Aunt’s memoirs may be calling to me

Twins Lilla and Lillie Anderson are shown in their nurses uniforms before they entered the military.
By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Biker's Diary

It was difficult to find someone in the next generation of my parents’ families who might be interested in our past. Finally, one of my nieces said she would be delighted to have all of the old photos and records. Her mother had died a few years ago, and she said as far as she knew, she and neither of her sisters had ever seen any pictures of the extended families. I was really relieved because then I wouldn’t have to throw it away. I’ve been in the process of moving “stuff” out the door, and if there is no other solution, it still has to go and that means in the trash or recycling.

When my uncle died in California about three years ago, we had to make decisions about everything that was left in the house and garages. Obviously both of them were savers, and when we left there the final time, I just hadn’t been able to throw away all of the family treasures that my aunt had collected over the years. So, of course, hers got added to what I already had.

Lately I have been pulling things out for more to go out the door. In one of the boxes that came from my aunt, there was an article that I had forgotten: my aunt Lillie had been writing her life story in the two or three years before she died. The news article was about her history and it included photos of her, and one of her twin sister.

Lillie and Lilla had been inseparable: they went to the same college and nursing school. After graduation, they both enlisted in the Army; it was early in World War II. The Army even kept them together and they became known as “The Anderson Twins.” I remember from my childhood being enamored with these two glamorous women who were “over there” somewhere, and how brave they were to have undertaken such a great adventure. In her words, they were “venturing out in to the unknown. And we are not in the history books. When we got on that ship, we literally didn’t know where we were going.”

Their destination turned out to be New Guinea, where they would be stationed for the rest of the war. Theirs was a field hospital, providing the first treatments for wounded patients. She said many of them had infections and fevers because of delays in getting to treatment, and were hosting fruit flies, ants and maggots. Their job meant very long hours, often overnight and short-staffed, attempting to get fevers down. They averaged at least one air raid alert per day — or night — and if a patient could not get to the air raid shelter, a nurse would stay with him and pull a mattress over them.

Lillie’s twin, Lilla, met the love of her life while both were serving in New Guinea, and at a lull in the war they got married. Lillie described it as a “hospital deal” because the cook baked the cake, a surgeon sang, and the nurses dressed up — in their best tan uniforms — for the event. They were given a formal rifle salute when they exited the “chapel” and “there were natives at every window watching what was going on inside.” When Lilla and her husband got transferred back to the States, it was the first time the twins had ever been separated.

Both Lillie and Lilla were photographers, and recorded a lot of their experiences on 16mm movie cameras. That interest became a lifelong hobby for Aunt Lillie, and it was at a camera club meeting in California that she met the man whom she married at about age 56. By that time, she had retired twice: after the War, she had stayed in the military. The branch in which she served during the war had been the Army Air Corps, which then became the U.S. Air Force. She eventually retired as a nurse anesthetist from the USAF, and then went to work for the VA hospital in Fresno, Calif. She retired again when she married.

In the box I was sorting through was also a paper containing the words that one of her friends, Barbara, read at her funeral. This was a woman who had also been in the military and met Aunt Lillie when they were both based at the AF base in Great Falls, Mont. Now, reading through those words again, I remember at the time there was not a dry eye in the house; she had many beautiful things to say about my aunt, many of which we didn’t know because, of course, she had a life besides being our aunt.

Barbara said Aunt Lillie was the only nurse anesthetist on the base and as such was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. She could only take annual leave when they could get someone to replace her. Barbara said Lillie always had a kind word for everyone, and she knitted argyle socks for all of the corpsmen who worked with her in surgery. In fact, Barbara said, her husband Jim, one of those corpsmen, still had his pair.

She told about the time one of the nursing assistants became very ill and ran out of sick leave and annual leave. Lillie “gave this family a Christmas, with food, a Christmas tree, and gifts for each child.” Barbara also left the military and eventually moved to Fresno, renewing their solid friendship up to the time when Lillie died. She told humorous stories and repeated accolades that Lillie earned wherever she was. She ended by saying how much Lillie would be missed, adding, “Knowing you (Lillie) was one of my greatest gifts.”

I agreed; she was always my favorite aunt, and I was privileged to have gotten to go visit her — all by myself — in Fresno when I was 15. She treated me the same way, as if in all the world I was special, and I always felt so honored to be a part of her family and then a friend in later years.

Right after Aunt Lillie died, Uncle Jack had given me a large packet containing all of her letters home to her mother during World War II. I promised Jack I would try to “do something” with it, preferably finish her book. That is one thing from the past that I won’t be passing on to the next generation, at least not yet. I would still like to do that book and I feel the priority of doing so has moved up on my list of things to do.