Heroines Behind the Scenes of War

World War II provides much of the lore and mystique which fuels the modern American culture.  From movies, books, and television documentaries, it is hard to escape the particular monopoly this time period has on popular media.  When it comes to women of World War II, media tends to focus on those who have driven ambulances onto battlefields, stitched up patients on bloody stretchers, or spied behind enemy lines; but women served heroically in many ways, on the home front and overseas.  The Jane Wright Proctor Wallis family papers (Ms. Coll. 1310) tells one such story.

HoneyinmaskWhen the United States entered World War II, many families and individuals answered the call to serve anyway they could.  One such person was Honoria Wallis (Honey), the eighth child in the Wallis family, who after college, was working as a social service worker in Philadelphia. Upon joining the Red Cross Medical Corps, Honey was trained at the 46th General Hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, from September 1942 to June 1943.

In July 1943, Honey was sent overseas, eventually serving “somewhere in North Africa,” in England, and “somewhere in Italy” as head medical social worker, where her job including “writing letters and securing comforts for sick and wounded soldiers to wrangling a circus tent for use as a recreation center.”

ms1310 nursing crew 1

Honey wrote to her mother whenever she was able, offering what news she could share, as well as her impressions of her surroundings. In addition to reassuring her family of safety measures for the social workers and describing eating out of mess kits, “a system which should have been organized in [her large] family years ago,” Honey wrote requesting light and diverting reading material to be sent for the injured soldiers (“western, mystery, and detective stories are badly wanted!”).  A letter from January 15, 1944  reads:

“We continue to be exceedingly busy, going as many hours as we can hold out…Our days are spent in the wards, giving out comfort articles which the men need.  Both sick and wounded, they come in from the front without any of their personal articles.  Many men cannot write their own letters.  We wrap and censor packages for mailing.  We help them with necessary telephone calls or telegrams.  We read to them and give any comfort and sympathy in our power.”

Typical nursing scenes

A scrapbook page documenting time in Naples, Italy 1944

Honey’s letters are fairly cheerful, but she clearly experienced hardships.  She writes of bad weather tearing down tents, illness, lack of sanitary facilities, long hours, and, of course, watching patients suffer.  In addition to the general miseries of war, some of Honey’s friends were killed in a plane crash and others were sent home with tuberculosis.  By the end of the summer of 1944, only Honey and one other woman from her Fort Riley class remained.  Despite all the difficulties, Honey stated, “I have never worked so hard nor been so happy in all my life.”  Although Honey “preferred to work directly with patients,” she was promoted to hospital supervisor, and she was assigned to hospitals in Naples and Rome until the end of the war.

After the war in Europe was over, Honey was Acting Field Director at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado, which treated mostly tuberculosis patients, many of whom were released from Japanese prison camps. Honey was no doubt seen as a great hero to the bored and lonely patients recuperating in military hospitals.  With books, music, movies, puzzles and recreation centers, she provided diversions from terrible memories and brought laughter into the dark world of war.

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