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Vets museum gets nurse's treasure trove of Pearl Harbor memories

Wheeler Air Field and Schofield Barracks near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, under attack on Dec. 7, 1941, as seen from a Japanese navy plane. Most of the smoke comes from planes burning on the Wheeler Field apron in the center.

MADISON, Wis. — On the first page of her journal, Rhoda Ann Weller wrote prophetic words.

"Ever since I was a little girl from the first time I studied geography my ambition was to go to Hawaii."

Weller, whose maiden name was Ziesler, wrote that first entry in a spiral notebook shortly after she arrived as an Army nurse at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, on Nov. 9, 1941. Within a month Japanese planes attacked nearby Pearl Harbor and Weller, like every American in uniform, was at war.

Her journal, uniform and other memorabilia including her hunting knife, flashlight with blackout screen, a grass skirt and other Hawaiian souvenirs were donated last month to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

"We have World War II nurse material, but this is the first from someone who was at Pearl Harbor. And she saved everything," museum director Michael Telzrow said.

The museum has 26,000 items in its collection of materials from Wisconsin veterans of all wars. It has few items from Pearl Harbor, though. The donation of Weller's memorabilia and papers is the largest collection of Pearl Harbor artifacts at the Wisconsin museum.

Among the items are several acetate records of Weller's voice including an interview during the war on a Hawaiian radio program where she says hello to her family and friends back home in Manitowoc. She served in the Army Nurse Corps in Hawaii for four years.

After listening to her voice on the recordings, reading her journal and looking at the possessions she chose to keep until her death in 2001, curators began to get a clear picture of a woman who graduated from Lincoln High School in Manitowoc in 1934, became a nurse at Holy Family Hospital in her hometown for several years before deciding to serve her country and join the Army.

"We kind of feel we know Rhoda. She represents a lot of women in Wisconsin who contributed to the war effort," Telzrow said.

She used the flashlight during blackout conditions and slept with the hunting knife, a gift from her father, under her pillow, vowing that if the Japanese invaded she wouldn't be captured alive.

Weller met her future husband, Ray, in Hawaii. He was a fellow Wisconsinite who fought in the Pacific. They renewed their friendship after the war when she returned home to Manitowoc. They married in 1948 and had four children, whom she raised on her own after her husband died in 1963.

After Weller's family contacted the museum, reference archivist Russ Horton drove to Manitowoc last month to see what they had.

"They started pulling things out of boxes. It was pretty incredible," said Horton, who was excited to see not only Pearl Harbor memorabilia, but also items from a female soldier.

In her journal Weller, then 23, describes working at the 215th General Hospital on the morning of the Japanese attack. She was giving a sponge bath to a soldier suffering from pneumonia when she heard the sound of planes flying very low.

For half an hour she and the rest of the personnel in the hospital thought it was a practice attack. But then she saw flames and smoke and 50 planes flying so close she could see the rising sun emblem.

Then the casualties started coming.

As the head nurse of a 112-bed medical ward, she supervised six nurses and was the assistant to the chief nurse. On Dec. 7, 1941, she helped triage patients, determining who needed surgery right away, who could wait, who was not going to live. They used toe tags to mark patients who had been given morphine, said her oldest son, Dennis Weller.

One patient had been shot in the chest.

"This guy was bubbling and gurgling and the doctor said put your finger in there and plug up the dike, which she did. She said he looked up at her and said, 'You have the most beautiful brown eyes I've ever seen,' and then he expired," Dennis Weller said in a phone interview from Manitowoc.

"She said everyone was brought in covered with sheets. One guy had his head covered with a sheet," her son recalled. "She pulled the sheet back and, Oh my God, the guy didn't have his head. No dog tags. She didn't know who he was."

Before his mother died at the age of 85 from a stroke, Dennis Weller helped her clean out her attic. He saw her pick up a spiral notebook and throw it in a wastebasket. Dennis Weller retrieved it, paged through the notebook and realized it was his mother's wartime journal.

"I said, 'My God, Mom, this is a diary.' She said if there's anything in there that someone can't read you can have it," he said.

Now Rhoda Ann Ziesler Weller's memorabilia is where it belongs, in a museum where researchers and anyone else interested in her life story can view it. Curators are now cataloging the items, which should be available online in two to three months. The museum is considering putting together a digital exhibit of her items, and some things might end up on display inside the museum, Telzrow said.

Weller and her husband saved their spare change in the hope of returning to Oahu to celebrate their 25th anniversary. But her husband died before they could go, and she was busy raising her children, her son said.

She never returned to Hawaii.

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