Former Army nurse honored by Pennsylvania governor for military service
By TYLER DAGUE | The Meadville (Pa.) Tribune | Published: April 16, 2019
MEADVILLE, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — “The only thing I wanted to be since I was 5 years old was an army nurse.”
Those are the words of former Maj. Barbara Ellis, who has led an eventful life. After graduating from Cambridge Springs High School in 1958, she embarked on a career as an army nurse and officer that took her to Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Japan, Vietnam and many other locations.
On March 27, she was recognized along with 15 others by Gov. Tom Wolf and first lady Frances Wolf at a ceremony at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg. The event was the Pennsylvania Commission for Women’s Female Veterans Day celebration.
After completing an Army student nurses program, Ellis finished basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and was sent on a mysterious mission.
“I don’t think any lieutenant down there knew why we were there, and nobody told us where we were going except the porter on the train, eventually,” Ellis said.
The porter revealed to Ellis that she and her fellow nurses were headed to Opa-locka, Fla. When they began to set up their field hospitals, she said they realized they were there for if the U.S. invaded Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. didn’t end up invading.
She returned to Fort Sam Houston and later moved to Fort Polk, La. Yet Ellis soon was not for this hemisphere, being sent to serve at the 106th General Hospital in Yokohama, Japan.
“Where we ended up was not a hospital, but a collection of empty buildings that were used as an R&R center during the Korean conflict,” Ellis said.
They had five days to set up the hospital to receive patients from Vietnam, and Ellis was put in charge of a communicable disease ward. There were no beds — only army cots — and no elevators in the two-story and four-story buildings. Also, there was no elevator for the eight-story building where the nurses lived on the top floors.
“What we did was line up in the stairwells and when the first patients came in — we had a lot of hepatitis patients and they were sick,” Ellis said. “They weren’t capable of walking up the stairs, so our corpsmen are passing this litter to each floor, and we did the food the same way.”
Ellis served in Japan for about two years. She noted the pollution was so bad that she had only one clear day, following a typhoon, during which she could see Mt. Fuji. Headed back to America, she served briefly at Fort Belvoir, Va., but another assignment was to come soon.
“My parents came down to visit me in Virginia,” Ellis said. “It was hot, and I had a sleeveless blouse on. I had all these shots. My mother walked in the door, took a look and said, ‘You’re going to Vietnam.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ ”
After serving during the war, she was medically evacuated out of Vietnam with back problems and was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. A stint serving in Kansas followed, and she was sent to her last tour of duty in Hawaii.
Ellis left the military in 1978 after almost 18 years of service. She had reached the rank of major and had received many citations, including the Bronze Star medal.
She lived in Denver for eight years before returning to Hawaii for another 32 years. Over time, she developed some hang-ups regarding the progress of the Aloha State.
“I went back to Hawaii, enjoyed it immensely, but it’s now overcrowded, overbuilt, too many people and too expensive,” Ellis said. “I don’t know how anybody can feed their kids cereal and milk over there — it’s so expensive.”
Hence, she decided to move back to her hometown of Cambridge Springs after decades of travel and military service. Janet Beanland, a Tribune columnist and elementary school friend of Ellis, interviewed her for a Veterans Day article. According to Ellis, a woman from the governor’s office read the column on Facebook and got in touch with Ellis, telling her to keep March 27 open on her calendar. In March, she received a letter.
Out of 200 nominees, Ellis and 15 fellow female veterans were chosen to be honored at the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg for Female Veterans Day. She was driven to the event by Dr. Denise Johnson, chief medical officer for Meadville Medical Center and a member of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.
The commission had a separate event just prior to the ceremony, which Ellis was able to attend. She recalled portraits of singer Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Anne Frank put up for the event and was “glad to be back in a military atmosphere.” An all-women military color guard presented, and a female sergeant sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Gov. Wolf spoke as well as Adjutant General of Pennsylvania Tony Carrelli.
“I just think it’s great because most of these women have never been recognized for anything,” Ellis said. “Some of them have gone on to be CEOs of hospitals and different things like this. Most of us were retired like I am, but a lot of them have second and third jobs. I think their names should be out there.”
This was the fourth ceremony of its kind Gov. Wolf had held, and those from past years also came to celebrate the new honorees from all over the commonwealth. During the ceremony, the governor, by proclamation and resolution, declared March 27, 2019, as Female Veterans Day, thanking the 71,000 female veterans living in Pennsylvania.
Ellis recalled a time when she was in charge of a nurse clinic in the mid-1970s at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Soldiers would see the uniform but not immediately recognize her as a woman.
“They’d say, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir,’ ” Ellis said. “Then they’d back themselves up and say, ‘Sorry, ma’am.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, because in another 10 years, there’s going to be a lot of women here. You’ll learn.’ And there are.”