Army 1st Lt. Bonnie Jean McTaggart is one of the few World War II veterans living among us. She wrote about her adventures as a young, naïve nurse, far from home serving in the U.S. Army. She’s now 97, and lives with her daughter on Camano Island.
McTaggart (after marrying, became Benadom) wanted to be a nurse like her mother. She completed her medical training about the time Japan attacked the American fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States entered World War II.
“By the time I finished the war was on, “ she recalled. “They needed me in the Army so in the Army I went.”
In the army
McTaggart joined the army. Her mother saw her off on the train and made her pin money in her bra for safety. She cried when she left; she’d never been further than 25 miles from Seattle.
She went to Camp Wheeler, Georgia, to prepare for overseas duty with 150 nurses from different states. They were issued one-size-fits-all fatigues, gas masks and helmet. They learned to shoot and clean M-1 rifles, march and snap a salute — same as the men.
“We climbed 40-foot barriers and climbed down rope ladders, in case of ditching in the ocean. Learned how to swim in burning oil, make a life preserver with your fatigues, ran through the obstacle course and crawled on our bellies.”
During a surprise gas alert drill, the nurses had a problem. They’d stashed candy in their gasbags, and it flew everywhere as they held their breath and tried to strap on masks.
Many women’s long hair showed beneath their helmets. McTaggart stood out with shoulder length, bright red hair. When the nurses were out marching or on the rifle range, the GIs (male soldiers) would stop, watch and whistle.
Journey to India
In July 1943, the nurses were sent to Wilmington, California, where an Army band played to welcome them. They marched off the train and lined up on the pier to board a large luxury liner that was refitted as a troop transport. As the nurses boarded one by one over a gangplank, thousands of GIs hung over the side rails, whistling, shouting and clapping.
“As I started across, the whole 5,000 troops yelled, ‘Yeah, Red!’ I never have been cheered like that. I laughed and waved and hoped I wouldn’t trip,” McTaggart wrote.
Nine nurses squeezed into each stateroom intended for two.
McTaggart marveled at porpoises, phosphorescence and the blue ocean water, so different than the green water of Puget Sound. A huge storm hit the ship off the Tasmanian coast. From a protected spot, she watched waves tower high above deck and crash over the ship.
The transport joined a convoy of ships in Tasmania and traveled 35 days to Bombay, India. She awoke to strange chanting as they arrived. Out the porthole she saw hundreds of men in brightly colored turbans and white dhoti (traditional pants) hauling on ropes to pull the ship to the pier.
McTaggart’s hospital group traveled on an English boat to Calcutta then boarded a leaky Indian boat to head up the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. They slept on deck and woke in sleeping bags awash with rain and river water.
They were loaded onto Army trucks for 100 miles, then a train. At a stop, a local boy was “dancing a jig with two cigarettes — one in each nostril — begging for coins. There were hordes of people lounging around all the depots. Most were begging. If you started to give, they would swarm around you. You quickly learned not to give,” she wrote.
McTaggart was 21 now. Although her family didn’t have much, she saw a deeper poverty in India she’d never forget: hundreds of people living on the streets and in railroad stations and deformed beggars lying in the streets.
Stationed in the Land of Tea
Finally, they reached their destination: Chabua, Assam, at the foot of the Himalayas in northeast India.
The nurses were stationed at the edge of a jungle on a tea plantation in thatched roof barracks made from poles with burlap walls, screen windows and a wooden floor. Snakes, centipedes, spiders and other creepy crawlies came in the hole that wastewater drained out. They lived with cobras, scorpions, rats and mosquitoes.
Major Sylvia G. Johnson, chief nurse, wrote, “In true American fashion, the girls were soon settled. They scurried about, found boxes for tables, the hammering could be heard for blocks, and in a few hours they were at home — as the news had spread like a prairie fire to the surrounding installations that 55 new girls were in the Section. Jeeps, command cars, weapons carriers, motorcycles, etc., came up in a cloud of dust! By the 5th of October, we had our own hospital, the 111th Station Hospital, Advance Section 2, China-India-Burma Theater.”
The GIs rigged a shower system for the nurses. Water was heated in oil drums and a “paniwalla” (person in charge of water) pedaled a bicycle contraption in a tree to pump the hot water into the bathroom for showers.
The nurses mostly ate C-rations and local bread that had bugs cooked in. Sometimes they’d buy local pineapples and tomatoes, but they’d get dysentery.
Living quarters were a challenge, but the nurses’ hospital work was gruesome.
Horror in the hospital
The hospital in Assam was near three airfields. Unarmed cargo planes ferried supplies “over the hump” (the Himalayas) to China. Many planes were chased back by Japanese fighter aircraft or shot down in the jungle.
Johnson wrote that the nurses went on duty October 1943 caring for 165 patients. A year later there were 900 patients with only 50 nurses to cover many wards constructed over a large area for air raid protection. They built wards for malaria, skin disease, dysentery, and communicable disease including smallpox.
“It was pretty raw nursing care. No antibiotics,” McTaggart recalled.
Winter was very cold; the wards had no heat. The nurses could hardly chart at night, their fingers were so cold. Summers were sweltering hot and wet.
McTaggart wrote that the nurses worked in a ward full of patients, 18-20 years old with broken limbs and burned bodies, scared and scarred for life. Patients got attached to the personnel and didn’t want to leave when well enough to go home. Some were horribly disfigured and afraid of rejection.
“I tried to cheer them up. I’d do silly little things to make them laugh. They’d tease me about my red hair. I’d laugh with them,” she recalled.
“They really get dependent on the caregivers,” McTaggart wrote. “One boy had his face half torn off. He kept asking for a mirror. They were so young and so wounded. We had F-38 pilots who had their legs amputated mid-air when they ejected from the plane.”
“A lot of it was sad,” she recalled. “The men would say, ‘talk to me, please talk to me.’ They were homesick. A lot of the boys were hurt terribly bad. They were scarred mentally and physically.”
“One boy was an athlete; he’d been in the Olympics. They needed to take off his leg. I’d talk to him every night. Morning came he had to have it removed, but he refused. They called me Nurse Mac. ‘Not unless I have Miss Mac, I want to talk to her.’ They got me out of my bed and I went and talked to him. I held his hand and said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’”
Many soldiers were deathly ill with malaria. They’d be out of their minds with fever, their chills so severe that their cots would shake.
During an earthquake, everyone ran outside, but McTaggart ran to a ward to stabilize men in traction. One man in head traction cracked jokes but held her hand tightly.
At the barracks, nurses had slit trenches in case of an air raid. But the trenches filled with rainwater and an assortment of bugs, snakes and scorpions.
One morning the air raid sounded as Japanese troops attacked the neck of land where the Assam airfields lay. The nurses squatted at the edge of the trenches, watching planes. When bombs started dropping, they all jumped into the murky water. Bombs hit the airfields 10 miles away, but not the hospital (Johnson said several hundred patients were evacuated in less than eight minutes) and they settled back into work.
Rest and recreation
During R&R leave, McTaggart saw the nearby Shalimar and Nishat gardens. The gardens weren’t well kept in 1943, but she could see how luxurious it had been with waterfalls, fountains and water lilies everywhere. On the way back they visited the Taj Mahal with its marble and ivory latticework, jeweled walls and minarets.
The hospital personnel and GIs occasionally made their own fun with dances and social gatherings.
Johnson described a decoration competition with Red Cross giving an ice cream party to the winners. Wards were trimmed with the green and white of tea and cotton branches. Artistic patients drew winter scenes on wrapping paper: “It was suspected that a few atabrine (malaria) tablets made the yellow, mercurochrome the red, and some other medication, the green. Everyone had caught the Christmas spirit.”
“They’d have dancers, men dressed as women, it was pretty hysterical,” McTaggart reminisced. “You’d do crazy things just to make people laugh.”
End of war
The U.S. bombed Japan, bringing devastation there but ending the war.
The nurses started a long, uncomfortable journey home sitting on metal benches on airplanes landing in Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, the Azores and New York City. As McTaggart put it, “That was OK — We Were Going Home.”
She was getting over dysentery, so the nurses used that to wrangle a layover in Cairo and toured the pyramids. McTaggart was ecstatic when they landed in NYC, Sept. 7, 1945. They hit all the nightspots in town before continuing by train to California to be discharged.
“In three years — I had circled the globe,” she recalled. “What a great adventure. I have been so blessed.”
When she returned home, McTaggart continued her nursing career and was supervisor for many years. She married a Navy man, the late Walt Benadom. Together they had many more adventures traveling the world. They retired to Camano Island 37 years ago.