SALISBURY, N.C. — Things happened fast for Virginia Graves in 1951.
She graduated from Presbyterian Hospital’s nursing school, enlisted in the Army Nursing Corps, went through basic training at Fort Sam Houston and as a second lieutenant receiving her orders in Tokyo, Japan, she learned she was headed to Korea.
Her first 32 hours in Korea were hectic. Instead of going to an Evacuation Hospital, Graves found herself on a huge transport truck bumping along the roads not far from the North Korean capital of P’yongyang.
“I didn’t know where we were headed,” she says.
Graves was meeting up with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, “because the wounded were coming down the road in buckets,” she says.
But as she was arriving, the 8055th MASH unit was ordered to “bug out.”
It had to shut down, pack up and leave quickly because the front lines were changing and not for the better. Graves was told her station would be on that big transport truck again.
Someone handed her a flashlight. It was bitterly cold, especially given she was wearing a light field jacket, and her hands were frozen.
Three wounded soldiers were around her. One was unconscious. She followed orders to start an IV on one of the men. But after she did, Graves asked where she was supposed to hang the bottle.
She stood there holding it in the air.
“Lieutenant,” the chief nurse yelled through the back window, “welcome to Korea.”
July 27 marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, even though there was never a declaration of war.
Virginia Graves was among the 1.8 million Americans who served during the conflict, which killed 36,000 and wounded 103,000.
Sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War,” it has never been that for Graves. She still holds a bitterness today, an emptiness.
Graves can’t forget the cold, the bug-outs, the rampant pneumonia and standing beside soldiers as they lost their limbs or realized they were blinded for life.
It’s also the war that robbed her, killing the love of her life.
She was engaged to be married to Jason Black, a Marine, but he was wounded during the infamous Chosin Reservoir fighting when U.S. forces were overrun near the Chinese border. Black later died on a hospital ship.
Looking back, Graves says she wishes she and “Jay” would have married before they both left for Korea.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” she says.
After the Korean War was over, Graves applied for a job at the new VA hospital in Salisbury and started an almost 34-year nursing career here in April 1954.
She never married.
Virginia Graves grew up on a farm in the Mecklenburg County with her parents and three brothers. They grew cotton and later had dairy cattle.
She was pretty good at picking cotton, but knew it for what is was: back-breaking work. Graves’ mother wanted her daughter to be a school teacher, but Virginia felt called to another profession.
“I can’t remember any day of not wanting to be a nurse,” she says.
She graduated high school in 1948, then entered the nursing school at Presbyterian Hospital.
It was a three-year program of classes and work experience on all three shifts. Graves agreed with her parents that nursing was a tough field, but she always used the argument that it was not tougher than picking cotton.
Her biggest disappointment came a year before she graduated nursing school when her mother died of stomach cancer at age 50. Rosalie Graves had always encouraged her in anything she tried, Virginia says.
At the beginning of 1951, Graves graduated nursing school. She also was engaged to Black, a graduate of the Naval Academy who had entered the Marine Corps.
With Black’s shipping off to Korea with the 1st Marines, Graves decided to volunteer for the Army Nursing Corps, against her father’s wishes.
“He said it just wasn’t a place for a woman,” she recalls.
Her father had another concern. He saw his daughter as “a little country girl” whose worldly experience was limited. Virginia agreed with him on that point and recognizes today how much growing up she did during her service in Korea.
Graves didn’t hear of her fiancee’s death right away.
It was the toward the end of March 1951 when her father was able to send word to her MASH unit through the American Red Cross.
Her superiors asked whether she needed to go home, but she declined.
“I’m sort of patriotic,” Graves says. “I feel if you got a job to do, you do it.”
Graves would be in Korea for most of 1951, 1952 and 1953. She entered as a second lieutenant and left the Army Nursing Corps as a first lieutenant, with commendations.
Graves is not a big fan of the “MASH” movie or the early episodes of the television series. Her chief nurses, for example, were nothing like Hot Lips Houlihan. Rather, they were older and experienced veterans of World War II.
Graves says there were some shenanigans at times, and officers usually set up an area where they could get together to drink.
As for herself, Graves drank her first coffee in Korea. “I was a Pepsi-Cola fiend then,” she says. Graves appreciated the ingenuity her father often showed in sending a package of goodies from home, including a case of Pepsi once.
“I had a lot of friends when they found out I had Pepsi-Cola,” she says.
When the MASH unit had some down time, you used it to sleep, play cards, form pick-up baseball games and listen to Armed Forces radio.
In 1951, Graves, who was always a Yankees fan, began pulling for the New York Giants and celebrated the Bobby Thomson homer that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers that year in a one-game playoff for the pennant.
Graves never has been as cold as she was in Korea. As for the food, the nurses and doctors ate so many potatoes that “I won’t eat mashed potatoes to this day,” she says.
The water, even when purified, never tasted good to Graves. And there wasn’t always time for bathing or good personal hygiene.
“I don’t think we smelled very good,” Graves says, “but, of course, we were smelling each other.”
Graves was 11 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, setting off the U.S. involvement in World War II. But she knew little about the up-close horrors of war.
“I knew people got hurt and they died,” she says, “but no way could I imagine things as bad as I saw.”
She remembers one young patient who had ties to Salisbury. Before the soldier was put under anesthesia, he begged the surgical team to spare his arm.
When he woke up later and saw that the arm had been amputated, he cried and could hardly be consoled.
Graves says the young man finally told her he was a baseball pitcher under contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he was supposed to be reporting to the Pirates’ farm team in Salisbury.
“That broke my heart,” she says.
Graves says her MASH unit sometimes had to treat wounded Chinese and North Korean soldiers.
“After I learned Jay had died, it was hard for me,” she acknowledges.
Graves, now 83, acknowledges she questioned God at one point and asked how he could allow something like the war in Korea to go on.
“But he gives us free will,” Graves says today, “and we just don’t do very well with it at times.”
Graves sits on a nursing home advisory board for the county, helps out in the surgical waiting room at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and volunteers for her church, First Baptist.
She acknowledges her service in the war and her career at the VA probably made her more political. But even today, 60 years after the war, she carries hard feelings toward North Korea and is only starting to feel comfortable talking about her experiences.
“I’m beginning to get over it,” she says. “I tell you, I had resentment, because we were the forgotten war.”
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