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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Evelyn Hill: "We Are Living In An Inspiring Uncertainty"

During the First World War newspaper editors were interested in publishing "local interest" stories with war service news. The Oregonian periodically featured a section reprinting letters from Oregonians in war service sent home to family and friends. Happily, several letters home featured women from Base Hospital 46. They expand our understanding of their story and add their voices to the history of the unit.

Evelyn Hill, 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.
Base Hospital 46 Nurse Evelyn Hill wrote to her family about her shipboard experiences -- both routine and unusual -- on the voyage to France in July 1918. The 105 Base Hospital 46 nurses and civilian staff members sailed separately and a few weeks later than the men of the unit. They made the crossing on a British transport ship the Aquitania and arrived in Bazoilles sur Meuse on July 19. (Wight, On Active Service, 56, 58). (I've posted the complete roster of female staff members linked at the upper right for your reference.)

"Portland Girl Assists in Coaling Steamer," Oregonian, August 11, 1918, Section 2, p. 4.
Here's a transcript, with a minor correction to the news copy error:

"One day we were taken over the entire ship by the second officer and we even helped coal the steamer -- for a couple of minutes. It almost broke our heart to see the lads stoking in the engine room, but they do not mind the heat, replying to our inquiry, 'oh, you get used to it.' Last night we had a beautiful concert and a collection was taken up for the widows and orphans of the men lost at sea. Everyone was very liberal. I felt like giving my last cent, but we had to keep a little for future emergencies.

"We have a boat drill each day, when we all rush madly to our own boat. Afterward we have a band concert and tea served in the music room at 4 P.M. In the evening we usually have a sing in the officers' smoking room.

"I can hardly wait for the day when I go on duty again. We are living in an inspiring uncertainty -- you never feel tired, yet, I go to bed and sleep like a baby. Our beds are very comfortable and our food is exceptionally good -- much better, in fact, that in the metropolis of our own United States. But these letters should not be too long for the sake of the poor censor. I saw him wading through some lengthy epistles this morning and he did not not look altogether pleased."

I'm struck by her words "we are living in an inspiring uncertainty." To me they convey her hopes for useful wartime service combined with all she did not know but hoped to discover. Her words symbolize so much of the anticipation Hill and her colleagues may have shared in the months before their arrival in France. It would be so powerful to have more of her ideas and impressions, particularly after the hard realities of hospital wartime service.

Thanks to the staff files and service records in the Grace Phelps Papers housed at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University, we know a bit about Evelyn Hill. She was born in South Dakota in 1884, graduated from the Bishop Clarkson Hospital Training School for Nurses in Omaha, Nebraska in 1905. She came to Portland in 1909 and worked in private duty nursing with patients in their homes. After Base Hospital 46 was disbanded at the end of January 1919 she served with the army of occupation and returned home, discharged from the Army Nurse Corps, in October 1919.

The Portland City Directory and the 1920 census help us round out Evelyn's family story, with help from the 1932 East Morrison Street the Oregonian reported above. Before her departure and on her return Evelyn lived with her mother Kate, a nurse and widow of Justus E, Hill, and her sister Mae, a stenographer for the law firm of Teal, Minor and Winfree.