Florence Parker almost didn’t make it back to her native Massachusetts with the rest of her outfit following Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945. After a 10-day R&R trip to Switzerland in October that included a train ride to Jungfraujoch, the highest point in Europe that can be reached by rail, a 26-year-old Parker had just returned to her post city of Bologna, Italy — where they’d remained for several months after the surrender — when a woman she knew stopped her in the street to tell her the rest of the nurses Parker served with had left for Naples to board a ship home.
Parker didn’t want to be left behind to make the journey to the States by herself. She rushed to the airport and spoke to the charge nurse, who said there were no planes available. She tried the Officer’s Club next, asking the room, “Anybody going to Naples?”
After catching one ride to Rome and another from Rome to Naples, she finally made it. Upon her arrival, she discovered it would be two weeks before the ship would arrive to take them home. In her rush to get there, she had apparently forgotten the unofficial Army motto: “Hurry up and wait.”
It would be just over three weeks before she and thousands of others would step off USS Wakefield, once the luxury cruise liner SS Manhattan before being chartered by the government for troop transport, and kiss the ground at Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Mass. It would be a month shy of four years since Parker, as a 22-year-old resident of Somerville, Mass., had enlisted in the United States Army Corps of Nurses.
A recent graduate of nursing school in 1941, Parker — whose last name at the time was Annese — was working at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge and was taking the streetcar home following her shift on Dec. 7 when she learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“They announced it on the trolley, and everybody was just devastated,” says Parker, 94. “They knew what it meant, that we were going to war. First, everyone was quiet, couldn’t assimilate. All of a sudden, everyone was talking to everyone else. It’s like we weren’t strangers, anymore. We were a country working together.”
The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan, and on the following day, without telling her parents first — “I had to have time to think about it myself,” she says — Parker went to a military recruiting office crowded with men clamoring to enlist. The rejected left “absolutely devastated.”
“I had male friends who were just so upset that — they either had flat feet or vision problems,” she says. “Instead of being sensible and taking you in for a duty you could do, they rejected the young men.”
Parker tried to volunteer for the Navy, but because her vision wasn’t perfect she was rejected, too. “The Army took me,” she laughs.
Parker was assigned to the 6th General Hospital, affiliated with Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. She received military training over the course of several months at warm and muggy Camp Blanding, Fla. This was followed in January by a brief, and shockingly cold, stint at Camp Kilmer, N.J. before she boarded a ship in February 1943 headed … somewhere. The location was a tightly held secret, but having been issued long johns, gloves, and other winter clothing, Parker suspected they were going to Alaska.
As part of her daily routine to escape the cramped and often malodorous interior bunks during the nearly two-week voyage, she would find a spot outside and watch the other ships in the convoy tactically changing positions.
“You’d look out and see number A, then you’d look again and number C was there, and next B was there,” she says. “It was fascinating.”
About halfway through the journey it was revealed via a pamphlet on how to behave in Africa that they were not, in fact, going to Alaska. The ship’s passengers were treated to a showing of “Casablanca” the night before they docked in French Morocco.
Anything but paradise
The view from the ship looked nothing like the idyllic nightlife oasis depicted in the Bogart-Bergman picture. By the time they arrived, Parker says, the troops had advanced to southern Italy, but the evidence of war remained. Sunken battleships listed in the water, and Parker compares the crumbled, battle-torn buildings to the rubble left behind by Oklahoma’s June tornadoes.
For 13 months the 6th General Hospital treated soldiers from local units and those evacuated from the combat zone in an old girls’ school, “Collège des Jeune Filles, Mers Sultan.” Far from a party paradise, Morocco had been dirtied by war. Residents dealt with aggressive locusts (“They got in your ears,” Parker says), and for safety reasons, no one was to walk the streets without several companions for fear of being mugged, or worse. But there were also friends to be made.
“You got to know the people who lived there. They would be very nice, and if they had a bike they would let you take it out for an hour or two. I really had never learned to ride a bike, so they taught me,” she says.
The 6th General Hospital left Casablanca in May and after a stop in a ravaged Anzio, Italy, arrived in Rome. In Rome, Parker says, nurses initially set up camp with two nurses to a tent, each given a daily helmet’s worth of water for a shower and a canteen of water for drinking. She recalls the inconvenience not with a scowl, but with a smile.
“God was very good to me,” she says. “I didn’t go to the Pacific, and the girls in the Pacific had an awful time.”
One, she says by way of illustration, was stabbed in the head.
But Rome was busy, with the wounded — one of them a soldier whose truck had overturned — coming in as fast as they could make up the beds. Wards were arranged in what Parker describes as a “monstrosity of a building,” the building of the “Instituto Buon Pastore,” or Institute of the Good Shepherd. The Germans had used it previously for treating the sick and wounded and had evacuated quickly.
“When we moved in, the stench was horrible,” Parker says. “The Germans left their people there.”
They lost very few soldiers in that monstrosity, Parker says, and to the best of her knowledge they never ran out of medication in the makeshift hospital outfitted with 2,423 beds.
As happens even during wartime, life took on a certain rhythm with good days and bad. Meals were often bean sandwiches — which Parker preferred with mayonnaise, but her mother didn’t always have the rations to buy it for her, she recalls with a laugh — or Spam, with the occasional canned vegetables or chicken. Routines formed. After the nurses moved from the two-person tents into the building, where they slept on cots 12 to a room, they developed a nightly ritual of doing their hair in the style featured in such WWII movies such as Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” (a title Parker waves away with a flick of her hand before praising the greater accuracy of the 1943 war movie “So Proudly We Hail!”).
“Every night, we’d help each other put it up in curlers,” she says. “Believe it or not, we all got along. You developed friendships that you never would get outside the service. You’re there to help one another and do for one another.”
Show of compassion
They also helped some hungry Italian children, and there were many, by selling cigarettes they gathered and food treats mailed from home and then donating that money to nuns running a nearby orphanage.
Selling some of their own food for money didn’t create a hardship for the nurses; they were never hungry, Parker says. Whatever discomforts she and the rest of her unit might have endured are cast off with a shrug. As far as Parker is concerned, it was nothing compared to the hardships suffered by some of her peers in the Pacific or the servicemen fighting the war.
But her job did have its psychological challenges. After closing station in Rome in December 1944, the 6th General Hospital was put on inactive status until spring, at which time they set up in Bologna following its liberation. The announcement of victory in Europe and Britain on May 8, 1945, V-E Day, didn’t mean the work was done. While in Bologna there were still wounded to care for, including German prisoners of war.
To describe the experience, Parker turns to a passage from a yearbook documenting the 6th General Hospital’s time overseas and reads, “In compliance with the Geneva Conference we had given reasonable care and consideration to the enemy. We took this work in stride.”
“The thing is,” she says, “you know what they were doing to our boys? How they persecuted them? It was terrible. The prison camps — they had no food. They were beaten. It was terrible, terrible, terrible. That’s why when we got them, some of the nurses refused to take care of them, and they said we could be court martialed.”
She again quotes the passage from the yearbook before saying, “I’m sure that … they weren’t all to blame. There were some of them that if they had the choice they certainly would not be in the German army, but with Hitler they had no choice.”
Bologna was Parker’s final duty station. When she arrived home from Naples just before Thanksgiving in 1945, she and two friends marked the event by buying fur coats.
“It was kind of foolish to do it, and then I was too embarrassed to wear it,” she laughs.
Parker went back to work at Mount Auburn Hospital and lived with her parents while adjusting to being home. She planned to re-enter the service, but friends told her to give it a few weeks before deciding. But then that soldier whose truck had overturned, Tom Parker, called and left a message with her father.
“I said I didn’t know Tom Parker,” she says. “He called again the next day and I was home, and he said, ‘Would you like to go out to dinner?’ I said okay, but I didn’t know what he looked like.”
Concerned about fashion, she didn’t wear her glasses that cold, January night. Nor did she wear her galoshes, a choice she believes contributed to the pneumonia she developed shortly after their date.
“I wanted to make an impression,” she laughs.
She and Tom married eight months later, and she quit nursing after becoming pregnant with the first of their four children. In 1965 the two moved to Manchester, Conn., where Parker continues to live in the house she shared with her husband of 56 years, who died in 2002.
Parker says that at her age she tends to forget some things, but what she mentions frequently, and remembers vividly, is the bond formed among service members overseas.
“My friends are all gone now, but it’s a very special, caring feeling,” she says.