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Nurse came to country’s aid

King George resident Edith Gillmor, who turned 90 Monday, treated injured American service members in Italy during the last year of World War II. She was in the Army Nurse Corps. ‘It was the thing to do,’ she said. (Reza Marvashti/The Free Lance-Star)

When Edith Gillmor finished nursing school in 1944, she didn’t have to wonder what to do next.

She and four classmates enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps so they could serve in World War II.

“It was the thing to do,” Gillmor said simply, adding that everyone she knew shared the call to duty in one way or another.

Her brother was injured in the Battle of the Bulge and lay wounded in a foxhole, surrounded by dead soldiers until paramedics found him.

Back home in Washington, Pa., her father was an air-raid warden and her mother took first-aid classes.

“It was a time when everybody did something,” she said.

Gillmor went through basic training after nursing school—and endured everything soldiers did, except carry a weapon.

She eventually was shipped to an Army hospital in Naples, Italy, with about 200 other medical personnel. She spent the final year of World War II treating injured Air Force pilots, soldiers suffering from hepatitis and former American prisoners of war.

Gillmor probably will reflect on her days in the military on Saturday, when she throws herself a 90th birthday party. Her youngest daughter, Khristy Lynn, has put together a display of black-and-white photos, faded newspaper clippings and Gillmor’s old uniform and hat and white nursing cap.

Gillmor expects more than 110 people at the Fairview Beach Volunteer Fire Department for the shindig.

She and her siblings gave their mother a party when she turned 90 and it was so nice, Gillmor vowed to do the same for herself.

“This is my last party,” she said. “If anyone else wants to have one, they’ll have to do it.”

‘WHAT WAR DOES’

The Army Nurse Corps became a part of the U.S. Army Medical Department in 1901 and saw its largest surge of manpower during World War II, according to the department’s website.

Gillmor was one of more than 59,000 nurses who served in field hospitals and evacuation units and aboard ships, planes and trains, according to an Army book on the corps.

“During World War II, nurses worked closer to the front lines than they ever had before,” the book stated.

Sixteen of them died in the fighting overseas.

Gillmor never found herself in harm’s way, and she never regretted her decision to join the service.

She remains in good health, 68 years later, except for poor hearing. When her daughter pulled out old photos and asked about a soldier—listed as “war boyfriend” on the back of the picture—Gillmor claimed she couldn’t remember his name.

Her other memories were crystal clear.

She was young and naïve, a 22-year-old from a Swedish family whose pastor set down strict rules about religion and behavior.

She was shell-shocked to see the devastation around her, when she arrived at the 300th General Hospital Unit, atop a hill in Naples.

“Naples was dirty,” she said. “Everything was crumbling, and people were coming out of their caves. I think that was the realization of what war does.”

‘JUST SKIN AND BONES’

Gillmor also was struck by the children living in the streets because orphanages were overflowing.

Italians who worked in the hospital where Gillmor was assigned, likewise, had little. “We’d get rations for fruit juice and crackers and we’d take turns sharing food with them so they’d have something to eat,” she said.

Gillmor, a first lieutenant after 18 months of service, also saw what the lack of nutrition did to Americans who’d been captured.

“They were just skin and bones,” she said. “They didn’t talk much about what they endured. They talked about their families and going home and getting something good to eat.”

She saw an iron lung for the first time and worked with two polio patients. They lay in the tubelike device, with heads and necks exposed. The respirator helped them breathe because polio attacked the chest muscles in its early stages.

“It was just a cumbersome thing,” she said about the iron lung.

She also worked with war brides and their babies, making sure both were healthy before they boarded ships for America.

During her duty at the hospital, she came in contact with mothers from various ethnic groups, German prisoners who worked in the kitchen and Italian nuns who cared for tuberculosis patients.

The exposure to different cultures helped her see things in a new way.

“I think as Americans, we tend to think everybody does things the way we do,” she said. “I think it awakened me to the idea that other people have ways to achieve their goals. Whether theirs is the best way or not, it’s not for me to evaluate.”

‘A REALLY SWEET LADY’

When Gillmor came back to the states from Italy, she went back to school. She joked there weren’t many boys her age around who weren’t engaged or married.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing, worked in a hospital obstetrics ward in Toledo, Ohio, and taught nursing.

She married Warren Gillmor in 1951. They moved to Fairview Beach, where she’s lived ever since. They had four children and three grandchildren. He worked at the Navy base at Dahlgren and died in 1995.

Gillmor eventually worked as an in-service coordinator at Mary Washington Hospital, where she remained until 1976. She scheduled classes to update workers on equipment and procedures and did the orientation for new employees.

When her hearing started to fail, she took care of people in their homes. She isn’t able to do that anymore, but still helps the community as she can. She’s well-known for the breakfast buns she makes for Fairview Beach’s annual fundraising event.

“She’s always been an exceptionally good neighbor and a really sweet lady,” said Bonnie Stone, who also lives in Fairview Beach in King George County. “She’s the first one there for a family [to provide food] if there’s a crisis or an illness.”

Gillmor had others in mind, even as she prepared for her birthday. On the invitation, she asked that, instead of bringing presents, people make donations to the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank or King George Animal Rescue League.

“I think that’s very nice of her to do that for other people instead of wanting gifts for herself,” said Mary Lee Goodridge, another longtime Beach resident until she and her husband, Norm, moved to Chancellor’s Village last year.

Mildred Smith, who’s also 90, went to nursing school with Gillmor and recognized the same qualities in her that people still talk about, almost 70 years later.

“When you’re with a group, there are certain people that you gravitate to,” said Smith, who still lives in Washington, Pa. “She was one of those.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

 

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