CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Helene F. Cattani was born Helene F. Wiggs in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in April, 1920. In 1941 she was a registered nurse living in Greenville, North Carolina with her married sister. In the months that followed, she worked as a civilian nurse at Camp Davis hospital caring for malaria victims from the South Pacific and merchant seamen who became burn victims as German submarines initiated “Operation Drumbeat” and sank numerous ships right off our east coast in the summer of 1942. Although her patients detailed the horror of sailing through what they called “torpedo junction” off Cape Hatteras, Cattani stated that she believed the navy covered up the intensity of the attacks.
Cattani’s father had served in the army. Her brother, a navy ship’s cook stationed at Pearl Harbor, barely escaped death as everyone else in his galley was killed during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. He was later wounded at Okinawa. As the war went on, Cattani read in local newspapers of the critical need for military nurses. Without any thought of potential danger, she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps on March 10, 1943. Cattani did not receive basic training but was commissioned a second lieutenant after training at the Camp Davis hospital, working a 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM day shift. Her extensive civilian experience made for a simple adjustment to military nursing. Cattani spent one year stateside, then volunteered for overseas service. She left North Carolina by train for Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts, from where she left for Europe aboard the USS America, a cruise ship converted to a troop transport. Cattani spent six days at sea en route to Marseilles, France, where she was assigned, with other medical personnel, to organize the 237th General Hospital.
Cattani enjoyed her minimal free time in France. She traveled by train to Paris and met movie actress Madeleine Carroll on the trip. She toured Paris, making use of the few high school French words she remembered. There were grimmer days as well, and she recalled hospital ward duties in Dijon, providing medication, including sulfa drugs and penicillin, and other prescribed treatments to patients whose arms and legs had been broken during the Battle of the Bulge. The main objective of the army medical system was to keep patients alive through prompt treatment as they were successively evacuated to field station or general hospitals according to the severity of their wounds. She treated a number of German POW’s as well as wounded Americans.
At times Cattani worked around the clock, returning to her Quonset hut quarters totally exhausted. She recalled how she would often wash her clothes in her helmet. There was danger from accidents and enemy action as well, and two nurses in her hospital died in service. During her time overseas Cattani was promoted to first lieutenant. She met her future husband, who was also in the army, in Metz, France, and at the end of the war in Europe both received orders to depart for duty in the China/Burma/India Theater of Operations. They boarded a Liberty ship, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and passed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific, where they received word of the Japanese surrender. It was at this time that she also learned of her brother’s shrapnel injury at Okinawa. Lieutenant Cattani subsequently returned to the United States, where she was discharged at Camp Sibert, Alabama on December 14, 1945. She was awarded the European/African/Middle Eastern theater campaign medal with one bronze service star.
After a happy homecoming, Cattani remained in touch by mail with some of her patients and also got to meet the parents of others, who expressed their appreciation of her efforts on behalf of their sons. She worked for a while as a nurse in civilian hospitals, impatient with the complaining of workers who had not seen the sights she had during the war. Cattani married her army sweetheart and eventually became a “stay at home mom.” At the time of her interview, Cattani’s husband had passed away and she was living in Old Bridge, New Jersey. She was a member of a social group that enjoyed traveling, playing blackjack and attending luncheons.
Helene Cattani, who wore a necklace presented to her as a gift from her children, with a photo of her husband, who passed away at age 66, as a twenty-two year old soldier in uniform, showed the interviewer some of her wartime artifacts, including photos of herself and her patients, the lyrics to the “Song of the Army Nurse Corps – The Army Nurse,” an invitation to a dinner at the Nurses’ Officers Club and various unit insignias. She read the “Nurses’ Devotion to Duty” and said that, if she were younger, she would be happy to again serve as an army nurse.