CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Gertrude Tuttle was born Gertrude “Trudi” Seither in Irvington, New Jersey. Three of her older siblings enlisted in the United States military during World War II. With a brother serving in Italy, a sister in Wales and another sister in Biloxi, Mississippi, Trudy, as she is known, felt she was also called to service. While she was still in high school, her two older sisters had studied a new type of treatment, called Physical Therapy. Tuttle soon realized that she wanted to enter the same profession.
Tuttle was attending the University of Colorado that dark day when President Roosevelt announced that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, and the United States of America was at war. “We were all in shock,” she recalled. Like her sisters before her, Tuttle maintained her desire to become a physical therapist; a skill set that was, at the time, in its infancy. She was very fortunate, however, as she was able to train under Sister Elizabeth Kenny, the Australian nurse who was a pioneer in advancing Physical Therapy treatment, and who was in America at the time. Polio was still very much on the rise; this type of therapy was a new road map for those stricken with this terrible disease.
After receiving a Registered Nursing degree from New York University, Tuttle was ready to embrace her new career. Like her three siblings before her, she had a strong desire to serve her country. Shortly after graduation, Tuttle walked into a recruiting station and signed up for the United States Army. Her first stop was Atlantic City, for basic training. Housed at the Chalfonte Hotel, the young nurses were right next door to England Hospital, where many injured soldiers were recovering.
It was here that Tuttle got a true understanding of the horrific injuries these men were suffering. “There were so many men with spinal cord injuries, bullet wounds and amputees; it was a tragic sight that would never leave you,” she recalled. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Seither got orders to ship out, which came as a surprise to her. She was not sent to Europe, but to the Pacific Theatre of War. “My destiny was different,” Tuttle said. At Camp Stoneman in California, she boarded the Willard A. Holbrook, bound for the Pacific. “We were 60 nurses on board, all traveling with both Army and Navy servicemen” she recalled.
Tuttle remembered watching the Golden Gate Bridge fade in the distance as she began her journey to the unknown. A month later, the ship docked at its final destination: the Philippines. “The extreme heat and humidity were just suffocating,” she said. But in good time, the girls adjusted to the bugs, heat and their open-air compound made of burlap held together with poles. Her stay at the compound was brief, for she was quickly transferred to the Physical Therapy Department of the 126th General Hospital.
Here, the young Lt. Seither experienced many horrific sights. “There were men who were emaciated, weighing only 70 pounds, others with terrible wounds, and those who were mentally unstable. Many of these men died, it was tragic”. But she quickly realized the reason she was sent to the Philippines, when she encountered the number of soldiers who had been paralyzed by bullet wounds to the spinal cord, for her training in Infantile Paralysis therapy provided the only form of treatment that could give these men a chance. “We used a form of Sister Kenny’s massage therapy techniques, which was basically our only tool,” Tuttle recalled.
Later, Tuttle unfortunately contracted “jungle rot”, an ulcerative skin lesion caused by a polymicrobial infection which is common to tropical climates. The doctors could not treat the condition, as heat and humidity prevented healing. She was given orders to return to the United States after 8 months of service. Homebound, her final destination was Pearl Harbor, where Tuttle was very fortunate to learn of the Japanese surrender. She remembered “the tragedy of so many broken soldiers who were both physically and mentally wounded, but together on that memorable day, we all rejoiced … the war was over.”
Of her experience, Tuttle remarked, “It was a lot like the TV show “M*A*S*H”, the difference being that we had a terribly hot and humid climate breeding all sorts of disease.” On a personal note, her story is not complete without recalling how happily it ended. On her journey to the Philippines, the female soldiers were out on deck sunbathing, and a sailor came by and was tripped when Lt. Seither stuck her foot out. His name was Lieutenant Roger Tuttle. Shortly thereafter, he became her husband, and together they raised a family of seven children. He became a well-known radio and television announcer during the Sixties and Seventies. Meanwhile, Tuttle continued her nursing career. Gertrude “Trudi” Tuttle was a woman who served the United States Army with devotion, conviction and honor.