December 9, 1994
Interviewer: Linda Bell
Eleanor Gingras Kruchten was born and grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts. In 1938, when she was twenty, she went into nurses' training in Brooklyn, New York. By the time she finished training in October of 1941, there were signs warning that war was approaching. Within two weeks of Pearl Harbor she joined the 79th General Hospital Unit of the Army, although it was nearly a year before she was activated and sent for training in Medford, Oregon. In November of 1943, she and four friends she'd trained with were sent to Ireland. Their ship the Mauritania was huge, but in storms the waves crashed over the bow. While others suffered from seasickness, she proved to be a "natural sailor," and enjoyed watching the British officers eat their favorite breakfasts of kippered herring. The ship was not luxurious and water for bathing was at a premium, but during the days the army nurses enjoyed some shipboard flirtations. At night the danger of the ship being attacked required that portholes be blacked out and special precautions taken so no lights could be seen - it was forbidden to smoke on deck.
After landing in England, they went by train and then ferry to Moira (pronounced Moy-ra), a small town near Belfast in Northern Ireland. She remembers the trip as "an experience, because it was so exciting to be going to Ireland. I had always wanted to see it. When we first saw Ireland from the ship, it was just a point of green, so green, so beautiful."
Wartime Belfast was drab, however, with old stone buildings lining the sidewalks. "It was raining and it was winter; no lights because of wartime, a blackout."
Eleanor felt a connection to the Irish people as part of her ethnic heritage and saw most of Northern Ireland by bus. She enjoyed flirting at regimental parties and dances with the local people, but she sensed she might be destined to marry a boy she'd met in Oregon. He was stationed in Italy and they exchanged V-mail. These were letters in which their handwriting was reduced in size and copied by machine on lightweight paper, folded to form its own envelope and usually sent by air. Mail was censored, so they had to be careful about what they said and could give only hints about where they were stationed.
Her letter to another young man was returned, but she had already learned of his death. He'd been part of the Normandy Invasion. Eleanor remembers the nurses watching the Air Force units leaving Ireland for England, flying overhead in formation, wave after wave.
Her medical unit departed from Ireland soon after the troops for a hospital near Southampton in England. Netly Hospital had served as a rehabilitation hospital after the Crimean War. "At that time, Florence Nightingale condemned it, but it was the most gorgeous place you have ever seen in your life." The hospital was a quarter of a mile long, had magnificent grounds, high ceilings and a fireplace in every room. There was, of course, no central heating. "Little mice would come out of the fireplace and stand with their paws in the air staring at you, just as nervy as could be."
Despite their picturesque setting, the luxury of tins of cookies sent from home, and Cadbury chocolate from their rations, the grim reality was American casualties from the invasion shipped directly to the hospital pier. Eleanor prefers to remember good times away from her nursing duties. She was able to see a great deal of England. An English friend invited several of the nurses to visit her home for the Christmas holidays. Eleanor recalls the house as a great stone place, heated only with fireplaces and pans of hot coals to warm the beds before retiring at night. The kitchen, however, was always warm with stoves, and New Year's was a festive time with kilt-clad Scotsmen dancing the Highland Fling. On one trip to London, she recalls she and a girl friend stayed in a hotel suite she described as "lavish!" When an air raid warning came in the middle of the night, they decided to stay put.
After about a year in England, in May of 1945, her unit was moved to France. She remembers the beauty of Normandy where the roads were lined with tall, slim trees and the fields held acres of red poppies. She would not, however, see Paris, except from the inside of the train station, that they were not allowed to leave. In France, their hospital was in a huge grim stone building once occupied by the Germans, in or near Verdun, but the nurses got a generous liquor ration of five bottles a month, including the best champagne!
She does not recall any great celebration when the war ended in Europe - probably because the nurses were all so tired from doing their jobs. She had some concern about being sent to Japan, but a skin condition saved her from that and she returned to the sates as a patient on a hospital ship.
Deciding to attend Columbia University after the war, she had difficulty finding housing and finally got on as a roommate in a brownstone next to Central Park. The boy from Oregon came home to work as a CPA, and when they got together for the first time, they discovered his rooming house was just three blocks away! They were soon engaged but couldn't get married because they had no place to live, until Tony, their iceman fixed them up with a lovely large room with a kitchen converted from a clothes closet. They washed dishes in the bathroom!
In summary, Eleanor felt her experience as a wartime nurse changed her from being a shy, timid young lady to someone who had confidence in herself. She and her husband moved to Fort Collins in 1951 and raised three sons and a daughter here.
Preserving the history of Fort Collins, Colorado & the Cache la Poudre region