(This article and others in MOAA’s “Window Into War” series originally appeared in the May edition of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
Each time Mathilda Benson patched up a sailor pummeled from the battles of WWII, she couldn’t help but think of her younger brother, Lewis.
Just a few months before Benson joined the Navy in the early 1940s, Lewis was killed in a boat off the coast of Northern Africa. His service had inspired her to parlay her dream of becoming a nurse into military service.
“That was really tough on me,” said Benson, now 100 years old. “I always felt bad that I couldn’t have done anything for my baby brother. ... When I was taking care of the young men, I felt like I wish I could have taken care of my baby brother.”
When her brother joined the Navy, Benson looked into nursing jobs with the service and commissioned as a second lieutenant after completing training.
Her first assignment at a naval hospital in Philadelphia was mostly uneventful, except for meeting Ralph, a handsome Army aviator. Their whirlwind romance would lead to an engagement, but he soon left for war, restricting the couple to letter writing for the next three years.
In the meantime, the Navy moved Benson to a naval hospital in San Diego. The living conditions were less than desirable, Benson said; the sailors lived in tents while they received treatment.
Beyond the battle injuries of war, Benson remembers sailors fighting polio. Among the sailors returning from war, Benson remembered one man who had been at the hospital for three months and hadn’t spoken.
One day, Benson asked the sailor if he’d like to go for a walk. He followed her out to get fresh air.
“I don’t remember what we talked about. I asked him a question. It took him a while to answer me,” Benson said. “I just was fortunate enough to take him out of the barracks and talk to him, and he spoke to me and I thought ... that was impressive.”