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October 5, 2008

Our War: Match made in 'hell' withstands test of time

She was a nurse, he a pharmacist. They were both stationed at an Army hospital in Okinawa during World War II, danced to the only record available at the camp, "Paper Moon," and have spent the past 63 years together.

She was a nurse, he a pharmacist.

They were both stationed at an Army hospital in Okinawa during World War II, danced to the only record available at the camp, "Paper Moon," and have spent the past 63 years together.

Frank and Betty Meroney, both 85, of Edwardsville, were assigned to the Medical Administrative Corps with the 27th Station Hospital in Okinawa.

"There was a dance and I had a date with him and a date with an engineer," Betty Meroney said. "I don't know why, but I chose him for that dance. When I was dancing with him, the guy I stood up came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said 'I hope you love someone some day and I hope he treats you like you treated me.' I've never regretted choosing (Frank) over that engineer."

Nurses were treated with respect during the war, Betty Merony said, and had to be escorted to the bathrooms or anywhere else. Soldiers treated them as officers and were required to salute if they passed them.

"You had to have a guard because there were Japs everywhere," she said. "If we could see planes above us fighting with each other we were supposed to put our helmets on in case something fell out of the sky."

Numerous caves dotted Okinawa and were used by Japanese troops to hide from U.S. troops.

"We'd go in there with flame-throwers to get them out," Frank said.

Nurses were trained in self-defense just in case they were ever captured by Japanese troops. They were also trained how to use a gas mask and to treat battle wounds.

The training didn't prepare Betty for what she saw in the wards.

"I'd never seen a bullet wound in my training and I never realized what a bullet could do to a body," she said. "The first one I saw had his face blown off and he was saying 'Mommy, mommy, I want my mommy.' There wasn't much we could do for him. He was the first I saw die.

"Some of them came in and we could see their brains. I never imagined things like that could happen to a body. It was horrible. There wasn't a lot we could do for them in the hospital. All we could really do was patch them up and send them on their way."

Both saw American prisoners of war come back from Japanese war camps. They were sickened by the condition the men returned in.

"It was just so pitiful," Betty said. "They were a mess. Most of them had no idea who the president was. War is hell. Oh, it's hell."

Frank agreed.

"We were there when they brought all the prisoners back from Japan," Frank said. "It was terrible. They were emaciated and most of them could hardly stand. They were treated very, very badly by the Japs."

Treating the war wounds of American soldiers and witnessing the returning prisoners of war hardened Betty's attitude towards the Japanese.

"Oh, I hated them," she said. "I told my supervisor that if she assigned me to a tent with Jap soldiers I would go through and overdose every single one of them. I was never assigned to treat any of them."

Betty, a nurse, volunteered for service in the Army when she was 21 years old.

"They needed nurses and if we didn't volunteer I thought they would make us go in and it scared me," she said. "I don't regret going. I used to not be able to talk about it. Can you imagine what someone looks like with their face shot off? And these were young kids. Some of them said they were 18, but they were really only 16. But they had patriotism. They felt like they were really fighting for something."

Frank was in college in Nebraska during the war. His mother knew the governor of that state and managed to get a deferment to keep him out of the military and the war, he said.

"But everyone I knew had gone already. I was the only one left," he said. "I decided to join and I joined the Army. My mom wasn't too happy about it."

Frank joined the Army's Medical Corps and was assigned to the medical group that set up the 27th Station Hospital at Okinawa. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Frank not only served as the hospital's pharmacist, but he served as the camp's adjutant and was in charge of the mess hall.

"He was in charge of making the salads," Betty said with a laugh. "We had some of the strangest salads I ever saw."

Amenities at the hospital were few. Troops lived in tents and showers were hard to come by.

"We put our water into our helmet and used that to keep clean," Betty said. "We always wore fatigues and the mud, oh, the mud. The tent was on mud and it was just everywhere."

A typhoon ripped through the hospital camp and destroyed it. Frank and Betty were transferred to Korea, where they stayed for a year.

"Korea wasn't a very nice place to be," Frank said. "The winters were terrible. It wasn't a good assignment, but you do what you have to do."

They were married in 1946, two months after they returned to the U.S. from Korea.

As a member of the Army Nurse Corps, Betty was memorialized at the "Women in Military Service For America" memorial in Washington, D.C. A photograph of her and a short statement about her service during the war can be viewed at the memorial.

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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