BELFAST, Maine — More than 70 years ago, Georgia Randall of Belfast was on a troop train that slowly made its way west across the country before depositing the new Army Nurse Corps recruit in the lively streets of San Francisco.
There, she boarded a converted cruise ship and set sail, with her ultimate destination unknown, the feisty and sharp centenarian recalled Saturday morning at her home while sitting at a table covered with old photographs of her World War II experiences.
She and the 14 other nurses who shared her stateroom also shared a bathtub full of water that they had to use for nearly two weeks of bathing.
“It was a bath in a Dixie cup,” Randall said, adding that the officers who expected the women to be “glamour girls” when they came to dinner were mistaken.
The cruise ship American ended up heading to Australia, where Randall, who spent her first years on a family farm in Sidney, Maine, worked for more than a year caring for the American men who had been badly injured in the bloody battles of the South Pacific. After her time in Mareeba, a “two pub town” on the northeastern coast of Australia where she worked in a station hospital, she spent more than a year working in a tent hospital that had been built in the jungle of New Guinea.
Randall is happy to describe the places she lived, the wildlife and exotic people she saw and the adventures she had during her stints in the Pacific. But when asked about the injured men she cared for during the war and the hard things she had seen, she demurred.
“The horrible things, who needs them?” she asked, just days before Memorial Day. “I don’t talk about those things. There’s no point in dwelling on it. We know a war is a war.”
‘Home and alive in ’45’
Randall had graduated from Crosby High School in Belfast in 1931, the only girl in a family of four brothers. She was a member of the first graduating class from the Waldo County General Hospital School of Nursing in Belfast, and when she got her cap in 1934 she launched into a long and varied career. At first, she worked at the Belfast hospital and then was a private-duty nurse. But when the war began, her youngest brother was in the service and she felt that she could do more for her country.
“It was luxury nursing. It wasn’t for me,” Randall said.
She joined up in April 1942, and was discharged on Christmas Day of 1945.
“Wasn’t that a good present?” she said, smiling. “Home and alive in ’45.”
When she enlisted at Fort Dix, N.J., she and the other nurses who arrived at the same time decided that they might as well “go the distance,” and volunteer for overseas duty.
Randall said that the military issued her woolen clothes as part of her uniform that were not useful in the hot places she worked. A Chinese green grocer in Mareeba used to roast peanuts by putting them in a tin tray on his shop roof, she said, and once she went on a crocodile hunt — though she did not get any crocodiles.
In Australia, the hospital was in a school that the Army had taken over, and during air raids, the nurses would move the patients out of the hospital on litters and place them between the sandbags that were stacked outside. During her first air raid, Randall grabbed a chocolate cake that she had just made and took it into the fox hole with her.
“Oh, I got ribbed because of that,” she recalled.
Later, when she was stationed in the 247th General Hospital New Guinea, in the jungle near the community of Lae, it was so hot she once saw the thermometer reach 130 degrees. Another nurse swore she saw it reach 136 degrees. Army engineers working at the nearby ammunitions dump dug the nurses a swimming hole that was fed by a cool mountain stream.
“It was clear water. Cool and delightful,” Randall said. “One of the other girls and I got brave. It got so hot at night, we couldn’t sleep. We’d go down and skinny dip.”
The 30 or so American nurses there also entertained themselves by taking funny pictures of each other — one of Randall shows her cavorting in a grass skirt — and getting them developed by the guys in the X-ray department.
“We were pin-up girls,” she laughed.
Another moment she remembered vividly was the time she was on night duty and saw that the mice around her feet were making a commotion. When Randall looked around, she saw that a venomous tiger snake had entered through a hole in the screen.
“It was beautiful,” she said, adding that the snake shone like flakes of gold. “We killed it. It was a crime to have done that. I saved the mice, I guess — one of the tragedies of war.”
When she was discharged and came home to Maine, she continued working for decades as a nurse around the midcoast. She also raised one son, David Emery, who later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Even after retirement, Randall stayed busy. She used her dexterity with her hands to fix a deteriorated U.S.S. Maine banner that had traveled around the world in 1907 with the Great White Fleet. Her restored flag was carried aboard the U.S.S. Maine submarine that was commissioned in 1995.
And she continues to knit more than 50 pairs of mittens for needy children each year that are distributed through the Belfast Area Rotary Club.
When asked if she has any words of advice after living such a long and eventful life, Randall smiled.
“Be good and you’ll be happy,” she said.