Nursing degree led to war service

Brattleboro Reformer March 1987
by Louise Luring

SAXTONS RIVER -- When she graduated from Bellows Falls High School in 1933, Helen Buxton Frey lacked a goal in life. Her older sister, Ruth, and younger brother, Alvah, had both gone off to college with definite careers in mind. But Frey had yet to discover her own special talent, her gift for helping others. Frey first drifted into babysitting, working for a family in Springfield and then returning to Saxtons River to baby-sit for the Lawrence and Dorothy Leavitt family, whom she knew from her two years as a student at Vermont Academy. Frey recalled those first years at work as a time of discouragement and little socializing or outside activity. The Depression was on, and the Buxton family gathered in the evening around the woodstove in one of the two rooms being used as the family homestead on Main Street, where the Sign of the Raven antique store is now located.

One day during those bleak years, Frey visited Dr. Bowen's dispensary down the street. Coming down the stairs was Mrs. Bowen, in a white, starched uniform. It was a momentous encounter, Frey said, and she knew then what she wanted to do with her life. Frey headed off to Boston to the New England Baptist Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in 1939. After graduation Frey worked at the hospital for two years. Then she and her sister headed for Florida for a vacation, and a stop they made on their return had some far-reaching consequences.

That stop was at an army camp where several of the doctors Frey had known from nursing school were stationed. Frey was aware of the war sweeping across Europe, and felt that American involvement was inevitable. Following her tour of the camp, Frey announced to her family that she was planning to enlist.

Her mother and father protested, but Frey was determined, and in March of 1941 she signed up and was sent to Fort Ethan Allen army base in Burlington. it was there, on Dec. 7, 1941, while her sister was visiting, that they heard the news on the radio of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the following March Frey was on her way to the Port of New York to join another group of nurses who were being shipped overseas. She and the other nurses were told to leave everything behind on the dock except one change of clothing. Other clothing would be supplied once they were on board, the army promised. So Frey boarded the Uruguay to begin the adventure of her life with nothing but a plaid skirt, white blouse, and reversible trench coat.

True to its word, the Army did hand out extra clothing, but Frey was last in line and received only a heavy wool scarf, awakening a suspicion that she was being sent to England. But the next stop for the 16-ship convoy was the island of Bora-Bora in the South Pacific. From the ship the nurse from Saxtons River, whose only previous travel had been to Montreal and New York, watched outriggers coming towards her manned by brown-skinned natives. From there the ship went to Auckland, and, although she wasn't allowed to debark, Frey said she was impressed by the red roofs of the city and the church bells ringing in the distance. Finally they landed at Melbourne on April 10, 1942.

Frey was first assigned to the general hospital, and was later sent to Sydney and then Brisbane with the Tenth Evacuation Hospital. It was in Melbourne that the clothing supply finally caught up with the nurses, and Frey could finally put away her plaid skirt and white blouse after wearing them for 50 days.

But the Japanese were escalating their attacks and the northern flank of New Guinea was under bombardment. The Tenth Evacuation Hospital was needed in Port Moresby, the capital, to treat wounded American servicemen who were being flown in from the front. In October of 1942 the hospital set up operations in New Guinea in tents to treat the wounded soldiers. "They came back looking like old men," Frey recalled. "They had nothing. But they were good patients, and there was no complaining." Frey was kept busy treating the wounded, as well as those who were sick with malaria and typhus. She herself contracted malaria. But she worked constantly, and in the 10 months she spent in Port Moresby, she had only 10 days leave. Japanese planes passed over the army hospital constantly, forcing medical personnel to retreat to the trenches surrounding the camp.

In October of 1943 Frey's unit took a rough flight over the mountains to the northern-advance base of Dobodura, closer to the fighting. She served there until March of 1944, when she was sent back to Sydney to work in a dispensary for American servicemen on leave. Then she returned to Dobodura for another four-month tour of duty before taking an assignment on a hospital ship in January of 1945.

With a Dutch captain and a Javanese crew, the hospital ship Maetsuycker carried the wounded back from the front, and in one case, traveled through a typhoon to do so. Frey earned the rank of captain in June of 1945 as the war was starting to wind down. But home was still a few months away as Frey was assigned to Clark Field in the Philippines. She finally sailed to San Francisco in August, disappointed that her ship passed close to Hawaii without stopping.

A proud family greeted Frey in their first reunion in more than three years. "Ruthie's little sister" had come back home a much-decorated heroine with a Distinguished Unit Badge, the Asiatic Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. The family's joy at Frey's return was dampened by the news that her brother, Alvah, had been stricken by polio. Frey devoted herself to helping her brother recover. She helped him to do his exercises and thought of the children's home in Brisbane where polio victims were being treated with new techniques developed by Australian nurse Sister Kenny.

As life returned to normal for Frey, she resumed a special relationship she had had before the war with a local boy named Philip Frey. on June 1, 1946 they were married in the Congregational Church in Saxtons River. The Frey family settled down in a home on School Street and grew to include Louise, Larry, Alan, and Ruth. Through hard work and determination, the Freys put all of their children through college. Now, she said, one of their greatest joys is getting together with their children and grandchildren, who range in age from ten months to 8 years.

Today, Frey's service has not ended, although her work days are over. She retired after many years as a nurse at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, Vermont Academy and McGirr's Nursing Home. During those busy years she volunteered for the cub scouts, the parent-teachers association and as a nurse at a day camp. Neighbors came to trust Frey's efficient and homey health care and would often come to her with their minor medical problems. That caring she exhibited is still evident today through her involvement in the Greater Falls Hospice, on whose board she serves. She is also active in Christ's Church as a board member, trustee and secretary of the Women's fellowship, and of the Saxtons River valley unit of Church Women United. In 1985 she was voted citizen of the year by the local grange.

Frey and her husband took a trip down memory lane last year when they flew to Brisbane for a reunion with friends from Frey's wartime service. In quieter times, she was finally able to see some of the sights she had missed during the more hectic war days and to share some of those experiences with her family.