05/29/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Cherry Ames, a Rebel With a Cause, Who Would Surely Shake Up the VA

A 1940s Juvenile Fiction heroine was a "disruptor" - who lowered temperatures, raised spirits, and healed WW II wounded.


"The Army has a responsibility to cure its wounded men and make them fit to earn their living again.... Our job is to rebuild broken men, physically and mentally.... See that you treat these men properly!"

That stern admonition was delivered, with extra gruffness, by white-haired Colonel Winifred Brown, "an old crosspatch" whose x-ray eyes radiated a grim no-nonsense glare, which even unnerved generals. Col. Brown's greeting to newly-arrived Lieutenant Cherry Ames, R.N. (U. S. Army Nursing Corps) should probably be emblazoned on signs in every corridor of every VA hospital.

Cherry Ames - Veterans' Nurse

The admonition comes early on in this 1946 Juvenile novel. To that point in the series authored by Helen Wells, Cherry Ames has nursed in the Pacific and European "theaters of war." In this sequel, she is assigned to an orthopedic hospital where nurses are "to mend spirits as well as bodies," in a wholly 1940s non-sensual way, to be sure. The nurses are to see that patients recover to the point where, with on-site rehabilitation and vocational guidance, they will secure "useful and self-sufficient futures." Helen Wells surely had a mission that went beyond diverting pre-teen and teenage girls.

Decades before the death matches in a dystopian future served up in the Hunger Games trilogy, decades before the sci-fi factional warfare in the Divergent trilogy, and decades before the fantasy teen romances of the Twilight quadrilogy (with its junior vampire and werewolf hunks), there was Nancy Drew, and there was Cherry Ames.

The Cherry Ames books (which typically run to 200 pages of reader-friendly type) are not great literature, nor are they to be read as documented military or medical history. Not surprisingly, the "romance" components - such as they are - are of the un-urban "porch swing" variety. As to dialog, the conversations are chock full of quaint expressions and exclamations: gosh, aw shucks, gee whiz, golly, danged, by George, humdinger, flapdoodle, jiminy, jumpin' jehosophat, harrumph, over yonder....

Still, in an un-academic unpretentious way, the stories published in the 1940s provide a sense of what medical care was like, how it was delivered: in Pacific island jungles; in European evacuation hospitals; and on air transport cargo planes ("aerial ambulances") under attack from Nazi artillery fired at evacuation airstrips; under fire from anti-aircraft batteries at landing and takeoff near the front; and under assault by Messerschmitts as the wounded were being transported back to England and Scotland. The lumbering C-47 Air Transports could not climb because higher altitudes would exacerbate the pain and complications of those needing major surgeries.

While not history or memoir, Wells' observations of and conversations with Army nurses allowed her to pass on to young readers (presumably all female) a very patriotic sense of how young women made serious and essential contributions to the war effort, through their skills, dedication, and courage.

Wells graduated from New York University in 1934, having become the first female editor of NYU's literary quarterly. She majored in philosophy, but one might surmise that her sociology and psychology studies, along with her volunteer work for the State Department during WWII, had her attuned to, and made her a champion of, women who worked.

Cherry Ames - Army Nurse (1944)

Fresh from nursing school, Cherry Ames rejoices at her acceptance as a probationer in the Army Nurse Corps. With maturity, composure, and tenacity beyond her years, she survives basic-training rigors imposed by a stereo-typical gruff drill-sergeant who is not female-friendly. She also endures an uptight, petty, spiteful captain, who specializes in recrimination. He's a martinet (stock footage, if you will), who is meddlesome, malicious, and vindictive. Cherry "defeats" his efforts to discipline her and have her discharged. She wins the day by resolutely seeking and astutely finding the source of malaria, blackwater fever, and yellow fever that threatens servicemen and civilians in Panama. She's a medical detective who is ultimately commended and promoted for her "courage, alertness, and initiative."

Cherry Ames - Chief Nurse (1944)

The heroine of the Army's Panama Canal encampments is whisked to the Pacific, where she is to take charge of a forward nursing contingent. Understaffed and re-supplied only intermittently and precariously, they are to supervise the construction of a hospital on a remote island, which is designated only by a number - but which is "home" to dug-in units of infantry and artillery. The commanding officer (another stock-footage martinet, and a sourpuss) is not a fan: to him she is "too young and too pretty" for the job. His inspections interfere with the responsiveness, sensitivity, and humanity of Cherry and her nurses. There is too much informality, cheerfulness, warm-hearted encouragement, and levity for his taste; not enough formality and dignity. And, no surprise, Cherry is too popular for the CO's notions of good discipline.

It is Cherry - only Cherry - who remembers a directive from the War Department to be on the lookout for "strange wounds that would indicate strange new weapons." In addition to her healthcare skills, she is instrumental in a ballistics and forensics investigation that allows for effective diagnosis and treatment of mysterious wounds.

When the enemy launches a full-scale attack, she accompanies surgeons on a perilous Higgins boat run to besieged troops. With lipstick, she marks the foreheads of the wounded to indicate what she has administered: sulfa and antitoxins to prevent infections; morphine to ease pain; pre-op prep for those needing emergency surgery while the island is still under enemy fire.

And, presciently, Wells has Cherry counsel a plus-size anaesthetist, who has become increasing self-conscious and distraught about her size, shape, and weight. There's body-image sensitivity and self-esteem encouragement, in addition to Cherry's advanced sense of work-flow logistics and supply-chain management.

Cherry Ames - Flight Nurse (1945)

As a reward for her heroism under fire in the Pacific, Cherry joins the Army Air Force contingents in England that "sweat in" the bombers and the C-47 "aerial ambulances" returning from the front. She will join a flight crew that will brave enemy fire to pick up the wounded and race them back to base hospitals.

For the most part, the Cherry Ames books I've read have predictable drama and outcomes. Still, to my mind's eye, Flight Nurse has scenes that are taut and cinematic. Cherry's black curls are always being whipped against her rosy-red cheeks, when they are not being tamed by a tug on her jaunty AAF lieutenant's cap. Book-jacket depictions of the 22-year-old from semi-rural Illinois suggest (to me) a young Donna Reed, a fledgling non-vivacious Loretta Young, a non-sultry Natalie Wood - who might be played by Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley, Rooney Mara, Anna Kendrick, or Emma Watson; in a "look-back" similar to what the BBC has done with Call the Midwife.

Disclosure, a personal "mission"

What prompted this 67-year-old (who's spent 40 years focused on media law and ethics) to embark on a study of 1940s Juvenile lit geared to teen and pre-teen girls?

I have been teaching literature-and-film courses to undergraduate nursing and health-science students, and wondered if any of the Cherry Ames vignettes might provide a perspective that would engage my students. That's the academic explanation.

The personal explanation: my father was in an Army Air Force base unit in Europe in WW II. He managed to put in (and survive) 4 years, 4 months, and 26 days of "Honest and Faithful Service." I have the original of the one-page official service record that denotes his "decorations and citations" along with his "battles and campaigns," which accompanied his most honorable discharge. He never talked about what he saw, heard, and felt in England, Northern France, and in the Rhineland. He never talked about his June 1944 day at Normandy.

I have been told that a vast cache of service records were destroyed by fire. So I am put to sleuthing - not for a crime but for the endurance, and perhaps some bravery, that was summoned in circumstances that my father chose not to recount.

So it was in Cherry Ames - Flight Nurse that I got what might turn out to be clues:

In the European Theatre of Operations, did my father (a 39-year-old staff sergeant at the time of his discharge) make sure that AAF nurses and medical-evacuation teams had the litters, plasma, sulfa, morphine, tourniquets, burn ointments, hypodermics, oxygen canisters, sterilizers, splints, air-sickness capsules, blankets, dressings and bandages that were needed?

He was meticulous. So I wonder, had he been assigned to go over flight manifests; check take-off and landing clearances; check cargo, weight, and flight plans; oversee the loading and securing of the right kinds of fuel and ammunition?

He was mature and reliable: Was he among those who responded to the SOS calls from returning bombers and C-47s that required P-47, American Mustang, and British Spitfire escorts to deal with Nazi artillery, anti-aircraft, or Messerschmitts?

Why did he never talk about the war? Had he seen what Cherry Ames saw as a flight nurse: embedded shrapnel; burns; incipient peritonitis; torn-open chests and abdomens; hemorrhages; shattered jaws and skulls; compound fractures; amputations....

He was not given to outrage. But I would bet that he would be outraged by what we are learning about the neglect and deceit at VA hospitals.

Given the insensitivity, inattention, and disregard that seem to have infected several VA hospitals, the Cherry Ames stories can, in their way, serve as a benchmark for the concern and dedication that was the hallmark of veterans' care. There was, at least in that Juvenile fiction, a genuine commitment to attend to complacency and despair; to mend, repair, refurbish, and rebuild bodies and spirits.

In Cherry Ames - Veterans' Nurse, a soldier who had despaired of his loss of capacities, along with the loss of a leg, is revived physiologically - vocationally and psychologically. Though still needing crutches, he explains, that at his VA, "It's not only good care, but having someone around when we need to talk, or could use a laugh."