Velma Gunselman entered the Navy as a nurse and was stationed in Philadelphia’s massive naval hospital before being sent to a “little fishing village” in Solomons, Md. There, Velma treated sailors who became ill or were injured while working on the Navy’s “top secret” mine testing. She remembers the day sailors brought a captured German submarine to their little base, but her most vivid memory is those Maryland oysters. “They would take an iron skillet and put a pound of butter in it and then they just put the oysters in that and when they would curl up they would take them out, and you would take two slices of bread and then slice a sweet onion and oysters and that was a sandwich. They were delicious and so fresh, just right out of the river.” Interview: April 24, 2012, Springhill, Erie, Pa.
I went in in August 30, 1943, and I was at Philadelphia Naval Hospital for a year. I was discharged March 24, 1946. I just thought I wanted to do it, and, too, in those days nurses weren’t paid very much and so the navy was better pay because we went in as ensigns and then after a certain length of time we were promoted to junior grade lieutenants and then lieutenants. I was a surgical nurse; I worked in the operating room. We had veterans from the South Pacific. One time we got 21 soldiers from the Normandy invasion and they didn’t have any arms and legs, just bodies. Another time we got marines from the South Pacific who had drank wood alcohol – there was wood alcohol in the torpedoes – and it had caused blindness. They were kids. Some of them weren’t even 16 years old because they lied about their age to get in the service. Sometimes the doctors would ask them questions about where they had been, but they said, “I won’t talk about it.” Most of them never wanted to talk about it. Just like my brother would never talk about it except for two funny stories he told me.
It was a huge hospital and they didn’t have enough room for all the people, so they attached barracks to the hospital. So then you had just huge corridors of barracks but with hospital beds. We had the corpsman that did a lot of the things that nurses did at the time. I signed up for hospital ship duty, but I didn’t get assigned that. I think it was 11 Navy nurses that were taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines.
I had a cousin who was in the March of Bataan – he was in the Navy and he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and was in Japanese prison camps all during the war. The only reason he survived was that there was a nice guard who was Japanese. The guard told him that he and his family lived in Oregon, but right before Pearl Harbor they were called back to Japan. They said the grandmother was dying and they got there and the grandmother wasn’t even sick. They put them into the Japanese army, so this guard brought them quinine and he would sneak it in to them and also food as much as he could. My mother almost had a nervous breakdown worrying about my brother who was in Europe. We didn’t have communication like you have today, so after these battles, you wouldn’t hear from them for months until you would get a letter.
I was at Philadelphia for a year and then I had orders to go to Solomons, Md. They tested mines and torpedoes on the base there. It was a very small base. We lived in barracks and the Navy had a dispensary; we had three doctors and there were six nurses. We treated sailors that would get sick and Marines that were sick or something would happen to them. One day we had a sailor who had a torpedo dropped on his leg. Well, of course we couldn’t handle that and neither could Patuxent [Naval Base nearby] so we had to take him into Bethesda Naval Air base. We were 60 miles from Washington, and so I had to ride the ambulance in with him and we got on the road and state troopers picked us up and we had two sirens going and two policemen on motorcycles in front and two on the back. We just flew into Washington, but they saved his legs.
Solomons was just this little fishing village. There were oyster beds in the Patuxent River and those oysters were so good! The Navy closed those. They wouldn’t let the fishermen out in the river because of all the testing and such, but all the officers and sailors used to bring in bushels of fresh oysters out of the river. This doctor’s wife would make oyster stew and we used to make oyster sandwiches. They would take an iron skillet and put a pound of butter in it and then they just put the oysters in that and when they would curl up they would take them out, and you would take two slices of bread and then slice a sweet onion and oysters and that was a sandwich. They were delicious and so fresh, just right out of the river.
The mine testing was all top secret so we never knew what was happening, but you would hear explosions. They did capture a German submarine once and they brought it to our base. We got to go aboard and see and that was interesting. I think it’s in Chicago now, in the museum there. There was not much room in those. I remember the sleeping quarters were very narrow, everything was very compact. They explained to us how they submerged and then everything would go black, so they wouldn’t be discovered.