As I reflected on Veterans Day this week I was reminded of all that we have to be proud about in our country.

Our veterans should not only be honored for what they sacrificed and the service they have given to their country, but also the example of courage, dedication, and valor they set each day for the rest of us.

One of the characteristics of those of the Greatest Generation is that they were humble and stoic. Those in my life, including my parents who both served in World War II, rarely talked about their time in the military.

Whatever they suffered, saw, did, or participated in was left in their personal memories, seldom discussed.

My Aunt Elizabeth Wheeler was such a person. She was a strong woman who always met life head on. My father’s older sister, she was what we called a pistol — funny, irreverent, and brave in any situation.

I looked up the definition of pistol when referring to a person, and the dictionary said someone filled with energy and spirit. That was her.

I have no idea what made her leave Canton, Georgia, during World War II to serve in the U.S. Army Nurses Corp. She was a registered nurse and worked at Coker Hospital prior to enlisting in the military.

I never knew much about her service, except that she served in North Africa, and there was a picture of her living in a tent there appeared in the New York Times, a clipping I still have.

I do believe she loved every minute of it.

When the Cherokee County Historical Society did an exhibition on the World Wars a few years ago, they discovered an article about her in a military newspaper.

From that I gleaned that she was a first lieutenant who served for three years, including one year overseas in Sicily, as well as North Africa. She received two battle stars for her service. I have those medals.

The evac hospital with which she was stationed landed just two days after the invasion of Sicily, I learned from the article.

After the military landing craft, or LCI as they were known, made the beach, nurses in coveralls and full field packs waded ashore with other hospital personnel in water to their waists. Two days later their equipment arrived, and the hospital moved closer to the fighting lines, setting up for operations.

Covering about four city blocks, the hospital’s almost 70 tents were set up so close to the fighting that the nurses could see at night by the artillery bursts and antiaircraft gunfire, or Ack-ack as they called it.

The site was chosen because those injured could be quickly treated, and it was near an airport so those most seriously injured could be evacuated.

Air raids happened frequently, she told the newspaper, at least once a day, and often more. She said they rarely came too close to the hospital, because Italian and German pilots respected the Red Cross markers.

When raids were sounded work continued and without hesitation or confusion, she said. “In fact, we learned to pay no attention even to the sound,” she said.

They did have one close call when they were setting up the hospital and the Red Cross signs were still packed up.

Enemy bombers came over and dropped flares, lighting the hospital area and an artillery position over the next hill, she remembered.

As the enemy bombers made their attack, some of the bombs landed on the bivouac.

“No one was injured, and no equipment was hit, but we thought we were in for it,” my aunt remembered. “We tried to take it like good soldiers, using our basic training knowledge and not moving while the flares were coming down. We could see the planes and cheered when several were brought down.”

Aunt Elizabeth worked in the field operating tent. She said that most of the cases were serious, but the soldiers “took pain and suffering on the chin.”

There is no way to describe these wounded men, she said.

“No author could write with power enough to describe these men, nor could Hollywood’s cameras capture the drama and human emotion we saw,” she said. “They were appreciative of every act, brought in dirty, cold and badly wounded, these men didn’t whine or whimper. In fact, they seemed to forget their pain and distress. Other things long denied overshadowed even death. For example, a cot with two blankets was heavenly compared to the cold wet ground.”

My aunt also said they were grateful to hear a woman’s voice after months of fighting. She said the nurses wore lipstick and perfume to boost morale. They shared their cigarettes with the men, who had been without them for months. Hot meals, a bath and rest were all good medicine, in addition to treating their wounds.

That is a little glimpse from the battlefield, courtesy of my aunt. To me, it underscores the bravery of those who have fought that we can be free and live in a democracy.

That is what Veterans Day is all about.

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Rebecca Johnston is a native of Cherokee County and a retired managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune.

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