Captain Ruth Kinzeler, 4th General Army Hospital

By Elizabeth (Liz) Dick, New Castle, PA

This is the actual chronicle of a band of nurses in the Army Nurse Corps during WW2. My mother was one of these women, Captain Ruth Kinzeler of the 4th General Army Hospital. The 4th General Army Hospital was the very first United States Military Medical Unit deployed to the South Pacific Theater of the war.

Captain Ruth L. Kinzeler

As you know, soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, a call went out from all branches of the military for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to enlist and form medical units to be sent overseas and serve in the European and South Pacific Theaters of War.

The 4th General Army Hospital (originated and formed at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio – January, 1942) was stationed first in Melbourne, Australia, then as the Allies pushed north, in a tent hospital in the jungles of New Guinea.

Many years later, when Mother had to go into nursing home care, I found a journal that she had maintained all through her three and a half years of military service! It was begun on the night of January 20, 1942, the night she and this brave group of nurses boarded the Navel Destroyer – Thomas H. Barrie in New York Harbor. They were part of a convoy of seven other naval ships. Their destination was unknown. (One of the ships in their convoy was torpedoed in route!).

This was not merely the day to day ponderings of an ordinary diary! These were first hand factual accounts of historical events, professional and career challenges, personal triumphs and struggles. She wrote of her intense homesickness and terrible loneliness, broken (even one tragic) love affairs and friends made and lost.

Betty and Ruth in uniform, Australia

Ruth in uniform, Australia

Over the course of the next 3 ½ years, Mother wrote of terrifying times especially as the Allies pushed the Japanese north. Then they (the 4th General Army Hospital) moved up too, from Melbourne, Australia and going into the jungles of New Guinea and setting up a tent hospital on an abandoned Japanese air strip. They remember operating while standing in mud up to their knee caps!

I was so moved by this whole amazing story that I have made it my mission to get her story and the account of these incredible women told! Mother wrote as if she was talking to her closest friend and confident. She referred to her journal as “My Little Black Book” and wrote in the first person. I have transcribed her journal into manuscript format. It has taken me several years to complete this project but it has been worth all of the time and effort.

I do believe that there is genuine treasure within the pages of this journal! Mother had often talked about writing a book based on her Army experiences and had said she would call it “In God’s Pocket” because she and her nurses were kept from harm because they felt that they were in “God’s pocket”. That is the working title I have given the transcription of her journal.

Ruth, ready to go on duty

4th General Army Hospital, Finchhaven, New Guinea, 1944

There have been many books and movies about war experiences, most all as seen through the eyes of men that were based on so much less than the story that unfolds for the reader of this chronicle! Here is a war narrative as seen through the unique perspective of a woman soldier!

Mother’s years in military service defined her whole life. Even years later, when Alzheimer’s had ravaged so much of her mind that she no longer knew me or her family, she could remember with crystal clarity incidents and situations from her time as Captain Ruth Kinzeler, United States Army Nurse Corps!

This incredible journal has generated a great deal of positive response from those who have read it. A documentary film producer, Sue Vicory, who has produced and directed shows for PBS, has expressed an interest in Mother’s story. Through Ms. Vicory, I have been contacted by several screenwriters wanting more information about the journal.

One of the writers, Michelle Buckley, is extremely interested in the journal and is enthusiastic about writing a screenplay based on Mother’s story. We were recently contacted by Mr. Brent Hatherill who is the Director of Development for the Discovery Network. They had expressed an interest about possibly producing a documentary about Mother’s Unit on their American Heroes Channel. Unfortunately and to our disappointment, they have decided to pass for now on any further plans for developing a documentary about the Unit

I feel that this is not merely about remembering my mother and her nurses, but all women veterans who have served our country with courage and pride. They deserve to be honored and remembered! I am continuing to explore ways to make this dream become a reality!

Nurses on parade, 1942

Mother ended her journal in August of 1945. However, she apparently picked up her “little black book” again in November of 1946 and wrote one last chapter. She added the most astounding introspective and closed her story with this last section called “Looking Back”. 

In 1991, although mother was in a nursing home, I was privileged to be able to escort her to the 50th Anniversary of the 4th General Army Hospital, Lakeside Unit. It was held at Cleveland’s University Hospitals, Francis Payne Bolton School of Nursing, (The original Lakeside Hospital eventually became part of University Hospitals at Case Western Reserve University).

Each surviving member of the unit was honored and had their name announced. When Mother’s named was called, she stood up and gave a snappy salute! It brought tears of pride to my eyes. I was so honored to be able to do this for her. She passed away soon after.