Aftermath: Nell Whaley, reconstruction aide.

Kentucky-born Nell Whaley (1885–1946) graduated from Transylvania University in 1906 and taught Latin at the all-female Hamilton College in Lexington, KY (which eventually merged with Transylvania University). In 1919, she taught mathematics and English to disabled service members and was appointed assistant to the head reconstruction aide at Camp Upton’s hospital on Long Island. On June 8, she wrote to her sisters about her experiences at the hospital (published in the 24 June 1919 Bourbon [KY] News).

Nell Whaley, from Transylvania University’s The Crimson (1906)

Last week we had a visit and a most inspiring talk from Major [Horace M.] Evans, of Washington, the man who is at the head of the Reconstruction Service. He gave us some interesting statistics. During one week of April, in 38 military hospitals, 88,000 treatments were given by the 700 Physio therapy aides for nerve injuries. During the month of April, in 43 hospitals, there were working 2,034 Occ[u]pational-Therapy Aides, teaching the wounded soldiers to regain the use of their muscles in the making of baskets, bead-chains, carved boxes, woven rugs and mats, belts, neck-ties, bags, and so on. In addition, this work helps wonderfully to keep up their spirits, and so is of double curative value. . . . .Major Evans stated that the women workers were up to the highest standard and graded 100 per cent, and that they, more than any other class of people, could put “pep” and the proper spirit for the future into the wounded soldiers. He said the boys should be encouraged to quit thinking and talking about the “dreadful affair,” and not let their interests in life end with their war experiences, as the majority of Civil War veterans did.

. . . . At our hospital there are about 60 Reconstruction Aides at work, teaching the boys in the wards, many of whom are flat on their backs or so injured they cannot work. It is wonderful to see the work they do with the left hand. The ambulatory patients go to K-12, the big school building, where they are taught anything from English to auto-mechanics, telegraphy, typewriting, mechanical drawing, clay-moulding, advanced English and Mathematics, Science, Psychology, in fact, any study they call for. It is interesting to note that nearly all the boys are ambitious to learn something new, or if they do go back to their old “job” they want to be ready for an advancement. They have a wonderfully cheerful and independent spirit—they object to pity and charity and there’s not one I’ve talked with who is expecting a job just because he is a returned soldier. They are having time now to do more reading and more thinking than ever in their lives before, and I think their hospital experience, where they are surrounded by companions and attended with excellent care, is the best thing possible to bridge over the gap between the horrors of war and the return to civilian life.

The hospital population here, perhaps 2,500, has plenty of amusement and attention from the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., and K[nights] of C[olumbus]. There are good picture shows, lectures, vaudeville, athletic meets, baseball, and so on. On Sundays there are Protestant and Catholic services. The Educational Services gives a “party” at K-12 every Wednesday night, where the patients who can come (and some come on crutches and in wheelchairs) are entertained with games, plays, music, (they sing every word of every popular song that is going), and “eats.” The boys who have to stay in bed are entertained by different artists who come from New York. The Red Cross has a traveling piano set up on wheels—it goes the rounds of the wards. I have had the pleasure of playing for these boys, and you should hear them whistle and sing from their beds; they like ragtime, but best of all, the old songs. I played also at the Y. M. C. A. movies, and over at one of the Camp Hostess House. The Hostess in charge told us about how the boys amuse themselves with the Ouija Board. Their three favorite questions are: How long before I get out? Is my job waiting for me? Is my girl true to me? (1–2)

Whaley later worked for the educational division of the Red Cross and the Kentucky Unemployment Compensation Department.

A glimpse of the Smith College Relief Unit.

Michigan-born Edna Miriam True (1888–1988) played basketball at Smith College and graduated in 1909. She sailed for France in June 1918. The following letter from True reprinted in the November 1918 Smith Alumnae Quarterly provides a snapshot of the range of duties taken on by the Smith College Relief Unit in World War I France:

Edna True, from her 1921 passport application

Early Sunday morning an S O S came from the hospital for as many of the girls as possible. I was tremendously interested and impressed by the quiet, very quick, and efficient way in which the girls rose to the occasion, for in less than an hour from the time the message was sent us, which found us all in bed, the girls were each at some important post in the hospital. Three of us had to stay out, however, Marie Wolfs to attend to the club, which suddenly was busier than it had been for several days; Cath[a]rine Hooper to look after the canteen, which not only had had two evacuating trains that day, but one of them the largest the girls had ever fed; and myself to drive the truck and keep up the necessary connection between them all.

Rotating constantly all day between hospital and club and canteen, I had an excellent chance to watch the activities in each and were I to relate in detail all the things accomplished, I am sure it would all seem too exaggerated to be true. At the hospital two of the girls were put in as nurses, doing everything from bringing men out of ether to helping in severe dressings. Another two alternated in taking histories for four surgeons; all were on duty in the operating room from eight in the morning until ten at night. Mrs. [Hannah] Andrews stepped right into a whole department in itself and brought order out of chaos by sorting the men who, as they came in from the ambulances, were just deposited anywhere around on the benches or in the first floor rooms and by keeping the order in which they were to go in to be bathed, examined by the radio[logist], and finally to be operated upon. This was not an easy task in all the confusion, and she had also to find those most in need of immediate attention and to keep the men as comfortable as possible while they waited to be taken care of. Most of the poor fellows had been wounded on the 18th (this was the 21st) and had had little or nothing to eat and practically no attention, and you can imagine that this last weary day of waiting would have seemed endless but for Mrs. Andrews. Miss [Lucy] Mather went into one of the French hospitals and remained on twenty-four hour duty, having an entire ward of Americans under her care all night.

. . . .Having taken literally a truck load of bread to the canteen in the morning, I was surprised to have more ordered in the afternoon, but when I helped Catharine [Hooper] with her train later on, I understood why there had been such a demand on supplies. Over 600 men were being evacuated on that one train and they represented practically all of the Allies and even a few Boches! . . . I was very much impressed by the efficiency and dispatch with which those train loads of men were served a good dinner followed by cigarettes which Catharine and I distributed to them.

Ten-thirty saw all our little household in bed, but I noticed as the girls returned no one seemed especially wearied or in the least depressed by the very strenuous day and the contact it had brought them into with the cruel realities of the war. (52–53)

True came down with influenza but remained in France until December 1919. She returned to France in February 1921 to assist the American Committee for Devastated France with reconstruction work, returning to the United States in December. She later established a travel agency and became active as a leader in the Baha’i Faith.

Further reading:Edna True,” Bahaipedia

Members of the Smith College Relief Unit, 1918. From left, standing: Edna True, Elizabeth Bliss, Agnes Hopkins, Anna Perit Rochester, Hannah Andrews, Dorothy Brown, and Ruth Hill Arnold. Sitting in the truck, from left: Mary Goodman Stevenson, Anne Chapin, and Marie Wolf. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Isabel Weld Perkins Anderson, author, canteener, and hospital worker.

Isabel Anderson, from
Zigzagging (1918)

Boston-born Isabel Weld Perkins (1876–1948) was the daughter of Navy Commodore George H. Perkins and his wife Anna Weld Perkins. (Another war worker, Hope Gray, was a cousin of hers). At age five, she inherited $5 million from the estate of her grandfather, William Fletcher Weld. She was educated at the Winsor School in Boston. In 1897, she married US diplomat Larz Anderson, who was related to the Longworth family of Ohio and later served as US minister to Belgium and ambassador to Japan.

During the Spanish American War, Anderson served on committees of the Colonial Dames and Daughters of the Revolution to assist military families in the Washington, DC, area. After the United States entered World War I in spring 1917, she headed the Washington Refreshment Corps for the Red Cross—an emergency canteen with a mobile kitchen that could serve a high volume of service members at army camps and train stations at all hours of the day and night.

The Red Cross asked for volunteers to serve overseas. As Anderson wrote in Presidents and Pies (1920), “Since few women in our corps were free to go, many of them being officers’ wives, I decided to offer my services” (214). She asked in her 1918 memoir, Zigzagging, “After all, hasn’t a woman just as much right to die for her country as a man?” (xi). She sailed for France on the Espagne in September 1917, noting humorously that the people assigned to her designated lifeboat “were far from pleasing. I did not feel like drowning with them” (Zigzagging 5).

She was first assigned to the canteen at Épernay where she worked with Emma Sterling Lansing, the sister of Secretary of State Robert Lansing. In December 1917, she transferred to Auto-Chir (meaning mobile hospital) No. 7, a Red Cross unit caring for surgical cases that was attached to the Third French Army. This was supervised by Mae Noe Daly, a “screamingly funny person,” according to Daly’s assistant Nora Saltonstall (Out Here at the Front 107). Anderson worked at the hospital at Cugny, which was approximately seven miles from the trenches. She wrote:

My first day, a handsome poilu [French serviceman] with thick black hair and big black eyes was brought in right from the trenches. He had both legs cut off, but fortunately, he did not know it. I stayed by his bedside most of the time after he came out of the ether, but he died at ten that night.

I became especially interested the next day in a little blond man who had been wounded three times and given every kind of decoration. He died that evening. After this I was so exhausted and sad that I hardly slept, and cried most of the night. . . . Indeed, I was discouraged, but kept going and didn’t lose an hour’s work. (Zigzagging 58–59)

During a vacation break from the Auto-Chir, Anderson dined with the king and queen of Belgium and met twice with General Pershing (as she had previously known him in the Philippines). She visited a friend, American-born Frances Belt Wickersham Hadfield (Lady Hadfield), who operated a hospital in Wimereux at her own expense. Amid these adventures, Anderson learned that the Germans had shot four of the Cugny physicians.

Anderson went next with her Auto-Chir colleagues to Royalieu, which featured a “cook, a returned refugee, [who] was drunk most of the time, and one night poured kerosene on the meat” (Zigzagging 183). In addition to caring for the wounded “terribly shot to pieces” (185), Anderson experienced the German bombing within a few miles of the town and visited facilities for refugee children.

Anderson headed back to the United States in May 1918. In June, she became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from George Washington University. She returned to mobile canteen work and visited wounded service members at Walter Reed. For her service, she received the Croix de Guerre, Medal of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium with Red Cross, and the Commemorative War Medal of France.

In addition to her war memoir (called by the 22 Dec. 1918 Washington, DC, Evening Star “bright, straightforward, and unpretentious” [9]), she published children’s books, drama, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and travel accounts. Two years after her husband’s death in 1937, she donated the home they built in Washington, DC—a social, political, and cultural nexus of the time—to the Society of the Cincinnati, which has remained there to this day. After her death in 1948, she was interred in Washington National Cathedral.

Further Resources:

The Adventurous Life of Isabel Anderson,” exhibition by the American Revolution Institute, Society of the Cincinnati

Photos from the exhibition “The Adventurous Life of Isabel Anderson”

Bibliography of works by Isabel Anderson

Stephen T. Moskey, Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age (2016)

Minnie E. Blood, POW advocate.

Photo of Minnie E. Blood
Minnie E. Blood, from the 6 Aug 1915 Boston Globe

Born in Lynn, MA, Minnie Emma Blood (1863–1942) was one of eight children of Mary and Josiah Blood; her half-sister, Alice Frances Blood, became a leading professor in home economics at Simmons College. Her father founded J. B. Blood & Co., the largest grocery store in Lynn. She completed the Chautauqua home study course in 1887 and was a student at Radcliffe in 1898–99. By 1900, she was working as a stenographer.

In July 1907, she headed for Germany and remained there for eight years. Thus she was a witness to Germany’s declaration of war in 1914, which she wrote about in “In Munich, August, 1914,” which is printed in When Good Men Meet from Foe to Foe, her 1916 book of war poetry:

I stood with the people in the street,
As the war declaration was read,
And saw the faces of mothers and wives
Grow deathly pale with pain and dread.

I saw the public automobiles
All filled with soldiers riding free
To their affairs, or taking once more
A pleasure drive, as it might be.

I saw the handkerchiefs wildly waved,
And children hang over balcony bars,
And girls and gray-haired men bring out
Bouquets and boxes of cigars.

I saw the guards by the station gates,
And heard the wistful farewell cheers
Of the departing soldier boys,
The while my eyes ran over with tears.

I thought of all the good and brave
Who must perish in the fearful game,
And my soul cried out in agony,
Oh, who—who—who is to blame! (3)

Continue reading

The McAllister sisters: Salvation Army workers in France.

[. . .W]hen we took the patient out, we found his head had been completely severed from his body by a large shell fragment.
— Alice McAllister, The Doughnut Sweethearts

Coming from a family deeply involved in the Salvation Army, the Virginia-born Salvation Army captain Violet McAllister (1891–1939) and her lieutenant sister Alice (1892–1980) sailed on the Rochambeau in March 1918 to undertake relief work in France. Their duties included frying doughnuts, preparing hot chocolate, serving lemonade, preaching, playing guitar, singing, and attending to the wounded and the dying. Stated Alice in “The M’Allister Sisters Who Went to the Front” (Naugatuck Daily News, 15 Jan. 1919, p. 7):

[. . .T]hree days after our arrival we were at the front in the Cantigny Drive, about five kilometers from the firing line . . . We slept in a cellar, for the town was shelled every night, and the following day chose a suitable old house and set up a canteen for serving food and hot chocolate. . . . .We were shelled out of there at midnight and walked, it seemed, miles until a wagon picked us up and carried us two or three kilometers back. Here airplanes dropped bombs over us every night.

The McAllister sisters were at Roulecourt before the St. Mihiel campaign and at one point were believed dead or captured by the Germans (see San Diego Union and Daily Bee). Alice continued:

[. . . A]t 10 o’clock the loud naval gun went off, Violet and I hurriedly put on our gas masks, helmets, and we had our rubber boots on, and then the shelling began on Montsoe. It looked just like a volcano with all the spurts of flame, and on the front as far as one could see for twenty-seven miles, there was a din and hub-bub, and the flashes of guns. One shell struck the German ammunition dump and this set the city on fire. . . . We asked to go up to the front and were sent with three tons of supplies. We finally came to Nonsard, which had been occupied by the Germans only twenty-four hours before. . . . . Here we slept in a bomb proof dugout. As soon as our sign was out at 7 in the morning the boys simply swarmed around . . . . we made sandwiches, you can imagine how many, because we used about 800 cases in two days, and served over 10,000 men . . .

The sisters returned to the United States in October 1918. In 1919, they headed overseas again to assist French refugees, returning in September 1919.

In June 1920, Violet married fellow Salvation Army captain Harry Hesketh Booth, and they had three children. In July 1927, she was one of the Salvation Army representatives selected to attend the American Legion convention in Paris. She died in March 1939 from a cerebral embolism. Alice left the Salvation Army after her marriage to electrician Frank Baugh in March 1927; they had two children.

Further reading:
The Doughnut Sweethearts: The Diary of Alice McAllister during World War I (2012; read excerpts here and here)

Hamilton, Mildred. “Doughnuts and Guitars on the Western Front [interview with Alice McAllister Baugh].” San Francisco Examiner, 8 May 1977, p. 79.

Below: Violet McAllister (left, 1918–19, National Archives). Alice McAllister, from her 1918 passport application

Mary E. Gladwin, Red Cross nurse.

Photo of Mary E. Gladwin, ca. 1920
Mary E. Gladwin, ca. 1920.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Mary E. Gladwin (1861–1939) was born in Stoke-upon-Trent, England, and emigrated with her family to Akron, OH, becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1874. She graduated from Buchtel College (now University of Akron) in 1887 and taught at Norwalk (OH) High School. Gladwin then earned a nursing credential at Boston City Hospital and was superintendent of Beverly Hospital (MA) and Woman’s Hospital (NY). She served as a Red Cross nurse in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, in Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, and in Ohio after the 1913 flood.

In World War I, Gladwin first went to Belgrade, Serbia, as reflected by her three letters dated from November 1914 to February 1915 in the 3 May 1915 Norwalk [OH] Reflector-Herald. The letters were carried by individuals and therefore did not pass through a censor:

Our big hospital is on the banks of the Sav River, and we look over into Ziemlin and Austrian territory. The town of Belgrade has been shelled every day since August 1. The big Austrian searchlights play all night. . . . . The big guns boom every night, and the other night as Dr. [Edward] Ryan and I stood on the steps, we heard one shriek quite plainly. It is a curious sound to hear, one going through the air. Shriek is exactly the word to describe it. (2)

Amid Gladwin’s accounts of tea with eminent people such as Lady Paget (the American-born Minnie Stevens), Sir Thomas Lipton (creator of Lipton tea), and Harry James (a son of philosopher William James who was working for the Rockefeller Foundation’s War Relief Commission) were some sobering details and evidence of her sang froid:

In one day, just before the Austrians left, 9,000 wounded passed through these hospitals, 6,000 being here for a few hours, then going to Zemlin [Zemun], 3,000 remaining here. Last night there was a sharp engagement. I awakened to see the flash of the cannon on my white wall, and then in a few seconds heard the report. However, it takes more than that to keep me awake. (2)

Gladwin also wrote in a 25 May 1915 letter to Buchtel College president Parke Kolbe:

Then the coming of the Austrians. They seemed to number like the sands of the sea as they marched and rode down the street past the hospital. After a few days the wounded began to come; at first dozens, then by the hundred, then by the thousand. The beds were soon all filled, three men in a bed; wounded under the tables and in every corner. There was very soon only a narrow lane down our broad hospital corridors. We literally walked over the dead and the dying. . . . .

At two o’clock one morning, when we had been doing dressings for thirty-six hours without stopping, one of the doctors came to me with: “If I should pour cold water over coffee could a man drink it?” He had a man on the table who, wounded, had lain in the woods . . . nine days . . . shot through the chest, with neither food nor drink, and with frozen feet. I shall always be glad to remember that I took time to do an unnecessary thing—to make him a cup of coffee over an alcohol lamp—and that somebody fed it to him a teaspoonful at a time. (Fifty Years of Buchtel [1922] 392)

Gladwin also cared for patients in the typhus epidemic. She returned to the United States in January 1916 and was called as a witness at the trial in Akron of Austrian Peter Fabian for the murder of Joseph Ferguson in November 1915; the prosecution wished to show that racial hatred was the motive (the victim was Romanian with Austro-Hungarian citizenship; the defendant was quoted as saying that he had “killed a Serbian” [see Fabian v. State]). According to the 4 Mar. 1916 Norwalk Reflector-Herald, Gladwin testified that she had seen battles between Serbian and Austro-Hungarian troops, as well as battles between German/Austro-Hungarian troops and those of England, France, and Serbia. The newspaper noted, “her testimony was deemed conclusive” (1). (Fabian was convicted of first-degree murder, served 13 years of a life sentence, and had his sentence commuted in December 1931.)

Next, Gladwin headed for Salonika (now known as Thessaloniki), Greece in December 1916 to care for refugees. Her memoir, “The Red Crosser,” describes bureaucratic snafus in Britain over her visa that required the intercession of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low and US ambassador Walter Hines Page, and conveys worry about friends and patients from her Serbian days who had been taken prisoner. She contracted meningitis in Greece in March 1917 and recuperated at a convalescent home for British nurses. After her return to work, a fire left 80,000 people homeless, and a blockade prevented any aid from Athens. Gladwin housed displaced men from the Athens School of Archaeology and the American Legation, and the American Red Cross organized soup stations in the city and refugee camps outside of it, with the British providing kettles, firewood, and soldiers to staff the stations.

Gladwin returned to the United States in January 1919, going on to serve as president of the Ohio Nurses’ Assn, director of nursing education at St. Mary’s Hospital (Minneapolis), and director of the school of nursing at St. Mary’s Hospital (Rochester, MN). She wrote Ethics: Talks to Nurses (1930). Her service medals included the Order of St. Sava, the Royal Red Cross, and the Cross of Charity (Serbia); the Ribbon of St. Anne (Russia); the Order of the Golden Crown and the Royal Red Cross (Japan); and the Florence Nightingale Medal (International Congress of the Red Cross). The chapter of the Women’s Overseas Service League in Akron was named the Mary Gladwin Unit in her honor, and the College of Health Professions at the University of Akron is housed in Mary Gladwin Hall.

Further reading:
Gladwin diary 1914–15 (Ohio Memory)

• Gladwin’s digitized scrapbook with photos (Ohio Memory)

Fabian v. State (1918), Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio, Vol. 97

Margaret Rowland, Red Cross worker.


Margaret Rowland, from her 1918 passport application

“I knew the world was crashing over my head.”
— Margaret Rowland, 1918

Margaret Elizabeth Rowland was born in Phillips, WI, in 1892, the daughter of attorney, insurance executive, and Racine County public administrator John D. Rowland. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1913 and attended a nursing course in New York. Rowland headed overseas in April 1918 to take up Red Cross work.

She was assigned to a French evacuation hospital as a nurse’s aide. An excerpt from a letter she wrote to her brother, David, was published in the 26 Aug. 1918 Racine Journal News:

You see all of the wounds when they come in . . . they are huge gouges just filled with livid, bright, green matter and are the vilest smelling things. The men are so brave, not only the Frenchmen but the Americans too. . . . .

Tuesday morning at 3 o’clock the train came in with four hundred poor wounded things. We all got up and flew to our places, I in the operating room, and there we worked until 12 o’clock that day. . . . .

We started again at 4 o’clock and worked until 8 that night. We fell into bed awfully tired expecting to get some sleep. I did go to sleep when suddenly I sat up in bed with the queerest of sensations. It was horrible. I knew the world was crashing over my head. Everything was shaking like a leaf and the most horrible roar rung in our ears. Then out of all the chaos I heard “burr-burr-burr” of a German plane and I knew we were being bombed.

It is an awful sensation. You know you are in danger and yet you really are not afraid. You become a perfect fatalist. . . . Three bombs dropped within half a block of us.

. . . . I heard my name shouted outside of my door to dress immediately and go to the operating room—another train had come in. Well, we worked again without any food until 12 o’clock that noon—cutting great hunks of shrapnel out, sawing out pieces of fractured bone, amputating, sewing up ghastly looking face wounds and trying to fix up some absolutely fatal cases as comfortably as possible so the poor fellows could die in peace. . . . .

We had to stop for a few hours while the Boche flew over us and dropped a few bombs. . . .[T]heir bombs dropped on their own men, on a prison camp of Boche, a few kilometers from here. They killed about 110 and wounded a good many. The French are really awfully good to them and take care of the poor fellows but it must be sort of a shock to be bombed by your own people. (23)

Later, Rowland served with the Red Cross Motor Corps in Paris.

After a six-week courtship, she married John Bradley Washington Delehanty in Paris in April 1919 (see the wedding invitation at the National World War I Museum and this account of the wedding in Stars and Stripes). Delehanty’s sister Frances, an artist and occupational aide with the Red Cross, was in attendance. Bradley Delehanty, a descendant of George Washington’s brother Samuel and an architect, was a captain and operations officer in the AEF’s 308th Infantry who played a role in the relief of the famous “Lost Battalion.”

The couple lived in New York and had two children. Cornell student John Bradley Delehanty Jr. (1922–40) died in a car accident. Patricia Delehanty Hildt (1920–77) became an artist. Rowland passed away in 1962. One grandchild, John Bradley Hildt, served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, and another, Anne Hildt Geddes, is an interior designer.

Vivian Aston, YMCA worker.


Vivian Aston, from her 1918 passport application

Virginia-born Mary Vivian Aston (1888–1959) studied at the Institute of Music Art in New York and the Newcomb School of Music in New Orleans. In 1918, she was head of the Vocal Department and director of the Girls’ Glee Club at Mansfield (PA) Normal School (later Mansfield University). The school’s 1918 Carontawan yearbook referred to her “soft Southern voice [that] has charmed us all” (27).

She headed overseas in summer 1918 for YMCA canteen work. Margaret McGill, who led a unit of female war workers associated with colleges such as Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke, explained that Aston became an informal member of the unit after the death of unit member Elizabeth Russell (“News from Our Workers Abroad” 38). McGill’s account in the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, “Bits of War Work in Three Countries,” provided some details on Aston’s service. Because of the need for canteen workers in England, Aston first was assigned to the Lord Street Canteen for US service members in Liverpool (dates seem to indicate that she was there at the same time as Ithaca, NY’s Agnes Yutzey). McGill quotes Lady Ward (aka American Jean Templeton Reid) that it was important to have “the right kind of American women” (225) working in England to strengthen relations between the two countries. McGill indicates that she and Aston also assisted with the care of those suffering from influenza.

Next, Aston and McGill were sent to Diekirch, Luxembourg, as the first female YMCA workers in the country and set up a canteen at the Hotel de l’Europe. Until their arrival, there was nowhere for US servicemen to go to unwind. McGill stated that the hotel’s cafe was converted to the canteen’s “living-room”:

The tables were used for papers and magazines and drinking cocoa; the old counter over which beer and schnapps had doubtless passed so often was used for the cocoa service. On the counter, when it was not the cocoa hour, our daily papers were stacked. . . . . Chicago Tribune was first in favor—the 33rd [Infantry Division] was the Illinois National Guard Division; the London Daily Mail was second choice; and the [New York] Herald the least popular. The piano in the corner . . . was in constant use. Miss Aston was a very pleasing accompanist . . . (227)

Other features of the canteen were an “ancient” billiard table and a room where servicemembers could write letters home. McGill noted that Thursday was “doughnut day,” and Sunday night was “fudge night.” She stated:

Miss Aston established a cocoa circuit. Many towns in the neighborhood of Diekirch and Ettelbruch had no service from American women war workers; so on certain afternoons of each week, she took a cocoa serving equipment and gave them one pleasant change from the dreariness of their daily routine, with an American woman to talk with and American cocoa to drink. (228)

McGill noted that Aston was later transferred to Coblenz (where the US army of occupation was stationed). As a letter from the YMCA makes clear, the YMCA had a negative reputation with 33rd Division servicemembers until the work of Aston, McGill, and their colleagues changed the division’s opinion.

Aston (along with Ithaca’s Yutzey) returned to the United States on the Mobile in September 1919; this newspaper article indicates that they attended a dance in honor of the returned 1st Division and the female YMCA workers who were providing services to the division. In 1921, Aston headed the vocal department at the Dramatic Art Studio in Glendale, CA. In late 1922, she toured with the Apollo Concert Company. She later was a music instructor for many years at Southwest Junior College (now Southwest Mississippi Community College). Her nephew was film and TV director Will Price, who was the second husband of actress Maureen O’Hara.

Rosanna D. Thorndike, worker with blind servicemen in France.


Rosanna D. Thorndike, from her 1917 passport application

Boston-born Rosanna Duncan Thorndike (1898–1979) was the daughter of broker Albert Thorndike, who was treasurer and a trustee of Perkins School for the Blind, the first US school for the blind. At age 15, she earned a prize in a writing contest of St. Nicholas magazine alongside Bennett Cerf and Stephen Vincent Benét. At Perkins, she learned handcrafts, which was preparation for her World War I work.

In September 1917, she sailed for France, where she first served as a YMCA worker in Eleanor Butler Roosevelt‘s Hotel Richmond for US officers (a cousin of Thorndike’s father was Paul Thorndike, who was acquainted with the Roosevelt family). Thorndike also worked as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross; as a teacher of crafts and English at the Phare de France, a training school for blind French service members involving Winifred Holt (daughter of publisher Henry Holt and founder of the New York Association for the Blind, aka Lighthouse Guild); and as a worker with US blind soldiers at Base Hospital 8 in Savenay. Thorndike wrote of her experiences in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919:

The first blind soldiers to return to America reached home in a pretty disconsolate condition. They had not been told anything of all there is left in life even after sight has been taken away, and it meant that they were utterly discouraged and disheartened, and that they had slipped so far into both mental and physical darkness, that it was very difficult to rouse them to any hope for their futures or any interest in things in the world about them. . . . .

[I]t was decided that . . . it would be eminently worth while to take a few weeks to help these men to learn a little of what others may teach them of how to be blind. . . . . Every day each one who was in condition to study learned a little Braille, a bit of typewriting, worked on a basket, modelled a few minutes in clay—made a little progress in something; and we tried to keep up their interest so they would want always to learn more. Then there were walks in the afternoons . . . . there were sometimes feasts, and always games and reading aloud. . . . .

They were full, busy, even happy days in a way, in spite of the suffering, the discouragement, the homesickness, the occasional lack of courage that just had to enter in. They were days I shall never forget . . . (93–94)

She returned to the United States in March 1919. In that year, she was a member of the Department of Social and Physical Education for the Red Cross Institute for the Blind (known as Evergreen) in Baltimore. According to the 23 Nov. 1922 Boston Post, she was one of 100 members of the Overseas Women’s Service League to participate in a parade honoring the visiting former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. From 1923 to 1940, she was secretary to Hans Zinsser of Harvard’s medical school. In the May 1927 issue of Carry On, she wrote movingly of the plight of blind veterans, seeking to raise funds for an orchestra composed of these men:

I knew these boys in France, and I’ve known them since. I know the kind of things they are up against—no real home sometimes, often no occupation, no understanding from other people. I know their courage and their grit. . . . . Think of the plans these boys had for their lives; think of the suffering they’ve been through mental and physical; imagine the eternal darkness they can never get away from; or the tiny blurr of light that never increases and which may suddenly fade away entirely. (40)

She became a trustee of the Perkins School for the Blind. During World War II, Thorndike returned to relief work in France via the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and she was interned in Germany for over a year, as the AFSC documents (including a report coauthored by Thorndike about the AFSC’s wartime work in France).

Thorndike went on to work for the US embassy in Paris. In September 1950, she married Frederick Jefferson Leviseur, a Harvard graduate who had been a first lieutenant in the AEF’s Quartermaster Corps in World War I and worked in civil affairs in France during World War II.

Further reading:

Sarah Mildred Willmer, YMCA entertainer.


Sarah Mildred Willmer, ca. 1920

As early as 1890, Sarah Mildred Willmer (1881–1949) was delivering dramatic monologues, eventually appearing in northeastern, midwestern, and western venues and billing as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Lyceum.” One of her frequent performances was “The Sign of the Cross” by Wilson Barrett. In 1907, she met physicians William and Lena Sadler (Lena was the niece of cornflakes co-inventor John Harvey Kellogg), and they became friends. This promotional flyer shows that they often appeared together on the Chautauqua circuit. As the 25 Aug. 1912 Chicago Tribune documented, Willmer married minister Edward V. Bond at the Sadler home in Chicago (Bond died in 1915 from a cardiac problem).

In July 1918, the Lyceum Magazine noted that Willmer would be going overseas as a YMCA entertainer, refusing a salary and cancelling a 10-week Chautauqua contract for the opportunity (31). In Aug. 1918, Willmer sailed for France. Her account in the 22 Dec. 1918 Chicago Tribune (4) describes harrowing experiences:

“Are you afraid to go to the front?” [asked the YMCA man]

“That’s where I want to go.”. . . .

I was whirled over a thin white ribbon of a road through the valley of the Meuse and we arrived at a town. There were no inhabitants except American troops. . . . An officer moved out of his room and gave it to me. . . . rats—O, plenty of them, big as cats, that would scamper all over the place and me at night, and snuggle down in my warm blankets. None ever bit me, but one morning, as I woke, eight of them jumped from my bed. . . . .

Aided by friendly officers—entirely outside regulations and unknown to the ‘Y’ man in charge of the base—I would dress in a soldier’s uniform and go up to the front, in total darkness.

I went up one night, in a darkness which was uncanny; with shells bursting about us, with machine guns and all the other death dealing agencies actively at work, with pandemonium literally let loose, to a first aid dressing station.

O, it was horrible. The boys were brought in on litters, all in darkness, and as the surgeons and attendants passed along they would flash a little light on one for a brief instant, then on another, and in this way they had to be cared for. I wondered if it was right for me to be there, and I was frightened, O so frightened, but I did not dare to let that be known, for I was supposed to be a man. I helped with the boys who were brought in, and saw vividly the horror of it all, the lads dying and suffering, and had to remain quiet.

She also related an episode of servicemen hearing about the Armistice:

An officer—a colonel—entered the place. . . . . He flashed a smile, held up his hand, and said:

“Boys, she’s signed.” . . .

Immediately a mighty cheer went up, and then those 2,000 lads sang the Doxology as I never heard it sung before—and never expect to again. And then this officer said to me: “Miss Wilmer [sic], if you have a breath left in you, will you recite the ‘Salute to the Flag’?”

I did. Every hat went off in an instant, and then the men sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” . . . One young fellow said:

“Gee, ain’t it great?”

And then, in a sorrowful tone:

“And my buddy killed only this morning and can’t be here for it.”

Willmer was gassed twice—once at Verdun and once in the Argonne forest. The latter—a dose of chlorine gas “burning in my lungs”—necessitated her return to Chicago in December 1918, where she stayed with the Sadlers. The Chicago Tribune account credits her with receiving a Croix de Guerre, but this is not listed in the YMCA’s 1918–19 Yearbook and Official Roster of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of Canada and the United States of America with the other decorations received by YMCA personnel.

By April 1919, she was back on the performance circuit and continued throughout the 1920s. Her 14 July 1949 obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) indicates that she opened a confectionary in Rochester in 1928, which failed in the depression. She became involved in social work and worked with the deaf on lip-reading and speech.

Her obituary includes a married daughter, Elizabeth Ann Wales, with 1930 and 1940 census records indicating a 1921 or 1922 birthdate. However, as newspaper clippings show that Willmer was maintaining a busy touring schedule in the early 1920s, it is likely the child was adopted. The obituary also lists a granddaughter, Dianna Kathleen Wales.