Skip to main content

Elba WWII military nurse looks back

By Gretel Kauffman

When Ella Gex entered the Army as a nurse in October of 1944, it was because, well, she never considered not joining.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do," she says. "We felt we should. They were asking for nurses, and we were all single."

The "we" she is referring to is her graduating class at nursing school. Gex, now 89 and a resident of Elba, was born and raised outside of Detroit. Upon graduating from high school in 1939, she attended the Grace Hospital School of Nursing. In 1944, she joined the Army Nurse Corps.

"When we graduated (from nursing school), over half our class went into the service," she says. "We had decided that we would all go in together. We thought we would go in as a unit, but of course we didn't."

In March 1945, Gex was stationed at Vaughn General Hospital in Chicago, and in April she was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, where it was determined who would be stationed where. Later that month, Gex's unit sailed from San Francisco to the Philippines. They arrived in Manila on May 17, 1945.

"I remember sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge," she says. "We suddenly realized we didn't know when we were coming back."

Gex's unit was stationed at the 315th General Hospital in the Philippines. While there, she also rotated temporary duty at the 89th Field Hospital, where she cared for casualties.

"It was my first time outside of North America, but you couldn't see too much of the [Filipino] culture because it was all banged up. I don't think they had a lot of amenities like we had, no electricity. There were generators at the hospital."

Despite the distance, she managed to remain close with some of her nursing school friends who were stationed elsewhere. She laughs, recalling one particular gift sent from a friend stationed in France.

"She sent me some Chanel No. 5 and it caused quite a stir at the camp. I was down at the 8th Field Hospital at the time, and the mail would only come once a week. The perfume was cream, and it sat there in the heat for a week and stunk up the whole camp. It was solid, but it just permeated. I felt sorry for those poor guys smelling Chanel No. 5."

When Gex left the Army in December 1945, she had earned four medals: one overseas bar, a Philippines Liberation Medal, an Asia-Pacific Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, and a WWII Victory Medal.

After returning from Army duty, she went back to work at Grace Hospital for four years.  In 1949 she enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps and received a promotion to Lieutenant, J.G. She reported to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland in October. While working there, she cared for many distinguished patients such as General Alexander Vandegrift, Fleet Admiral Earnest King, and her future husband, Navy pilot Don Gex.

"I would have liked to stay in the Navy," she reflects. "I really liked it. I loved the people that I met. Those friendships stay forever."

She shows me an old photograph of the Navy version of herself smiling next to two other nurses. "We were The Three Musketeers. Elaine was killed around 1960, but Ruthie and I still call each other two or three times a year."

Upon getting married, Gex left the Navy and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, with Don (who was still enlisted), where they raised their children. However, after the death of her husband, she went back into nursing and spent 17 years with the American Can Company doing physical exams for coorporate officers.

She now lives in Elba, near her daughter and son-in-law, veterinarians Fran and Norm Woodworth.

When asked the differences between military nursing and regular nursing, she explains, "I think that (as a military nurse) you had more responsibility -- no, actually, I can't say that, because every life is just as important whether you're in the military or not. But the (military) nursing staff was just young kids who were given some medical training. You had more authority. But when it really comes down to it, no matter what, the care of the patient is still the primary thing."

Authentically Local