Erma Aldous still remembers startling a patient awake when she covered him with a blanket as the evening cooled.
“He stared up at me,” she said. “Then he told me he hadn’t had a sheet or blanket cover him in two years as a prisoner of war. He didn’t remember what it felt like.”
The year was 1944 and Aldous, who was raised on Whidbey and attended Langley schools, had decided at age 20 she needed to help the war effort.
“I was interested in being a nurse and in the service,” said Aldous, now 94 and living in Clinton.
She joined the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps and was trained as a nurse’s aide.
Of the many Veterans Day activities around Whidbey Island, Aldous chose to attend Veterans Appreciation Chili Supper at the Nordic Lodge in Coupeville Friday evening. Capt. Heidi Piper, a Navy officer, engineer and former NASA astronaut, was the speaker. More ceremonies and events are scheduled Saturday and Sunday at many communities, including Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Bayview.
Veterans Day is Sunday, Nov. 11.
During the war, Aldous ended up stationed at a temporary Navy convalescence hospital in Oregon where sailors and Marines with long-term injuries spent months recovering. Most were wounded in the Pacific theater.
“Some were in full-body casts so they couldn’t do much except lie in bed,” she said. “They were grim.”
By accident one day, Aldous found a way to shake them out of their doldrums.
“I said, ‘I heard such and such island was taken by the Army,’ and those guys came alive and they all corrected me,” she said. “‘It was the Marines, not the Army, how could you not know that?’ they asked me. Those guys were suddenly so full of life. I found a number of things to get them going.”
She worked alongside women in their 20s and 30s, some married, some not, some waiting for someone to return from war.
“Some had husbands who couldn’t get in the service for whatever reason so they went in themselves,” Aldous said. “And some women, who were 25, 26 years old, their boyfriends or fiancees were missing in action so they wanted to do something.”
“I had my 21st birthday in the service,” she added. “That was a moment I won’t forget.”
She ended up serving only one year in the Navy. She would have stayed but that wasn’t an option.
“The war was over and the Navy said, ‘You women can disappear,’” she said.
She accompanies such remarks with a smile and a laugh. Her mind is sharp and she’s articulate, even though her speech is affected by a stroke she suffered in December. These days, Aldous is more dependent on a walker than she’d like to be. But recently her son found an all-terrain type walker online with rugged tires and tough frame so she could walk around her garden and yard again.
She’s always liked being outdoors, so soaking up the sun in her backyard — no matter how briefly — feels good, she said.
“I couldn’t stand being inside and my mother didn’t what me inside,” she said. “I was out splitting wood and what-not. And if I was in the house, I can still hear her saying, ‘Erma, put down that book and get to work!’”
With the G.I. bill, Aldous attended the University of Washington and graduated with a degree in physical education.
“I wanted to be a physical therapist,” she said. “I got married instead, darn. But I got three nice kids out of it.”
Aldous’ personal World War II history faded with time. No one ever asked her about it, she said, and she never knew she’d be considered a veteran eligible for health care and other benefits.
In the past year, Aldous has learned a lot about veterans, especially their spirit of generosity. They drive her around, they shop with her, they tidy up her yard and check on her frequently.
Every Monday, she joins other female veterans or spouses of vets for the “Ladies Night” support group at the Whidbey Veteran Resource Center. It’s located on the Langley school grounds where Aldous once played.
She would have graduated with the Langley High School Class of 1942, but her family moved to Everett for her last two years of school. (Her maiden name is Perry.) Never, she said, did she expect to end up back at her old school in her 90s.
“The camaraderie of the women’s group I really enjoy,” she said. “We talk about anything and everything. We help to try and get the word out to let veterans know what services are available for them, not only the vets but also the spouse of a vet.”