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|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Helen L "Pat" Nash Wiley, United States Army Nurse Corps. After graduation from nursing school in LaCrosse, she entered service in April 1945 with a group of college friends. She was sent to Camp McCoy for basic training. When that training was completed in late spring, she was sent to an Army Air Corps base in Tucson, AZ. There, she worked in the maternity ward for a while and also tended soldiers and airmen coming back from the South Pacific.
Pat and Bud Wiley Interview
21 May 2004
Conducted by Bradley Larson
(B: identifies the interviewer, Brad Larson; P: identifies the subject, Pat Wiley. B: identifies Bud Wiley Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear).
B: It's May 21st, 2004. This is Brad Larson speaking and I'm sitting in the home of Pat Wiley and we're just about to start the oral history. So Pat, if I could just get you to state your full name and your date of birth and where you were born?
P: My full name is Helen Lois Nash, maiden name, Wiley. I was born in Winona, Minnesota. Do I have to give the year? 4-29-23. Would that make me 81? 23?
B: Well we don't have to go into specifics.
P: Well I'm wondering. I think it was '23.
B: What I'd like to do is start out by talking about the years before World War II. Like the Depression years and what you remember about that. And what did your folks do?
P: Well my father was a veterinarian. And I do know that he was on a City Council of some sort. And I don't know how it was arranged but there were people who were starving or who couldn't buy food and whenever my dad was on a committee, they would come to our house and get food. But I was so, I just don't remember much about it. But I do remember that, that these people were down and out and needed to eat.
B: You know, in those Depression years, and as the United States was leading up to war, was the war overseas much of a topic of conversation in your house, among your family or perhaps among your classmates? Thinking back on it?
P: Well, I remember there was a Military Police unit in our town and when the war started, they all left from a railroad in our town. And the whole school, the whole town came out. And the band played and they all went off. That I remember.
B: Thinking back on it as a young woman at that time, do you recall what your perceptions were as around that leaving of this local unit? Do you remember how you thought of that?
P: I felt sorry for the families that they were leaving. I didn't know anyone leaving. But they didn't know what they were going to, when they were coming back.
B: Before Pearl Harbor, before the United States was attacked, did you think very much or talk very much about what was happening over in Europe with Adolph Hitler and the conquest of Europe? Or over…
P: I'm afraid to say, I didn't.
B: Do you think that was an uncommon, or common among the people you associated with?
P: Maybe my age, but I imagine my parents were very involved, thinking of it.
B: Did they ever talk about it over the supper table maybe?
P: Not that I remember.
B: Not an uncommon thing really. You know when you think about it, they didn't really want to worry their children.
P: Was that the time of rationing too? Yes, that's true. We were limited to certain foods you couldn't get. And canned goods, we would wash the cans and take the ends off and stamp em. And things like that.
B: One thing, tell me about Pearl Harbor, what you were doing that day and what were the circumstances surrounding that?
P: I don't know if you should record this. I had a date. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was in school in LaCrosse and this boy I dated, we were going over to a nearby town to visit his sister and husband and family for a Sunday dinner. And we heard it on the radio and I didn't know where Pearl Harbor was at that time. But it was shocking and it was a sobering day.
B: What did your date say?
P: I can't remember. I don't remember.
B: Do you remember what happened in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor in those few months following the attack?
P: Well this group from my hometown all had to go into service right away. I wasn't living there at that time because I was away at school. But I don't know, it was a hard time but I wasn't personally involved at that point with anybody that I knew.
B: When you say it was a hard time, now think back on it, how would you explain that to me, a stranger, when you say it was a hard time? How was it hard?
P: Well, food was rationed. Gasoline was rationed. For instance if I wanted to go home, you know, maybe there wasn't gas to go home. I didn't really suffer that much.
B: Now when did you start thinking about taking a more active roll?
P: Well, when I graduated and they were needing nurses. And I remember my mother saying she was proud that I was going to do that. My father too, because he was in the service in World War I. But she says, "Please don't enlist until after Christmas this year." I remember that. So then when I did, and went in April 12th, that was the day President Roosevelt died. And that's when, the day I went into service.
B: What do you remember about the death of President Roosevelt? Was your family an avid supporter of the president?
P: I was never at home at that time. I was in Camp McCoy and we were busy all day. And the newspapers were on the table at the end of the mess hall. When President Roosevelt died we were all shocked. But that's all I can remember. Now who's going to be president? I imagine that was the second question.
B: What influenced your decision to go into the nurse corps? Was there anything, one thing perhaps more than the other that focused you toward that?
P: Well, for Army rather than Navy?
P: Yes. I don know the decision I made on that. Army nurses took care of the patients. They said the Navy nurses did the bookwork and the corpsmen did the nursing. I wanted to be a nurse. That's how I was.
B: You wanted to take a more active role.
P: I did. I wanted to take care of the patients.
B: You know, you told me when we were looking at this photograph album that you went in with a group of people.
B: So you must have made this decision at least in cooperation or at least discussing it with some other of your friends. Or did you just happen to do…
P: No. These were all girls that I was in school with. And I think we all did it at the same time.
B: So how did that, you must have all been of a like mind and decided that this is something we all need to do.
B: Did they all go into the Army?
P: Oh yeah. One girl went into the Navy as I remember.
B: She probably had a hard time from you guys then, huh?
P: One of the friends, she still lives in Virginia Beach, no she lives right outside of Washington, D.C. I hear from her all the time.
B: You said you went to Camp McCoy first?
P: That was the basic training for Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin nurses. This is something too. I dunno. We didn't know; there were black nurses there. We never saw em. We found out later. They were billeted someplace else. They weren't in that - isn't that something?
And I do know that they had these Japanese prisoners of war and they were in fatigues and they would be working on the streets. And we'd be marching because we were in our fatigues and we had to go through the whole thing, the gas masks you know, the whole thing. And they'd be yakking away. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. I remember that.
B: Was there any discussion among your nurse friends there, among your colleagues about those Japanese prisoners of war?
P: I don't remember that.
B: Did you find the training tough? Demanding?
P: Well we really were busy, yeah. But it was not that bad.
B: What were some of the…?
P: Well the gas chamber was the hardest thing. And that's the main thing that hits me. But I was still doing what I was trained to do. I wasn't fighting a war you know, so it wasn't that different. We didn't do too much nursing at Camp McCoy because we were going through training.
Then we were shipped out to work and that's when I was sent to Davis-Monthan.
B: What month would that have been?
P: I'm not sure. Late spring? I don't know if basic training was three months; April, May, June. Probably May.
B: So where were you sent?
P: To Davis-Monthan Air Force Base at Tucson. That's a B-29 base.
B: What were some of your duties there?
P: Well did, I worked the hardest in the maternity ward. Some of the fellows had gone home and their wives were pregnant and couldn't follow. That was a… But I just did nursing. That's all. They had one unit, I wasn't involved in that but they had boys that were flown home from the South Pacific. But I was on another unit so I didn't take care of them. These weren't injuries. These weren't war injuries. These were, at Camp McCoy. These were people that just got sick or hurt in basic training. I really didn't have that much - I didn't do anything, really. I could have. I was lucky.
B: But the war was still going on against Japan.
P: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
B: And that must have been a topic of conversation among you and your nurses.
P: Oh yeah. I remember I was working night duties. On night duty? And heard about the bomb. And so I woke the next morning, I walked down the ward and I said, "Boys, the war is over." Because they hadn't heard it. And they were whooping and hollering, you know.
B: What was your reaction about the use of the bomb?
P: I think we were all happy. I really do. No more killing of our boys, you know. And for the people in the countries, you know. Not the military but the people who live there. They certainly had some hardships. I would think.
B: Did people understand what an atom bomb was, do you think?
P: No idea at all. No.
B: Did you have a big party that day?
P: I don't remember that. No. I think we were confined to base. No. We were just all happy. Now we can go home.
B: Well, how did what happened after that, when the war was officially declared over, then what happened with your service? Did you continue there at the base?
P: I remember we had to close that hospital and it seemed so wasteful but we had orders. We hadda do it. We had to dump out a lot of the medicine and things like that. But from there I was sent Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was also a B-29 base and that is where their airport is now, they tell me. But I was sent there and discharged. I just got on the tail end of it, I think.
B: When were you discharged?
P: I'm not even sure. I'm not even sure. I should have that down someplace but I don't even know. The bomb, the war was over. I just don't remember the date. Shortly afterwards, I don't know.
B: At that time, did you go back home to Minnesota then?
P: To Wisconsin. I actually lived in Wisconsin. Yes, unh huh. And it was, yes, I went home.
B: Was there a homecoming for you?
P: Oh my mother was very happy of course. No, I don't think so. I guess it wasn't like a whole crowd was coming home. I just arrived, you know.
B: Singly, without a group of…
P: I just - came home.
B: Well, one of the things I'd like to carry on with this oral history if it's alright with you, is maybe you could tell me how you and your husband ended up in Oshkosh, and maybe carry it through. Carry the oral history through. So you came back home to LaCrosse…?
P: Well I [came here then]. He came, yes, and his parents by that time were retired. And lived in another town near where I live. But he called and we dated. But I was dating other fellows too. Because…
B: Did you know him before the war?
P: Before the war, sure. We wrote, yes we wrote a lot of letters. But so did…
B: Before the war did you…?
P: Oh yeah.
B: Correspond too?
P: And I wrote to a lot of other fellows too, you know. But, so then when he came back then we started dating, that's when [ ]. He was a senior in civil engineering at Madison when he went into service. And so then when we were married, he was, went back there but shortly… We were married in September. Anyway he had to go to the hospital. He had T.B. You probably have that story. So because of that, I went along and worked at the Veterans Hospital in Milwaukee. I lived in the nurses quarters. I worked on an orthopedic ward. We didn't have a car so I walked all day. Then I'd go over and visit him and the nurses, I forget how, it was a long way uphill and downhill to get to the nurses home. And then I'd walk back at night. I was so tired. But I didn't, you just did what you had to do, that's all. I don't have any glorious story.
B: How did you end up in Oshkosh then?
P: Bud ah, well he was a senior in civil engineering when we were married. And then he spent those five and a half years in the hospital and he sorta lost all confidence in himself. He said, "I don't know if I can stand outside in all kinds of weather and build a bridge." So he switched to finance. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, top of his class in finance when our little, when Doug was maybe two or three. And so from then on, it's been pretty good.
B: He found a job in Oshkosh?
P: Well he was hired by this company in Milwaukee. We lived there for awhile and they wanted him to take over the office here. And we're very happy here.
B: When was that? Do you remember?
P: I don't know. Let's see, Doug was about, Doug was born in '52 I think. And he was about two. About there.
B: One thing that you mentioned here, I'd just like to back up. You said you were writing to men in service all through the war. Was that a common thing for people to do. Not necessarily the boyfriends but I mean just to write to…
P: Oh I think so. I'm sure that a lot of the girls that I lived with were corresponding. I don't know if they were corresponding with boys in the hometown or fellows they had met at Camp McCoy, but sure, a lot of letters were going back and forth. Sure.
B: Is the war something that you think of very often or is it something that enters into your topic of conversation on a regular basis?
P: Not at this time in my life. Unh, unh.
B: At some point was it much more to the forefront would you say?
P: No I don't think so because after we got married, we were dumped with a lot of problems with Bud in the hospital and so on and so forth. So that was past history as far as I was concerned. But I do keep in touch with Betty who lived in California for a long time. And now she's gone. But that's about all. See, I was younger so all the girls I worked with were older and they're not around anymore.
B: You know, now we're preparing to commemorate the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. You probably have seen scenes on TV.
P: We got a card I think too.
B: Did you?
P: Unh huh.
B: When you see something like that, does it bring back any memories or thoughts of the war years?
P: No. No, because we went out for the dedication for women in the military. That was a few years ago. That was special. That really, really, really was special. To be with all these women who had served. And one of the things, oh I remember Bob Dole, who was in the ski troops a little while with Bud. But he has this arm that hangs, you know it's paralyzed. And we were all there for this big thing. And he was on the stage talking and gave his talk. But he said, "Remember, every one of you," and he took his good arm, "Every one of you volunteered." Yup.
B: And I'll bet that made you feel good.
P: Yeah, it did. But you didn't think about it. I mean you did it. We were young.
B: One of the things that you said early on when I first got here was everybody was doing it. You said everybody was doing it.
P: The war was everybody's life. You know.
B: Do you think there's a difference today in how we approach say, the war in Iraq as compared to the…?
P: Oh I'm sure. I think so. I don't know if the circumstances are different but we were attacked, you know.
B: Did you ever feel that we would lose the war?
P: Never thought of it. Just the day in and day out. No, I never thought of that.
B: Well Pat, what else shall we talk about here? Is there anything else that you want to add that maybe we could…?
P: I think that what you should do, read this book.
B: "If I Perish." I'd like to read that. Front line US Army nurses.
P: You can take it along. We both read it but I definitely want it back. This is a wonderful book. You will learn so much about the war in this book.
B: Sure, I'd like to do that very much.
P: Take that along.
B: Well, thank you very much. I guess…
P: I just didn't do anything in the war but I did volunteer. I volunteered. But this is the girl you should talk to.
B: I hope I can.
P: Oh I do too. Should I look up her name and address?
B: Sure. (The interview with Pat Wiley ends here).
B: Now I'm talking with Bud Wiley and he's holding a P-38, Walther. And he's gonna tell me how he came about acquiring that.
B: Well the P-38 Walther is a production model of the Luger that was the standard sidearm in the German Army in World War I. It's a lot better pistol than our 45 Colt in that it's, you can aim the thing and when it shoots it stays in position. It's really a neat sidearm. Fellows liked em a lot because when you walked around at night, you didn't have to carry your rifle. You had a sidearm. A lot more convenient.
It wasn't very dramatic when I got this one. It was near the end of the war and everything was all screwed up. In an attack one day I came upon this foxhole, took a prisoner out of there. When I looked around, this was laying in a kind of a case. It was covered with what the American Army said was called Cosmoline which was just heavy grease. So I'm not sure this thing was ever fired. But I just picked it up and took it along. Generally they were good trading material. When the guys didn't know the war was going to be over, they'd be worth about three hundred bucks to the rear echelon.
But I brought it home and kept it until this time. My kids aren't interested so I'm happy to have you have it.
B: Well tell me, was that something that people, guys in your unit were anxious to acquire things like that? Was it a…?
B: Well, this was a practical thing. You could carry it around in place of a rifle at night. And with the exception of officers, there was not much you could do with them except trade em at the rear echelon or use em yourself.
B: Well it seems to be in great shape. Looks like you didn't put it to too much use.
B: I'm not sure it was ever fired until I got it. I've kept it in my bedside table for about 60 years. Nobody ever showed up so I needed to use it.
B: Well, thank you very much.
B: And if you're interested, here's a German officer's watch that is standard German Army issue I think. It still runs.
B: Now how did you come by this.
B: Well, the normal way. Somebody walking by with their hands up in the air.
B: Was this a common thing to do, take the watch?
B: Standard procedure. Not politically correct probably now. Probably get sued. Public Broadcasting would make a big deal out of it.
B: Yeah. It's okay. (The interview ends here).
|Oral History Interview with Helen L "Pat" Nash Wiley.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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