Skip to content

Legacy of a Mom: WWII Nurse

We have a special guest blogger today, with a story that stole my heart. Kitty Delorey Fleischman (publisher/editor of
IDAHO magazine, at 102 S. 17th St., Ste. 201, Boise, ID 83702) and I were emailing a couple of weeks ago about our excitement to attend the upcoming annual conference of the National Federation of Press Women, meeting this year in Council Bluff, Iowa. During the course of our conversations, we began to talk about the setting of my latest book, A War Of Her Own, which takes place on the home front during WWII. Kitty began to tell me the story of her mother, and I knew the tale needed to be shared with others. She (and her mother) are our guests today. Her mother is passed, but the memories she left behind inspires us all. The post long, so if you can’t finish it in one reading, bookmark it and come back. Listen as the story unfolds, as recounted at her mom’s funeral. –Sylvia Dickey Smith 

Below, was the eulogy for Kitty’s mother. “Mark” who is speaking is Kitty’s youngest brother, Mark Delorey. Kitty wrote the eulogy at the request of her mother, and Mark read it at the funeral.

Like all true Irishmen, Mom (Lt. Mary Jane Healy) wanted a eulogy at her funeral. Never one to shy away from giving us challenges, a few months ago Mom asked that Kitty write this and that I (Mark speaking) read it. Ordinarily this would be a very difficult task. She made it easier by living such a rich life from which to draw material. And, she promised to help me this morning.

First I’d like to read you some excerpts from a letter written in 1985 by the “Richest Man in the World”:

“The picture is old. For forty years I’ve carried it in my billfold. I’ve showed it to everyone kind enough to listen to my stories. I wasn’t just a kid when I met her. I was 28-years old. She was a 24-year old army nurse. She was five foot one and weighed about a hundred pounds. She looked so darned cute in her oversized coveralls and army shoes, I called her ‘Butch.’

“No one in the world had ever said ‘Don’ and smiled the way she did. Her charm was her goodness. It’s true. I did_µ ask her to marry me on the second day I knew her, and after she said ‘yes’ on the third or fourth day, we talked about a little house in the country and a bunch of kids. The ship we were on was the U.S.S. Butner, a Liberty ship bound for India. On each long, hot day we stayed together as we went through the South Atlantic around South Africa into the Indian Ocean and on to Bombay.

“We parted in Bombay. I told her I loved her and that I’d find her again some day.

“All my dreams came true. The little white house in the country, all the kids. It’s true, kids, your mother did wear army shoes.”

That letter doesn’t just describe the beginning of a story though. It is the start of an epic which has spanned the globe and occupied a half-century. And while the story has had its sorrows, it is mainly filled with joy and laughter. It has grown from those two to include eight children as well as the partners who have come along to share their children’s lives and provide more than a dozen grandchildren who’ve kept them young and entertained.

For all of us who have shared in portions of this story, you know that Mary Jane and Donald Delorey have a rare and very special love. It is a love that has thrived through war, hard times and lean years, surmounted endless stacks of bills for doctors, kids’ clothes and shoes, car repairs, payments on houses that hadn’t sold along the way and debts taken on willingly to help out someone who needed it more than they. It is the kind of love that stood firmly side-by side, hand-in hand through the death of a cherished little boy and the loss of a baby.

Whatever happened, we Deloreys grew up knowing we were wealthy because we always had more than enough to go around. If anyone came to our house in need of a ride, a shoulder to cry on, a safe haven for their children, a ham sandwich and cup of coffee, or a few bucks to tide them over, they had only to ask. It was never a problem or a burden. One of Mom’s favorite expressions involved adding water to soup, and it is likely that she could have come up with some variation of the loaves and fishes miracle if the need had ever arisen.

Mom’s feelings of sympathy were generally expressed in practical ways. It was part of her common sense approach to life. Her kindness and generosity touched everyone who knew her. No one who knows Mom can doubt that—were she not today’s guest of honor—she would have a ham in the oven and a bowl of potato salad chilling in the refrigerator to bring over to the family. As it is, we know she is nearby and her love is surrounding each of us like a shield.

To us, she’s just Mom.” She often sang as she cooked our meals and washed our clothes. Many of her days were spent in household tasks and rearing children, and our house usually teemed with people because our friends were always welcome._¨

But even Mom wasn’t always a mom. Born in Detroit, Mom was the second of five children. She came a year after her brother Pete, and they were soon joined by Bill, Kitty and Chuck. They grew up as a closely-knit family in a home where the emphasis was on love of family, church and nation.

They struggled through the years of the Great Depression. When Grandpa lost his well-established plumbing business, the family migrated to join Grandpa’s brother Bill who offered to help them start over in California. But it didn’t take long for the Detroit Healys to find their way home to Michigan.

Graduating from high school, Mom pursued a career as a registered nurse. The curriculum was tough and the stringent demands made for studies, work and personal conduct at Detroit’s Providence Hospital in the late 1930s were calculated to test the mettle of prospective nurses. Mary Jane Healy stood proudly among the graduates of the Class of 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor started Mom thinking about the critical need for nurses, and when her brother Pete signed on with the army, she was close behind in her decision to join the army nurses’ corps. They would need someone to care for the injured, and it wasn’t Mom’s way to stand back and wait for someone else to do the job.

Mom rarely shared her army experiences. But heaven help the child who didn’t clean up a plate. When Mom talked about the starving children in India, it wasn’t hearsay or something she’d seen on newsreels—it came from a gentle woman who had watched in pain as children scooped scraps from G.I. garbage cans and fled to protect those sad riches.

One of the incidents she enjoyed and sometimes shared was about the time she hitched a ride on an unarmed military cargo plane to see Dad who had been flown back toward civilization to the hospital. It wasn’t until she hopped off the plane at the landing strip that the airman with the checklist understood the pilot’s cryptic message that, in addition to his load of fresh tomatoes, he was bringing in 100 pounds of sugar.

Mom spent 18 months overseas during World War II, taking care of soldiers who were part of a throw-away force sent halfway around the world to delay an enemy everyone knew couldn’t be beaten. History shows the Army strategists underestimated the power of our parents. It was not a mistake we’d have made.

Then she was sent to Okinowa, to be among the first medical units set to wade ashore following the invasion of Japan. We’ve always wondered if that might have factored into Japan’s surrender.

When it came time to be discharged, she was offered a promotion to first lieutenant if she’d wait a few days for it to be processed. But home beckoned, and neither rank, honors nor bonus money would sway her.

After a short visit at home, she went to Massachusetts to see Dad, who waited in traction at Lovell General Hospital. For all she had done, and with all the stories Dad had told them about her, Mom walked into his hospital ward to a thunderous ovation from his fellow bedridden heroes.

Even as youngsters, we realized that Mom made “Rosie the Riveter” look like a whimp. A non-swimmer who was terrified of the water, she had carried her pack up a scramble net thrown 40 feet over the sides of a ship heaving in the throes of a typhoon rather than being unceremoniously hauled up in a basket like those who were too afraid to make the climb.

Dad often described her putting on that 50-pound pack and marching off the ship and into the war-torn jungles of India and Burma. So, at an age where most kids settled arguments with “…oh yeah? Well, my dad can beat your dad,” we’d been known to make threats about how our MOM could beat their dads.

Small, tough, Irish and darned proud of it, Mom’s courage was undaunted by snakes, jungle vermin or anything else. She stood by dad’s bedside after his heart attack in 1960 knowing there were six young children from one- to 12-years old waiting for them at home, and she has nursed us all through broken bones, concussions, beestings and a host of childhood illnesses and disasters, as well as the pitfalls of adulthood.

So, it was no surprise to us that—despite cancer’s fearsome reputation—in typical style, Mom quietly has made her stand, and for more than a decade, has laughed off the pain and prayed away the effects of a disease that makes people willing to grasp at any frail straw for relief.

She did it with her boundless love, her unfailing courage and her undying faith. It is her life and that love, courage and faith we are here today to celebrate.

As we share our grief and shed our tears, we look around at a group created and bound together by the love she and Dad have shared, and we remember that this, of all times, is when we most need to hold tightly to each other to preserve her beautiful legacy and treasure her memory.

We are Mom’s legacy.

NOTE: Kitty’s dad is listed in the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. What a story of WWII Nurse!

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kitty Fleischman #

    This was Mom’s eulogy. Tha “Mark” who is speaking is my youngest brother, Mark Delorey.

    August 31, 2011
  2. Profile photo of Sylvia Dickey Smith

    Thanks for the clarification, Kitty! Great story!

    August 31, 2011

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Skip to toolbar