Nursing career leads to Pearl Harbor and life of travel, 1917 – 2006
by Teri Baker
She didn’t want marriage, nor did she want to teach school. Phyllis Dana wanted to do something else with her life, something that was still worthwhile, would support her financially and would satisfy her soul. She chose nursing.
After graduation from Everett General Hospital’s nursing school in 1939, Phyllis joined the Red Cross Nursing Program. “We were told we would be called upon in the event of a national disaster,” she said. “I thought, floods, earthquakes – of course I would want to help. So I signed on the dotted line, then went out and got a job.”
While working in a Seattle tuberculosis sanitarium, she learned that nurses were needed in Hawaii, and that the government would pay their fare. Phyl loved seeing new places. Born in Evanston, Ill., she lived in Belgian Congo where her parents, Jack and Eva Dana, were Methodist-Episcopal missionaries. When she was nine, the family went to New York and then to Lake Stevens, where she graduated high school in 1935. Now Hawaii beckoned.
“They gave me $85 to travel on the Lurline, a luxury liner,” she said. “We were in steerage, but how many people did I know that could say they had traveled by ocean liner!”
In December 1940 Phyllis stepped onto an island perfumed by millions of brilliant blossoms. “I lived and worked in Honolulu and enjoyed everything and everybody,” she said with a laugh. “It was wonderful. There was big old dumb me – and there were men everywhere!”
A few weeks later, she received a notice that read, “You will report April 15, 1941 to Pearl Harbor.”
Orders? It seems that membership in the Red Cross Nursing Service meant she was now in the United States Navy! She cried all the way to Pearl, then rolled up her sleeves and went to work in the base hospital. By June she was an ensign, which she was delighted to discover qualified her to leave the nurses’ dormitory and live in officers quarters.
One day as she and her roommate, Nellie, were getting ready to go on a picnic with a couple of fellows, Phyl looked out the window and commented, “Those planes are coming in kind of low.”
“Ignore them and get dressed,” Nellie urged.
In minutes, eight wards would fill with burn victims as fuel oil belched from the stricken USS Arizona and turned the channel into an inferno. It was December 7, 1941. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
There was no time to be afraid. It would be three days before she had a chance to shower. She worked eight hours on and four hours off for more than a month. “Later, when we finally had time to think, we were positive we would be taken prisoner,” she said. “We lived with that fear until March or April. When someone complained about the food, we would say, ‘It beats fish heads and rice,’ and there would be no more complaints.”
Phyllis returned to the states in a convoy evacuating military personnel and their families. Violently ill, she and three other Navy nurses cared for 150 sick men, women and children. “We had no escort so we had to travel at 40 knots and zigzag every seven and a half minutes,” she said. “It took us five miserable days to get to San Francisco.”
“It took three days for her to get a ticket home to see her mother. Phyl recalled, “It gave me a chance to unwind so that by the time I got to Mom’s house, I was a human, not a robot.”
A few days later, returned to Pearl Harbor, saluted and promptly fainted. A short time in sickbay and it was back to work. “With all these men around, I also did a lot of cooking,” she said. “Food was good and plentiful. There was no gasoline for driving, no liquor. I tell you, it was one healthy place!”
Her next duty station was Annapolis. She had been going with a naval officer, but something in her said she would be happier single. “I saw what Navy families and kids went through,” she mused. “I didn’t want to be a Navy wife.” It was a decision she never regretted. After assignments stateside and then in Panama, Phyllis resigned her commission. She stayed in Panama for three years as a civilian nurse and then went to the National Institute of Health Research Hospital in Washington, DC, where she worked for three years in the heart surgery postoperative unit.
“In those days, children came in a week ahead of their surgery,” Phyl said. “The nurses took care of them, dressed them and came to love them. But there were so many children that didn’t make it through the surgery. It just got too hard for me to take.”
Because the FDA wanted her to teach, she went to the University of Washington, earned a degree in communications, then went back to NIH as a psychiatric nurse. In 1966 came home to be near her aging mother, and spent the next 11 years nursing at American Lake Veterans Hospital near Tacoma. She retired the day she turned 60.
She visited friends all over the states for a couple of months and enjoyed it so much she spent the next decade housesitting along the west coast. “I had the time, I could read a map, I had a car, so why not?” Phyl reasoned. “I had a charming time, met lots of favorite pets, saw old friends.”
Phyl also ventured to Australia, New Zealand and the British Isles, and then settled in Everett, and finally, in Marysville. She gave up driving after she backed into a cement wall. “I decided someone else could have been there, and it scared me,” she said. “It’s one thing to bang up yourself, but you could also bang up someone else. So, I did the responsible thing and stopped driving.” Crumbling vertebrae forced Phyllis into a more quiet life, but with a wonderful attitude – “It’s a beautiful day, the flag is flying and I’ll make it,” she said. “It will be slow, but I’ll make it. The very fact that I can live alone is a privilege”
She read voraciously and wrote long letters to a network of friends, including nurses from her unit at Pearl Harbor. “Navy people retire all over the place,” she said. “All are active women doing exciting things. At reunions and when we correspond, we talk about families, not Pearl Harbor.”
Phyl remained close with her brother and sister and their families. “We’re always having parties,” she said. “I have a good life with lots of friends. Life is different, but it’s not dull!”
For Phyllis Dana, life is what she had intended it to be. She supported herself doing something she loved and that others will always value and appreciate. Hers is indeed a worthwhile life.
Source: Personal interview with Phyllis Dana, October 2001
© 2001 Theresa (Teri) A. Baker. All rights reserved