Thanks for the Memories (Part 2)
LONGWOOD ALUMNAE answered the call during WWII, serving on both the homefront and the front lines. Mrs. William Scott Stewart (Patricia Gibson Stewart), Class of 1941, recalls what it was like "over there" a time that would eventually shape our future and our world.
Long before she was Lt. Gibson, she was Miss Gibson, teacher in Powhatan County.
Having completed her degree in 1941 at State Teachers College where she played varsity basketball, taught swimming, and served as the editor of The Rotunda, Patricia was eager to use her teaching skills. "I was teaching two levels of English, two levels of biology, one sociology class, coaching girls basketball, and sponsoring the Junior Red Cross all that for $85 per month."
After Pearl Harbor, Patricia felt the need to do more. "I remember hearing the radio bulletins about Pearl Harbor you simply couldn't believe they would do that to us. I was still teaching in Powhatan and at nighttime we would all search for German planes. Powhatan would observe the blackout every night, but that didn't take much effort. We had five churches, one bank, and a general store."
It wasn't long before Uncle Sam put out the call for physical therapists. With her degree and experience, Patricia qualified easily and was accepted into the program as a volunteer.
"At first, we were to be civilians, as part of the Civil Service, with a two-year commitment. But we were in just three months and they decided that we would be commissioned as officers." Patricia's training in physical education and general science at Longwood would soon serve her well as a physical therapist, but first, there would be months of special training at Walter Reed Hospital learning how to deal with both the physical and psychological trauma of war.
Patricia and her colleagues worked very closely with the wounded GIs and sometimes the best therapy was a smile and a sympathetic ear. Friendships would naturally develop and she and her friends would occasionally date the soldiers. "My friend went out with a fellow who had lost a leg and he was now getting used to a wooden leg. He put his leg on her foot didn't mean to, he just couldn't feel anything. My friend was too shy and young to say 'get that thing off of me,' and, to this day, we still kid her about that."
Lieutenant Patricia Gibson's first assignment during WWII was on January 1, 1944 at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach Florida, where she was a physical therapist for six months. The Breakers, a four-star hotel, had been converted to an army hospital Ream General Hospital and was receiving American casualties from the North African campaign.
After an admittedly "cushy" tour of aduty in Palm Beach, Patricia was transferred to Indiana and helped set up Wakeman General Hospital which provided service to veterans of the 106th Infantry Division and the 101st "Screaming Eagles" Airborne Division.
By now, she had been promoted to lst Lieutenant and was supervising a staff of 18.
Lieutenant Gibson would soon see the war up close and personal as she volunteered for duty in France and shipped out on Christmas eve, 1944. "This was just after the Battle of the Bulge so we were wondering how things would be when we got over there. We sailed aboard a troopship in convoy and you could hear the destroyers dropping their depth charges on the German U-boats. We were young and it was exciting. Besides, there were 10 of us women on board a transport with over 5000 men! We were the first hospital ship to land directly in France after the invasion."
When the convoy eventually arrived in LeHavre, France, Patricia was billeted in a French chateau in Normandy along with 68 other roommates, including shell-shocked veteran nurses from the Anzio campaign in Italy. "By now," she stated, "the allies had broken out of Normandy and the big push was on to the Rhine. You could see signs of the invasion all over damaged buildings, equipment, and all kinds of materiel. What we didn't see were any dogs. Refugees and townspeople were so hungry they were eating anything."
As the allies pushed eastward, the hospital unit was assigned to support the 82nd "All American" Airborne Division and moved forward to Suippes in the Burgundy region. Here they helped rehabilitate American soldiers who had been liberated from German POW camps, along with wounded GIs. She recalls, "Some of them were so thin you wouldn't believe it and we really worked hard to get them back in shape. They were so young and sweet. I was fascinated because some of them would give up and turn their face to the wall in the hospital and other guys would say, 'all right, I'll do this. I have an obstacle, and I'm either going over it or around it.'"
Rehabilitation consisted of various types of therapy to get the mind, body and spirit back in shape. The physical therapists, or PTs as they were called, would use electrical stimulation, therapeutic exercise, and water therapy, depending upon the nature of the soldier's injury. Patricia recalls there never seemed to be enough staff and they would look for help wherever they could find it. "Some German POWs were assigned to me and they were delighted to help. For them, anything was better than being captured by the Russians."
After VE-Day, Patricia was sent to Aix-en-Provence in southern France where preparations were being made to ship out to China. "It was hard to get news. We were lucky to see a Stars and Stripes newspaper once a month but we knew the war was still going on in the Pacific." In fact, the allies had already drawn up plans for a land invasion of Japan and Lt. Gibsonand her colleagues would be needed in China to treat American casualties. "I remember one day someone had a radio and she came up to me and said, 'I think the war is over we've dropped some special kind of bomb on Japan.'" The war was, indeed, over and Lt. Gibson, graduate of the State Teachers College in Farmville and head therapist in the European Theatre of Operations, was shipped home from Marseilles in January 1946.
In November 1945, she received a letter of commendation from Lieutenant Colonel R.B. Chrisman, Jr., Commanding Officer of the 220th General Hospital, which stated, "I wish to take this opportunity of commending you on the superior work which you did as Head Physio-Therapist in the 220th General Hospital. Your service in the department of physio-therapy has contributed greatly to the general successful operation of this hospital unit."
Patricia would eventually earn her Master's degree from Columbia, marry a Navy man, move 23 times in 16 years, and raise two children Scott and Patricia. In fact, Patricia's grandson, Joshua Boytek was among the graduating class of 2001.
Patricia and some of her wartime colleagues have kepttouch over the years and they see each other whenever they can. It's usually a rendezvous or trip to some locationlike Niagara Falls, Topsail Beach or Amish country. Inevitably, the memories return, but it's usually the good times that overshadow the hard times of the war years. "It was a wonderful time of my life and I was glad to be a part of it. We all wanted to do something to help out."