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"Happy Memories; Sad Memories," Reminiscence

of Navy Nurse Margaret Gravdahl

December 15, 1994
Interviewer: Linda Bell

Margaret Gates was born in Bradley, South Dakota, July10, 1919. Bradley was a very small town and it was difficult to go to college. Fortunately she had an aunt and uncle who lived in Aberdeen, so Margaret worked for her room and board and trained to be a teacher at the teachers' college there. She taught for a short time before the war and then entered the Navy. She and her brother had made a trip to California in the summer of 1940, and she remembers that everyone was concerned about the war, which had already begun in Europe. Her brother entered the Navy before Pearl Harbor and served in the Kwajalein Islands in the South Pacific. She was teaching at the time of Pearl Harbor and entered the Navy not so much from patriotic feelings as from just being restless. She had already left teaching to work in the shipyards in Bremerton, Washington, where her two sisters and their husbands had moved to find work as "there was nothing to stay in South Dakota for." After eight or nine months of working there, she went home and enlisted, taking a train from Watertown, South Dakota to Minneapolis. Others from her state had enlisted, but no one from her area. "I kind of did it all alone." She was 24 and "wasn't a kid."

She was sent to Hunter College in New York City with the few girls from South Dakota. She went in as a hospital apprentice and although she had just passed the test for pharmacist's mate, second class, when she left the service, she was not a pharmacist for her training was similar to a nurse's. At Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California, she worked with a plastic surgeon. Oak Knoll was a receiving hospital, treating casualties from the South Pacific. She saw many burn patients and remembers some of the worst cases to this day. Much of the treatment was experimental; she gave many morphine shots to those in terrible pain. Sometimes the shots were placebos, which seemed to help temporarily. Everything had to be sterilized and antibiotics had not yet been invented.

Margaret felt that her military training and experience strengthened her and helped her in life, especially when family members had medical problems. She formed close and lasting relationships. Her brother made a career of military service, but she returned to South Dakota. She taught briefly, worked for an insurance company and eventually moved to Fort Collins where she worked for fifteen years for the Center for Disease Control.

For this South Dakota girl, the war years brought adventure, fun and new experience - happy memories. There are other memories that linger; images of the terribly wounded boys she helped treat. "I still think about them."

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