Elizabeth Cabot Putnam, from her 1917 passport application
Boston-born Elizabeth Cabot Putnam (1888–1984), daughter of Harvard neurologist James Jackson Putnam, graduated from Radcliffe College in 1910 and left for Paris in May 1917.
Her wartime letters to her family, collected in On Duty and Off (1919), discuss her service with the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris (which cared for French soldiers), the AEF’s U.S. Air Service (the precursor to the Air Force), and the Red Cross. For the hospital, she largely worked on patients’ medical histories and leisure activities, and even assisted one patient in obtaining an artificial leg (an expensive proposition at the time). In September 1917, she moved to the Air Service’s production division (responsible, according to Putnam, for “the choosing and training of flyers as well as the decision on types of machines and equipment” ). She first was assigned to “Major G” (hints by Putnam point to Edgar S. Gorrell), whom she stated “swears a good deal in a casual, genial way” (83). She clearly enjoyed her job—”I feel every morning when I set forth as if I personally were going to lick the Germans,” she wrote (88)—and characterized it as “more E. Phillips Oppenheim-y every hour” (84, meaning spy-like). There were difficulties with the switchboard (“It is awfully hard to hear, especially names” ) and filing (“There are millions of papers that may be urgently needed at a moment’s notice and may be demanded under a million different guises. It is really a job” .) Putnam mentioned unannounced inspections by a strict General Pershing—”who left death and destruction in our unmilitary milieu” (102–03). Her sense of humor extended to air raids:
I am getting awfully tired of these air raids! . . . . We sat in our “salon” for an hour and made cocoa and then when two bombs were dropped that really sounded as if they were in our street (they weren’t), we went down to the cave where many of the others were. They say, however, that the second floor, where we are, is the very best place for a bomb striking the top of the house does not usually get as low as that, and a bomb going off in the court or street doesn’t go as high. . . . It certainly gives you a queer feeling to sit conversing in front of the fire awaiting your own special bomb. (146–47)
In June 1918, she helped care for wounded Marines at a hospital in Neuilly after the Chateau Thierry campaign and made some grim observations:
Saturday night turned into Sunday morning with the stream absolutely steady—three or four operations all the time. When at about half-past three in the morning someone drew the curtain and opened the window on a marvellous deep violet-blue sky with the trees coal black against it and a fresh breeze, it was more than one could bear with equanimity—so heavenly outside and so horrible inside—all the blood and the hacked-up flesh, and the thought of how each one is going to suffer when he gets out of ether. (184)
Putnam then was assigned to Base Hospital 24 (aka the Tulane Unit) in Limoges. She became a Red Cross searcher, which involved searching for missing servicemen, interviewing the missing’s fellow soldiers, and writing to families with missing loved ones. She wrote enthusiastically, “The ‘searching’ is quite exciting. The first day I came upon a murder and a desertion!” (188). She also visited with the wounded and facilitated refugee matters.
She sailed for home in September 1918 and returned to the Air Service in late 1918. In 1922, she worked as a secretary to the dean of Harvard Medical School. She married physician Monroe Anderson McIver in 1923; they later had two children, Elizabeth and Marian, and lived in the Cooperstown, NY, area.