2007 — Saint Augustine, Florida
Published Monday, February 12, 2007
Hattie McGowan, 86, lights up as she pages through her photo album of young, beautiful women and athletic-looking men sun bathing on Hawaiian beaches.
It looks more like a summer vacation instead of Navy nurses spending time with wounded men in World War II.
"I was engaged to five of them," McGowan said. "You gave them a little hope to get home safe. But I wouldn't really commit to anybody."
McGowan and her four brothers got through the war unscathed. But she still has bloody stories from the two years she was a nurse at the hospital in the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Oahu, Hawaii.
Injured men from the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps were all taken there.
"When ships and air planes came in (to the base), the ambulances would be lined up for hours bringing men in," she said.
McGowan vividly remembers one "boy" who had a piece of shrapnel next to his carotid artery. She took turns with other nurses holding him.
"If he moved the shrapnel would move and it would have killed him," she said. "But he finally bled to death. I sat with him for hours."
"My mind keeps going about the past with those boys. They were my brothers because, you know, my brothers were in the same spot."
McGowan is very close to her family, especially her brother Lester Personeus, who spurred her interest in serving in the war. Personeus was a pilot in WWII and lived next door to McGowan in St. Augustine until he recently passed away.
McGowan is one of 11 children. She grew up in Suffern, N.Y.
After high school, she went to New York City to become a nurse. In 1942, she decided to join the service and worked in the Navy hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"I called my mom and told her and she started crying. She said the boys are there and now you're going in," she said. "But we were all so patriotic in those days. Everyone wanted to fight and get those Japs (Japanese)."
McGowan never dreamed she would go anywhere beyond New York City as a Navy nurse, but she soon got a call that she would be sent overseas.
"There were 10 nurses and were all standing at Grand Central Station crying our eyes out," she said. "We didn't know where we were going. None of us had ever left home before."
McGowan ended up at Pearl Harbor after a Navy ship spent seven days at sea zig-zagging to miss Japanese submarines.
With the thoughts of her brothers in the war, she was passionate about making the men in the hospital feel light-hearted. But it wasn't easy.
"When I'd get them ready for their dates at night I'd buy (perfume) and pour it down their casts to cover the smell. They all had infections," she said. "They'd come home halfway through the movie and say, 'Sorry, the smell started and we had to come home.'"
After two years with the Navy, she got orders again to be moved from Pearl Harbor to another base overseas.
"All the men said if you were my sister, I wouldn't let you go," she said.
Instead, she left the Navy and married "her beau," Chuck McGowan, a marine. She used the G.I. Bill to attend college at the University of Arizona. She taught nursing in Arizona, later divorced and was in real estate in Phoenix for 29 years.
She moved to St. Augustine in 1992 and bought a waterfront triplex with her sister, Constance Bird, and her brother.
With war in Iraq a hot topic, McGowan reflects on how differently people viewed WW II. She worries that the troops today aren't getting the support they deserve.
"The Second World War was so hard, but the families gladly did without, without butter and rations of food," she said. "I feel so sorry for the guys in this war because everybody is so against it and it's reaching the troops over there and that's sad."
"Of course, it's a different country and a different world now."