Ohio nurse recalls treating World War II wounded
By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: June 19, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — It's inevitable that a caretaker will one day need caring for, in a role reversal that seems only fitting.
But the years have been kind to Arline (Nest) Watts, 92, who still takes great pride in her work tending the wounded of World War II as a cadet nurse at the Army's Crile General Hospital in Parma Heights.
Watts, who is currently is being cared for by Pathways Hospice at The Normandy Senior Living complex in Rocky River, recently talked about those nursing days in stories punctuated with smiles and laughter.
She was working at Fairview Hospital when she and nurses from other hospitals in the Cleveland area were transferred in 1945 to the new Army hospital built on a site that is now the western campus of Cuyahoga Community College.
The 2,300-bed hospital, named for Cleveland surgeon George Crile who served during World War I, handled more than 15,000 patients during the war, with a staff of 1,000 doctors, nurses and support personnel.
Watts was part of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps program created by Ohio Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton and administered by the U.S. Public Health Service.
James Banks, curator of the Crile Archive Center for History Education at CCC West, recently met Watts and described her as "witty, very sharp."
The Archive now has Watts' old uniform displayed at the center, and Banks said it illustrates the importance of cadet nurses in treating the wounded at Crile.
He also noted in the book he co-authored, "Cleveland in World War II," that the nondiscriminatory cadet nursing program "opened a path to a professional career that had long been closed to black women."
Watts, a Cleveland native and graduate of John Marshall High School, said she looked forward to treating the war's wounded at Crile. Her brother was serving in the Navy at the time.
"I liked being there," she said. "You were helping the fellows, and they had someone else to talk with. It was very, very nice."
The patients treated at Crile had received initial treatment of their wounds overseas, and were transferred stateside for full recovery.
"I think we (cadet nurses) did well when we were out there. We gave them baths and back rubs, things like that," Watts said. "We took a load off of the Army nurses, you know."
The nurses lived in barracks at the hospital and, given their unofficial status as officers, enjoyed food at the officers' mess.
She noted that after the patients had sufficiently recovered, "You were not supposed to fraternize with any of the patients, but that was a joke because everyone, if they could go out, they were going out with them.
"I went out. We went out to Euclid Beach (the amusement park) one time, and for some of them it was quite an experience because they had never been to a big park like that."
Watts chuckled when she recalled that some of the married staff and patients "would take off their wedding rings when they went out at night," and give them to her for safekeeping. Some nights, "I had a pocket full of wedding rings," she recalled. "Ha!"
But lines were drawn when it came to patients getting fresh with the nurses, according to Watts.
"No, they knew their place pretty well, " she said, then noted with a laugh, "if they didn't, we set them in their place.
"They were pretty good fellows. You didn't have to worry about them," she added. "They couldn't get after you anyhow, because they couldn't get out of bed.
"It was good, though, when you saw them recuperate and they could be going outside, and (if) the weather happened to be warm, we'd go down and watch the ball games right at Crile."
Nor did she have any problems with the German prisoners of war, about 250 of them, who worked in maintenance duties at the hospital.
"They didn't get out of line at all. They were friendly if you talked to them," she said. "They knew where they belonged, and that's where they stayed. It was far better than what they'd be getting over there (in Europe)."
Watts sometimes worked the night shift, looking after two or three wards. She was also assigned to help with two patients who had tuberculosis, which she believed later contributed to her contracting the disease.
After the war, she continued working as a nurse until she met and married her husband, Richard (now deceased), who was a draftsman. They raised two daughters and she now has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
By war's end, more than 179,000 women had enrolled in the cadet nurse program. In 1945, U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran, Jr., said, "We can not measure what the loss to the country would have been if civilian nursing service had collapsed, any more than we could measure the cost of failure at the Normandy beachheads."
Nowadays, in looking back on her experience at Crile, Watts said she learned patience, plus, "It gave you an insight into what some of these fellows had been through.
"It was something that had to be done, so we did it."
That attitude applied both to the soldiers and the nurses who treated them, at a time when everybody was united in the war effort."
"Those were probably the best years, that's what I think, even though there was a war going on," Watts said. "Those were simply the best years. Everyone was together, and I'd do it again if I could.
"Yeah, I really would."