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Our War: Belleville nurse started training after Pearl Harbor

Doris Alberts of Belleville.
Doris Alberts of Belleville.

Doris Alberts was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She remembers the eerie quiet of the school hallways.

"A lot of my classmates we didn't see again after graduation," she said.

Alberts, now 83, graduated from Belleville Township High School in the spring of 1942 -- the middle of World War II.

That year, the Cadet Nurse Corps was formed. She joined.

Her father was an Army veteran from the first World War. When she told him, he refused to pay for the training.

"You understand that nice girls are not nurses," he told her.

"But Daddy, that's my contribution to the war effort," she said.

She paid for the two-year student training at St. Louis Jewish Hospital with money that had been willed to her by her grandmother.

In February 1945, Alberts made an eight-hour train trip from St. Louis Union Station to O'Reilly General Army Hospital in Springfield, Mo. -- the travel time was more than doubled because the train frequently halted to let trains filled with troops and freight pass.

At the hospital, she met five nurses who recently had been released as prisoners of war in Manila, Philippines. The nurses each were reduced to "a bag of bones," -- one woman dropped from 175 to 92 pounds during confinement. They also suffered from malaria and jaundice, Alberts said.

"These uniforms just hung on them like sacks."

As an officer nurse, she was paid $90 a month and was charged $1 a day for food. After doing without through three years of rationing, she again ate a Hershey bar and steak at the hospital.

"The one thing we didn't have to buy was our cadet uniforms," she explained.

The nurses worked 12-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with one day off a month. They were required to complete Army basic training, including marching drills and crawling under barbed wire while under fire.

"We went through the whole nine yards," she said.

Alberts' first assignment was on the paraplegic ward, where injured soldiers kept a steady sense of humor despite their injuries.

When one man needed assistance to maneuver from his bed to his wheelchair, a fellow paraplegic would ask, "What's the matter? Are you crippled or something?" Alberts said.

"From them I learned to laugh at adversity," she said, as her voice cracked with emotion. "And I've never lost that."

That lesson came in handy 10 years later when Alberts suffered burns over 60 percent of her body when the ether exploded in an operating room. It was two months before she returned to work, bandages still covering her legs.

In her six months at O'Reilly, she also worked in the plastic surgery wards, treating soldiers who suffered burns, usually the result of their fighter planes getting shot down. She changed dressings, removed sutures and dispensed drugs.

Although some soldiers were horribly disfigured, she said, "You never made anything of their injuries."

One 28-year-old soldier was so badly injured that his eyelids had been burned away. He refused to let his wife visit him, Alberts recalled.

"Just think how she feels that you won't let her see you," Alberts, then 20, told him.

Three days later, he said, "You're right." Two days later, his wife visited.

The soldier made Alberts a basket filled with expensive chocolates.

"Those are things that you never forget," she said.

Alberts had a flare for photography and still keeps several scrapbooks from her service at O'Reilly. They are full of photos of injured soldiers and fellow nurse cadets, along with other mementos from the time.

After the war, Alberts remained in medicine.

She studied for four years and graduated summa cum laude. She applied to five medical schools but was not accepted because she was a woman, she said.

"I wanted to be a doctor," she said. "I found that really a shock. How much better could I have done?"

Despite being considered a "second-class citizen" as a woman, Alberts loved her work and was not deterred from the field.

She went on to work as an operating room nurse and then studied to become a nurse anesthetist. She worked at several hospitals in various parts of the country before returning home to Belleville in 1979 to care for her dying father.

She retired from Barnes-Jewish Hospital in 1995 at the age of 69.

Contact reporter Maria Baran at mbaran@bnd.com or 659-0985.

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