Mattie Donnell Hicks

Hometown: Greensboro, NC
Branch of Service: Army Nurse Corps
Location of Service: Pacific and Europe

DATE: February 25, 1999

HT: My name is Hermann Trojanowski and today is February 25, 1999. I’m at the home of Mrs. Mattie Donnell Hicks in Greensboro, North Carolina, to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Mrs. Hicks, thank you so much for talking with me this afternoon. If you could give me your name, please?
MH: My name is Mattie Donnell Hicks.
HT: And where were you born, Mrs. Hicks?
MH: I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina.
HT: Mrs. Hicks, could you tell me where you went to high school, please?
MH: I went to Dudley High School here in Greensboro.
HT: And did you go to college after high school?
MH: I went into nurse’s training after high school.
HT: And where was that?
MH: At Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
HT: That’s Grady Hospital?
MH: Right.
HT: And how long did that training last?
MH: Three years.
HT: And you received a diploma or?
MH: A diploma.
HT: Did you have a specialty of some sort?
MH: Not when I got out I didn’t have a specialty. I just did general duty in different hospitals.
HT: And after you graduated from Grady Hospital, where did you work?
MH: I worked in Gainesville, Georgia, for a while, and in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And then, see, what else did I do? I’m trying to think. Did I go into . . . ? Oh, I went into Public Health Nursing here in Greensboro for a short while. And then I took a postgraduate course in Public Health Nursing.
HT: And where was that?
MH: That was here in Greensboro and then Charlotte [North Carolina], because you took . . . No, it wasn’t. It was Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte.
HT: And Selma?
MH: Charlotte, North Carolina.
HT: Oh, Charlotte, okay. And where were you when you decided to enter the military?
MH: I was here in Greensboro then and I was doing Public Health Nursing.
HT: And what made you decide to go into the military?
MH: Well, I just thought I wanted to do something different in going into the military to try to help the soldiers with their wounds and all that.
HT: Do you remember when you went in?
MH: I went in in 1945.
HT: Do you recall which month it was?
MH: It was July 2, 1945.
HT: Do you remember what your first day was like that you went into the military? Did you have to go through some sort of basic training?
MH: Oh, did we ever! (chuckling)
HT: Please tell me something about those days.
MH: There was about thirty-some-odd nurses that we all were sent to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and we were all surprised because we didn’t know we would have to be taking any basic training. So we were given our clothes and our place to stay, and then the next morning we had to march to the mess hall for breakfast. And then after we marched for breakfast, we marched to the theater there on the post at Camp McCoy and they briefed us about Army rules and regulations and all of that. And then after we were in the theater there for a length of time, we marched out and went out on the . . . Let me see, we marched out and then we had to take exercises on the field where we marched out and had exercises. Then after that we marched again, and then went to lunch. (laughter) You should have seen the soldiers! (chuckling) We were pitiful. And so we had lunch, and then we had an hour break after that. Then we came out and marched again and went on the drill field. Now you talk about something funny! (laughter)
HT: Did you have uniforms by this time?
MH: Yeah, we had those fatigue things on. So the sergeant, he was so mean! You know, we couldn’t laugh or nothing because we’d get all messed up, you know, turning, and he’d be calling, “To the rear, march!” and all that kind of stuff. We were just running all into each other. (chuckling) Oh, you can’t laugh, and so we had to stop laughing about how we were doing. But after a while we got kind of used to it. But at first, with all that exercising, drilling, and marching, we were so sore! We would say every morning, “We can’t make it, we can’t make it.” So we’d take a hot shower and say, “Well, we’ll try another day.” And after a while we got kind of used to it. But it was pretty rough, I think.
HT: Did you have to learn how to shoot a gun?
MH: That was another thing I was scared of. (laughter) We had to go to the rifle range, and so they had us shootingÄyou know, how they do and all on the rifle range. And I was so afraid, I couldn’t hardly . . . I couldn’t hardly stand up. And I didn’t do anything much on that shooting business because I was afraid of the gun.
HT: So you had never shot a gun before?
MH: No. (chuckling) But they went on and passed us there in the shooting anyway. And after our three weeks of training, we were sent to an Army hospital to take care of . . .
[telephone rings, tape turned off]
HT: Mrs. Hicks, before the phone rang you were going to tell me that after the rifle range and three weeks of basic training you were shipped to an Army hospital for duty. Do you recall where and what the name of the hospital was?
MH: That was Camp San Luis Obispo General Hospital Medical and Surgical in California.
HT: And did you go across country on a train of some sort?
MH: Yes, on a train.
HT: Do you recall anything special about the train trip, because that’s quite a distance?
MH: Yeah, but it seemed like what, about twelve or fourteen of us, and you know we just talked along the way on the train, nothing special.
HT: If we could just backtrack about your basic training, were you in an integrated unit or was this all black nurses?
MH: This was integrated, the basic training. But when we went to Camp San Luis Obispo we were a black unit.
HT: Right. At basic training you were all officers, I guess?
MH: Right, right.
HT: And you had noncommissioned officers, sergeants to order you around. How did . . . ?
MH: (chuckling) The sergeant had to drill us, but . . . Let me see, I don’t think they had to do anything else but do the drilling. The other things we had to do was pertaining to medical.
HT: Oh, so you got some more medical training during basic as well?
MH: Yes, we did get some more medical, but I don’t remember what that was now. But I didn’t stay in the service too long because the Germans surrendered and I got out in August of ’45. And then I was called back into the Army the first of . . . No, I was called back into the Army in March of ’46 because they claimed they were short of help by that time. And then I stayed in the Army until April of 1966, twenty-one years.
HT: Twenty-one years, right. And what was the highest rank you achieved?
MH: Major.
HT: Major, okay. If we could just backtrack to the time you went out to San Luis Obispo, California. What type of hospital did you serve there?
MH: That was a general hospital, and it was for POWs [prisoners of war], and that’s why they sent us. Then somebody must have reported it, because they shipped us out of there and went to where it was integrated. They said we didn’t come in there to . . . Well, it was all right, but weÄ
HT: Were these German prisoners of war or . . . ?
MH: Yeah, they were German prisoners of war.
HT: But you didn’t stay there very long?
MH: No, I didn’t stay there very long. Somebody must have told them that we were . . . Well, I guess if we had been integrated they wouldn’t have said that they didn’t send us over there to a POW camp. But anyway, we all went to different hospitals after that.
HT: Oh, so you were broken up and went to different places.
MH: Right, after.
HT: Where did you go next?
MH: I went next to . . . Let me think now. (pause) I think I got out of the Army there in Camp . . . Yeah, that’s what happened. I got out because they had asked if anybody wanted to get out. Since the Germans had surrendered, they could. So I got out then. And then after I got out and was called back in March of ’46, I was sent to Tilton Army Hospital, Fort Dix, NJ as a general medical or surgical nurse. Succeeding stations of duty were Lockburne Air Base, Columbus, Ohio; Valley Forge General Hospital, Phoenixville, PA; Letterman Army Hospital, San Francisco, California; 11th Evacuation Hospital in Korea; Osaka General Hospital in Japan; OB USA Army Hospital, Fort Lee, VA; OB 2nd Field Hospital in Germany; US Army Hospital, Bremerhaven, Germany; and OB Womack Army Hospital, Fort Bragg, NC.
HT: Now, did you have any choice about going back in March of 1946, or were you sort of drafted?
MH: Well, they didn’t draft me, they just asked, “Would you like to come back in?”
HT: I see. Okay, there was such a huge shortage, they were asking for nurses to go back in the Army.
MH: Yes. They let you go and then they call you back. So I was glad to go back. I thought I didn’t like the Army, the reason I got out that first time; but I found that I did, so the next time I went in I stayed. (chuckling)
HT: And what type of work did you do after you got in and went to . . . Was it Tilton Army Hospital in New Jersey? Is that what you said?
MH: Right. Well, I did what they call general duty nursing.
HT: Can you describe what that is?
MH: General duty is medical/surgical duty, like that.
HT: So you helped with operations and surgery and that sort of thing?
MH: No, these were people on the ward. I didn’t help with the operations. I would just help when they’d come out of surgery.
HT: I see. Okay.
MH: Because they had regular nurses to work in the operating room.
HT: Surgical nurses, I guess.
MH: Right, and they did it.
HT: So you were, I guess, like a ward nurse almost.
MH: Right.
HT: You took care of the patients once they got out. And what type of patients were there? Were these fellows who had been in either the Pacific or in . . .
MH: There were people who . . . ones who had been in the war. They would ship them back to the States for us to take care of. So we were assigned to many hospitals in the United States, Germany, Japan, Korea, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and also Turkey. You know, we were assigned to different . . . because we usually . . . Now, in the States we usually would be assigned for just maybe two years. But overseas now we would just probably be assigned for eighteen months. So that’s why we have so many places that we were.
HT: Did you enjoy traveling from place to place and meeting new people and visiting and that sort of thing?
MH: Yes, and it was nice. I traveled to Berlin, Garmish, and Berchtesgaden in Germany; Rome; Holland; and Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as other areas. My travels were fascinating. Now, take Japan and Korea, it was pretty badly . . . They had pretty badly . . . What am I trying to say? They had done a lot of damage in fighting in those two places.
HT: Now were you stationed in Korea during the Korean War?
MH: Mm-hmm.
HT: And what was that like? Do you recall? Because I’ve seen the movie M*A*S*H and the television [show] M*A*S*H, and . . .
MH: Right. In Korea they were pretty well bombed-out and people were pitiful because they didn’t have . . . some of them didn’t have a place to stay and no food, and all that kind of thing. So our quarters were not as nice in Japan and Korea, but we didn’t ever make any . . . We didn’t complain about it, you know, because of how the place was there in Korea already. We tried to help out as much as possible. They would come by and they’d get food that was left over from the meals that we would serve.
HT: So you helped the Korean people?
MH: As much as we could. They were as nice as they could be, but they just had been bombed-out so much and didn’t have . . . Their homes were blown away, and some of them didn’t have clothing fit to wear and all that. So it was something. I said, “I don’t know what the people in America would do if they had to go through some of the things that you would see in the war.” You know, some of the people, how they have to live during wartime. I don’t know what they would do. Do you?
HT: Well, people are very resilient, so I would hope they would pull through it, but I’m sure it would be very tough.
MH: I’m sure it would be. I believe it would be anyway. Oh, well, you don’t want to hear all that, I know. But we enjoyed our stay there even though it was kind of rough. And some of the fellows would marry these Japanese and Korean women, and we’d get some of them into our hospital unit to wait on. And some of them were . . . They would marry a soldier, and it wouldn’t be their wife but it would be another person that was very sick so that person could get into the hospital for us to wait on. So we got on to that. (chuckling) So they had to have a picture of their wives before they would come into the hospital claiming they were married to these fellows. And the amazing thing was, and I was glad when we stopped it, that we had some of the patients that the fellows had married and we had to run a tube down in their throat and clean . . . and get all the fluid and stuff off of their stomach. And you know, through that tube live worms would come through. Live! (chuckling)
HT: Oh!
MH: Have you ever heard of such? Live worms! (chuckling) Oh, you know we had to stop that! Live! I said, “How in the world could they live with live worms coming out through that tube?” Oh, lord! (chuckling)
HT: Was this in Korea, or Japan, or both places?
MH: This was in Korea. So we stopped that, and so we didn’t get those patients that were real sick and had something like that we’d have to take care of.
HT: Did you have any other unusual medical problems that you had to try to solve, other than live worms?
MH: Some of them had tuberculosis, and so we had to try to get them out. Those were the civilians, now. I’m not talking about the soldiers.
HT: Right. So you took care of not only the military people but also military spouses and children probably as well.
MH: Right, whenever we were stationed where they were.
HT: And what was the name of the camp or base when you were in Korea? Do you recall what the name of the base was?
MH: Hmm.
HT: Well, if you remember later on, we’ll jot it down. That’s fine.
MH: I know we were in Osaka, Japan, but I’m trying to think of what the name of the Korean hospital . . . Hmm. I guess I should.
HT: Well, did you enjoy your work in Korean and Japan?
MH: Oh yeah, we enjoyed our work very much. One thing, we were kept busy because patients would be coming in. And some of them would be coming right off of the battlefield because they had the helicopters to pick them up, bring them right to the hospital, which saved a lot of their lives, you know, when they could bring them up and bring them over for treatment.
HT: Because this was fairly new, because during the Second World War they didn’t have helicopters.
MH: They didn’t have them, no.
HT: Right. So the quicker they could get the men into the operating room or the hospital, it would save a lot of [lives]. That sounds fantastic.
MH: Uh-huh, it saved a lot of lives like that.
HT: So did you have to work a lot of long hours and that sort of thing?
MH: Whenever a shipment would come in, you’d work. Everybody would go in and try to help to get them . . . help to take care of them. Because some of them would have to stay at the hospital where we were and some of them would have to be shipped on out to the States. If they were in real bad shape, they would ship them on right away. But if they were not in too bad a shape, they would stay right there and we’d take care of them.
HT: In your opinion, what was the caliber of the doctors with whom you worked at that time?
MH: Oh, they were good and interested in them too. Yeah, they worked hard.
HT: So top-grade doctors and nurses.
MH: Right, right.
HT: Were most of your fellow nurses veterans of the Second World War, or had they come in after the war? Do you recall?
MH: Let me see, some of them came in after the war, but most of them were there during the war or before the war. Yeah, most of them.
HT: Do you recall what [was] the hardest thing you ever had to do physically while you were in the military?
MH: Well, the hardest thing that I had to do when I was in the military, and this was because you get kind of involved with people that are so sick, and we had one fellow that came in. He came in for . . . You know, they had basic training and he came in for his basic training, and then he got sick and he had meningitis. And he was so sick. He had to have special nurses around-the-clock. And I would just pray. I said, “Please don’t let him die on my shift. Please don’t let him die on my shift.” And sure enough, he didn’t die on my shift. He died on one of the other shifts. But, you know, a young fellow coming in for basic training and get that sick and then die, you know, it kind of gets you. It kind of gets next to you. But we had to play nurse, we had to play mama, because some of the soldiers were just right out of high school and they didn’t know too much about Army life, and we had to play preacher, (chuckling) we had to play friend. Sometimes, if somebody would die in the night and the doctor wasn’t around, you had to baptize them before you sent them to the morgue. You’d sprinkle and sayÄ
HT: I’ve never heard that before. That’s very, very interesting.
MH: Uh-huh. We had to do that, because you didn’t want to send them to the morgue without them having been baptized, even though they may not even be your faith or nothing. But they would ask you to do it, and then you would wrap them up and send them to the morgue. And the fellows that would come in would be crying about their mom and all that stuff, we would try to quiet them down, you know.
HT: Now by this time the Army had been integrated, I guess, and so you took care of white and black patients. Is that correct?
MH: Yeah, we integrated, I believe, in 1946. I believe we integrated then.
HT: Right. Did anybody give you a hard time during that time about going to an integrated unit as opposed to having gone to an all-black unit before? Were there any problems that you ran into that you recall?
MH: When we were separated?
HT: You were separated at first. But when the Army was integrated, do you recall any specific problems that you saw?
MH: No, we didn’t see any problem. Because, you know, when you’re afraid, as most of us were (chuckling), being in a theater where they were fighting and all that, you kind of act like a family. That’s what we felt more like, a family. And I remember whenever we had this memorial here in Washington for the memorial they had there, and there were two flight nurses that were killed during the war and we had this memorial service. And so, even though we didn’t . . . These were Air Force nurses, we didn’t know them, but yet all of us were just crying and hugging one another. (chuckling) So we kind of acted like a family.
HT: That’s wonderful. Well, what was the hardest thing you ever had to do emotionally? We had talked about some hard physical things you had to do earlier.
MH: Hmm . . .
HT: You know, such as dealing with a favorite patient dying, or something like that maybe?
MH: We had one doctor that died over there on us, but now he . . . Let me see, I was working the evening shift when he was so sick, and we knew he wasn’t going to live. So his family, his wife was over there, and so he died before she got there. But I met her going up to the floor when I had gotten off, and so she wanted to know how he was doing. I said, “Oh, they’re up there.” I wouldn’t tell her he was already dead. An orthopedic doctor, real good, and oh, I tell you, that was really something.
HT: Now he didn’t die of battle wounds or anything like that, did he?
MH: No, no, he had some kind of kidney problem.
HT: Well, do you recall any funny or hilarious moments during your military service?
MH: (chuckling) Well, we had a French soldier, and I don’t know what he had, but anyway we were supposed to keep up with the amount of water he would drink or fluid he would drink and how much he would put out. Well, he couldn’t understand what we were saying, but there was somebody else in the ward there that could speak French and told him what he was supposed to do, put on this paper. Lo and behold, when we went to pick up the paper, he had it all in French. (laughter) After we had got somebody to tell him what to do, he put it all down in French. Now wasn’t that something for us to try to translate! (chuckling) Oh, me!
HT: That’s cute. Well, do you recall any embarrassing moments?
MH: I can’t think of anything. (chuckling) I guess I could tell you about those slit trenches we had and we’d all have to go to the bathroom.
HT: What, the latrines?
MH: Yes! (chuckling) Oh, me! In Korea we had those slit trenches that we had to go to and use. (chuckling)
HT: Well, do you ever recall being afraid?
MH: No, I never recall being afraid. And I sometimes think about that. As I say, sometimes I would be working and we’d just have maybe one nurse on each floor, you know, at night, and I didn’t seem to get afraid. And in some of those wards, you know, they had long hallways you’d have to walk up and down, and I didn’t get afraid. And I say now, you know if I had to do that now, I wouldn’t want to be walking up and down no halls like that by myself. That’s the only time I ever known whereÄ
HT: So you don’t think you were ever in any kind of physical danger?
MH: No, I don’t think so.
HT: How close were you to the front in Korea, do you recall?
MH: We had what they called the Eleventh Evac[uation] Hospital, and that was back, way back from the front. But we would get patients there by helicopter to this evac hospital, the Eleventh Evac Hospital.
HT: So your unit was never in danger of being bombed or anything like that by the North Koreans, I guess?
MH: We weren’t close enough to that.
HT: Right, you weren’t. Okay.
MH: They had the evac hospital, and I’m trying to think of the other hospitals that were close up to the front.
HT: Now were these permanent hospital buildings, or were they tent hospitals, or . . . ?
MH: Some of them were tent and some of them were just wood, you know. It’d just depend where you were stationed.
HT: Can you tell me something about what kind of social life you had over in Korea and Japan? What did you ladies do for fun?
MH: Well, we had the officers club, you know, each place we went to, and we could go there when we would like. But in Germany now, they had the clubs and they had the movies and they had a lot of things that you could do, movies . . . and what else is it that I said they had?
HT: Do you remember any of your favorite movies from that period of time?
MH: Madame Butterfly. And I don’t know the others. Oh, the operas there. The people, even though they didn’t have too much, but they would go to the opera. You’d see the whole family going to the opera, you’d see whole families going to the movies, you know. I guess they just got adjusted to it.
HT: Now this was in Germany?
MH: Right. Wherever we were stationed we had a chaplain to conduct worship services. The service I enjoyed most was a Christmas Eve program where I was stationed in Germany. It was a congregation of many nationalities that had gathered to sing carols or other songs of the season. Each nationality sang in their native language. The voices were beautiful and the songs were inspirational. Another enjoyable celebration was the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. It was organized like the yearly Fair in the USA-rides, food, music for dancing, displays. The US personnel enjoyed these activities along with people who were native to the area.
HT: Now, is that where you were stationed after you left Korea and Japan? You went over to Europe at that time, in the early ’50s?
MH: Let me see, I went to the Tilton Hospital when I came back in, right? And then I was sent to a hospital in the States, at Fort Lee, Virginia. And then after that I was sent overseas with the unit, the Eleventh Evac Hospital Unit.
HT: Is that after Fort Lee you were sent to Japan, or Korea rather?
MH: Well, we went to Japan with the Eleventh Evac Hospital, and then we were transferred. After we stayed in Japan for a little while, we were transferred to Korea with the unit.
HT: And where was the next place after you left Korea?
MH: Let me see, I came back to Japan. Let me see, I think it was the Osaka Hospital in Japan. I was sent back there. And then after that I was sent . . . my time was up and I came back to the States. While stationed in Fort Bragg, NC, a hospital unit from Bragg was sent on a mercy mission to Chile because of an earthquake there. I was one of the nurses in the team. A hospital was set up for the injured and ill people. We were flown by helicopter to villages of the area to vaccinate where necessary.
HT: And did you enjoy your stay in Germany and do a lot of traveling and that sort of thing?
MH: Yes, we were able to travel, because we’d have maybe four or five days off and you could go different places. I went to Berlin [Germany], but we couldn’t get off . . . We couldn’t do anything but just look because they had the soldiers lined up. They wouldn’t let you into Berlin, but you could just look over and see. And I heard these fellows, they just looked like little kids, and they told us, “Now y’all can get off, but you can’t go over there where they are.” So one lady said, “Well, I’m going on over there!” This fellow cocked that gun. He was going to shoot her.
HT: My gosh. Was she in the military with you?
MH: She was a civilian and was going to go over there. And when they say you can’t, (chuckling) I think that you ought to just listen to them.
HT: These were East Germans, I guess, that was going to shoot this lady?
MH: Yeah. (chuckling) Yes, sir! Let me see where else we went. Garmish[-Partenkirchen, Germany], Berchtesgarden [Germany]. Let me see, what was this other?
HT: Did you ever go to Munich [Germany]?
MH: Yes, I was stationed in Munich. I didn’t tell you about that, did I?
HT: I think Munich is one of my favorite cities. It’s so pretty.
MH: Yeah, and we didn’t mind staying in Munich because it was nice there. Let me see, Berchtesgarden, Germany. Oh, where are the tulips? Let me see, Holland. Is Holland where the tulips are?
HT: Did you stay in Holland, in the Netherlands? Were you ever stationedÄ
MH: That was on a tour. It seems like someplace else we went too, and I can’t even think about it.
HT: Did you ever go into Austria or Switzerland?
MH: Oh yeah, we went to Austria too. We could go there on a day.
HT: What did you think of European and German food in particular? Did you enjoy all the bratwurst and the dumplings and that sort of thing?
MH: Well, we mostly ate what they fixed for Americans. We ate that other . . . And Oktoberfest. (chuckling) We attended that.
HT: What did you think of all that beer and noise and music, etcetera?
MH: Oh, we just had a good time dancing with them. (chuckling) Oh, that was a lot of fun!
HT: That was? Did you buy a dirndl dress or anything like that?
MH: No, we just went in in our regular uniform, but we had a good time. We’d get up on the table and dance like the rest of them. (laughter)
HT: Oh, my goodness! You’ll have to tell me more about those parties. Dancing on the table!
MH: Uh-huh! Oh, we would have fun. Yes, indeed. As I said, the people, even though they had very little, they seemed to be able to enjoy life, more so than we enjoy life sometimes. To me, they seemed to enjoy life. Because on the weekend you’d see them with their bicycle, with the wife on the back, tied on the back, and the children tied on, and here’d they go. They’d go on to the park, you know? And see, they were outdoor people. And I thought that was really nice, because I don’t know whether we would be taking a bicycle and strapping the family to it and going to the park, would we?
HT: Not in those days maybe. You see more of that now. It seems like people enjoy the outdoors more here in the United States than they did in those days. A lot of hiking and walking and bicycling these days, even here.
MH: Oh yeah, that’s right, they do a lot of hiking.
HT: Do you recall any interesting people you met while you were in Germany, or Korea or Japan? And they don’t have to be famous.
MH: Hmm, I was trying to think of some of those nurses that I worked with. Oh, I can’t think of what their names were. We had nurses helping us on the wards, but I can’t remember what their names were. They were German nurses helping us.
HT: When you were in Germany you said you had some German nurses helping you.
MH: Right.
HT: Did you have any German doctors that you worked with as well as American doctors?
MH: I never did work with any of the German doctors. But we had German doctors in the Army, because I remember when we were with the Eleventh Evac we had two German doctors. They were very good.
HT: Were the German doctors in the military or were they civilian?
MH: They were in the military. I guess they had been trained in the States. I guess they had. I’m not sure. But they worked along with the patients and talked and everything like they may have been trained in the United States.
HT: And what about the nurses? Were the German nurses in the military or were they civilian?
MH: The German nurses were . . . they were German nurses. They were not . . .
HT: Do you have any heroes or heroines that stand out in your mind from your days in the Army?
MH: You mean nurses or doctors, or what?
HT: It could be anybody, civilian, military, someone you looked up to.
MH: There was one Army nurse, Martha E. Cleveland. And now we had two black nurses who were at one time Chief Nurse of the [U.S. Army Nurse] Corps. Let me see, one was named Hazel Johnson. And let me see, what’s the other name? Oh, good gracious. She’s on duty. This other one, I’m trying to think of her name, she’s on duty now. But after she retired, she went with a male unit to take charge of that unit.
[End Side A, Begin Side B]
HT: . . . about heroes and heroines, and you mentioned a couple of Chief Army Nurses. Is there anybody else that you’d like to mention at this time, who your heroes or heroines might have been?
MH: I’m trying to think. If only I had that book with all the names of the nurses.
HT: Well, of all the places that you visited in your twenty years of military service, which was your favorite place, and why?
MH: I think my favorite place was Germany because of it being so clean and not bombed-out like the other parts of places. You said overseas?
HT: Yes.
MH: Yeah, I think it was Germany, because it wasn’t . . .
HT: And what was your favorite place here in the United States, your favorite base or hospital?
MH: My favorite hospital in the United States was . . . Oh, let me see. I guess Fort Bragg [North Carolina] because I was stationed there more than anyplace else.
HT: So you kept coming back to Fort Bragg from time to time?
MH: Yes, that’s right. So I guess that would be my favorite.
HT: And throughout your twenty-year career, you always did general hospital duty?
MH: General hospital duty or ob-gyn duty.
HT: Did you enjoy working with babies and mothers?
MH: Yes, they were real nice, because after they delivered they were no trouble. They were so happy to get it over with. And they were happy too, because if the baby is all right they are happy, you know.
HT: Yeah, it’s a happy time, as opposed to being sick in the hospital. It’s a little bit different.
MH: That’s right.
HT: When you finally decided to retire, can you describe your adjustment to civilian life after being in the military for twenty-some years?
MH: Well, after retirement I decided that I wanted to have my own __________ my house and have my own place to stay. And then after I got this house built, I did some part-time duty in a hospital here.
HT: Which hospital?
MH: The L. Richardson Hospital here [Greensboro, North Carolina]. I did some part-time work. Then I said, “Shoot, what did I retire for if I’m going to work?” (chuckling) So I didn’t stay too long going to part-time duty.
HT: You say you built this house from scratch?
MH: Right.
HT: How was that process? Did you enjoy having it built for you?
MH: Yes, I had it built for me. They started building on it as soon as I decided I was going to get out. Then I said, “Now there is no use in me doing a little part-time duty.” Because some of them did part-time duty and they didn’t last too long. (chuckling)
HT: Well, what impact do you think the military had on your life immediately after you got out or retired, and in the long term since then?
MH: Well, I had to make a lot of adjustments, because seemingly coming back home you didn’t feel as close to people as you had felt in the military. If you had any problems or anything like that, we’d all try to help you to solve them and all that kind of stuff. And in working in the hospital here, the people didn’t seem to appreciate the care you tried to give them. So you had to make those adjustments.
HT: So you saw a difference in the quality of the personnel in the military and the quality of the personnel with whom you had to work in civilian life?
MH: Right, right.
HT: So it sounds like military discipline was a good thing maybe.
MH: It was, it was, because as I said, you seemed more like a family. And I guess it’s because we probably were scared or something. (chuckling) I don’t know why we seemed so much that, but anytime that anybody got in . . . needed anything, or could do anything for somebody else, they were willing to do it. So the patients were nice. They were appreciative of what you could do to help them whenever they were in pain or anything like that.
HT: Now, did you work with corpsmen in the hospitals, men?
MH: Yeah, on the wards they’d have a corpsman.
HT: How did the corpsmen get along with the nurses in general, do you recall?
MH: They got along real well.
HT: You had no problems with the corpsmen?
MH: No problems.
HT: There was no jealousy between the two groups or anything like that?
MH: No.
HT: And has your life been different because you were in the military?
MH: Different? Like what?
HT: Well, of course you got a chance to travel.
MH: Right.
HT: Which you probably would not have done if you had not been in the military.
MH: Right.
HT: And it sounds like you met some real fine people who made a real impression on you, which you might not have met, and that sort of thing. And it gave you the opportunity to build this house, it sounds like. I mean the military made that possible. Is that correct?
MH: Right.
HT: So I guess that’s what I meant. You know, what kind of difference did it make in your life, that you had been in the military.
MH: I was able to help my family. I came from a big family. I was able to help them some because of the salary. It was better in the Army than it would have been on the outside.
HT: Well, do you feel like you made a contribution? I usually ask women who had been in World War II if they felt the made a contribution to the war effort. But since your service was really after the war, of course during the Korean War, but do you feel like your service made a contribution to the military in general with your twenty-some year service?
MH: Right.
HT: And would you do it again?
MH: What, go into the Army?
HT: Go in the military.
MH: Well, I wouldn’t go in at this age.
HT: Well, I realize that. (laughter) Oh, why not?
MH: (laughter) I can’t hardly get around. I’m just kidding. Yeah, if I was younger, I would love to go into the Army. Yes, yes. Yes sir! And I try to encourage some of the children now. I say, “You don’t have to stay in the Army for so many years unless you just want to, but it would be so nice for you to go in and stay for a while.” Because the benefits, they give you so much schooling. You know, you can get schooling for so many years you stay in the Army, you get travel, you get a place to stay, you get food, you get clothed. I say, “Now you don’t have to stay in. Just go and stay for, say, three or four years so you can get those benefits.”
HT: So you have been encouraging some younger people you know?
MH: Yeah. “Oh, I don’t want nobody bossing me around.” I say, “Well, you’re being bossed around here where you’re working.” (chuckling) Oh, me! That was so funny, talking about they don’t want nobody bossing them around. I said, “Well, you’re being bossed around.” I say, “I don’t know of any job you work on you couldn’t be bossed.”
HT: That’s true.
MH: Unless you have your own job yourself. So some of them just say they don’t want to be bothered. But if they would go in, they would see how rewarding it is.
HT: Well, have any of your children ever been in the military.
MH: I don’t have any children.
HT: Oh, I see.
MH: My mama just had ten, so I guess that was enough. (laughter) That was enough. Ah, me! She was an only child and she and my daddy came up with ten children. I said, “Good gracious!”
HT: Well, did any of your brothers or sisters go in the military?
MH: Yeah, I had one brother that went into the service.
HT: But no sisters?
MH: No, I was the only one.
HT: Well, how did your family feel about you going into the Army?
MH: They didn’t mind it. They didn’t mind it.
HT: And what about your friends and co-workers? How did they feel about it?
MH: Well, some of them felt that they wouldn’t want to be bossed and all that kind of stuff too, and some of them thought it was nice, you know. You have different opinions on it.
HT: Well, do you consider yourself to be an independent person?
MH: Yes.
HT: Did the military make you that way, or were you independent before you went in the military?
MH: Well, I guess you would say I was semi-independent before I went into the Army. Of course, you did have rules you had to go by. (chuckling)
HT: Well, did you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter when you first went into the military, which was in 1945? Or looking back now, do you consider yourself any of these, being a pioneer, trailblazer, or a trendsetter? Because not many women had done this prior to the Second World War, go into the military, so you ladies were really leaders of the pack, so to speak.
MH: Well, I don’t know whether I would call myself a pioneer or what, because when I went in there was others in at that time. Because some of them went in in 1944. Some of them went in ’42 or ’44.
HT: Well, do you consider yourself and other women who joined the military during the World War II period to be forerunners of what we today call the Women’s Movement?
MH: I guess so. Yeah, I think so.
HT: And do you recall how women were perceived by the general public, women who joined the military, how they were looked upon by the general public during the Second World War? Was there a general approvement of women going in the military, or did some people look down on women who went in the military? What did the general public think of this?
MH: Well, the ones I ran across, they approved of women in the military, because they knew that their relatives would get good care by the nurses being in the military and taking care of them. And then a lot of them liked the uniforms that we would wear and things like that.
HT: Well, speaking of uniforms, what did your uniform look like, do you recall? Did you wear white uniforms or the Army khakis and greens?
MH: No, when we were in the States we had a seersucker striped uniform in brown and white, and then later on we used white uniforms. Now when we were overseas in Japan and Korea, we wore fatigues.
HT: Those are the green fatigues, I guess?
MH: Well, no, they were . . . Let me see, what color? Kind of brownish fatigues.
HT: So were these pants?
MH: Yeah.
HT: They were pants? Okay.
MH: That was for overseas.
HT: And in Europe what type of uniforms did you have?
MH: In Europe we had the seersuckers and the white uniforms.
HT: And were these well-fitting, nice-looking uniforms? I’ve heard other women say that, particularly the WACs [Women's Army Corps], say their uniforms were not always the best.
MH: Well, we were fitted, you know, so ours fitted all right. And we would have a class “A” . . . what they called a class “A” uniform for when you were going out or something like that. But the ones that I gave you there is the ones that we would work in.
HT: Did you by any chance keep any of your uniforms after you got out of the military?
MH: Yes.
HT: You do?
MH: Mm-hmm.
HT: Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions? I know recently, just a couple months ago, women flew combat missions over Iraq. Do you approve of this sort of thing?
MH: Well, I’m not so sure whether I would or not. (chuckling) It does seem like it’s kind of dangerous for a woman. Sometimes they can get nervous and all. But I guess if that’s what they want to do, you know, they can do all right. But I don’t care too much for that.
HT: In all the years that you were in the military you were an officer. Did you ever run across any kind of discrimination because you were either black or because you were a woman, that you recall?
MH: (chuckling) When we were at Camp McCoy with our basic training, we went in town. And so they had never seen any black people, you know?
HT: This was in Wisconsin?
MH: Yeah. And so this little girl was with her mama. She said, “Mama! What is that?” Her mama grabbed her and said, “Oh, they’re nurses, honey.” And so the little girl said, “Why, they are black!” I know that embarrassed that lady. (laughter) Oh, me! Yeah, I know that embarrassed her. Oh, me! But as a rule the people were all nice, especially if they had been around military people before. We didn’t have too much of that after the integration. Now, before the integration we had trouble. I wasn’t in at that time, but some of the nurses that were in, they would say they had to be separated. They had the rest rooms, colored and white, and said what they would do, they would go into the white ones. (laughter) Wasn’t that awful? (chuckling) When they had the sign up there for white, they’d go in that door. (chuckling) So, after a while they took all that down so we didn’t have no trouble.
HT: Well, we’ve covered quite a bit of territory this afternoon. Is there anything else you’d like to add about your time in the military, because twenty years is a long time to spend. It sounds like it was a wonderful time though for you.
MH: Yes, I guess I ought to say something about some of the little souvenirs.
HT: Yes, please tell me about some of the souvenirs.
MH: And some of the linens. You know, the Japanese had linens, and they were pretty reasonable at first when we went over. (chuckling) And this is the thing that I got from . . . And that’s all our unit from Munich.
HT: Right. So these are all the various ladies who were with you in Munich in 1955?
MH: Right.
HT: Oh, that’s wonderful! And did everybody get one of these in the unit?
MH: Yes.
HT: Oh, how very nice. That’s beautiful.
MH: Isn’t it, though?
HT: It’s a beautiful beer stein. That is very nice.
MH: And also silverware. We could get that reasonable for a while.
HT: So you picked up quite a few souvenirs everywhere you went.
MH: This is German, and when they came inÄ
HT: Right, the Bremen Musicians.
MH: No, this is the doggie, the dog and the cat and the rooster, and they all made all this noise and they scared the people back. (laughter) That’s the tale they tell about that. Oh, me. I guess that’s the only one, except for my . . . What did I call these?
HT: Isn’t that a Russian or Polish doll?
MH: Right.
HT: I think I’ve seen those before. Yeah, I’ve seen those.
MH: So I guess that’s about it.
HT: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add about your life since you retired that we haven’t covered?
MH: Well, I could add that I was able to do a lot of . . . some traveling here in the United States, you know, which I hadn’t done before I went into the Army you know, traveled. I guess that’s it.
HT: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me this afternoon. It’s been a real pleasure. I’ve enjoyed listening to your various stories about your travels and your souvenirs. It’s just been very nice. Thank you.
MH: Well, I enjoyed it. I thank you for coming.
HT: Oh, you’re welcome.
MH: And I’m sorry that I didn’t have all the answers. As I say, I’ve got so much junk and I sometimes throw some of it away.
HT: Well, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll have the opportunity to see all this again, and maybe you can add some things once you see the transcript. So that will work out real well. Again, thank you.

Interview with Mattie Donnell Hicks by Hermann Trojanowski , February 25, 1999 , Mattie Donnell Hicks, Women Veterans Historical Collection, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.