Artifacts from Historical Collections: Memories of the 8th Evacuation Hospital

Authored by Emily Bowden, Historical Collections Assistant at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Hilda Franklin and Richard Bell on their wedding day, 26 May 1945. Image 005-2_001_438. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Hilda Franklin and Richard Bell on their wedding day, 26 May 1945. Image 005-2_001_438. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Earlier this summer, Historical Collections made the news when two brothers visited the library to see the wedding dress worn by their mother, Lt. Hilda “Frankie” Franklin. Franklin was a 1938 graduate of UVA’s Nursing School and a member of the 8th Evacuation Hospital, the medical unit sponsored by UVA during World War II. During her service with the 8th Evac., Franklin spent time in North Africa and Italy, endured icy winters, tended patients from the frontlines, and met Capt. Richard P. Bell Jr., a doctor and fellow UVA alumnus (School of Medicine, 1938). At the end of the war, Hilda Franklin and Richard Bell were married in Italy, surrounded by their 8th Evac. colleagues. Due to wartime shortages, materials like silk were hard to come by, but Franklin was determined to have a dress for her wedding. Writing to her friend, Vivian Gibbs, in 1945, Franklin announced, “I have the material for my dress and it is beautiful—white silk nylon—a friend of ours got it for me—use your imagination and you can guess what it is.” [1]

Dick Bell and W. Frazier Bell with Hilda Franklin’s parachute silk wedding dress, June 2014. Image produced by Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Historical Collections and Services, University of Virginia.

Dick Bell and W. Frazier Bell with Hilda Franklin’s parachute silk wedding dress, June 2014. Image produced by Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Historical Collections and Services, University of Virginia.

Franklin’s dress, which is now part of Historical Collections’ 8th Evacuation Hospital collection, was made from a WWII silk parachute, a testament to the resourcefulness of nurses. In a letter describing the picturesque wedding held in a mulberry grove outside of Verona, Italy, Franklin wrote “I was very lucky in the first place to get enough parachute material for my dress.” [2] As it turned out, there was more than enough fabric, so Franklin used the extra yards to have additional garments made, including a second dress, dressing robe, two slips, and six scarves, which she gave to her six bridesmaids. The elegance, intricate craftsmanship, and colorful history of the dress make it a unique artifact and a favorite among Historical Collections visitors.

During their June visit, Franklin and Bell’s sons, Dick Bell and W. Frazier Bell, were deeply appreciative of the library’s efforts to preserve memories from their parents’ time with the 8th Evac. The Bell brothers have since contributed hundreds of additional photographs, letters, and other items to the library’s manuscripts and artifacts collections. The letters consist primarily of correspondence from Hilda Franklin to friends and family, written during her months of training and her overseas service. Some are original handwritten letters, while others are V-mail (Victory mail) facsimiles, a product of the Army’s WWII method of transporting mail to and from members of the military via microfilm.

Lt. Hilda Franklin (on right) with Capt. Ruth “Chiefie” Beery, Chief Nurse of the 8th Evac., undated. Image 005-2_005_024. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Lt. Hilda Franklin (on right) with Capt. Ruth “Chiefie” Beery, Chief Nurse of the 8th Evac., undated. Image 005-2_005_024. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Franklin’s letters are a valuable addition to the collection which already contains the correspondence of Capt. Ruth Beery, chief nurse of the 8th Evac unit, and several others. Franklin’s words give a distinct sense of what it was like to serve in an Army hospital, sometimes only mere miles from the front lines of the Allied Invasion of Italy. She describes the unpredictability of wartime service: some days there would be little to do, while others would be spent on exhausting 12 hour shifts or working around the clock to pack up the entire hospital, move to a new location, and reestablish the camp. Franklin writes about her duties as a ward nurse, long hours spent on night duty, and her delight at ultimately being assigned to a permanent position in the 8th Evac. operating room. She also describes the frustration she felt when the 8th Evac. departed for Africa in November of 1942, leaving the nurses behind in the States due to concerns about their safety overseas. When the nurses finally received their orders to join the unit in March 1943, Franklin wrote, “You can imagine how happy and excited we are–it won’t be long now!” [3]

Surgeons preparing for a procedure at the 8th Evac, undated. Image 005-2_001_080. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Surgeons preparing for a procedure at the 8th Evac, undated. Image 005-2_001_080. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

The rich collection of materials from the 8th Evac. offers a fascinating glance into the world of a WWII evacuation hospital, where conditions, equipment, and supplies were far from ideal and often called for clever improvisations. Richard Bell, who served as a surgeon at the 8th Evac., recalls in a 1968 letter the creative solutions employed by the unit, which included using bags of gravel for orthopedic procedures. From 1942 to 1945 the hospital saw over 48,000 patients and its doctors addressed “compound fractures, soft tissue wounds, and some major vascular work,” as well as many illnesses, sprains, back injuries, and even a case of tetanus. [4] The challenges they faced during their years of service only make the accomplishments of the 8th Evac. doctors, nurses, and enlisted men all the more impressive. These accomplishments by no means went unnoticed during the war, and the unit was awarded several prestigious honors for its excellence in service.

Lt. Hilda "Frankie" Franklin, undated. Image 005-2_001_339. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Lt. Hilda “Frankie” Franklin, undated. Image 005-2_001_339. Courtesy of Dick and Frazier Bell.

Despite the excitement and adventure that filled her years of service, and her memorable Italian wedding, Franklin wrote to her friend Vivian Gibbs in June 1945, “I will be so glad when we get home and can lead a normal life.” [5] At the end of the war, Franklin and Bell returned to Virginia where they raised four sons in Staunton, VA, and both continued with jobs in the medical professions. Living and working together was undeniably a defining and formative experience for every member of the 8th Evac., and one that would bind them all together for the rest of their lives. Lifelong friendships and more than a few marriages were made, and the members of the 8th Evac. continued to hold reunions for decades after the end of the war.

The new photographs and letters contributed by the Bell brothers have been digitized, and hopefully they will soon be made available online. To learn more about the 8th Evacuation Hospital, visit the Historical Collections web exhibit: http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/8thevacuation/

[1] Letter from Hilda S. Franklin to Vivian Gibbs, 1945 April 11, pg 1.
[2] Letter from Hilda S. Franklin to Vivian Gibbs and Mary Kathryn (?), 1945 June 15, pg 1.
[3] Letter from Hilda S. Franklin to Vivian Gibbs, 1945, pg 1.
[4] Letter from Richard P. Bell to Byrd Leavell, 1968 March 21, pg 1-2.
[5] Letter from Hilda S. Franklin to Vivian Gibbs and Mary Kathryn (?), 1945 June 15, pg 3.
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