Red Cross girls typically organized games for soldiers, like in this club in Kwanju, Korea. With no central heat, the soldiers gathered around a duct carring warm air from an outdoors fire

Helen Shepard Friend and her fellow “Red Cross Girls” making the voyage from San Francisco to the Phillipines. The passengers included male soldiers. Helen would spend Christmas and New Year’s on the ship. She says the only time the girls wore their official Red Cross uniforms was for Chrismas Dinner.

 Our Greatest Generation:
A Salute to Red Cross War Heroes

When we think of World War II, images of men in foxholes and the fight to preserve liberty often spring to mind. But behind the frontlines was a second army of American Red Cross volunteers, caring for our soldiers across the globe.

Below are the stories of three Rhode Island women who volunteered with the American Red Cross at wartime. Each story is unique, yet connected by the desire to serve.

In honor of National Red Cross Month, we dedicate this issue to these women and the thousands like them, who together with our veterans, are truly “Our Greatest Generation.”

Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly was teaching physical education in East Providence when World War II started. Eager to travel and help the war effort, she signed up with the American Red Cross.

Her sister, Barbara Johnson, says the family wasn’t surprised. “My sister was full of adventure. She was not fearful of anything,” Louise was stationed in India, and spent the next two and a half years as a recreation instructor. Her first stop was a hospital 100 miles outside of Calcutta — during monsoon season.

Louise Kelly’s journey was closely chronicled back home. A Rhode Island newspaper article shared, “The official Red Cross telegram...told that in whatever port she disembarked - the exact location is a military secret - she was greeeted by native women, who decked themselves out in gay native costumes for the occasion.” Barbara says her sister organized games and helped soldiers write letters back home.

“My sister had a wonderful life with the Red Cross. It was hard (in India), and she didn’t have a lot of comforts, but she had a great time,” Barbara recalls.
Louise Kelly enjoyed her time as a “Red Cross girl” so much, she found it hard to return to Rhode Island. In newspaper profile of Kelly, that appeared in The Cape Cod Times in 1982, (Kelly retired to Cape Cod), she described her experience. “It was more stimulating than living in East Providence,” she said with a laugh, referring to her hometown. “It was more difficult to come back than to go. It was very exciting.” Louise Kelly died in January. She was 93 years old.

Trina Weschler

Closer to home, Trina Weschler got involved with the Red Cross Grey Ladies at the Newport Naval Hospital when her husband was stationed in Newport from 1950-1955. With 46 ships full of sailors docked nearby, and sick sailors arriving from all over New England, Weschler says it was an exciting place.“It was very busy and very big,” she says of the hospital.

Eventually, Weschler chaired the Gray Ladies.“The Red Cross was very visible there (in Newport) just after World War II. I was impressed by the women who were in charge; they were prominent Newport women.” Trina says she worked the reception area, distributed magazines and helped out in the pharmacy. “We also spent a lot of time writing letters for the soldiers, back to family and girlfriends,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest illness the Gray Ladies helped battle was loneliness.“A group of us came in on Sundays,” Weschler recalls. “I gather that was a tough time for the soldiers. We played cards and games and spent the afternoon talking with them.” In 1954, an ship explosion at nearby Quonset Point threw Weschler and other Grey Ladies into their own “active duty” when 200 severely burned soldiers were rushed to the Naval hospital.

“It was not a pretty sight,” Weschler remembers. “Boats and helicopters would bring them to the edge of the pier and then an ambulance would rush them to the hospital.” With a Master’s Degree in Nursing, Weschler assisted in treating burn victims. “It was a tremendous challenge because they were sedated and many could not talk,” she said.

Weschler says The Red Cross was hard at work during the crisis. “The Red Cross played a major role in connecting the families with the injured soldiers,” she explains. “They helped find places to stay, helped feed and comfort the families. They were very important in helping keep the situation under control.”
Weschler, who lives in Newport with her husband, still volunteers, but says her Red Cross days were a special time in history. “There was a great spirit among us (women), that carried over from the war,” she explains. “Everyone wanted to play a part in helping those sailors.”

Helen Shepard Friend

During World War II, Helen Shepherd Friend was working at her family’s inn in New Milford, CT. Active in her local Red Cross, as the war progressed, Helen felt the itch to get involved. “I wanted a change; to get away and do something,” she recalls. “And being a ‘Red Cross Girl’ was considered a glamorous job in those days.”

At age 25, Helen was selected to travel overseas with the Red Cross. As the war was coming to an end, her work was just beginning. She spent Christmas on a ship from San Francisco to the Phillipines, then flew to Japan — right over Hiroshima & Nagasaki.“The pilot took a detour to show us where the bomb had been dropped,” she recalls. “When you saw the area you really understood why it ended the war.”

Helen opted to spend the next year and a half in Korea “because it seemed like the farthest place to go,” she explains. Settled in Kwanju, Korea, Helen and her fellow “Red Cross Girls” set up a recreation club in an abandoned Kamakazi control tower. With little supplies, Helen says they quickly learned to be resourceful. “We cut the tail of a plane in half and made it into coffee counters,” she remembers. “And light bulbs were so scarce that you had to take them with you or they would get stolen. You guarded them with your life.”

Helen, who met her future husband, then a soldier in Kwanju, says remote Korea wasn’t exactly glamorous. “We wore Army fatigues everyday. I think the only time I wore my official Red Cross uniform was for Christmas dinner.”
Helen is quick to point out that the soldiers made up for any inconveniences. “The fellas were wonderful,” she says. “It didn’t matter what you looked like; if you were an American woman, they loved you.”

In her scrapbook, which chronicles her Red Cross duty, Helen kept the following typewritten note from a soldier: “To the American Red Cross, long may it live in the hearts of all of the good people of this world. The only thing that makes life bearable is the beautiful girls that pass out the cigarettes and candy and wonderful sweet looks. It is a sincere tribute to their undying devotion to duty as displayed here in this canteen. If this spirit could be captured all over the world there would be no wars, no hard feelings and no more trouble to anybody.”

Helen says some of the funniest stories from the time she spent in Korea were the result of cultural differences. “We decided to have a Christmas party for Korean orphans,” she explains. “These children had never celebrated Christmas, so when Santa Claus presented them each a gift, they bowed. It was hilarious --- seeing Santa Claus bow back!”

Helen, who lives in East Greenwich, says she feel lucky to have served with the Red Cross overseas.“It was a fantastic thing,” she says of her experience.

Special thanks to Helen Shepard Friend and Albert Sylvestre for sharing their photos for this story.

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