We might imagine a military hospital to be nothing but depressing and tragic, exhibiting only the terrible consequences of war. The Station Hospital in Morley, a village near Wymondham around thirteen miles west of Norwich, was no exception, caring for those with severe and sometimes fatal injuries. However, the hospital had another side, indeed maybe even another purpose, to the dispiriting task of tending to wounded soldiers. Those who experienced Morley remember it not simply as a hospital, but also as a place where music played, where joy and happiness were had, and where lifelong friends and lovers were found.
Morley and the construction of the hospital
Derek Daniels was only a child when war came. To begin with, ‘life […] continued much the same’ for him and the other children growing up in the small village of Morley: ‘the war seemed like another world’. Soon, though, that ‘world’ began to close in on the village. Daniels remembers when Morley became ‘encircled by American Air Force bases at Deopham, Hethel, Old Buckenham, and Snetterton’. Not long after, the once “other” world of war became utterly inseparable from everyday life in Morley.
In 1942, the golf course at Morley was chosen as the site of a new hospital for the United States military (previously, the land was being used for agriculture in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign). To build the hospital as swiftly as possible, builders and equipment arrived from across the country, with many workers coming from afar as Wales and Ireland. Derek Daniels recalls: ‘even my Uncle Tom a farmer in the village became involved — they [the building contractor] used his horses and carts for carrying bricks and cement’. The construction firm, Gee, Walker & Slater, was ‘known locally as Get-m, Work-em and Sack-em’, according to Daniels.
From August 1943 to March 1944, the hospital was managed by the 77th Station Hospital, after which it was re-designated the 231st Station Hospital under the command of Colonel Linwood Malone Gable. It was established to serve some 60,000 US military personnel based in the region at the time, mostly crews and engineers for the 15 heavy bomber bases. Most patients requiring surgery were injured during high-altitude operations in enemy airspace, with the vast majority of their injuries being classified as ‘severe’. Despite this, 99.6% of the airmen who were alive when they were admitted to the hospital would survive. On average, it took five and a half hours for a serviceman to arrive at the hospital after being injured.
Working at the hospital
Patients were cared for by American Red Cross staff. This demonstrates that the range of American people serving in the region during the war was by no means restricted to male troops in the Air Force. Rather, they included civilian women, like Virginia Foley of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Foley, who went by the nickname of “Ginger” at Morley hospital, has written vividly about her time in East Anglia, a region that she describes as ‘that little thumb of England that protrudes into the North Sea’.
Foley lived in a ‘quonset hut’ with five other Red Cross staff. Working in a military hospital so far from her home, she would at times feel ‘heavy of heart and almost sick with loneliness’, especially on holidays. She describes how she spent Christmas Eve in 1943: ‘for much of this evening I have sat on my cot indulging in the game of nostalgia (thinking lonesome thoughts of home)’. However, solidarity with the other hospital staff kept her strong. Foley recounts her thoughts as she attended the Christmas Mass at the hospital chapel:
What is my family doing right now? Are they thinking of me? Missing me? Then, a feeling of shame flows through me. Every single person in this room is far from home – the doctors, the nurses, and certainly each patient in our hospital. Then I think of the hospital staff who must work the whole night and the others who must be on duty all day tomorrow, Christmas day. I fight off this indulgent feeling. I wasn’t drafted. I chose to enter this service. I look around at the people I’ve come to know so well and wonder what they are thinking. Their calm faces betray no emotion.
Indeed, Virginia Foley often found comfort and support in those around her at the hospital, most of all through Jack Reynolds, the Personnel Officer at Morley. She met Jack at Camp Atterbury in Indiana where they were both assigned to the 231st Station Hospital before it moved to Morley. The first time she was off-duty, Foley spent the evening strolling in the hospital’s countryside surroundings with Jack.
“The Gable Gaitors”
In her spare time when she was not working or socialising, Virginia Foley would learn the piano. The hospital was lucky to have a concert-pianist among their staff, Sargent Harry Miller, who gave lessons to Foley. According to Foley, Colonel Gable had “traded” Miller from another unit, giving the commanding officer two Chinese cooks in exchange for the musician.
The Colonel certainly succeeded in fostering good musicianship among his staff. The hospital band was, by all accounts, very talented, with several performers good enough to be professional musicians. Honouring their Colonel, the band went by the name the “Gable Gaitors”. Residents of Morley, such as Pamela Standley, greatly enjoyed going to see the Gable Gaitors perform on Sunday afternoons when the Anglo-American Social Club had an open house. On these occasions, Standley and her friends would dance with the staff and any well-enough patients, and then visit the hospital wards to meet those with more serious injuries.
Colonel Gable also invited famous entertainers to visit the hospital and perform for the patients and staff. Luckily for Virginia Foley and Jack Reynolds, they would often be invited by Gable to attend his small after-parties with the visiting celebrities. On one occasion, Foley was thrilled to have been invited, along with Jack Reynolds, to meet the Hollywood film star Jim Cagney. On the day of the party, however, Foley received a distressing letter from her father:
Mother is in St. Mary’s Hospital and fighting for her life. The doctors believe she will live because of some new-fangled medicine called “Penicillium” that was flown in from Boston especially for her. […] She slipped on the ice as she crossed the street […] and broke her hip. An infection has set in’.
Foley asked Reynolds to inform the Colonel that she would not be able to make the party after all due to the news about her mother. After expressing his regret at her mother’s ill-health, Colonel Gable insisted that Foley still attend the cocktail party, telling her ‘that was an order!’. Foley obeyed, and watched Jim Cagney perform for the patients and the hospital staff:
He stood there alone, looking us over, and then went into his dance. I don’t remember the music. I recall, only, an act that had us all cheering and clapping and begging for more, an act that lifted the hearts and gave us all a touch of home.
At the cocktail party after the performance, Reynolds describes how Jim Cagney approached her and said:
“Virginia […] would you do me a favor?”
“Of course I will,” I answered, trying not to faint […]
“I have been told about your mother and I’m sorry. I would like to drop her a line. Would you mind?” […]
And with that, he sat down and wrote this note:
“My dear Mrs. Foley. Just met your charming daughter and she told me you had a bit of an accident. Very sorry to hear it, but I know a Foley can take a broken leg without losing a step. Get well soon. My very best to you. Sincerely, Jim Cagney.”
Race and politics
Foley always wrote fondly of Colonel Gable, describing him as ‘genial, courtly, and—ahead of his time’. American hospitals in England would normally accept “sick-call” patients on a first-come, first-served basis, except for black soldiers, who would have to wait until all other patients had been seen. Foley wrote that: ‘Col. Gable will have none of it. We accept our patients in order of their appearances. It is no small degree of pride that we staff members take in this kind and humane gentleman who is our commander’.
Unsurprisingly, Colonel Gable’s progressive attitude did not eradicate racial and political tension in and around the hospital. When Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world since 1937, went to Morley to give a boxing demonstration to the patients, he chose not to drink at the bar of the Morley Buck pub: Louis was black, and he did not want to offend the white soldiers. Personnel of the 987th Military Police, which was stationed at Morley hospital, also reported ‘racial strife’ after black American soldiers were seen interacting with local white women.
There were political tensions, too. According to James R. Perry, a Staff Sargent in a bomber repair group who was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, German prisoners of war would serve food to the American patients at Morley. This, Perry remembers, ‘fueled several “incidents”’. All American hospitals had a P.O.W. camp attached to them, and Morley’s held around 200 inmates. As well as doing kitchen work, the prisoners also tended to the hospital gardens.
Grateful patients and fond memories
Even though Colonel Gable could not change the politics of his environment, the ‘pride’ which he instilled in his staff was certainly recognised by the patients. The Commanding Officer of the 44th Bomb Group, Frederick R. Dent, was a patient at the hospital. After he was discharged, he wrote a letter of gratitude to Colonel Gable. ‘From the doctors, nurses, and even down through the ward boys there existed a feeling of pride and interest in their work. […] I shall always remember the cheery smile and pleasant attitude of these people.’
Derek Daniels enjoyed the candy and gum that the ‘Yanks’ at the hospital, both patients and staff, would give to him. Daniels remembers one Christmas when the hospital hosted a party for the children of Morley; they showed a film, and some of the wounded soldiers made toys for the children. ‘Oh what happy memories of those days […] many happy friendships were made between the locals and the GIs.’
As for Virginia Foley, her memories of Morley hospital could well have been the fondest and sweetest of anybody’s. To find her wonderfully written memoirs, though, you will have to look up the name “Virginia Foley Reynolds”, for she married Jack at Norwich Cathedral in 1944 after D-Day. The hospital’s head surgeon, Colonel Pedro Plateau stood in for Virginia’s father, and Harry Miller, the Sargent at Morley who was teaching her the piano, played Handel’s “Largo” on the organ. Foley used to wake up at 6am to practice this very piece, her fingers struggling in cold winter mornings before her shift would begin.
To read the memoir of Virginia Foley Reynolds, see Catalogue Ref. MC 376/481, USF 8/2
For an illustrated scrapbook of the history of Morley Station Hospital see Catalogue Ref. MC 376/688, USF 18/4