WWII Nurse Doris Declared Living Legend
Can you imagine how much things change in a decade? What about in a century? As a centenarian, Doris can certainly attest to that. At age 102, she has lived a life full of both incredible and challenging experiences.
Doris spent her childhood in a lakefront town on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. “I was a tomboy as a kid,” she said. “I walked 4 miles a day to and from school. I grew up swimming and climbing trees—we were very active, and I was captain of my hockey team.”
Doris joined the Army Nurse Corps only weeks after the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She enlisted without hesitation, knowing she had the physical strength and endurance necessary to join. And soon, she would discover she also had the courage and bravery she needed.
Doris quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant and was stationed on the newly commissioned USS Comfort, a hospital ship docked off the shore of Okinawa. Alongside soldiers, nurses, and doctors caring for over 500 wounded soldiers, Doris also served with her best friend, Mary, from Wisconsin.
The Comfort was painted white with bright red crosses to signify that it carried wounded soldiers, but that did not stop those onboard from being at constant risk of death. “You never knew if you were going to be next,” recalls Doris.
The major danger was Kamikazes—Japanese aviators who flew suicide-bombing attacks against the Allied ships. “You just knew the odds were that you were going to get hit,” she explained.
She was right. During the Battle of Okinawa. Doris was tending to a wounded soldier when a Kamikaze hit her ship, causing the fuel tank to explode.
The explosion threw Doris eight feet into the air and against a massive bulkhead. She remembers momentarily feeling paralyzed and deafened before regaining her senses.
In the aftermath of the attack and evacuation, Doris learned that 28 people on her ship had been killed. Six nurses were lost in what is now considered the deadliest attack on American women in uniform. During the fatal battle, the USS Comfort was one of 26 ships hit by Kamikaze attacks.
Doris and her friend Mary survived the battle but soon faced another shock: they were discharged from service.
“We weren’t expecting to be discharged,” she said. “It was very sudden for me. They said I was a civilian and told me to go home and be a civilian.”
But, there was no switch that Doris could flip to return to her civilian life in Wisconsin easily. She felt out of place and could not talk about her experiences—how could she describe the horrors she had seen during the war to the people living everyday lives around her?
Doris decided to move to San Francisco, where she and her nursing friends found work at local hospitals in the Bay Area. But, she continued to struggle with debilitating war injuries that made work difficult. Eventually, she married a fellow Veteran and began raising a family.
Today, Doris has built a supportive community where she can share her physical and emotional wartime experiences. The memories remain entrenched with her to this day.
“It’s so fresh and vivid in my mind,” she said. “I’m living every moment when I talk about it.”
When Wish of a Lifetime heard her story, we knew we had to ensure that Doris received the recognition she deserved for her heroic service during WWII. And we knew just the place to do it. We sent Doris and her son Bill on a trip to Washington, D.C., where they could experience its iconic memorials and attend a ceremony in Doris’s honor.
“This astonishing dream come true was an incomparable addition to a long life full of travels and adventures,” Bill said. “Seeing the long read-about treasures of the country in D.C. for the first time was an amazing experience for my beautiful mom, who loved every minute of her trip.”
For many years, Doris had hoped for the chance to pay tribute to those she served alongside who were lost in the war.
“I would love to see the names of people I personally knew,” she said. And she was finally able to do so during this trip.
In addition to the World War II Memorial, Doris and her son visited the Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. The meaningful experience culminated at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, where Doris was honored with a private flag-raising ceremony and declared a Living Legend.
After returning home, Doris described the experience as one she would remember for the rest of her life.