Gertrude Esteros: A Red Cross Story
Gertrude Esteros served with the Red Cross during the war, and was assigned to the Pacific Theater of Operations. For many months, Gertrude's job was to create recreation programs for servicemen recuperating in the hospital camps at various locations in the Southwest Pacific, but found herself needed more frequently in the wards as the war progressed. In a 2003 interview with Thomas Saylor she remembered her experiences with the 37th Field Hospital, first at Finschhafen, on Papua, New Guinea, then en route to Leyte, in the Philippines.
Oral History Excerpts
GE: We had war casualties. I mean these are the people we had. Although there were some other things that normally happen to people, like appendicitis, that will happen to somebody in service. We had many, many illnesses that were part of the jungle warfare. Diseases that even the medical people had never met before. Cystosomiasis, which is a blood fluke from the jungle water that gets under the skin if you have any broken skin, and there you are with this high fever. Disease and various other problems that come. Of course, the irritations (the jungle rot as the GIs would call what was happening) to skin conditions and all the rest of it.
So there was that kind thing in the hospital, but then there were the war casualties. Of course, the more seriously ill casualties were transported out. But anybody who could get well was - well, there was an attempt to get them as well as possible as quickly as possible so they could proceed with what needed to be done. But...the most severe conditions that I encountered were not in Finschhafen, but in Leyte, in the Philippines. That was later. I had my longest stay all at one length of time in Finschhafen. Setting up a fairly large tent hospital’s recreation center.
TS: Now this move to Finschhafen brings you into contact with, as you describe it, with medical and battle casualty patients.
GE: Oh, yes. We didn't have any Army nurses in Finschhafen. ...They were corpsmen [Navy term for medic]. We worked, the Red Cross workers...in teams of three...A qualified social worker, a recreation worker (which I was) and then a secretary. And the secretary, she did a lot of work because of keeping in touch with families back home.
TS: In setting up this recreation facility, were you there for ambulatory patients, in a sense, to come to you? Or did you actually go in the hospital to them?
GE: I did both. I spent about half of my time on the wards in the hospital, with the people on the cots. These were Army cots we're talking about. The other half of my time, and sometimes more than half, was with the ambulatory people. My job was to - as much as possible, the recreation for the ambulatories, was to do it for themselves and to make it possible for them to be doing things. The leaders somehow came out of the group. And the people who knew how to sing, who knew how to do things, who knew whatever, that's the recreation we would do.
Just building the rec tent. Putting up the tent. One time we got New Guinea native men to help make a recreation center out of bamboo and thatched roof. It was much more comfortable than a tent. It was a better breeze. The tents are dark green ones that absorb the heat on the roof, and you get a thatched roof and it's much more comfortable. So that was one of the biggest, one of the most wonderful recreation devices I had. At one time I had a good crew of ambulatory patients and New Guinea natives and a couple of Seabees [Navy construction engineers] borrowed from the Navy who happened to be around that got recruited and who helped. My job was always one of finding some way of building and doing recreation.
TS: Can you talk about going into the wards now and what that experience—how different that experience was for you?
GE: That was a matter of visiting with patients. That was simply a matter of talking, a matter of visiting. The men were so relieved that they were out of the thick of their battle in a safe place on a cot and had a chance to talk. To talk with somebody. And of course with a Red Cross worker, a woman, they could talk about things that they never would talk with a buddy, with another man.
TS: And you weren't military.
GE: I wasn't military. I wasn't official anything. And you see, I didn't have any rank. The only rank I would have had, if I had been captured I would have been treated as though I were a captain. I would have had officer's rank. But I didn't have rank, and so I could be the older sister.
TS: Because you were older than most of these guys, weren’t you?
GE: I was a little older. You see, I was twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty years old, and most of these people were eighteen, nineteen, some of them. Others were twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two.
TS: Talk about then what these guys talked to you about. What did they say to you?
GE: Oh, they were lonely, of course. And they talked about their families. And the saddest stories were the families where the men whose wives had been unfaithful, who had given up the marriage and had married somebody else or gone out with somebody else, or the girlfriend who was no longer a girlfriend.
I began to think that there wasn't a single faithful woman left in the United States! So I heard those stories. Oh, they talked about everything. They told about their dogs and their pets and occasionally we'd have an intellectual conversation. We would talk about literature and opera. We just talked whatever they wanted to talk about.
...But we suddenly [had] orders - my little team of three, plus three others. There were six of us Red Cross workers who got orders to go to Leyte. We were to join a convoy of I think there were six or eight large troop ships. A convoy, out in the harbor outside of Hollandia, to go to replacement troops on Leyte where the fighting was still going on, and they needed them. We were told they were about ready to take off, and I can still remember going in a small boat (little landing craft) to a ship in the harbor out some distance away. And climbing up the outside ladder on the ship out of the little boat we were coming on and going aboard to the convoy ship. As we moved on toward Leyte from Hollandia, it was during the night that the Japanese suicide bombers came over our convoy of ships. We were ordered - we women were ordered to the captain's cabin for safety purposes, and told not to appear out of our cabin.
...And my friend Maggie went across the room and I saw her saying her [rosary] beads. She's a good Catholic. The ship was literally vibrating with the machine guns going off out on the deck as they were shooting toward the Japanese planes above us. The ship's guns were booming. Then I looked across at my other partner Eleanor, and she and I were just agog and interested and wanting to know what was going on. Maggie and the other three were off. I can't remember too much about them. Eleanor and I decided that nobody would know anything about what happened to us. They couldn't be bothered with us, we thought. We crept out of the cabin and stayed close to the bulkhead right up where we could watch the gunners at work, sending their torpedoes up high. We saw the flames; they sent up tracers. It was like a tremendous fireworks going on up above us.
Then we realized that a plane came down low aft of the ship. But we saw the captain coming and we quickly went back inside. We didn't dare tell anybody we'd been out there to see what was going on. That morning, when all the noise was over, they were excitedly telling what had gone on. And one of the planes had come down (a suicide bomber had come down) just about twenty meters from the stern of our ship. Gone down in flames, but he didn't hit our ship. Some of the men had been inside all the time because they had to keep the engines going on the ship. Their job was inside, so they didn't see what was going on and they were telling what somebody else had told them. Eleanor and I thought, "Well, we could tell them what we saw." But we didn't dare. I never told it to any official. We shouldn't have been out there, but we just were curious. Our curiosity was much stronger than our fear. Of course, the guy who was manning those guns on the ship, he wasn't thinking about fear - he was thinking about doing his job.
Esteros, Gertrude; Thomas Saylor, Interviewer, Gertrude Esteros Oral History Interview. Minnesota's Greatest Generation Oral History Project, Thomas Saylor; Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2003.
Draheim, Danyelle, filmmaker, "Gertrude Esteros: right now and here." Shared stories of Minnesota's Greatest Generation, 2007 (videorecording): 60 short films exploring the life and legacy of a generation. Minnesota Historical Society Moving Images Collection.