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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unanswered Letters to Norene Royer: Letter Writing and Postal Service in the American Expenditionary Force

I've been posting about the materials in the Grace Phelps Papers at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University that relate to the death of Base Hospital 46 Nurse Norene Royer on September 17, 1918. The materials tell us about one woman in wartime service but also much more.

That leads us to a very interesting form letter Chief Nurse Grace Phelps authored to let people corresponding with Royer know that she had died as she returned their most recent letters. We've seen that Phelps began her September 18 letter to Royer's mother with "You will find enclosed your letters to Norene, which were received but were never read." Personnel records indicate that Royer came down with influenza on September 8 and died on September 17, a period of ten days. Within that time she had received more than one letter from her mother.

Royer also had numerous other letters unanswered and perhaps unopened. Grace Phelps decided to notify all of the authors and return the letters they had sent to Royer. The form letter, dated September 28, 1918, was short and to the point: "You will find that we are returning your recent letter to Miss Norene Royer. We cannot tell you how much we regret that Miss Royer is no longer with us." Phelps gave a few specific details about her illness and military funeral and burial.

Then Phelps added two more sentences that reflect her views about the Base Hospital 46 endeavor and perhaps give us a window into her own ways of coping with Royer's death. "As much as we regret that she could not live and go back home with us," she wrote, "it is sweet to know that those of us who do not go back can be laid at rest with our dear men who are fighting the fight of all men." And then, she concluded, "Norene was very brave and sweet and not afraid to die." (Grace Phelps, Chief Nurse, to Multiple Recipients, September 28, 1918, Box 1, Folder 7, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University).

Phelps included the names and addresses of those people who had written to Royer, presumably from the onset of her illness to September 28 when she wrote the form letter -- 21 days. There were nineteen names on the list, including enlisted men in the American Expeditionary Force, her brother serving in France, her sister, other members of the Army Nurse Corps including Inah Templeton at the Vancouver Barracks Hospital in Washington State and Agnes Lavelle serving at Camp Dodge, Iowa. There were friends and employers in Spokane and either friends or relatives in Wisconsin. Together with the letters from her mother, Royer received an average of one letter per day.
"Norene Royer," Box 1, Folder 8, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
These numbers suggest that Royer herself was a letter-writer who was in correspondence with a variety of people inside the military and outside of it. It would be interesting to know how she compared with other colleagues at Base Hospital 46, but in the absence of complete correspondence we can't really know the answer.

I also wondered about the volume of mail to and from those in military service in France during the conflict and found some answers thanks to the staff at the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress who have digitized the Stars and Stripes, the U.S Army newspaper for wartime personnel in France. The U.S. Army had its own postal service. The Stars and Stripes reported that the American Expeditionary Force received 700,000 letters and 65,000 sacks of "paper mail" in June 1918 alone and that about one in five letters was "insufficiently or improperly addressed." ("All Mail Delays Not P.S.'s Fault," Stars and Stripes, August 2, 1918, 3.

"Home Bound Mail Bundled at Bases," Stars and Stripes, August 9, 1918, 6.
And in "Home Bound Mail Bundled at Bases," published on August 9 we learn that there was an astonishing amount of outgoing mail: "every seven days something over 2,600,000 pieces of mail, not counting packages and papers" arrived at the army mail terminal in France.

The article outlines the process of getting a letter from Base Hospital 46 to Portland or other cities in Oregon: "Eighty experienced postal clerks [now in the army] sort the mail as it is received. They come from every part of the United States, and each, through intimate experience with the section from which he hails,  knows just how a letter bound there ought to be routed. Each handles mail for the section with which he is familiar.

"As the mail comes in each man sorts the mail for his section. The letters are placed in racks divided into cubby holes. There are 7,500 of these cubby holes, each for a city or town in the United States which are subcenters of distribution for thousands of nearby smaller villages."
"A Clerk Sorts Mail During World War I," Smithsonian National Postal Museum, http://postalmuseum.si.edu/mailcall/images/WWI_Sorting.jpg
The Stars and Stripes concluded: "Just before a mail boat sails the accumulated letters in each rack are tied into packages and these are put in bags so that they will be sent direct from New York to the starting point of the mail route along which their contents will be distributed."

The editors estimated that every man in the American Expeditionary Force sent two letters a week. Women personnel were part of the AEF mail service, too, and presumably are part of this total. It is intriguing to think about how women's letter writing compared to men's and, of course, to consider how front line and battle limits to letter writing and the long shifts of nursing at peak conflict points might have impacted the totals. Different individuals undoubtedly brought personal needs and practice to the mix. It does appear that in this context Norene Royer wrote and received a larger than average number of letters.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Chief Nurse Grace Phelps Writes of Norene Royer's Death to Her Mother, Part II: "She Was Given All Military Honors"

The second part of Grace Phelps's letter to Agnes Sarah Royer, the mother of Base Hospital 46 nurse Norene Royer, detailed the funeral service and burial to give as much information as she could to the mother who was a world away from her daughter's burial service. She emphasized Royer's status as a military nurse and the rituals of the military honors paid her, reflecting a pride in this wartime service. Again, this portion of the letter tells us a great deal about Grace Phelps in addition to the funeral and burial. (Grace Phelps to Sarah Agnes Royer, September 18, 1918, Box 1, Folder 1, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University).

Bazoilles Church, Otis Wight et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 67.
The Royers were observant Catholics and Phelps wrote that the chaplain assigned to the hospital center, "Father Dinan, was perfectly splendid." He arranged for the service "which was held in the quaint and historical cathedral in the village near where we are stationed" (a church, not a cathedral, in Bazoilles, pictured above). "There was High Mass and the service was beautiful."

"Funeral of Miss Royer," Otis Wight et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 9.
To prepare for the services "the Officers went to the nearest town and bought some beautiful flowers, but what they got were no more beautiful than the bo[u]quet of red, white, and blue flowers we gathered from the fields -- the red poppies, the blue corn flowers and the white asters." Norene Royers was buried at 9:30 in the morning on September 18, the day after her death. "I wish I could tell you how beautiful she looked in her Red Cross uniform, white -- white shoes, and her Red Cross cap with the unit flag draped around her casket and a beautiful silk flag, which is the particular pride of the nurses of the unit, placed over her as a covering."

"She was given all military honors," Phelps stressed. "The six senior officers, majors and captains of our unit were the honorary pall bearers; six first-class sergeants were in attendance as active pall bearers." The service was important. "Most of the officers, nurses and enlisted men of the unit attended."

Phelps's letter to Agnes Royer was a reflection of her own pride in wartime service and her insistence of the important of nurses to the war effort. Her descriptions of the funeral and burial service suggest that she valued the formal ritual but also the personal expressions of grief and tribute. The letter was also a way for Phelps to reach across the world to share sympathy and loss.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chief Nurse Grace Phelps Writes of Norene Royer's Death to Her Mother, Part I: "I Will Miss Her Songs"

On September 18, 1918, the day after Base Hospital 46 Nurse Norene Royer's death, Chief Nurse Grace Phelps wrote to Royer's mother, Sarah Agnes Royer, who lived in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington. The letter, part of the Grace Phelps Collection at Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University tells us as much about Phelps as it does about Norene Royer. (Grace Phelps to Sarah Agnes Royer, September 18, 1918, Box 1, Folder 1, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University).

Chief Nurse Grace Phelps, R.N., Oregonian, March 17, 1918, Section 1, p. 14.
Norene Royer, R. N.
Box 1, Folder 8, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
"You will find enclosed your letters to Norene, which were received, but which she never read," Phelps began. "I wish I had some way of telling you without bluntly writing," about the death of "your dear child." An official telegram had been sent, but Phelps wanted to take time to share some things with Sarah Royer about her daughter.

Phelps assured Sarah Royer that "everything possible that the doctors and nurses could do was done for her" and that she had made a "brave fight to live." Norene "seemed to know that she was going as she said when she was first taken sick that she did not believe that she would get well."

Phelps also wanted give Sarah Royer some comfort with the thought that Norene had someone close to her in the difficult and intimate days of her last illness. "Miss Berg who has been her very good friend was with her as one of her special nurses and of course, will write to you very soon."
Anna Berg, R.N.
Grace Phelps Papers, Box 3, Binder 5, Base Hospital 46 Staff Files, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
Phelps shared information with Agnes Royer about Norene's success as a nurse and colleague at Base Hospital 46. This might help Royer with her grief, but it also told of Phelps's own feelings for the nurse with whom she had worked and her admiration for her work. "We will all miss her so much" she wrote. "The men because she was nice to them and such a good nurse, doing the thing to be done in a sisterly way and the nurses because she was one of them and they loved her. She roomed next door to me and I will miss her songs, for she was always singing and seemed very happy."

Monday, April 13, 2015

Death Comes to the Staff of Base Hospital 46: Nurse Norene Royer Dies From Influenza September 17, 1918

As noted in the last post, the American Expeditionary Force was unprepared for nurses to become ill. The death of Norene Royer during the influenza epidemic in September 1918 affected many of the staff in the unit in powerful ways. Her death also allows us to explore other aspects of nurses' lives at Base Hospital 46 because of the documents relating to it. I'll be exploring these themes in the next several posts.

"Norene Royer," Box 1, Folder 8, Grace Phelps Papers, Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University. Courtesy Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU.
Personnel information from the Grace Phelps Papers at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University tells us that Norene Royer was born in Appleton, Wisconsin on July 30, 1893. She was a 1916 graduate of the Sacred Heart Hospital Training School for Nurses in Spokane, Washington (now Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children's Hospital). Her file lists her as engaged in private duty nursing and in work as an office nurse before her enlistment with Base Hospital 46.

Royer's file indicates that she contracted influenza on September 8, 1918. This was part of a global wave of the disease; Royer was among an estimated 20 to 40 million people who died worldwide. She was presumably in the nurses' infirmary until her death on September 17, 1918.

The only place to bury the body appears to have been the Base Hospital cemetery that had been used to bury the bodies of patients who died there. It was the cemetery to which Eleanor Donaldson referred in her essay on "The Nurses Club" in Wight, On Active Service with Base Hospital 46: "The third road ran just a few yards from our tent door, with the river beyond--the last road of all, for the boys we left in France. It was a short road, ending in a plot at the foot of the hill where the sun's light touched the white crosses 'row on row.'" (152)
"American Cemetery at Bazoilles," Otis Wight et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 9.

"Funeral of Miss Royer," Otis Wight et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 9.
It is significant that the staff of the unit photographed Norene Royer's burial service and suggests a particular need to document the event in On Active Service with Base Hospital 46. Here we see male staff members in their coats on this mid-September day, and in the space on the right a nurse with her rain hat, tents of the hospital complex in the background. Flowers decorate the coffin.

Two other staff members of Base Hospital 46 died while in service in France: Corporal Ernest D. Stout (September 21, 1918) and Private First Class Kenneth Welshons (November 9, 1918) (Wight, On Active Service, 8.) Their funerals were not documented with images.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Base Hospital 46 Nurses' Infirmary

Base Hospital 46 nurses went to France to care for wounded and sick soldiers in the First World War. But they also became ill themselves. This was especially true in the fall of 1918 when the global influenza pandemic hit the unit.

Otis Wight's On Active Service with Base Hospital 46 describes the Nurses' Infirmary as a refuge and place of healing. The accompanying image shows the beds empty, obviously cleared for the picture, and decorations for the winter holidays.
"Nurses Ward," Wight, On Active Service With Base Hospital 46, p. 154.

The text suggests that imagining sick nurses was something of an afterthought for the American Expeditionary Force. "Apparently" Uncle Sam "forgot that they, as well as the men have their illnesses." Using a "section of one of the buildings" staff furnished the infirmary with linoleum, wallpaper, chairs and rugs "until the place actually had a home-like appearance."


"The Nurses' Infirmary," Wight, On Active Service With Base Hospital 46, 154.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Base Hospital 46 Banquets Here and There Part II -- Nurses Praise Lieutenant William G. Sutton: "We Certainly Have Someone in Our Outfit Who Knows How to Cook"

The second memorable banquet described by a Base Hospital 46 nurse in "Banquets Here and There" was the Thanksgiving feast prepared by Lieutenant William G. Sutton and the personnel of the mess department of the unit.

"Mess Detachment," Wight, On Active Service With Base Hospital 46, 120.
 This image from Otis Wight, et al. On Active Service With Base Hospital 46, pictures the mess detachment of Base Hospital 46. The text does not identify the personnel pictured, so we can't know which of the men is Lieutenant Sutton, who served the nurses a special, memorable banquet in October and then turned to preparations for Thanksgiving. It's tempting to think of Sutton as the man in the chef's hat pictured in the center of the group. All contributed to an unforgettable Thanksgiving feast for nurses and other staff and patients at the unit.

"We certainly have someone in our outfit who knows how to cook," the author of "Banquets Here and There" enthused. In addition to the "platters of turkey" she mentions, we learn from On Active Service with Base Hospital 46 that the turkey cost $1.00 per pound and preparation started a day in advance for meals that served nurses, medical officers, enlisted personnel and several hundred patients. (Wight, On Active Service with Base Hospital 46, 123.)

It appears that the nurses dined among themselves with the addition of "one lone man" as a guest who "seemed to enjoy things." The nurses did "stunts" at the end of the meal, including reciting poetry and singing. "Then everyone sang, and the party terminated, a howling success."

"Banquets Here and There" also reveals that the nurses picked up some French during their stay. The author refers to "mangering" [manger=to eat] and the "salle a manger" [dining room] and says one of the French women working there as a maid told them "Il ne faire rien a moi" -- "It doesn't have anything to do with me."

The praise the author of "Banquets Here and There" gave to Lieutenant Sutton's cooking and the fond memories of the banquets themselves suggests the importance of community and food in a difficult time of service.


"Banquets Here and There," pp 1-2, Box 9, Base Hospitals, World War I, Historical Records of the Army Nurses Corps Historical Data File, 1898-1947, Entry 10, Record Group 112, Records of the Office of Surgeon General [Army], National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Base Hospital 46 Banquets Here and There, Part I: "It Was As Though We Had Been to the Benson, or the Multnomah, or the Portland [Hotel]"

Another of the First World War reminiscences from Base Hospital 46 nurses in Record Group 112 at the National Archives without a specific author is a wonderful piece titled "Banquets Here and There." Likely written by either Chief Nurse Grace Phelps or her successor Eleanor Donaldson, the memoir of food and commemoration highlights the importance of celebrations in the life of Base Hospital 46 and the importance and rarity of great food.

Banquets, the author notes, are "linked by tradition with large, brilliantly lighted rooms, flowers and music, wonderfully decorated tables scintillating with glass and silver, and -- after a glass or two -- with wit." One thinks of men and women all dressed up, with "'soft footed waiters' in the background."

Contrast that with the picture most Americans on the home front -- engaged in conserving food for the war effort -- must have had of members of the American Expeditionary Force in France, "sitting under a bursting shall consuming "canned Willie" [corned beef, also known as "bully beef"] and hard-tack. Sadly enough, the picture is too often a real one -- lacking only in a few details which the uninitiated could not be expected to picture."

Otis Wight's On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 features a poem titled "My Bully Beef" written by a nurse. It gives us a picture of the bland and monotonous bully beef in the Base Hospital 46 diet, quite a contrast with the two banquets in this feature.

"My Bully Beef," Wight, On Active Service with Base Hospital 46, 182.

But there were banquets at Base Hospital 46 and this memoir details two of them -- one on October 19 and the other for Thanksgiving. 

Lieutenant William G. Sutton of the Sanitary Corps joined Base Hospital 46 in the middle of August and gradually took over all of the food service for the unit. (Wight, On Active Service with Base Hospital 46, 123.) On October 19 he provided a "real banquet" for the nurses, not at all diminished by the sheets used as tablecloths nor the "hob-nailed boots of the members of the personnel who acted as waiters."

The menu for the nurses' banquet attests to Lieutenant Sutton's power to access supplies in addition to his culinary skills:

Lobster Salad
Queen Olives
Consomme Clear
Banana Fritters with Wine Sauce
Breaded Veal Cutlets with Mushrooms
Mashed Potatoes
Cream Sugar Corn
Mince Pie
Cup Cakes
Fresh Grapes
Blanched Almonds
Bread and Butter
Hot Chocolate

"The food, -- Oh! that food," the author of "Banquets Here and There" gushed. "Words utterly fail me."

After the food and speeches, the nurses left the mess "as though we had been to the Benson or the Multnomah or the Portland [Hotel]."

"View of the Arcadian Gardens, Multnomah Hotel," http://www.pdxhistory.com/html/multnomahhotel.html
Next up -- a Thanksgiving banquet.

"Banquets Here and There," p, 1, Box 9, Base Hospitals, World War I, Historical Records of the Army Nurses Corps Historical Data File, 1898-1947, Entry 10, Record Group 112, Records of the Office of Surgeon General [Army], National Archives, College Park, Maryland.