CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
This oral history summary is from a joint interview of World War II Army nurse veteran friends Margaret Jennings-Manzi and Gloria Randon, who had served together during the conflict aboard the USS Seminole, a United States Army hospital ship. During their tour of duty aboard the Seminole, the ship was awarded six battle stars, and came under enemy fire on several occasions in the Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of North Africa and Italy. The following is an account of their combined story. Some of the quotable passages will be attributed to one or to the other, but all of the passages, quoted or not, were agreed on by the two friends.
They were both Jersey girls – Jennings-Manzi from Spring Lake Heights and Randon from Dumont. They both graduated from St. Vincent’s School of Nursing in New York City – Jennings-Manzi in 1941 and Randon in 1942. They both entered the army in February 1943, and soon became lifelong friends.
On December 7, 1941, Randon was enjoying a Sunday afternoon at her home in Dumont when she heard on the radio news that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Jennings-Manzi was doing post-graduate work in an operating room in a Brooklyn, New York hospital when she heard about the attack. She recalled that “after December 7, everybody you knew went into the service. If they weren’t drafted, they joined, and it all happened very quickly. Some people you knew signed up immediately, and that continued until everyone was gone.” In February 1943, both Jennings-Manzi and Randon enlisted in the United States Army.
On entering the service, the two women, as was standard army practice with nurses, were immediately commissioned second lieutenants and, without any special military training, were assigned to the base hospital at the United States Army Signal Corps base training center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. “There was no real military training. The army was in desperate need of nurses at that time. There were no combat casualties at the hospital, but we were very busy with many sick young soldiers. Fort Monmouth was a Signal Corps training center, and some of the barracks were full of men sick with measles. Other barracks were full of men sick with chicken pox, and many soldiers just had bad colds.” Jennings-Manzi and Randon were allowed leave on weekends, and Randon remembered her parents admiring her uniform and bragging about her to all the neighbors.
Their first overseas assignment was on the USS Seminole, a former Caribbean cruise ship converted into an army floating hospital, and renamed soon after the war began. The Seminole had a 500 bed patient capacity, and carried a full complement of 500 support personnel, including a navy crew and army medical staff.
While at Fort Monmouth, Jennings-Manzi and Randon recognized each other as former St. Vincent’s students, and when assigned to the Seminole requested a room together. Randon took the upper bunk and Jennings-Manzi the lower. In addition to the double bunk, there were two dressers, two closets and a shower cramped into their 5 by 8 foot living space. “We learned to live very comfortably; we hardly ever fought,” they agreed.
The two friends crossed the Atlantic Ocean over twenty times together, but no crossing was worse than the first time they returned to New York from England, when the Seminole sailed into a North Atlantic storm that lasted four days. “It was a perfect storm, a hurricane. It was very dangerous. We had 500 patients and 500 military personnel on board. It was really frightening. After that, we never went back to New York City again. The Army subsequently decided we did not belong in the North Atlantic, so we sailed out of Charleston, South Carolina and crossed the South Atlantic.”
On another Atlantic crossing, an incident with a German submarine gave the two nurses a strange and uneasy feeling. They recalled seeing a German U-boat periscope observing the burial at sea of a soldier who had died on the Seminole. (There was no morgue on the ship, so burials of patients who died had to be conducted at sea.) “It was a very strange feeling, but we had a red cross on our ship that they honored. They weren’t going to attack a hospital ship. We never sailed within a convoy, because convoys could be attacked . . . so we sailed by ourselves.”
As a hospital ship, the Seminole was, by the terms of the Hague Convention, protected from enemy attack, but subject to boarding and inspection by the enemy. The Convention specified that a hospital ship could not carry any arms or military cargo of any kind. Jennings-Manzi and Randon remembered that a British hospital ship was sunk by the Germans off the Italian coast at the Anzio beachhead. “That was a deliberate sinking. The story we were told was that the British ship was suspected of transporting arms, but we never knew if that was true or not. There were 103 nurses on the British ship when it was hit, but they all were saved.” The Seminole was painted white and marked with a wide green band around its hull, and a large red cross on either side, and was distinguishable at night by rows of green lights.
The Seminole did most of its sailing around the Mediterranean Sea. The ship’s normal operating procedure was to stand offshore in a combat zone and receive wounded men ferried out on landing craft from battlefield hospitals. Jennings-Manzi and Randon both recalled that the captain of the Seminole received a message from the Germans, who were shelling the Anzio beachhead with a large long-range cannon called “Big Bertha,” requesting that the ship move to a safer area “two miles offshore, where we were supposed to be. We did see an LST [landing craft] carrying wounded out to us get hit by a shell. Anzio was a very narrow beachhead that was constantly under fire for months. The field hospital was dug in underground and was overcrowded with wounded.”
There were other encounters, not so benign, with the enemy. Both women described being bombed and strafed by a German plane while the Seminole took on wounded soldiers from a pier in Naples harbor. It was at night, and the Seminole, along with the other ships docked at the pier, was operating under blackout conditions. “There was no moon that night, but Mount Vesuvius was overflowing with lava. The light from the volcano was unbelievably bright. They [the German aircraft] could pick out the ships, but couldn’t tell by the shapes what they were. He missed us by three feet on one side. We knew he had a second bomb, and we knew he would come back, so we all stood in the middle of the ship. Some were saying their prayers. When he dove again, we were quite sure we were going to get it, but he missed and dropped it again on the side of the ship. He strafed us as he went by. He never did hit us. No one was hurt.” Jennings-Manzi remembered thinking, “my mother would kill me if I got killed.” The two friends also remembered their ship coming under another attack off the coast of North Africa near Bizerte.
The war was never far away. Jennings-Manzi and Randon also recalled being anchored off Gibraltar while the United States Navy dropped antisubmarine depth charges into the sea every twenty minutes. “It went on for the two weeks we were there. It was nerve wracking.” On another of its voyages across the Mediterranean, the Seminole rescued two American and two British fliers who were marooned on the floating fuselages of their downed planes.
While the war raged on around them, the navy crew on the Seminole took every step possible to keep the ship out of harm’s way. The officers plotted what they thought were the safest navigational courses, and the lookouts were instructed to keep a close watch for loose floating mines. The medical staff made life on board as pleasant and comfortable as they could for everyone. In the military newspaper Stars & Stripes, famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle described what it meant and what it felt like for a wounded “GI” to go directly from laying on the cold wet ground and eating K-rations on a battlefield, to sleeping on fresh sheets and being fed hot food and fresh fruit in the warm, clean accommodations of a ship.
The army never had formal hospital ships until World War II, and thus had developed no set manual or doctrine to guide personnel, so the medical staff had to improvise a response to each new problem as it occurred. Some unforeseen predicaments could not be remedied; “The operating room on board ship never functioned because of the rough seas.” The nurses were not issued slacks to wear on duty – just skirts that were impractical when climbing up bunk ladders to care for the wounded, so the nurses decided to wear blue navy slacks, until the army issued them olive drab slacks to wear on duty. The medical staff did have plenty of medical supplies, however. Randon and Jennings-Manzi recalled that “British hospital ships were not as well-stocked as we were. They ran out of everything. They had to rewash their bandages, so they began to manufacture the bandages brown.”
The two nurses agreed that “caring for wounded soldiers was very different than taking care of civilians. They were essentially healthy young people who had been wounded in battle.” Most of the patients were surgical cases, and they slept on the promenade deck. The psychiatric “shell shock” patients were placed below deck. The military procedure to protect wounds before transferring men from a field hospital to a hospital ship was to encase the injury in a cast. When the nurses had to remove casts for any reason, they found that maggots had cleaned the wounds by eating decayed flesh. They recalled that on one return trip, they brought 330 paraplegic patients back to the United States. “We wrote letters home for them.”
Jennings-Manzi and Randon recalled one patient suffering from “shell shock.” “He was brought aboard, and he was absolutely immobile. He didn’t move, didn’t turn, didn’t say anything, and didn’t open his eyes, but didn’t seem to be in a coma.” They thought he was just frightened enough that he couldn’t revive. They thought he would eventually. But he never did. He died. Fortunately, “out of all the wounded who received medical care, only four percent died.”
Some of the hospital ship patients were enemy soldiers. The nurses recalled that many injured German and Italian prisoners of war were sent from North Africa to POW camps in the United States aboard the Seminole, and that many of the Germans spoke English. “Most POWs were glad to be on the ship and out of the war. No matter which side they were on, and especially if they were hurt, we never viewed them as the enemy. A patient was a patient. By the end of the war, the German POWs were very young.”
Life on board the ship was not always so grim. Since there were no radios, the nurses had to entertain themselves and the wounded by singing, telling stories, playing cards and putting on variety shows. Red Cross workers aboard the Seminole would plan parties that included the ship’s staff and ship and shore personnel when possible.
Jennings-Manzi and Randon recalled the Seminole had one Red Cross worker who left the ship near the coast of Yugoslavia in the Adriatic Sea so she could meet her husband, who was on a secret mission supplying anti-German partisan guerillas under Marshal Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia. The Red Cross worker was the British movie actress Madeline Carroll, and her husband was the actor Sterling Hayden, then an officer working for the American OSS.
The nurses recalled that traveling was very new and frightening to them. “We never travelled very far before the war — not like our children and grandchildren do today.” They remembered being told “we were going to Africa. It sounded like jungle, and we were very surprised to see that Oran, Algeria, looked like the Bronx, New York.”
Jennings-Manzi and Randon went ashore whenever they could. They cruised on a sailboat from Naples to the island of Capri. They were in Rome, Italy, St. Tropez, France, the island of Malta, and Algiers, Bizerte and Oran in Algeria, as well as other cities. “It seemed we visited every port in North Africa.” Jennings-Manzi recalled entering a home in North Africa. “They lived in a compound, dirt floors, chickens running around; it was pretty primitive, and they gave us some kind of food. Nice people, but the food frightened me, because I had never seen or tasted anything like it before.”
The Seminole returned to the United States every six months for refitting. Jennings-Manzi showed the interviewer a newspaper clipping of a wartime interview (copy attached) she gave to a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC while the Seminole was in the United States. She remained on the USS Seminole until the end of the war, and, she recalled, “The war ended very slowly for us.”
Randon, who during the war had married an Army Air Corps officer, was home in the United States when Victory in Europe was finally achieved in May 1945. She stayed in New Jersey, raised her children there and took advantage of GI Bill education benefits in obtaining a college nursing degree, and returned to a nursing career in civilian life. Jennings-Manzi also returned home to New Jersey, where she married and raised her children, but never returned to nursing.
Both Randon and Jennings-Manzi felt that the war had had a great effect not only on them personally but on the world in general. They were both horrified the year before their interview when the World Trade Center towers went down on 9/11. “We are at war again, and war makes so many demands on people. The danger is all over again. We just have to get the best minds to find some means for peace,” they concluded.
Gloria Randon passed away on April 23, 2005.