Navy nurse Virginia-Lee Bryans served in two wars
Posted 11/09/11 (Wed)
Veteran Virginia-Lee Bryans, with escort MaryAnn Michel,
at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.
By Caroline Downs
Veteran Virginia-Lee (Steinberger) Bryans of Donnybrook didn’t believe she deserved to join the final Roughrider Honor Flight of North Dakota WWII veterans who were sent on an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. to view the World War II Memorial and other sights.
“It was above and beyond any honor to be on this tour,” she said. “Was I a hero? No. I was doing my job. When you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, you don’t look at it any other way.”
However, some of her friends and family members twisted her arm, as she put it. “They filled the application out, so I signed it,” she said. “I put the stamp on the envelope, and within a short time, I got notification I was going.”
in WWII and Korean War
Virginia-Lee remained stateside through her military assignments in World War II and the Korean War, but as a nurse in military hospitals receiving wounded patients, she saw some of the most difficult elements of war. “A lot of people have no idea what they’re talking about when they describe war casualties,” she said.
She completed her nurses’ training in 1943 through St. Joseph’s Hospital and Kenmare Deaconess Hospital, but jobs in the area only paid $30 a month. Early in 1944, she struck out for California to visit relatives of her father’s and to look for work as a nurse, which she found with the U.S. Navy.
“I went shopping for a job and it was harder to get into the Navy than the Army,” she said, “so I tried for the Navy. Really, I was in search of money like everyone else.”
The $125 uniform allowance given just for joining impressed her, and she remembered that her required wool cape had a price tag of $55.
She was commissioned in May 1944 and called to duty by the end of August that year. She reported to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Seattle, a 3000-bed facility receiving servicemen wounded during operations in the South Pacific.
“When men came back from the South Pacific, they needed to talk about battles and circumstances and conditions,” she said, “but they knew they weren’t going to tell about ‘it’ at home. In the military you have your own language about these things, but bottom line, they knew it was only going that far.”
She worked in the surgical ward, assisting doctors faced with incredible situations and trying new methods to save their patients. “We weren’t trying to do research, but we actually were,” she said. “The men in charge wanted to try what they could.”
She also oversaw two psych wards, with 84 men to each ward. “Eventually, some of them wanted to talk,” she said.
She would hear the call, “Miss Red, can I talk to you?”
And Virginia-Lee would listen. “How else do you make them feel like they are a part of things?” she asked. She recognized that many of men were struggling with combat fatigue, now referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The men didn’t necessarily stay at the Seattle hospital until completely recovered. “We kept the men until they were in a position to be transferred to a hospital near to their own homes,” said Virginia-Lee, “where they healed better.”
Virginia-Lee began her military nursing career as an ensign and finished as a full lieutenant after returning to duty from the reserves at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Zion, Illinois, during the Korean War. “I have a solid gold stripe that is one of the treasures in my cedar chest,” she said.
Actually, she took advantage of the GI Bill when she was discharged at the end of World War II. In 1949, she earned a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, an unusual step among her friends back home.
She married Edward Bryans between her military assignments, immediately before she had to report for duty at Great Lakes and managed to arrive at both the wedding and then Milwaukee on time, despite a severe blizzard across the region that blocked travel.
At Great Lakes Naval Hospital, she served as a nurse on the urology ward. “A lot of the men were suffering from frostbite or gangrene,” she said. “I called them ‘my men’ because they were my patients.”
Memorials that tell the story
Virginia-Lee admitted she made the Roughrider Flight with misgivings, partly because she had visited Washington, D.C. several times before with her late husband. “The Korean War Memorial was under construction when I was there before,” she said, “and I hadn’t seen the Iwo Jima Memorial. In person, it is magnificent.”
The organization and hospitality demonstrated by the Roughrider Flight volunteers soon put Virginia-Lee at ease, who traveled this time with friend MaryAnn Michel. “They were on schedule and one time, with all sorts of kindness,” said Virginia-Lee. “They said, ‘We welcome you, we’re happy to serve you,’ and I wasn’t worthy of so much respect.”
As she traveled in a wheelchair, Virginia-Lee appreciated the aid from MaryAnn and other volunteers on the flight. “There was always an extra set of arms for personal needs,” she said. “All you can say to that is thanks a million.”
Of course, the World War II Memorial itself was completely new to Virginia-Lee. “It’s something everyone should see. It’s quite spectacular, really,” she said as she described the way each state is recognized, along with the European and Pacific Theatres of war.
The panel of 4000 gold stars, each one representing 100 Americans killed in combat during that war, impressed her, as did the list of Pacific islands where battles were fought. Those island names held personal significance for her.
“These were the people who were coming into the hospital while I was in Seattle,” she said. “Something like this can make the hair on the arms stand up. The memory needs to be refreshed, otherwise this is a lost time and people haven’t heard the story.”
As the daughter of WWII veteran herself, MaryAnn knew how important the Roughrider Flight would be to her friend, so she encouraged Virginia-Lee to apply for the trip despite some health concerns at the time. After the acceptance came, MaryAnn watched Virginia-Lee recover quickly. “She told Dr. Sabiiti she needed something to look forward to,” said MaryAnn. “The trip motivated her.”
MaryAnn had her own reasons for looking forward to the visit, including paying tribute to her father at the WWII Memorial, where she stood on the ninth anniversary of his funeral. She also made certain Virginia-Lee took time to visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“She had never been to the Women’s Memorial, but we went over there and she signed the registry,” MaryAnn said. “There’s a whole section about service military women have done in this country.”
Virginia-Lee enjoyed the whole tour and treasures the souvenirs, brochures and pamphlets from the trip, but her favorite part actually took place in Bismarck, at the reception for the veterans upon their arrival back at the airport. She was the first veteran to leave the plane and was greeted by service men and women from all branches of the military, dressed in full uniform, along with hundreds of members of the public.
“It was congratulations and thank you and best wishes,” said Virginia-Lee. “The whole place was full of people and it was a real welcome. It was very awe-inspiring, any way you look at it, and I didn’t expect it!”