By Jenny Neyman
As the luxury liner turned troop transport shipped off from Seattle for the South Pacific in the summer of 1945, Mary Quesnel knew about as much of what lay before her as she had say in the matter:
“We got on the ship and we had no idea where we were going. Everything was really top secret during the war. They didn’t give you a lot of information,” said Quesnel, 93, of Kenai.
It was World War II. She was headed for what would become one of the pivotal locations in the campaign against Japan, not that she was aware of the ship’s destination or the historic role it soon would play. At the time, Quesnel knew only that she and the other 5,000 on-board were bound for the South Pacific. More importantly, she knew her country needed nurses, so the details of where and when didn’t much matter.
“It was a time when you kind of felt like you needed to do something. And when they started to talk about drafting nurses, we decided, ‘Why wait to be drafted? We may as well just join.’ So a lot of us just joined outright as soon as we finished school. We knew at least it was a job, and what else was there to do?” she said.
Being a child of the Great Depression era, career opportunities were scant when she finished high school in Ohio. Entering nursing school required $60, which she raised through housework and baby-sitting.
“I always thought I would like to go into nursing, it was more appealing than bookkeeping. If you wanted to teach it was really expensive to go to a college, and nursing school, we were cheap labor, really,” she said.
World War II was raging and Quesnel enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in Sept. 15, 1944, shortly after graduating nursing school and taking her state boards. She was sent to basic training at Fort Sheridan, Ill., then was assigned to a general hospital in West Virginia, which was receiving casualties from the European front. Of all her duties there, working in the paraplegic ward was the most eye-opening to the results of war.
“You had to do everything for them, and it went on from morning ’til night, 12-hour duty. It was probably the hardest assignment, but it was the most rewarding because these kids couldn’t do anything. To this day I still have a real soft spot in my heart for disabled American veterans. I’m very supportive of them,’” she said.
Next she was stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. It was immediately clear that her next stop would be overseas, as evidenced by the preparations the troops were put through, both men and women.
“They sent us for 10 days on bivouac like they sent the men. Of course, I think they were a lot more helpful with the women — we didn’t have to hike quite so far. It rained the whole time, the whole 10 days, and if you didn’t do your tent correctly, you were sleeping on wet ground,” she said.
Quesnel is quite slight and was never what she considered outdoorsy, but being raised in the country, a daughter of farmers, she was not unused to walking or work.
“They eliminated about five women out of the group and decided they wouldn’t be good candidates to send overseas. They cried and the Red Cross emergency van took them back to Fort Knox, and the rest of us weathered the rain,” she said.
But it was anybody’s guess where they would deploy — including, it seemed, the commander’s.
“The war was still raging in Europe, so we were issued down sleeping bags and heavy coats. I still have my field coat, and it’s so heavy I can hardly carry it,” said Quesnel. “And then, all of a sudden, they took away all of our heavy-duty clothes and we were issued mosquito netting and all kinds of lotions and stuff for what we assumed were for bugs. And we knew then that we were going somewhere in the Pacific, but we had absolutely no clue where.”
Next stop was Seattle, in early summer 1945, where 5,000 boarded a converted luxury liner meant for 500. Some women slept six to a cabin, far beyond the comfort capacity for which the ship was designed.
“It was still luxury compared to the men because we were on the top deck, which, to us, was luxury. And most of us were poor kids who survived the Depression and managed to get ourselves through training, so I don’t think any of us had a real luxury lifestyle,” she said.
They spent a very boring month on-board. Light duties included tending to seasick passengers in the infirmary and taking turns standing watch — two women and two men — at all the stairwells leading between decks, to ensure no unauthorized men came up or women went down.
They passed several islands, but only one was recognizable.
“We stopped in Hawaii, but nobody got off. But we knew we were in Hawaii because we saw a big Dole pineapple. You could see it very clearly. That was one of the few islands we did recognize,” she said.
Finally, they reached the island of Tinian, one of the three principal islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, making a boundary between the Philippine Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
The giant ship had nowhere to dock at the tiny island, all of 39 square miles, which necessitated a particularly unluxurious process of disembarking.
“These ships are huge and never did I realize, looking at the bottom right close to the water level, these doors opened, and we jumped out of the ship into this little moving boat that took us ashore. That was exciting,” Quesnel said.
That was where the excitement ended for the time being, as Tinian was in a state of anticipation, but no action. The island, along with the larger Saipan to the north and even smaller Agiguan to the south, became Japanese protectorates after WWI. Tinian was captured by the U.S. in July 1944 and became the busiest airbase of the war in the Pacific.
When Quesnel arrived, the construction of a massive general hospital had just been completed in preparation to take in the expected casualties from the planned invasion of Japan, but so far stood empty. The dormitories to hold the 300 nurses that had just disembarked weren’t finished yet, so the new arrivals were bunking in two huge dormitories, with hundreds of beds lined up.
It was hot and humid, Quesnel said. Nurses were gratefully equipped with uniforms suited to the climate — light, seersucker dresses with shorter skirts than they’d get away with in the States. And they didn’t have to wear slips, stockings or the garter belts that would have held them up. Even so, keeping cool and dry was a challenge. Uniforms could be laundered, but shoes were constantly on the verge of mildewing.
Shortly after arriving, nothing officially happened, yet a pivotal moment in history did. Rumors started to fly that something very big had occurred, and it had launched from Tinian.
“We had absolutely no clue that there was anything going on with the dropping of the bomb. They flew from this tiny little island, and we could see the airport from where we were housed. I’m sure there were a select, very few who knew that the Enola Gay was already there and it was ready to fly to Japan, but we didn’t have a clue,” Quesnel said.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay took off from Tinian, carrying an atomic bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” bound for Hiroshima, Japan. The bomber dropped its payload, causing unprecedented destruction, and returned to Tinian.
“The plane flew, dropped the bomb and the plane came back, and we knew that something enormously disastrous happened — through word of mouth and rumors that flew, but nothing was official at that time,” Quesnel said. “When the plane first came back the air raid sirens went on and we thought, ‘Oh my God, the island is being invaded by the Japanese.’ So we knew something had happened, but we had no clue what until about a week later.”
Following the bombing of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki three days later by another B-29, the Bockscar, which also departed from Tinian, the war in the Pacific was essentially over. The invasion assault against Japan didn’t happen, and the brand-new general hospital on Tinian never opened its doors. Ten days after the bombings, the nurses on Tinian were told that they were going to ship out.
“All kinds of notices went up, because here’s 300 nurses assigned to this tiny little island with nothing to do, so we were volunteering to go wherever we chose — Philippines, New Guinea, New Caledonia,” Quesnel said.
She chose Saipan, the next island to the north, where she spent six weeks tending to injured servicemen in a station hospital — a sort of regional hospital, smaller than a general hospital but bigger and more removed than a field hospital on a warfront.
“During the time that I was there they had a typhoon and we were in Quonset huts, of course, and the Quonset huts flew off of some of the hospital rooms where they had patients in casts, which was horrible. There was no such thing as plastic. We had rubber sheets but there were not enough rubber sheets to cover these kids with casts on their arms and legs and bodies. That was a mess,” she said.
But mostly, her time in the service wasn’t all that exciting, Quesnel insists, certainly not like the dramatic and glamorous rendition that has survived in popular culture, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, and subsequent movie, “South Pacific.” That’s about star-crossed love and clandestine military missions, good-natured goof-off Seabees, sultry nurses and much more time spent singing, dancing and falling in love than tending to patients or other duties. Quesnel said she’s seen “South Pacific,” and loved it, but didn’t think it at all realistic.
“That was fun and glamorous, very glamorous. I don’t call wartime nursing glamorous. Sometimes it was very sad and tragic, really. Because you see quite a few deaths. We saw a lot during World War II, especially at the station hospitals. And especially, I think of the nurses who worked in field hospitals where they were right behind the action — they saw a lot. That kind of nursing really had to be depressing and tragic. But I always loved the nursing part,” she said.
Quesnel didn’t find herself swept up in any Broadway-worthy love affairs. If anything, dating on Saipan was more logistical strategizing than swooning. There weren’t many options for dates — just the officers club and outdoor movie screenings where viewers sat on a hillside, rain or shine. And scheduling had to include more than just the couple.
“It was really interesting overseas, both Tinian and Saipan, there were still Japanese at large and we knew that they were in the caves on the islands. So when we dated you had to have what they called a tail gunner. You had to have at least two men when you were dating, so we used to solve that by double-dating so that there were always two guys,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of women met their husbands during World War II, but things were so uncertain. I always had in the back of my mind, ‘I probably should go back to school just in case I don’t get married.’ It was nothing exciting. I met a lot of nice people and had some nice dates with some fun kids.”
Quesnel, then Lt. Nagy, was discharged from the service when the war ended in 1946, following a brief stint being stationed in Hawaii.
“Like all of us, I’m sure that we were all restless. ‘What are we going to do with our lives now that we’re done? Do we want to go back to our little town where we grew up and where we went to nursing school?’” she said.
The answer, for Quesnel, was no. No more Ohio. She applied to both Providence Hospital in Anchorage, which opened in 1939, and to do industrial nursing in Venezuela for Standard Oil. The pay was better in Venezuela, so off she went.
“I guess greed got the better of me,” she said.
She spent two years in Venezuela then decided to head back to the U.S.
“I decided, ‘Gee, if I’m going to make my own living — because now I’m in my later 20s and I’m not married — I thought I better go back to school,” she said.
She spent a year pursuing a degree in public nursing at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, then left to pursue a relationship started in Venezuela. Leon Quesnel, born in Trinidad, had been in Venezuela working for Schlumberger Oilfield Services. Being from Trinidad, a British colony in those days, Leon was able to get a visa to Canada more easily than to the U.S., so went back to school at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where Mary joined him.
“We knew each other for five years. We were past 30 when we got married. We kind of dragged our feet,” she said.
They did not take a slow start to creating their family. Quesnel likes to tell people she had five kids in four years and nine months — a set of twins, Alan and Joan (now Seaman) in Canada, then Odette (now Jamieson), Paul and Brian after moving to Orange Country, Calif., where Leon worked for Unocal.
In 1968 Leon was transferred to Kenai, so the family packed up a van, drove to Prince Rupert, British Colombia, boarded a ferry for Haines, then drove the rest of the way to their new home.
“We drove right through Kenai when we arrived. We never realized we had driven through it, it was a tiny town compared to the LA area,” Quesnel said.
While Leon worked for Unocal, Quesnel started working part time at Central Peninsula Hospital. In the early 1970s she became a school nurse, serving Sears Elementary in Kenai, Nikiski Elementary and Kenai School, where the Boys and Girls Club is now housed.
“That was fun. I loved school nursing. It was great — you were off when the kids were off, and you had all the holidays and summers off,” she said.
Quesnel retired in 1980, followed by Leon in 1984. They traveled extensively and found many ways to stay occupied while home.
“I feel like I always have to do something. As long as you keep busy, time flies,” she said.
Quesnel loves to sew, she and Leon volunteered to cook breakfasts at Kenai Alternative School, and she volunteered at Kenai Community Library for many years.
“I loved the library. I had a chance to hide in the Alaska section and read recipes out of the Alaska cookbooks,” she said.
Leon died of cancer in 2008. Quesnel took a few years off of cooking at Kenai Alternative School, but now is back at it with her daughter and son-in-law. Now 93, she’s still sewing, gardening some in the summers, and spending much of her time with family, including her seven grandkids and eight great-grandkids, with a ninth due in March.
Her kids all ended up with Alaska roots, “and that surprised all of us,” she said. Joan lives in the area and works at Jo-Ann Fabrics. Alan retired as a civilian engineer with the Air Force, stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Odette is a nurse, lives in Eagle River and works for the state Department of Health and Social Services. Paul works for BP in Anchorage, and Brian lives locally, working as a manager for Airgas.
Her neatly kept home in Inlet Woods, in Kenai, could pass military inspection, and is a representative mix of what she’s done
because she wanted to, and what was done because she felt she needed to. Artwork from she and her husband’s travels decorate the house. One bedroom is largely dedicated to sewing. A long hallway is adorned with family pictures, plaques noting her distinguished nursing service, and a folded American flag, retired from service on Wake Island, in the Pacific. Her son, Paul, picked it up there and had it ceremonially folded and displayed with military regalia as a gift for Quesnel. It’s a tribute to her service, to which she committed with no tribute, fanfare or even thanks required.
Nursing is about doing what’s needed, regardless of whether it’s glamorous, easy, convenient or fun. Her country needed nurses, so she needed to volunteer.
“I think most of us felt like that, whatever assignment we were given, I had no qualms about going overseas,” she said. “I think all of us felt like we were in for the duration and come what may.”