Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
In honor of Women’s History month, my thoughts turned to the women in the Jamestown area who served in WW II alongside the men who bravely fought in that conflict. To aid me in my search, I turned to one of the Fenton History Center’s researchers, namely Barb Cessna, who generously provided me with Post-Journal articles detailing the military service of three women in both stateside and overseas duties: Carmella Paterniti and sisters, Sally Jo and Genevieve Casamento.
Carmella Paterniti, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Paterniti, graduated from Jamestown High School in 1935. She attended the nursing school at Deaconess Hospital in Buffalo and graduated with honors in 1939. She was employed at Jamestown’s General Hospital from September 1939 through the early months of 1940; during that time she became a member of the Red Cross. In July 1940, Carmella enlisted in the United States Army as a registered nurse with a rating of lieutenant. She was one of the first women from Jamestown to volunteer for nursing duty with the Army.
Carmella actually began her career as an Army nurse on July 16, 1941 and was stationed at LaGarde General Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was then assigned to the Army Transport Service, serving aboard the ship USS Shawnee transporting troops and returning with patients from Panama (mostly women and children because it was feared that Panama might be attacked), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.
In September 1943, she went to England with the Seventh Field Hospital where, prior to D-Day, she took care of American troops on maneuvers and then went to northern Ireland. Her hospital unit landed on Omaha Beach D plus 24 where she and other nurses took care of First and Third Army soldiers, traveling to France, Belgium, central Europe, and eventually Germany. Often the hospital was two miles behind the front lines and Lt. Paterniti described the action: “’Each night it seemed like the Fourth of July’” because of artillery fire and enemy planes overhead and buzz bombs coming over day and night. Describing the food they had, Carmella said that “at the beginning it was chiefly K, C, and D rations and later B rations.” She also mentioned that there were “plenty of powdered eggs, dehydrated vegetables, and canned fruit.” On a personal note, I would say that food was a far cry from the kinds of meals she was probably used to as a girl growing up in an Italian family!
About a week before V-E Day, May 8, 1945, Lt. Paterniti transferred into the Army Air Corps (later to become the United States Air Force), flying aboard a C-47 plane that transported wounded soldiers between Germany and France. In France on June 19, 1945 she married Oscar W. Smith of Chipley, Florida who served twenty-nine months overseas with the 29th Division and who was wounded twelve days after landing on Omaha Beach during D-Day operations, holding the Purple Heart and four Bronze Stars. Lt. Carmella Paterniti Smith returned from the European Theater of Operations on October 2, 1945, wearing five battle stars, after serving thirty-one months of overseas duty. As service men and women came back from the war, Jamestown answered the call for housing for veterans and spouses by constructing apartments at the Hebner Heights emergency housing project. The Smiths were the first of fifty couples chosen to receive keys to their apartment from Mayor Samuel A. Stroth on September 13, 1946.
Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Casamento were the parents of two daughters, Sally Jo and Genevieve, who served in the Army Nurses Corps and Waves in WW II. Lt. Sally Jo Casamento graduated from Jamestown High School in 1936 and attended Alfred University. She took her nurses training at St. Francis University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, graduating in 1942, and was on the staff of the Ohio State University hospital where she served as supervisor of the operating room. She began her enlistment duties at Fort Knox, Kentucky as a U.S. Army nurse in April 1942 at the 67th Evacuation Hospital and also Fredricksburg, Virginia. Serving overseas, Sally Jo stated in a letter to her parents that she had arrived “somewhere in England” safely and that “’England is a beautiful country and the English people are delightful, [serving] us tea many times during the day.’”
Lt. Casamento was serving with a field hospital unit in Belgium which was directly in the path of the German drive into that country. Her unit was caring for both American and German wounded soldiers who could not be left alone. The chief nurse was ordered to select five nurses to remain and, according to a newspaper account, “to the everlasting credit of American nurses, every one volunteered to stay and posed a difficult task for the chief nurse to pick five, which she finally did. All that night wounded men were evacuated and just before daybreak, with shells falling around them, they escaped in the next truck before the route was finally closed.”
Lt. Casamento was a member of the first contingent of American Army nurses to enter Paris after its liberation noting that the French were waving, cheering and kissing her on both cheeks—“a royal reception”! In a letter she described her experiences in France before arriving in Paris. After a lengthy ride, her unit landed in a large chateau that the Germans had left not long before. In a trip through this “lovely home” she discovered a wine cellar that the “Nazis left dry and empty” and a library full of books, most in French but ten in English prose that she packed in her barracks bag! She and her companions were able to buy fresh eggs, tomatoes and black bread in exchange for soap and cigarettes from the local farmers. It was obvious from her letter that she was not thrilled with the wine that she was served in a café, and then a bit of homesickness sneaked in—“Do we miss the American drug stores for Cokes and ice cream!” Nevertheless, Lt. Casamento was quite taken with the French fashions, stating that the “’French girls are very beautiful and dress exceedingly well…I can see why our fashions and styles originate here. Gosh, I’m crazy about France.’”
Sally Jo Casamento’s younger sister Genevieve graduated from Jamestown High School in 1940 where she was president of the Girls’ J Club. She also held the women’s tennis championship title for Jamestown. She graduated from the Roberts School of Beauty Culture in Buffalo and was working at The Looking Glass Beauty Salon in Bigelow’s department store at the time of her enlistment in the WAVES in 1943.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this branch of the service, WAVES is an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. This military unit was established on July 30, 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the U.S. Navy’s Corps of female members. It recruited women between the ages of 18 to 36 (officers between the ages of 20 to 50) to serve onshore in the continental United States, although some served in Alaska and Hawaii.
Genevieve Casamento was accepted by and sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve at the Office of Naval Officer Procurement in Rochester, NY; she soon after left for training at Hunter College. She became a Pharmacist Mate (Third Class) and served at the United States Naval Academy ‘” the cradle of the Navy’” at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Annapolis, Maryland—one of thirty-six WAVES at the hospital. It was quite an assignment of their “nautical careers,” and all agreed that the hard work involved “boot training” and the dramatic change from civilian to military life. Indeed, for Pharmacist Mate Casamento her military duties were a far cry from giving hair cuts and styling to manicures and permanent waves to her Looking Glass clients because she essentially became a hospital tech doing “electro-cardiograph and basic metabolism” and loving it!
A typical day at the Naval Hospital meant waking at 6:00 a.m., breakfasting at 7:00, engaging in cleaning details and specialized work, and then reporting for duty at 8:00 at the hospital where they would care for patients. After their evening meal at 5:00 p.m. the women had their evenings free unless it was their turn for the duty section. They also had liberty every other evening with a return to their duties the next morning; such liberties occasioned trips to Baltimore and Washington as well as Annapolis.
As of July 1943, Jamestown had sent twenty women to join the WAVES. By that same year, 21,000 WAVES made up the Women’s Reserve and celebrated the first anniversary of their organization established by President Roosevelt. When that bill was authorized, men thought it was strange to have women engaged in naval activities. But by 1943 the work of WAVES at naval stations, air bases, hospitals, navy yards working in coveralls in parachute lofts or as mechanics in naval plane hangers “hardly caused a ripple of attention.” Yet it was a matter of some impatience that while the Navy accepted these women and found their work better sometimes than that of the men the Navy had released for sea duty, “to the public their duties [were] comparatively unknown.” Not any more.
In closing, I must defer to the words Barb Cessna wrote to me in an email that accompanied the information she generously shared with me contained in this article: “I would bet as many war nurses had PTSD as the [male] veterans of war, even stateside, because of the long tedious hours of trying to be cheerful and keeping the wounded from losing hope in the possibility of recovery. Because the wounded seldom had conversations with a doctor, they depended on their nurses for everything. And the nurses had to perform miracles in keeping infection away, wounds clean, and most of all, keeping their own fears of danger or losing the battle with the patient’s impending death from showing on their faces or in their voices. They lost so many, despite their hardest efforts, and most spent evenings writing to the mothers, wives, and girl friends when the dreaded came to pass. They were the only ones the soldiers and sailors could depend on in the end. ‘If anything happens, tell my wife and kids I loved them so much….’”
Women in war…think on this and never forget how much we owe them.