Loads of love to all
April 21, 1943
This was another instance where Griffin’s plans to go horseback riding fell through, although the results would prove to be very entertaining when she was finally able to (see the May 10, 1943 letter).
I was already to go horseback riding and the French soldier called & said he couldn’t come this afternoon [with] the horses – guess I’ll have to read. I have my p.m. today & so have Ruth & Dot. We all had typhoid shots so guess we’ll read & sleep.
You know what I’d like sent in the package – – a jar of mustard. We don’t have it here & at times so many of the things would taste better with a dash of mustard. I’ll send a requisition each month so just throw it in anyone. [sic]
April 22, 1943
The villa mentioned in this letter might be Villa Rivaud, a go-to spot for the unit’s nurses later in the year. It’s not clear why she was avoiding being seen by the colonel (Colonel Burstein?). Was she not permitted there or not signed out properly from the hospital? For someone who liked food as much as Griffin to abandon her lunch, it must have been serious! The paragraph about pets would tend to suggest that the puppies the nurses in March had been discovered and the nurses forced to give them up.
Yesterday, I told you I was going to sleep & read but it didn’t turn out that way. Two of the boys borrowed a Frenchman’s car & Jimmie & I drove with them up past the cascades & then way up & up to a mountain to a cave. It’s a very large cave & takes 45 days to go through. We just looked around – it was very damp & spooky so I didn’t want to go in. We found a swell place in a pine grove for a picnic so we are going again next week on our p.m. Last night we went up to a villa to eat. I was starved because yesterday was a fast day & they gave us bacon for breakfast, spam for dinner & those awful hot dogs for supper. I held my breath at the villa but they gave us lettuce & small fried fish – I ate about 5 with 2 helpings of lettuce. The chef in the kitchen likes Jimmie, Claire & I very much & lets us go to the kitchen – yesterday afternoon I went in and he sneaked me a cheese sandwich & coffee – –right in the middle of it I saw the Col. coming and had to duck out the back door leaving my nice lunch – didn’t have time to finish it because I had to leave for the cascades. Went in again on my way back & bumped right into the col – – so just kept right on going.
Now I’m going to get two canaries or did I tell you– – they are on order & we can’t have any other pets so they will be nice. The ward boy here bought two and a cage over to this ward & boy can one of them sing.
April 23, 1943
Although matter-of-factly mentioned here, the awful side effects of the anti-malarial drug Atabrine were frequently mentioned by many members of the unit. Griffin wrote more about the subject in her May 4, 1943 letter.
Made a visit to church last night & the alter was beautiful. Big vases of white crys., lilies, roses – flowers galore.
We take atebrine [sic] twice a week now and sleep in mosquito netting – fine thing.
April 24, 1943
The reference to “the other building” alluded to one of the difficulties of the 32nd Station Hospital setup in Tlemcen. According to Lieutenant Colonel Goss’s December 31, 1943 report entitled “Medical History of the Thirty Second Station Hospital”, the two main hospital buildings were “separated by a ten minute walk.”
Well here it is Easter Saturday and me with no – Easter bonnet. Hope Muth got that new outfit.
I’m going to 9 o’clock Mass tomorrow with Ruth and the patients. Dot & Jimmie work up the other building so we’ll meet them there. Jimmie breaks down every so often & goes to church with us.
Had a nightmare last night – dreamed they were going to send me home and they were trying to drag me on the ship. I kept yelling “No I won’t go” & crying and screeching. Meanwhile Jimmie was trying to wake me up – guess it took her a couple of minutes. You see we had snitched a can of sardines & Ruth & I had tea & sardines before we went to bed – guess the sardines caused it all.
Sometimes, especially in the early days, V-mails were shipped like a regular letter, rather than with the microfilming process.
V Mail is coming through photographed now – mine haven’t been yet because my last was Apr 9th & I guess they hadn’t started. The writing is so small – Jimmie got one that was typewritten & it was very easy to read and a lot in it so that’s a good idea.
April 25, 1943
Happy Easter – it’s raining here so I’m just as glad I didn’t wear my new outfit today. Guess the Easter bunny doesn’t come around these parts cause we sure looked for our baskets. Anyhow – we’re having ice cream for supper – the first we’ve had mmh. The chef says if I give the boys & he a kiss on each cheek I can have as much as I want – – he’s a howl. I have all kinds of sign languages I learned from him. His wife is very nice too and he has the cutest kid.
Cathie Houlihan, Huckins & I walked in the rain up to the French cemet[e]ry today and it was beautiful. The graves were all decorated for Easter. As I said before all marble with statues and beautiful network of steel– (very fine). They had snowballs, geraniums, lilies white-yellow-red roses-every kind of flower imaginable.
April 26, 1943 (First V-mail)
This V-mail was addressed to her sister Catherine Griffin. The patient who was mentioned with the injured ribs might be Joseph I. Brennan, Jr. (see discussion in the introductory text to the next letter).
Have not been too busy lately. Have a very nice boy that lives in West Somerville or rather his wife does & his mother lives in Boston. He has been at the front but didn’t get hurt. While moving along he was in a slight accident and cracked a few ribs – but not too bad. We have had some great talks. He’ll be here a few weeks.
The military police officer mentioned in the following passage is almost certainly Mario Timothy Villanti (1913–2004).
Villanti was born in Boston and attended Boston University. His entry in the Department of Veterans Affairs B.I.R.L.S. Death File only gives an enlistment date, of May 3, 1934. There’s also an enlistment record for a Mario T. Villanti born in 1913 who enlisted in the U.S. Army on January 16, 1941 (apparently entering as a private first class from the National Guard). If that’s the same individual, he must have been commissioned at some point.
Villanti earned the Bronze Star Medal at Anzio and by July 1945, he had achieved the rank of major. He was a colonel by June 30, 1964, when a photograph of him appeared in The Boston Herald. The article stated he had returned to B.U. in the Military Science Department after having been “attached to the Military Police Headquarters in Washington.” His wife was Marion Wright Villanti (1913–1970). According to his obituary in the Cape Cod Times, he “served in the Army during World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam, and retired as a colonel after 30 years of service.” He he lived in Bourne, Massachusetts from 1981 until his death. He died in Falmouth, Massachusetts, aged 91.
Just now Ruth called me in her ward – said there was an M.P. from Dorchester visiting a pt. I went in and it’s a boy that lives right across from A. Hurley in your office. His name is Tim Villante – so we talked some more. He’s only received one letter so far and he can’t understand why. I told him when he had been over here as long as we – he’d get them. Will write again.
April 26, 1943 (Second V-mail)
Griffin sent a second V-mail on April 26, 1943, apparently with a mimeographed drawing. The patient with the fractured ribs might be the same one mentioned in the previous V-mail sent the same day, whose wife lived in West Somerville. A series of letters from April 27 through June 28, 1943 mentioned a patient named Brennen. Although the connection isn’t immediately obvious, Griffin mentioned “addressing mail to 7 Aberdeen ST Bos.” On the 1940 census, one of several families listed as living at that address included Joseph I. and Hannah Brennan (Irish immigrants) and their son, also named Joseph (a 33-year-old law clerk born in Massachusetts).
Joseph I. Brennan, Jr. (likely 1907–1966) enlisted in Boston on April 8, 1941. A December 15, 1943 news item in The Boston Daily Globe mentioned that he “graduated from Boston Commerce High School and Boston University”, and provides circumstantial support for the notion that he was the same patient treated at the 32nd Station Hospital: “Sergt. Joseph I. Brennan Jr., Army Signal Corps, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph I. Brennan of Boston, is spending a 20-day furlough with his wife, Loretta D., at their home, College av., Somerville, following a long period of service in Africa and Sicily.”
MOTHER’S DAY GREETINGS AROUND THE WORLD from Somewhere in North Africa
Just finished writing a card for a pt. because he has a few fractured ribs- – other than that he is fine– It seemed so funny to be addressing mail to 7 Aberdeen ST Bos. and then to our place. We are each allowed one of these. Our boys made them pretty good huh.
Muth will you call Com. 5778 and leave that message I wrote to you about the other day.
Wish I could spend the day with you but can’t afford the trip
April 27, 1943
This is a particularly eventful V-mail presented in its entirety. It is the first one to mention Brennan by name, though he is most likely the patient referred to in the previous day‘s V-mails. It also mentions an officer, believed to be Mario T. Villanti, who was also referred to in one of the April 26, 1943 V-mails.
In addition, the letter establishes the arrival of Catholic Chaplain Fabian Flynn, who briefly replaced Chaplain William V. O’Connor before the two switched units. She might not have gone into such detail had Chaplain Flynn not been from Dorchester, but the historical record is richer for it!
Rcd’ a letter from Cath last night – March 31. going backwards instead of forward. Also heard from Blanche Stewart – that girl that came in with us at Devens. The Brennen boy is a lot better. Am going out to dinner tonight with the Villanti boy from Dorchester. We got a new chaplain last night- – a Father Flynn from Dorchester, although he has been out of the state for years. Last six months before army he was at the senacle [sic] in Brighton. Originally from St. Peters–- his mother died two months ago there and now he just has an aunt in Cambridge. I’ll let you know what her name is in my next letter. He seems very nice and I hope we keep him. Washed my hair today on my time off – – you can’t seem to get the stickiness out of it tho. All the kids have the same trouble. Ruth is writing very often & we can’t understand why they aren’t getting her mail. We get a kick out of you mother calling back and forth. Will write soon. Love, Alice
April 29, 1943
This V-mail has the distinction of recording what may be the first time that Alice Griffin found a meal to be totally inedible.
Hi All –
This darn weather is still awful – has rained every day for weeks but once it stops, we’ll have nice dry weather – we hope. I have to buy a new pair of white shoes Saturday because mine are worn out- – think my feet have spread a bit so I think I’ll get double A instead of triple. Went out to dinner with Vilanti [sic] the other night – there were a whole bunch of us and we had a swell time. They served us fish and the darn thing was whole – – it was silver and about 6 inches from stem to stern- – I took one look at the eyes and decided I’d start in the middle. Took my fork and knife and went to slice it and the darn thing was so stiff that the head & tail both went in the air – – so I didn’t eat the fish and we went to another place & had eggs. Before I left I opened the fish’s mouth & stuck a big piece of bread in it and it really looked funny.
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)
1st Lieutenant John S. Jarvie: Jack in the Alice Griffin Letters
Last updated February 6, 2020