On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war!

One of my good friends had already been dratted and gradually many others were leaving town for the services.

I was in art school in Philadelphia at the time and, at the dean’s request, I appeared at his office-fearful and trembling, never having been called there before.

The dean had been asked to find a student who could get good likeness and who might be willing to sketch at the Stage Door Canteen, which was only two blocks from the college. I was pleased to volunteer.

I sketched portraits there a couple of evenings every week and learned to cope with—and even enjoy—crowds standing by waiting their turn to be the sitter. I soon got used to the small talk with the guys and later made the acquaintance of two older artists who also worked there. On Sundays they went to some of the hospitals taken over for military use. I soon joined them. One of the older men would drive and we made a day of it. We went to Valley Forge or to Atlantic City where the luxury hotels had become hospitals. It was a learning experience on many levels. We sketched in the wards working from bed to bed

I was in the plastic surgery ward and one of the doctors suggested I might be able to make the needed repairs to a badly marred face in my drawing and that he could then follow it in surgery. Looking at that face was not easy for me or for the subject, but I learned that the conversation while I was drawing was as valuable to many of the young men as the drawing.

The USO realized this, too, and organized artists as one-person USO shows for the military hospitals. After graduation, I joined the USO and spent a week at a time at different hospitals sketching patients. What follows are excerpts-letters to my parents and friend, Terry, and insight where appropriate-from the bookMen I Have Met in Bed, which serves as a diary of my experience.

On My Way—Pennsylvania

Monday

Dear Mother and Dad,

They made arrangements for me to stay here. It's the best place in town. I've unpacked and hung my things on the clothes tree that juts out into the room at a level convenient for blackening eyes, and I'm settled for the week. ...

You'll want some details about the hospital where your wandering child is wandering. It is a twenty-minute ride from town. I shall be drawing there from nine to five for the rest of the week. The building was to have been a state asylum, but due to political footballing it was never finished. Big as the place was, when the Army took over it added still more until it grew into a huge quadrangle of a building with several extra offshoots.

The work is the same as the sketching I did in our local hospitals. I fed at home when I'm working, though I'm not yet used to filling out the little card identification form USO requires for each drawing.

I sketch mostly bed patients. They say the drawings have an "entertainment as well as therapeutic value" for those Gls who are immobile because of broken bones, etc., as well for those who are too sick to have noisy or exciting diversion.

You wouldn't want me to forget to mention that they have placards at the hospital, along with mimeographed notices on the bulletin boards, announcing me as though I were a ballet dancer or crooner. ...

Love, Lila

Tuesday

Dear Terry,

... I worked in the bone yards (orthopedic wards) where the boys are just like those in the hospitals near home. There seems to be the same assortment of kids in every ward. They say and do the same things. It still isn't easy for me to make conversation all day long, and entering the ward is the worst. At the door when I feel myself virtually x-rayed by all those pairs of eyes, my feet stubbornly resist going into the room. ....

Your letter, forwarded was one of those [Capt. Gray] handed me. I'm glad you won't mind being my diary on these trips. It is the only way I shall be able to record my adventures. And a diary that answers is the kind of diary to have!

Wednesday

Dear Terry.

... It has taken all the time I have sketched at the canteen, the Sundays at the hospitals near home, and the few days I have spent here for me to realize that "Gee, is that me?" spoken with a wide-eyed expression at the finish of my drawings, is a compliment. ...

I have rambled on and on-like a slow train through Arkansas. I hope you won't mind burrowing through these long letters and I'd appreciate you keeping them for me, please.

Lila

Conversations with the patients cover an infinite variety of materials, no subject barred. A handsome boy of

English descent, one of those I had seen playing ping-pong on crutches, started talking about philosophy and ended with government. … I thoroughly enjoyed drawing him because the discussion had been so animated, so refreshingly different from the usual. …

An older man called -Pup" with a tanned face and streaked gray hair was in the ward. He had been wounded in the South Pacific, but a vitriolic sense of humor had remained intact. I liked his lined face and he enjoyed posing for his picture. 'Through it all he and the youngsters kept up a battle of words. I wished I had a sound recording, moving-picture camera. These boys put on a wonderful show. Courage! I hope they don't lose it when they go back to being civilians.

Sunday

Dear Terry.

A week since I left home and the end of my first week's USO-ing. I loved it. Living in the small town was fun ...

Cleveland

Later

Dear Terry.

... The city of Cleveland is generous to the men at the hospital. They donate tickets to the regular weelky

concerts at Severance Hall and any man who wants to go need only sign up at the Special Services Office ... I finished work a little early tonight and stopped at [Lt. McGinty's] office to inquire if there were any mail. Lt. McGinty said there was room and asked if I would care to go to the concert. We just returned.

George Szell conducted and everybody thought it was grand. Who said there was a man shortage, Terry?

I attended the symphony with thirty of them.

Galesburg

On the train again, bound for Galesburg via Chicago . ...

With the help of a nasty porter I changed trains in Chicago and sat beside a sleepy WAAC No diner on the train and I had had no breakfast. By ten o'clock my stomach revealed how hungry I was and the WAAC offered one of those little five-cent bags of peanuts, salted ones. I said I wouldn't think of depriving her and devoured a handful. She was well supplied with peanuts and we ate all the way to Galesburg.

Tuesday

Dear Terry,

I wish I could write you something splendid, a fine, moving letter, in tribute to what I saw today. I ·wish I might somehow make living pictures of it with bright inscriptions of one word to show to all the people. And the one word would be "Remember.' I worked in a paralysis ward today. ...

There were two kids lying near each other, both paralyzed from the waist down. One boy said no. ... He couldn't pull himself from the shadow of his injury and the day drifted by while he started at the ceiling, resenting each board and panel as he counted and recounted them.

I sketched the other boy, who had been wounded in the same manner.

He showed me pictures of his wife and four-year-old son, too, and even exhibited the shell jewelry made for his mother-in-law, under the guidance of the Occupational Therapy department. "Never can tell when this stuff will come in handy. I'll never get around very much, but maybe I could run a gift shop."

Human spirit rises to unimaginable heights. This was just a kid from down the street with a broad smile and laugh-wrinkled eyes, somebody's son from a little town in Ohio. ... He enjoyed living: he was glad, and he loved the world, even his small share of it that he could see from the hospital window. There was so much joy in him. I was humbled. ...

Lila

Friday

Dear Mother and Dad,

... They have a mascot in the ward, a toy bunny. No ordinary stuffed rabbit this. He is regarded as a regular patient. The head orthopedist bandaged his legs. The best man on the medical staff bandaged his head, and several other doctors had been persuaded to practice their skills on the pet. Each boy contributed a service ribbon, so that this rabbit is probably the most decorated and among the best cared for patients in the hospital.

I sketched him for my notebook and then the boys wanted a regular portrait drawing of him, too. ...

Love, Lila

Dear Terry,

... The boys have given my collection some new shoulder patches, the 23rd Corps, the Anti-tank Command, the 104th Division, and Merrill's Marauders. ... Also, I was given an airborne patch by a six-foot paratrooper with a thick black handlebar mustache. I've decided to make all my insignia into a patchwork quilt. Won't that be a wonderful souvenir? ...

All for tonight, Terry. Next stop Iowa.

G'night, Lila

Iowa

At ten o'clock I followed a recreation worker through a maze of corridors to the ward where I was to spend the day. They dressed me up in a surgical gown and mask {on me it did not have the glamour of Hollywood women doctors) and I sauntered into one of the rooms. The gown was necessary because it was a communicable diseases ward. ...

The cases were mostly [tuberculosis} or diphtheria. ... The boys in these wards have so little that can be called entertainment; they are bored and lonely. Even with that surgical gown that made me a first cousin to a ghost, each one tried to keep me in his room after I had finished the sketch. It was no particular appreciation of art or any uncommon quality of mine that was the attraction. It was just that I was something different, and someone to talk to. How could I help but want to stay with each one as long as I could?

Regular USO show troupes didn't come to the ward. What good would a magician or juggler be in a gown and mask? And who would whistle at a singing or dancing act in such costumes?

Even reading matter came to their ward last because books and periodicals were burned after these kids finished with them. I felt justified in wanting to spend a little extra time there.

Thursday

Dear Mother and Dad,

I thought you'd appreciate a letter more understandable than my usual written ones. You'll enjoy being able to know what I've said without the effort of wading through my inky scrawl. ...

The Red Cross uses this machine for the patients. They make recordings and send them home. It is a wonderful idea. I said I'd help demonstrate; that's how I came to make the record.

They tell me I have to stop-there's no more room on the disc. I leave here Sunday.

Love, Lila

Sunday

Dear Terry,

Train stations seem to inspire me to write you. I'm waiting here and writing in my sketchbook again. ...

Altogether it was a good week. This hospital seemed to specialize in collecting delightful Irishmen. Never heard so much blarney in my life. But I liked it ....

This train goes to Michigan. ...

Always, Lila

Michigan

They sent a bus to call for all of us, the "us" being a USO troupe and me. ...

It is an unusual hospital, formerly the Kellogg sanitarium-a large six-story building, like a fine hotel with an impressive driveway and broad steps. ... There are a number of Gls in each of its ''private" rooms. But you enter, through the old building, a tremendous lobby with double staircase. That first impression will stay with me a long time. It is an amputations hospital. Everybody uses at least a cane, but wheelchairs and crutches are more common. ... Those of the boys who are out of bed gather there in a great semicircle on the few steps that rise around the sunken lobby. They wait/or visitors, come to watch if their friends are expecting visitors, or just to see people, even if they're expecting no one.

Monday

Dear Terry,

... All wards in all hospitals are rows of white beds. Some have very young kids in them. But beside each of these beds stands one or two false limbs. Boys wander in from other wards, some of whom have lost an arm. It still startles me, when the boys gather around, to have an arm rest on my shoulder, and to look down to where the hand should be and find a mechanical hook.

But these kids are amazing.

When I reported in at the Red Cross office on my last morning, they asked if l'd mind going again to the amputation wards even though it was the day for medical inspections and the patients would have their bandages and dressings off. ...

I can't say that being there that day did not cause that strangeness in my stomach, or that I didn't mind it. It is just that I'm better acquainted with that feeling now. People assume I've become hardened but that isn't so. I've only learned, I hope, to act the same with these kids exactly as I would with other GIs, for they are the same.

Love, Lila

Home—Philadelphia

Thursday

Dear Terry,

Merry Christmas! Next year I hope I can tell you that in person. ...

It was good to see the city again. I felt some wee part of the sensation the boys have when they return.

That's what I prize most about this hospital work-being half a GI when the gang comes home. I'll be grateful for the experience and understanding ....

In the dressing room at the canteen, I heard several girls cooing over a picture of their friend's date. "He's so cute!" At the other side of the room a hostess excitedly admired the ring on the hatcheck girl's third finger, left hand. "Have you set the day?" "There won't be any wedding. He was killed-two weeks ago.'

Lila

Utica

Thursday

Dear Terry,

... How great an institution is Coca-Cola! Even the wards have Coke machines. In the post-operative ward today I thought the kids were being funny when they asked if l'd like one. But I finally hied me out to the porch to see if the Coke machine was really there. And then everyone pulled out "ditty" bags or dug under his pillow for money, and for a time I was busy exchanging nickels for Cokes and serving them to the bed patients. It must have been quite a domestic scene ....

Love Lila

Cleveland

Sunday

My favorite Mail Call,

I wane co rescind my complaint in yesterday’s mail I had two lovely long letters from you for me in Lt. McGinty’s office ....

In the halls today I met one of the boys whose picture I had drawn on my last trip. Naturally, I was glad to see him, but at the same time I was a bit sheepish and felt like I should be apologizing to him. Every once in a while, you know, I muff a drawing.

All for now, Lila

Wednesday

Dear Mother and Dad,

This is the first day of spring and the heavens are alternately pouring down snow and rain. There is frost on the windows and drafts in the halls ....

I got a whole bunch of invasion money from H al today. It looked like a small fortune until I noted the denominations of the bills, and realized the sum and total of all of them was 68 cents.

Love, Lila

P.S. The combat is over. I don't say the war is finished because for so many of the men in hospital beds there is still a long battle to fight.

Now the canteen, where I worked so many hours, growing in human experience, is closed. Just after VJ. Day one of the soldiers there answered my question about the victory. "I haven't felt much like celebrating." For a soldier, peace doesn't come until that day when all soldiers can doff their uniforms and climb back into mufti. For all of us now world peace is a long way off. As long as governments wrangle, men starve and shiver in the cold, as long as children are without comfort, as long as war criminals have to be hunted out and military plan[s] for another war, there is no real peace. The ultimate goal is still to be attained. It will probably take many years. Maybe it will come gradually.

Once again there are men in hospital beds.

Lila Oliver Asher was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she studied at the Fleischer Memorial Art School She also attended what is now known as the University of the Arts on a four-year scholarship. She moved to Washington, D.C, in 1946, established a studio for painting, sculpture and prints, and taught in Howard University's Art Department from 1947-1991. Learn more about her experiences sketching during the war at lilaoliverasher.com.