Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor Day: Nurse Rosella Asbelle

Telephone interview with Rosella Asbelle, Navy nurse at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and later assigned to Naval Hospital Oakland's Occupational Therapy Department with amputee patients during the Korean War. Conducted by Jan K. Herman, Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 13 June 2002.

Where are you originally from?

I was born in Oklahoma but we came out to California when I was about 7 years old--a little town called Dinuba near Fresno.

Where did you go to nursing school?

I went to St. Mary's Hospital School of Nursing, San Francisco, CA.

And you were a Navy nurse.

I was very definitely a Navy nurse. I was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

What do you remember about that?

Everything. I saw Japanese planes coming over. They were so low, they were right on top of the building.

Then you knew Ruth Erickson.

We were all together. Ruth is a very knowledgeable person. I have all the addresses of the 29 Navy nurses who were at Pearl. We try to keep in touch with each other. I think there are about eight of us still living.

I remember vividly the planes flying over the buildings right next to the nurse's quarters. The nurse in the room next to me and I were looking out the window and she gasped, "Ahh, Rosella, it's war." I'll never forget that. The planes were just above the buildings. You could see the heads of the pilots.

Ruth Erickson told me that they were so close that if you had known who they were, you could have recognized them.

That's right. One came over the building so low, maybe at the height of a flagpole. You could see their heads. This grinning Japanese guy probably was thinking, "Boy, we've got you where we want you." I'll never forget that guy with the goggles and the smile on his face.

Did you have duty that morning?

It was 8 o'clock in the morning and I don't remember if I had duty that morning. But it didn't take long before the chief nurse called everybody over to the wards and casualties started coming in. And they continued coming in throughout the day. The heads or toilets were right outside the wards and there was a walkway between the ward and the head. The bodies were laid out like stacks of wood on that passageway connecting the ward and the toilet.

Did you work in the surgical area?

I was in the surgical ward and when they needed surgery they went to the operating room. Later on, I was transferred to the burn ward because there were so many people who were burned from the fires.

I read that you sprayed tannic acid on the burns.

That's right.

You must have seen some pretty horrible things that day.

It was really tragic. These kids were so young and so burned. I remember a radio blaring the song, "I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire," when some kid at the end of the ward yelled out, "Lady, you're too late. It's done been set." At that time, the wards had anywhere from 20 to 30 patients per ward. And I was on the burn ward. These kids were all lined up with tannic acid applications all over.

The saddest thing, though, was having night duty. That's when these severely burned kids would die. And you'd know when that was going to happen. Many a time, I'd sit by the bed of a young man, boy, who was burned, as he died talking about his family. It was generally about 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning when most of them went. You'd hold their hands and talk to them about their families.

That must have been terribly sad for you.

Yes. These kids were so young.

I'm sure that even if you don't remember everything that happened subsequently at Oakland, you'll probably never forget that day as long as you live.

I don't think anyone would.

We've previously posted Nurse Arbelle's entire oral history.

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