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Day of infamy, World War II recalled by former Navy nurse in Sacramento

WWII nurse talks about meeting President Roosevelt

Mary Finn was thanked by President Roosevelt for taking care of injured soldiers at Pearl Harbor hospital
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Mary Finn was thanked by President Roosevelt for taking care of injured soldiers at Pearl Harbor hospital

Mary Cecilia Finn Hancock remembers the patriotic rush to join the military service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 74 years ago.

Then a nurse, Finn Hancock felt it, too, and answered the call to help her country after Dec. 7, 1941 – the day of the massive surprise attack that thrust the United States into World War II.

More than 2,400 service members died in the attack and roughly 1,400 were wounded. The nation declared war the next day, Dec. 8, 1941.

“I started thinking about what I could do personally,” Finn Hancock, 96, said of her decision. “People were serious about what they could do about the war effort. My brothers wanted to enlist. Everyone was talking about it.”

She became one of more than 11,000 Navy nurses who served in naval hospitals, aboard hospital ships and at field hospitals, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In World War II, about 400,000 women served in the military and at least 217 were killed.

Today, about 201,000 women are in the U.S. military, according to the Department of Defense. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all military combat positions are being opened to women.

Finn Hancock – who still lives in the same Arden Oaks-area home she moved into in 1976 – has written down the personal events that occurred during her time as a nurse during World War II. She shared the short history with The Bee, which includes tragic events such as the loss of two of her brothers to war and the toll on teenage soldiers, sailors and Marines she treated as a nurse after devastating battles in the western Pacific.

You would get very attached to people who are severely injured. I can remember asking, ‘Whatever happened to so and so?’ The stock answer was, ‘He didn’t make it.’

Mary Finn Hancock, 96, a Navy nurse during World War II

Along the way, she would meet her future husband – and also President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The former Iowa farm girl became a registered nurse in 1940. She applied for a commission in the Navy Nurse Corps and was called to active duty in December 1942.

At first, she worked in the San Diego Naval Hospital, where she treated survivors, primarily from Guadalcanal, where soldiers had spent weeks in jungle conditions during which they were never able to remove their boots. They developed fungus infections on their feet, which were treated with a potassium permanganate soak, given that there were few antibiotics, Finn Hancock recalled.

“In my mind, I can see 25 men sitting around a treatment room, their feet soaking in medication,” Finn Hancock wrote of her time there.

She would lose both brothers in the war. News of the first would come in early 1944, when she received word that Lt. Joseph M. Finn had been killed during training in a crash in Australia.

“My brother Joe died after he had flown 25 missions in Guadalcanal and New Guinea,” she said. “His plane lost altitude and crashed and he was killed.”

She began her new duty at Aiea Heights Hospital on Oahu shortly after his death. Nurses and doctors worked around the clock as casualties from Saipan, Tinian and Guam began arriving at the hospital, she said.

Her personal writings captured the difficulties of her time there:

“Men would be treated from one battle, we’d get them well enough, and they would go right back to their units only to be injured again,” Finn Hancock wrote. “You would get very attached to people who are severely injured. I can remember asking, ‘Whatever happened to so and so?’ The stock answer was, ‘He didn’t make it.’

Also in 1944, official-looking men came through the junior officer ward where she was head nurse. They conducted a thorough inspection, she recalled, and left.

The next morning, an entourage entered the ward with one man pushing a wheelchair. In the wheelchair was President Roosevelt.

Finn Hancock, sitting in her living room recently, became emotional when she recalled what the president said to her seven decades ago: “You have the gratitude of the entire nation for what you are doing,” she remembered FDR saying.

Her family was again to receive bad news. Finn Hancock’s brother Pat, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin where he was a radioman, was killed in March 1945 when a Japanese air attack resulted in the loss of hundreds of the ship’s crew.

The war ended that year and Finn Hancock returned to civilian life. She married Edward “Tony” Hancock, a Marine communications officer.

Liking California weather, they settled in Sacramento in 1953 and raised five children.

Tony Hancock worked as a lawyer before he died in 1976 at the age of 72. Finn Hancock worked 20 years as an industrial nurse for the U.S. Postal Service.

Today, she drives to Mass every day and regularly goes to water aerobics. And she still remembers those who were injured and lost during WWII.

“I was in San Diego and Hawaii to help with medical care during many major battles,” she said. “The casualties from Iwo Jima were terrible, terrible. The injuries were devastating.”

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews

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