Editor’s note: When we heard the story of Olive Lucas written by Spy friend Mary Robinson we wanted to share it with our readers. It’s a period of our history that we felt our readers would appreciate and a story you may not know – an African American nurse’s service in World War II. The five-part series covers her time in the Army Nurse Corps between 1942 and 1945. This will be a five-part series.
Part Two – Fort Huachuca, Arizona
Here I am, 2nd Lieutenant Olive Lucas, a member of the Army Nurse Corps. Our bus leaves at nine tomorrow morning headed for Fort Huachuca, Arizona. I and five other nurses will be on that bus, headed for our first Army assignment. It is summer in New York and it is so hot that there is steam rising from the pavement. I love the city, but have to admit, I am looking forward to leaving the heat and humidity behind me. This cross country trip will take us to Sierra Vista, Arizona where Fort Huachuca is located. Sierra Vista is about 15 miles north of the border with Mexico and it is surrounded by the Huachuca Mountains. The fort encompasses almost 100 square miles of desert at the foot of the mountains.
It is August 25, 1942, and here I am in this isolated place in the middle of the Sonoran desert. The bright lights of New York have been left behind and I find myself here amongst the poisonous snakes, spiders, chiggers and a host of other desert creatures. On top of all that, there is heat, sand, dust and constant winds. Just stepping off the bus and my shoes are covered in a mix of brown dust and sand. I thought New York was hot, but this is the kind of heat that is going to take some getting used to.
I know the official Army policy calls for segregation of all base facilities, but it is a little disconcerting to see that every single area of the base is segregated. Civilian quarters for locals who work at the hospital, service clubs, officers’ clubs and most importantly, both hospitals are segregated. Hospital No. 1 is staffed by and serves all Negro personnel and their families. Hospital No. 2 serves all other personnel, their families and civilians. Fort Huachuca is home to between 17,000 and 20,000 Negro soldiers, nurses and other personnel. Two combat units of Negro soldiers, the 92nd and 93rd Infantry divisions are based here at Fort Huachuca.
I never imagined a hospital this size on an Army base. The hospital covers several acres with various units connected by miles of corridors that are over a half mile in length. I quickly realized the best feature of the whole hospital is that the connecting corridors are covered, which offers protection from the unrelenting sun, wind and sand. To give you an idea of just how vast this complex is, consider that it includes three Dental clinics, PX, barber shop, beauty shop, cafe and soda fountain, recreation halls, gyms, tennis court, movies, a library, and outdoor fields for exercise and baseball.
Today began with basic training. We had to perform all of our duties wearing our civilian clothes, even the drills in the middle of the day, in August, in the desert! Our basic training will last six weeks. I can’t imagine how we can do six weeks of this in our civilian clothes. The explanation given was that the Army is in transition from changing our uniforms from the Red Cross uniform to an Army Nurse Corps uniform. The components of basic training will cover medical and military training in the form of drills, map reading, tent pitching, obstacle and infiltration courses, as well as physical fitness.
It is probably a good thing that the hospital complex is so large because the soldiers, nurses and other Negro personnel will most likely be spending the majority of our off-duty time on the base. Off-base businesses and restaurants do not serve Negroes even if they are wearing the U.S. Army uniform. The one advantage is that with the two combat units based here, it allows for an active social life for the nurses.
The WACs are coming! This is the best news we have had in weeks. The Women’s Army Corps is a unit that does a whole variety of jobs. They do everything from doing repairs for military vehicles to being responsible for entertainment and morale boosting on the base. There is a rumor that they will be the ones to create an officer’s club for the Negro officers at Fort Huachuca. The current club, The Lakeside Officers Club, is not open to Negro officers. The new officer’s club will be a great place to hold the shows that the USO provides. Entertainers like Lena Horne, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and many more will be able to perform and the Negro audience won’t need to be sitting at the back of the room.
I enjoy reading the magazines and newspapers in our library. There are always issues from the Negro newspapers from all over the country. The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, The Crisis Magazine all have war correspondents that are writing articles about Negros serving in all areas of the war. The experience of Negro nurses can be different from one area to another, but some things are unique to this group of nurses. I remember a comment from a nurse who when asked her view of the role of Negros in the war replied, “I find it exciting, and I am learning so much, but at the same time I find it to be the most frustrating experience I have ever had. In spite of all that I have met so many wonderful people.” I know exactly how she feels.
– Location of Fort Huachuca, Fighting for America, Christopher Paul Moore, pg. 96
– Segregation Policy – G.I. Nightingales, The Army Nurse Corps in World War II, Barbara Brooks Tomblin, pg. 194
– Hospital description – The Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes, May 20, 1944; pg. 19
– WACs – Enemies in Love, Alexis Clark, pg. 63
– Ninety-second and Ninety-third Infantry – G.I. Nightingales, The Army Nurse Corps in World War II, Barbara Brooks Tomblin,pg.194
Mary Robinson lives in St. Michaels, Maryland.