The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 13, 2020 1:00 am

WWII vet recalls good times

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Eileen Zeissig was 23 when she enlisted into the Army Nurse Corps.

It was 1944 and America was well into fighting World War II. Just a few years earlier, Zeissig recalls sitting by the radio, listening to reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was the launching point for the United States' involvement in the war. 

“I remember Pearl Harbor,” says Zeissig about listening to the radio. “We were spellbound and I knew I wanted to help.”

Zeissig, 98, shares her story of serving as a nurse during WWII while sitting in her Decatur home. She likes to talk about the good things – like seeing the Alps and helping co-pilot the plane during her flight to Europe. 

Or, spending Christmas in Germany and treating the locals by singing “Silent Night” in German. Zeissig had taken two years of German in high school and had sung the song before.

“These are the good things,” Zeissig says.

Of course, Zeissig, who grew up in Berne, also remembers the difficult times. She recalls taking care of the soldiers – the injured and the dying. “That was the hardest part, losing them,” she says.

Zeissig entered the service as a second lieutenant and did her basic training in Indianapolis. “We were not prepared,” she says of the military.

She recalls a moment when all the nurses were in formation and marching when it started to rain. Many began to scream and they all broke rank, running to escape the rain. Zeissig says her chief nurse “reamed them out” for breaking rank.

Of course, that wasn't the first time she got in trouble. 

She also got in trouble for fraternizing with soldiers who were below her in rank. Once for a fellow she liked, and another time because she held the hand of a crying, wounded soldier. 

But Zeissig didn't care. Her whole mission was to care and tend to the wounded men. 

“I wasn't military. That's the nurse in you,” she says of showing compassion for the man.

After basic training, Zeissig was sent to Ashford General Hospital at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The Army had bought the Greenbrier and its surrounding grounds and transformed it into a military hospital.

Zeissig says troop trains would drop off the wounded soldiers. 

And while many of them were able to be nursed back to health, there were many that were lost.

“It would be traumatic when we would lose someone,” she says. “I loved my patients.”

But again, Zeissig would recall the good things among the bad. She talks about working 12 hours a day and learning to golf while at the hospital.

Eventually, Zeissig was among 200 nurses who shipped out to Scotland. She says there were eight nurses in one bunk room. Zeissig served at a hospital in England.

While there, she received a phone call from her brother who was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps and also serving in England. Her brother was getting married in Norwich, England, and wanted her to come to the wedding. 

Zeissig got permission to go to the wedding.

After the ceremony, Zeissig and her brother went for a walk so they could visit with one another. They were stopped by the military police, who thought the two were dating – a no-no considering Zeissig outranked her brother.

However, after showing the MPs their IDs, the siblings proved they were brother and sister and invited the police to the ceremony.

Zeissig laughs at the memory.

Zeissig had two other brothers who were serving in the war. She says her parents were worried but proud that all four children were serving. Miraculously, all of them returned home safely.

Zeissig was later sent to France then to an evac hospital in Germany.

Zeissig eventually had enough points to come home. The war was over in Europe, but she got word that she might have to go to Japan, where the war was still being fought. Then the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945.

Zeissig says it was terrible about the bomb, but adds that it was great the war had ended. She says it was quite a celebration when it was over.

When she returned to the United States, she went to New York where she was responsible for caring for 200 war brides and their babies.

“It was good to see the Statue of Liberty,” she says.

However, when her service was up, Zeissig decided that she didn't want to reenlist. She also decided that she didn't want to work as a nurse anymore.

Her brother owned the Palmer House in Berne so she went to work for him. She lasted two weeks, she says, before she went back to nursing, getting a job at Lutheran Hospital.

Zeissig met and married her husband, Werner, who also served in World War II.

The couple bought a house in the Waynedale community in Fort Wayne, using the $450 bonus they received from Indiana for their service during the war. Eventually, they moved to a farm in Roanoke, where they lived 39 years.

They had four sons and a daughter.

Her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the couple moved to Decatur. Werner passed away in 2001.

Over the years, Zeissig has tried to stay active. She joined a swimming group in her late 80s. The group called themselves the Bubble Babes.

She also started painting. Many of her works hang throughout her home.

Zeissig was part of the Looney Tunes band. She was the character that came out and introduced the band. She has been Betsy Ross, Santa Claus and many others.

However, the band had to disband because the leader was 89 and wasn't able to continue leading the group. Zeissig says the average age of the members was 88.

“That keeps you young,” she says of her activities.

But one of her greatest memories was being able to go on the Honor Flight in 2015 to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C.

Zeissig got to put a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“That was a tear jerker,” she says.

Zeissig keeps a photo album full of photos from that day. And like many of the things she talks about, it is among the good things she remembers about being a war veteran.

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