Early in 1945, Lt. Freda Haworth was in the bubble nose of a war plane being transported from Australia to her military medical hospital on New Guinea. She and Ruth Sheets Miller had graduated from Danville’s Lake View Hospital School of Nursing in 1941 and were serving in the army during World War II.
During an interview in 1992, Freda explained to me how that ride came about.
She and her friend had been given a leave from their medical unit on New Guinea in December 1944 and were spending it in Australia. When their leave was nearly over, the two nurses discovered all transportation from there had been canceled.
For several days they tried, unsuccessfully, to find a way to get back to their duty station. Then one evening, Freda mentioned the transportation problem to a girl at a dance. She said her boyfriend was a pilot, and he was flying to New Guinea the next day.
She introduced Freda to the pilot and he told the two women to meet him at the airfield the next morning and he would give them a ride.
Freda recalled there was a full crew on the bomber and there wasn’t a lot of room, but space was provided for the two nurses. She rode in the bubble nose of the aircraft, where she had an excellent view.
Three years earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, Freda had been at her parents’ home at Union Corner in Vermilion County. They learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that day on their “battery operated radio.”
She recalled wondering “where in the world is Pearl Harbor?” She noted the gravity of the attack “didn’t sink in right away.”
She was excited about a date she was having that Sunday night, it was her first with Steve Coate. The two would eventually marry, but World War II would consume the next few years of their lives, Steve in the Navy and Freda in the Army.
After Freda and Ruth enlisted in May 1943, they took a train from Danville to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. They were there for three days and then traveled by rail to California, a trip with delays that took several days.
At Camp Stoneman they were told to buy and pack all the personal items they were going to need because there would not be any stores where they were going. There was a message inscribed at the wharf where the military personnel departed for the war zone: “Though These Portals Pass the Best Damned Soldiers in the World.”
Freda and Ruth boarded the SS Lurline, bound for Australia. They arrived there on July 13.
After a few months working at a hospital in Brisbane, Freda was transferred to the 117th General Hospital on New Guinea. She said the war really came home to her when she began caring for patients.
“We saw everything and they were so young,” she observed. “It was heartbreaking at times.” She cared for the wounded and the sick, many with malaria.
There also were soldiers suffering from what was referred to as battle fatigue or shell shock, Freda is a compassionate person and she sympathized with these service men.
“A lot of the soldiers were little more than kids, and what they had experienced had simply scared them to death. They had no idea of what they were going into when they went into battle and it is understandable that some of them could not force themselves to endure it again.”
She recalled she never wore a dress after she left Australia, and she also wore high-topped shoes. She noted she and the patients at the hospital slept under mosquito nets every night. She observed there was a lot of concern over the malaria-carrying insects.
“But we had a lot more to worry about than mosquitoes.”
One of the bright spots of her years in the war zone was when she met someone from home. Among those Freda remembered meeting were soldiers Willard Jones and Bob Gibson. Jones had previously worked at Lake View Hospital and Gibson was her cousin.
She also met Dr. John Curtis from Danville and the two shared a meal. She remembered a lecture she and Sheets attended while in Australia. The two nurses were surprised when they found the colonel speaking was Dr. Holland Williamson from Danville.
“It seemed everyone was in the military, trying to do their part,” she said.
When the war moved closer to Japan, so did the nurses. In July, the hospital on New Guinea closed and Freda was transferred to the Philippines. After a short stay there, she boarded a troop ship in August and was bound for America and home.
In June, 1946, more than five years after their first date on Dec. 7, 1941, Freda and Steve Coate were married. Their dedicated service to their country is an example of why their generation has been entitled America’s Greatest.
Freda Haworth Coate retired from the Veterans Affairs hospital in Danville in 1982 where she had continued her compassionate and dedicated care of military personnel after the war. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday at her retirement home in Leander, Texas. The mayor of Leander declared it Freda Coate Day for the veteran nurse, a deserving and outstanding citizen.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.