Raymond Peter Rossi
Sergeant – US Army Medical Corps
34th General Hospital
World War II (1942-1946)
Raymond Peter Rossi of San Rafael, CA was born on November 26, 1920. The son of Italian immigrants, Rossi spent his childhood in San Rafael. His father worked on railroads while his mother maintained their household. After graduating from San Rafael High School in 1938, Rossi began working for the San Francisco PG&E in 1940. His career was interrupted when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. The Japanese attack on American soil sent the country into a panic, ultimately leading to the US’s entry into WWII.
Rossi was drafted and sent to Fort Ord, Monterey, for processing in 1942. When asked how he felt about being drafted, Rossi commented, “There was nothing you could do about it.” His parents were understandably upset, especially because his brother had also joined the army. While at Fort Ord, Rossi and his colleagues were assigned to barracks, given shots, and issued shoes and uniforms. They then waited to begin their basic training.
Rossi attended basic training at Camp Barkeley, in Abilene, Texas. This short period of time was spent learning Army procedure and attending classes. Because of Rossi’s typing abilities, he was assigned to be a Clerk Typist for the Army Medical Corps. This assignment meant that Rossi would never learn to handle a firearm, as medics did not carry guns during WWII. He also did not receive any medical training, and would later be forced to learn on the job. He remembered being surrounded by friends, both old and new. While many of his fellow trainees were from San Rafael and San Francisco, there were also many men from all over the world.
After less than three months at Camp Barkeley, Rossi was assigned to the 34th General Hospital, a unit that would be serving at the Bushnell General Military Hospital in Brigham City, Utah. Rossi vividly remembered arriving at Bushnell. He explained, “We arrived around December. And the snow was coming down. And everybody stopped and looked up at the sky. We never saw snow before. It never snowed in Marin County.” This moment of innocence and tranquility was just the beginning to an unusual first day in the Medical Corps. Rossi remembered being awoken at two o’clock in the morning and being told to go to the front of the barracks in full uniform. He described the scene: “They said that the colonel was crazy. This is true. And all the people, the doctors that lived in Brigham City, had to come into the camp, because they thought somebody broke in. And nobody challenged them. And then after that they came on and told us, go to the mess hall and have a cup of coffee and cherry pie. And forget what you saw or heard.” Evidently, this drill was not planned.
The Bushnell General Military Hospital treated wounded soldiers from the South Pacific as well as wounded personnel from the nearby Ogden Airfield. After arriving in San Francisco, the injured soldiers would be sent by train to Brigham City. Because some of the patients had mental disorders, personnel from San Francisco would join them on the train. Bushnell was also significant in its being the first hospital to treat patients with penicillin. Although Rossi could not recall its effectiveness, he did remember its being an important event for both medicine and the military. Penicillin was instrumental in saving the lives of millions of WWII soldiers and continues to be used extensively today.
Rossi described Bushnell General Hospital as, “a beautiful hospital all made out of brick. White, yellow brick. It was a massive unit. They had a beautiful mess hall. Everything was beautiful.” The barracks, which fit forty men, were comfortable. While there was little entertainment at the camp, the men could go into town during their days off. At the time, Brigham City was a small town of five-thousand people, but there were always shows and soft drinks. The morale was good, and Rossi remembered enjoying the company of his fellow personnel. While most of his commanding officers were very good, there was one who was thought to have gone insane.
Rossi’s unit was assigned to the Receiving and Evacuation office, which was similar to an emergency room. The doctors would perform an initial examination of each patient and then assign them to a different ward. Rossi’s job was to type a log of patient information, including name, rank, and serial number. He would then give that log to the commanding officer. His job was instrumental to the smooth flow of information between medical and military personnel.
After one and a half years at Bushnell General Military Hospital, Rossi was reassigned to Spadra General Hospital, in Spadra, CA. Spadra treated patients from the nearby Desert Training Facility, which was a training center for infantrymen. As Clerk Typist, Rossi was performing the same duties as at Bushnell. He worked the midnight shift, which was one of three eight-hour shifts. Working with him was a doctor, three other personnel, and an ambulance driver. Together, they would be responsible for performing initial examinations and assigning patients to specific wards. Spadra’s medical facilities were not as superb as those of Bushnell, but they proved sufficient for Rossi and his colleagues.
While at Spadra, Rossi lived in a barrack with sixty other people. Although the men were given only a cot and a blanket, Rossi remembered the morale being very good. This can perhaps be attributed to Spadra’s close proximity to Hollywood and the abundance of entertainment on camp. Rossi’s unit occasionally visited The Hollywood Canteen, which was where servicemen could dance, eat, drink, and enjoy entertainment. Rossi described the experience: “And there we went to The Hollywood Canteen. And you had to stay there for so many minutes till you had to get out. And there, I saw some movie stars. I saw Ronnie McDowell and he shook my hand. I’d never seen a boy with eyes like him in my life. He was about twelve years old. And then I saw a movie star named Kay Frances. She’s probably dead now. But we had to get in and get out because there was so many soldiers coming in to see the stars.”
In 1943, after six months in Spadra, Rossi’s unit was sent by train to Atlantic City, where they would wait for further instructions. Rossi vividly remembered arriving at the hotel along the boardwalk: “When we first went in there we had a beautiful room and we looked at the bathroom. They had six dials on the wall, saltwater and freshwater. And glass all around the tub. And we said, wait a minute, we’ll have to shine all that stuff. We don’t want this room. So we got another room that didn’t have all the fancy stuff in it.” Although Rossi and his colleagues did not do any “hard work” while in Atlantic City, they were required to march up and down the boardwalk.
This waiting period lasted only a few days, after which the 34th General Hospital was sent to Winchester, England aboard the Athlone Castle, a Union Castle luxury liner that was used for transportation in WWII. It was built in 1936 in Belfast, Northern Ireland and would survive the war. It was 696 feet long and 82.5 feet wide. Rossi recalled it carrying fifty thousand men at a time. Also aboard the Athlone Castle was Billy Conn, a World Light Heavyweight Champion who had been drafted into the US army. Conn would perform fighting exhibitions for his fellow servicemen as well as serve the priest aboard ship. Rossi also remembered Conn’s love of gambling. He explained, “He liked to gamble. On that ship, everybody had a blanket on the floor and they played poker. Money was all over the place. Billy Conn had a fistful of money because he was rich, see. But they figured if they didn’t come back, what good is the money.”
After fourteen days on the Athlone Castle, Rossi and his unit arrived in Winchester, England. While in Winchester, Rossi would be working at a transit hospital that treated wounded soldiers from Germany and France. The soldiers would arrive on a C-47 airplane in Andover, England and then be sent to Winchester. Rossi commented, “When it was foggy, we never got any patients. So a lot of times we were glad it was foggy. Because we had to work real hard.” Once the soldiers arrived, the doctors would have to determine if they were seriously injured. If they were, they would be treated immediately. If not, they would be shipped out to another hospital. Rossi’s job was to make a log of each patient’s name, rank, and outfit. Because so many soldiers were being treated at the hospital, it became impossible to record each patient’s information.
While in Winchester, Rossi and his unit lived in barracks that held twenty-four men each. Because Rossi was a Sergeant, he was assigned to be in charge of keeping the barracks clean. Rossi slept on a bunk bed with baling wire for springs and straw in the mattresses. The men were given a blanket, but no pillows. Despite these rough conditions, Rossi remembered the morale being high. He was working with friendly men from all over the United States. He can recall only one truly frightening event. He explained, “A big fortress came over one time, probably to show off to the nurse who he was. And he scared everybody. All the people in the hospital were scared.”
For entertainment, Rossi’s unit often went to sing and drink at the local village. Rossi commented, “They played the piano and they sang and they had a wonderful time. And they came back up the hill a little bit drunk. And they slept very good.” Because Rossi worked the midnight shift at the hospital, he had to rely on the entertainment that came to camp. Luckily, the camp was often host to British singers, dancers, and bands.
While Winchester’s main function was in treating wounded soldiers, it also served as a prisoner of war camp. There were about one hundred German prisoners at the camp, and their main duties were to clean the camp and serve food. While Rossi did not have very much contact with the prisoners, he did recall one difference between them and the American soldiers. He explained, “They ate first. We had to wait. And their garbage can was empty when they left. Ours was full. Because they didn’t like what they ate, the Americans. Powdered eggs and pancakes that were made at about 2:00 in the morning. And they’d throw a lot of stuff away. But not the Germans.”
The end of the war in Europe brought a wave of excitement to Winchester, where both the soldiers and patients were overjoyed with the news. While the end of the war primarily meant the surrender of Nazi Germany, it also meant that Rossi and his unit would be sent home. In 1945 Rossi was sent to Scotland, where he was to board the Queen Elizabeth, a Scottish ocean liner that held over two thousand passengers. Rossi explained, “What happened was, it was built fast in Scotland. And it wasn’t completely finished. And the Germans knew it was up there. So the United States told the ship to go down to where we were and pick us up and take us to New York. And we saw the man come aboard with his lunch bucket, the captain, I think it was. So they figured, he’s going to go down to Winchester, so we’ll get him down there. But he went all the way to New York. By itself. We never had no security around us. That’s how big the ship was and how fast it was.” While the ship was brand new, the conditions were less than desirable. Each cabin held seven men and there was no fresh water aboard ship. Rossi described showering with saltwater. Because there were so many men aboard ship, there were only two meals a day. Despite these conditions, the entertainment and camaraderie aboard ship made it a worthwhile experience. As Rossi described it: “People would play the piano. People would sing. It was beautiful.”
The trip to New York lasted five days. Rossi and his unit then stopped briefly in New Jersey, where they enjoyed a steak dinner before being sent by train to Alabama. While in Alabama, the 34th General Hospital was broken up and sent to different camps. Rossi was sent to Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, where he was to type civilian discharge papers. On January 28, 1946, Rossi was instructed to type his own discharge paper and given three hundred dollars for train fare. He stopped in Washington DC to see the monuments before taking a train to Ogden, Utah. While Rossi had been stationed in Brigham City, he and five other men from California had enjoyed Sunday night dinners with a family from Ogden. He explained, “Every Sunday we would, about five from California, we’d go to that house. We’d all sit down on the couches, and she’d make dinner. And all the children were there. And her husband. And we had a big party there. So when we stopped I wanted to thank that man and the lady.” After that brief visit, Rossi headed home to San Rafael. He returned to work at PG&E, where he would work for thirty-nine years before retiring in 1980. He currently resides in San Rafael with his wife.
When asked to reflect on his time in the service, Rossi claimed, “I just did my job and that was it.” He didn’t think that his service was especially challenging or frightening, as he was not in direct combat. He explained that others had been sent on more dangerous and draining assignments. As for any advice he might have for young people interested in serving, Rossi said, “If you like the Army, take it, but I didn’t care for that one. I mean, I had a safe job. But I know you can get a good education if you don’t get killed.” He also commented, “You should all get together, all the countries. I don’t know why they fight, they fight all the time. They’ll always be a war.”
While Raymond Rossi may not fit the mold of a typical soldier, his service was essential to the US Army in WWII. His story is one that should not be forgotten, especially if one wishes to understand the diversity of service in the military.
Interview by Valerie Cherbero on June 28, 2012.