Gena Jonette

Gena Jonette Smith

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part column series about World War I nurse Gena Jonette (click here to read Part 1 of the series). She served as a volunteer in the Army Nurse Corps in France during 1918 and 1919. It was there she met her future husband, Iver Iverson. Following their marriage, they moved to Hutchinson.

It was a six-day journey to the front. The ship that carried Gena Jonette and nearly 10,000 American service members to Europe wouldn’t reach France until Oct. 5. Aboard the cramped ship were horrors unimaginable.

A case of the deadly Spanish flu broke out among the passengers and 96 died. It was a nightmare of weariness and anxiety. Rather than diminish, the severity of the flu increased. The limited medical staff on board worked tirelessly, and were not immune to the flu themselves. It was true bedlam. A total of 31 people died on the day the ship finally reached Brest, France, and two nurses died shortly after.

Upon landing, Jonette and the remaining passengers boarded cramped Army trucks and were brought to a rest camp. The trucks had standing room for 20 people and battled through the rain and mud to the camp.

The camp was new, and its occupants arrived before the furnishings. On the first night, Jonette slept on a bed with no mattress. As bleak as the camp seemed, it was a godsend compared to the ship — a place less cramped where they could at least rest. The rest, however, was cut short. Just two hours into their slumber, the entire medical staff was roused and called to duty. A shipload of wounded soldiers had arrived and needed care.

The patients had no more furnishings than the medical staff. Mattresses were eventually brought in but were threadbare and springy. During the first day there was no clean water, no towels and no bed linens. The only food available was oatmeal, bread, sugar and coffee.

Jonette and the other nurses spent seven days in the camp. While there, they were fitted with gas masks and helmets and were shown how and when to use them. On the seventh day, orders came to proceed to a hospital at Basoilles-sur-Meuse.

The nurses making the trip boarded a cramped train and sat in a third-class coach. The coaches had eight wooden benches along each side and were so close together that the nurses’ knees touched while sitting opposite each other. It was a three-day trip, and the nurses slept with their heads on each other’s shoulders.

The sanitary conditions aboard the train were nearly as bad as the ship that brought them to France. There was no water, so when the train stopped the nurses lined up at the depot’s water pump to brush their teeth and clean their faces. In addition, there was only one bathroom aboard the train. When the train stopped, the girls would have to leave their coach and board the one containing the bathroom, then be back to their cramped quarters before the train took off.

Their arrival at the hospital was a relief. The nurses and other medical staff were ushered into a mess hall with long wooden tables and bed sheets for tablecloths. They were given a meal of fresh bread, jam and coffee — a simple snack by 2019 standards, but a feast after a long journey with nothing but cold corned beef and beans.

The hospital was able to accommodate 7,000 patients at a time. Though it offered the most comfort to this point in her journey, Jonette would soon find her resolve tested as droves of wounded and sick soldiers were brought in.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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